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‘Art of Superwoman’ host Olwethu Leshabane had an in-depth chat with Executive Director of MAMO Property Holding, Yolanda Miya, about her journey to the top, motherhood, her relationship with her father, and the issues facing women in business today

Tell us about the formative years of Yolanda Miya… Where does she come from? What was her childhood like? Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

I had a very interesting childhood, actually. So I was brought up by my grandparents. I grew up in KwaMashu. I don’t know if you have heard about KwaMashu in KZN? It’s very different now, I have to say how it was then. But I mean I think on the whole I had a really happy childhood. There were five of us—my cousins and I. Well, you know our parents were doing various things, my mom was in the Arts in Johannesburg, my dad was an entrepreneur. So I guess it made sense then to be, you know, brought up by grandparents. I actually called my grandmother, Mommy.

We lived in a house which, at the time, I really thought was more sufficient. I mean there were five of us in this little room and we slept there and we had more than enough space. But every time I visit now, I’m like, “What?”. How on earth did we fit in here? But it was a lovely community, you know, we got involved in community events. I have very happy memories and I think the one thing when I reflect now is that we actually didn’t really have that much but I don’t really remember lacking anything. So I had a very lovely upbringing, loving childhood, and very interactive, very communal. I think that’s where my passion for the community comes from.

Did young Yolanda always know she’d be such a powerhouse? Such a corporate and entrepreneurial giant? Did you always know that?

Look, one thing I knew was that I would never fail at whatever I did. I think part of me has always been very deliberate about every decision I’ve taken and I knew from a very long time, from a very young age, that I wanted to be not only financially dependent, but actually dependable for my family. I always wanted to be a solution in some shape or form.

Do you think, as women, the mistake we sometimes make is thinking about the glass ceiling or thinking about excelling, instead of taking things day by day?

This is a conversation I have all the time when people talk about what success looks like. For me, success is not an ultimate location or journey I’m trying to get to, it’s daily. We forget to count our daily successes and be appreciative of the small wins. Everything is really a means to some end, but don’t forget about those means that are done daily. I know what I want to do, but getting there you have to be present at every moment.

There is so much to learn and we often take for granted what it takes to be an entrepreneur in South Africa. There are those hours you need to put into building up what the big vision is. You don’t just become a successful entrepreneur overnight, right?

Yeah. In actual fact, my father taught me this. I’ve learned more about why he took certain decisions now that he has passed and I appreciate it more. We used to fight about these things a lot. I always wondered why he waited so long to ask me to join the business. I always felt like I could do the job, but actually timing is everything and his timing was absolutely perfect. So, again, with that in mind, it’s not that there was an entitlement to work for the family business, he had to be comfortable that I was ready, that I had the right skills. He had to see me worthy of that responsibility, so I absolutely had to do the groundwork to get there.

How do you deal with pressure?

Every time I had conversations with my dad, who had to sell his liver to put me through private school, I would feel pressure, but I think on the whole, any pressure that I’ve had was really from myself. And most of the time I actually have such surety in everything that I do because I always go that extra bit in making sure that I’m properly prepared for it to actually work out.

So I don’t think I feel that, “Oh my God, I’ve got pressure”. I just know that it’s going to work out.

What is your take on women and emotion in workspaces? Often we’re told as women to pack away the emotion and deal with things, black and white, when it comes to the workspace. Where is the place for the emotion? And where is the place where we should not be inserting our emotions into work?

It’s a tough one because as much as I can say that you need to just be yourself at all times, that’s not how the world works unfortunately. So I’m not saying do not be emotional, but you have to have boundaries. So the boundaries I’ve always said is that I had extremely brilliant relationships with my colleagues, but there was a professional relationship. So I knew the boundary I was dealing with. If I’m upset about something or you’ve done something wrong, I will call you out, but I will call you out in a professional manner. I will deal with aspects in a professional manner because I’m in a professional environment.

It doesn’t change who I am. I just know that I will not shout at a colleague the same way I’ll shout at my child at home. So it’s not to say we can’t express ourselves. Absolutely, we have to.

What do you feel are some key issues that, especially as women, we need to address? These could be just plain issues within the workspace that we have…

There’s been a whole lot more collaboration amongst women, in particular. I think the urgency and the aggression that is coming from women is really quite commendable. I think it’s probably because when you think about the impact that COVID-19 has had on families, it’s been so deep rooted. So it hit us so hard that we had to say listen, I’m not going to wait for a man to create a space for me to do things. There’s no time, we’ve just got to do this and get on with it.

