South Africa’s leading female mining magnate is also a multi-talented designer with a passion to strive for excellence.
There is a lot of commotion in the South African mining industry as the much-anticipated Investing in African Mining Indaba 2014 draws closer. With the many high-profile sector leaders accumulating at this event, we find South Africa’s leading female mining magnate and richest female entrepreneur, with a fortune estimated at £146 million, on a career-path that balances her corporate interests with a passion for design, aesthetics and alternative medicine.
Vanessa Gounden is a multi-faceted South African gem. From her time as a free-spirited youth growing up in Escombe, Durban, through the traumatic relocations during the apartheid era, to where she is today as one of South Africa’s top businesswomen, her experiences and enduring spirit has engendered a die-hard character who strives for excellence in all that she sets out to achieve. Leadership spoke to her about her career and plans for the future as this fashion guru takes her international brand to new heights.
Tell us about your past. Your grandparents, where you grew up as a child, worked on a rose farm, yet today you hold the title of one of South Africa’s most successful businesswomen. Could you give us a bit of background on what your early days were like?
My grandfather came into the country as a migrant labourer and worked his way up to eventually become the owner of a rose farm. I grew up earning extra pocket money by picking roses, which my mother would take to the markets to sell. I had an amazing early childhood – carefree and happy. We were surrounded by a large amount of family and that support instilled an appreciation for the importance of family and encouraged a level of healthy competitiveness between us – we all pushed each other to do better. Family meals and large family functions were the norm.
From an early age I was pushed by my parents to strive for excellence. I started Grade 1 at the age of four (my mother smuggled me in). Unfortunately, at age ten, we were evicted from our home and relocated to the Shall Cross Township with the implementation of the Group Areas Act. This of course was a deeply traumatic experience. Regardless, my parents soldiered through and tried to make our lives as comfortable as possible notwithstanding the loss of our beautiful home and much better lifestyle.
Seeing the anguish of my parents and grandparents and the loss of what they had worked so hard to achieve sparked my political conscience. This was a huge awakening and a culture shock and made me want to break through the glass ceiling.
Being the eldest child (with two younger brothers), I was always encouraged to give my best at all times. My mom, being very progressive, encouraged me to fend for myself. This led to me developing a personality of one who always pushes the boundaries, strives for excellence and believes nothing is impossible.
You have been actively involved in politics and even held a position in President Mandela’s administration. How did your involvement in politics come about and how has it impacted on your life and where you are today?
I was part of the Mandela administration in 1994 and was responsible for integrating existing SAPS with the other non-statutory forces such MK within SAPS. This taught me a great deal about compromise and trade-off. As explained earlier, my political conscience was sparked from an early age. In high school and my early years at university, I joined the opposition movement and contributed by mobilising supporters in protests.
Tell us about your involvement with the trade unions while serving in the Mandela administration.
Being active in the trade union movement sensitised me to the balance between employee and employer and this held me in good stead in all business to date.
You also held the position of director of change management in the Police. Can you tell us more about your role there?
This was post 1994 and during the Government of National Unity. I was responsible for the implementation of a change management programme during a highly emotive period in the ranks of SAPS, having to integrate the old guard with the new — a seemingly impossible task. Having to institutionalise a new police culture from a military approach to a community—policing based approach, I was then deployed into National Intelligence as head of Human Resources and later on moved into SAA as vice president of Customer Service before starting HolGoun.
Spending time in President Mandela’s administration, you have had a rare opportunity to engage with one of the world’s most beloved icons. How did you experience Madiba?
While serving during that time, we all felt his immense leadership in the way he managed to bring about diverse positions into the Government of National Unity. In our small way we tried to embody this in all our practices. The late Nelson Mandela is my inspiration, as his philosophy was always that nothing is impossible. My favourite quote of his is: “It seems impossible until it is done”.
You and your husband, Sivi, have been actively involved in both the business and the political arena. Tell us more about your family life.
My husband and I have been together since high school. We are cut from the same cloth with the same political, social and religious inclinations. The family value system that was inculcated in us as we were growing up led us to manage political, family and business responsibilities without compromising one for the other.
Shortly after leaving the political arena, you and your husband decided to start your own venture, Holgoun Investment Holdings. Can you give us a bit of history on the enterprise and tell us a bit more about where it currently is?
As a matter of clarity, I see myself as a political activist and technocrat – I didn’t leave the political arena, but rather the public sector. HolGoun is an investment holding company with a major investment in mining – fashion and healthcare being new divisions established to pursue personal passions and opportunities. We also wanted to diversify the business. Our neutraceutical division within healthcare is a very exciting business. The products are premium and have been created by a group of experts promoting longevity. Our products are distributed at Dischem and other large pharmacies and have recently been listed in Europe. The fashion business is expanding exponentially. Vanessa G is stocked globally. D’Ore is shortly to roll out into Africa. We have also invested in the music and movie business – these are exciting times.
What are your pastimes, and can you tell us more about why you love doing them?
Building HolGoun is my favourite pastime! There is nothing more satisfying than pursuing one’s dream with one’s soulmate. Sivi is a very liberal and progressive thinker, which gives me the support to be able to live my dream. Fashion and music are my two great passions.
Vanessa G is doing very well. Can you also tell us more about your love for fashion and lifestyle?
My mom made all my clothing. From a young age I had an eye for detail and loved dressing up. Reading fashion magazines is what motivated me to start my own global fashion label and own the largest multi-brand luxury store in SA (D’Ore).
You have been quite involved in charity work. Why is this important to you?
Being conscious of the plight of people and being very involved in my community from an early age, I have witnessed the degeneration of family values and hardship and how education becomes pivotal in uplifting lives. I have been very blessed and there is nothing more satisfying then giving back to family and community. Sivi and I have, to date, supported over 100 young people by paying for their education and training and/or employing them and as such assisting in helping them follow their dreams.
Can you tell us what the current situation in the mining industry looks like? How have the labour unrest and international economic turmoil made an impact?
The mining industry is cyclical and labour-dependant. This will always be a contentious issue. It requires the mining industry to rethink its processes to ensure adaption in these difficult times.
What do you think leadership is all about?
Leadership is the ability to bring out the best in people through the process of facilitation and so-doing, pushing them to meet their own personal goals as well as the collective company goals.
You are also on the directorship for a number of other companies including Samancor and Daly Credit. Can you please tell us more about your involvement in these companies?
We are the second largest shareholder in Samancor Chrome and the majority shareholder of Daly Credit Corporation. We look after our investments carefully and are actively involved in providing strategic direction.
What is your opinion on the nationalisation of mines? Being so involved in the industry, how do investment holding enterprises in this sector feel about nationalisation?
There has been an ongoing debate on nationalisation of the mining sector and other sectors of the economy that commenced several decades ago. While this debate is likely to continue into the future, my views on this matter are twofold. As South Africa is a resource driven economy, the mining sector has to be central in contributing to the upliftment of all SA people and the nation as a whole. We fully support the notion of partnerships between the state and the private sector where each of the parties brings its own specific expertise to advance the national interest.
Where do you see yourself going in the near future on a personal and a business level?
On a personal level I have been very blessed and am in a fortunate position. While I would like to go into early retirement, my personality won’t allow it! As per the HolGoun brand statement – I boldly go! On a business level, I would like to see the Vanessa G brand grow into a global powerhouse and HolGoun grow into a multi-billion dollar diversified multi-national, but always with a conscience.
What advice and words of motivation could you give young women who are trying to make it in today’s demanding rat race?
Nothing comes without very hard work, commitment and dedication. Don’t be held back by cultural norms. Do not limit your ability to venture out and to try new things. I always encourage women to travel as travelling opens the mind to opportunities. What is interesting today is the utilisation of the internet. It is an amazing educational tool that broadens the perspective to be able to understand the evolution of society and they [young people] position themselves in relation to that.
As a woman and an outstanding entrepreneur; any advice for other young or upcoming business leaders in South Africa?
Don’t stop dreaming big. Young entrepreneurs have to be able to understand that working from the bottom up is not a limitation but rather a foundation. Making a mistake should never be a deterrent or a failure. A differentiator is an ability to turn such failure into opportunity.