I’ve actually found that we’ve created, in a very short space of time, kind of a spider web effect, where we’re saying, you know what, we can do this, we have the skill set. We’ve got the competence, you know, there’s some brilliance, South Africa has got brilliant women. And I’ve been so impressed by the aggression.

And then the other thing which is a big issue for me is actually financing. I think that as women, sometimes we sabotage ourselves, but unfortunately, whether we like it or not, the finance or the ability to enable it sits in the hands of a lot of men. And not just men, but also probably non-black people, should I say. So that’s one part I feel that if we really, really collaborate better and tap into those networks, we could actually come together and really create funding that will be available for brilliant entrepreneurship ideas amongst women.

You are a mother of two. It must have been difficult climbing the career ladder and raising children. What were some of the biggest challenges on that journey?

It may sound like a bit of a cold response, but as I said, I’m very deliberate and every decision that I make therefore has a consequence. I can’t be surprised. I can’t be taken by surprise, because I made the decision knowing that this was going to be the case. So when I had my two children, one thing I can tell you is that there’s no such thing as balance, because there’ll be times where you are more focused on work. There’ll be times when we’re focused on family. But at each point in time, there’s no such thing as balance.

So I was very open about the fact that I wanted to make sure that by the time my kids have a memory of our time spent together, I’m able to have that time with them. But prior to that, from the ages from when they were born to probably age four, five or six, I won’t lie I had very limited time with my children and it’s not something that most people can necessarily deal with. But I had incredible support—my mom was amazing. She did the drop off and pick up and was extremely brilliant help with my housekeeper and the nannies, but it’s something that was very hard. It was not easy. I had to travel to London every other month. I’d miss them. But it’s something that I had to do if I wanted to change the future in terms of being in a position where I now say, guys, I’m MD now, I’m going on a holiday. Don’t call me for the next two weeks, I’m away with my children.

But those formative years for me were very challenging. I didn’t spend as much time as I would have liked to with the children, because I wanted to be able to be present with them at a time which really mattered.

Did you have a lot of shame thrown at you during those times?

Maybe, I don’t know. If people thought something, really, it was not my problem. Because I also worked in an environment where the women that I worked with were phenomenal, we supported each other but they also made their different decisions. Like one of the ladies I was quite close to deciding that she’s going to work until 3pm, but she knew that at some stage our careers would go in different directions.

With family in mind, you are a lover of travel, especially family travel—taking your children on adventures and exploring. From Greece to Lake Como to safaris. What is the best travel experience you’ve had with your family?

That’s a tough question. I mean, each one is so different. One was when we went skiing in Zermatt, in Switzerland, and it was spring skiing. None of us had gone skiing before and it was just such an incredible time. My mom went with us. I always take my mom on my travels. And while she wasn’t skiing, she did the walking and really it was just an incredible experience for all of us, knowing we’ve never done this before and we’re trying it together.

But the other one that stands out for me was probably when we did a drive through from Switzerland. We went to Germany and we did Italy; Florence and Tuscany, the whole family in two cars driving through, going through the winelands. It was just incredible.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?

I have definitely thought about that and I think about it every single day, especially when there’s no power! But I find myself back in South Africa.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

The one that stands out is that when I was at Deutsche Bank, I started an Entrepreneurial and Development Center, which was a space for black women-owned businesses in terms of financial services. However, my proudest moment is still to come, by the way, but for now that’s the one.

What is your favourite thing about your career and why?

I love property entrepreneurship because it is right in the heart of the economy. When you build with bricks and mortar, you can touch and feel it, it’s not imaginary. It’s not financial. It’s not stock markets… stocks up, stocks down with no real impact. It’s real. People are in the building, the people working, the people are employed. So that satisfaction of actually creating something that was not there before.

What is the number one gift or the best gift you’ve ever received?

I’m a very deep thinker. So, for me, no doubt the power of the Word that my mom taught me when I was seven years old. I was born again at seven. I discovered the word of God. I discovered how to apply it. I discovered how to use it.

Olwethu Leshabane is the host of ‘Art of Superwoman’ and a brand, digital, and mainstream marketing and media strategist.

By Editor