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Someone once said, there is no force more powerful than a woman determined to rise and as we celebrate National Chartered Accountants Day, which originates from The Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI), celebrating their 73rd Anniversary today, we bring the spotlight back home by tapping into the lives of four phenomenal South African Chartered Accountants, who have shattered the glass ceiling, leading and paving their way forward, not only for themselves but for the generations that will follow the paths they have mapped out in this industry. 

They’ve had quite a bit to share so do grab your coffee and take a minute to draw inspiration from their career journeys.

Zama Khanyile

Zama Khanyile is a qualified Chartered Accountant with extensive experience as a unit head and over 16 years’ experience in development finance, corporate finance, private equity and external audit. She has multi-sector experience having concluded deals in manufacturing, agroprocessing, transportation, property, financial services, tourism, TMT, franchising, retail, and construction.

She is the Acting Divisional Executive: Venture Capital and Corporate Finance at the National Empowerment Fund (NEF). The division is made up of investment professionals across two investment units: Strategic Project Fund (which focuses on early-stage project development) and uMnotho Fund which provides new venture, expansion and acquisition finance. She has a track record of leading a high performing team even in challenging conditions. 

Zama is the President of the African Women Chartered Accountants’ Forum (AWCA), a not-for-profit company whose activities are centred around growing the quantity and quality of black (AIC) female Chartered Accountants. She is a member of the BRICS Business Council-Financial Services Working Group. She oversees the NEF’s Women Empowerment Fund. She was a member of CA Charter Council.

Q. You grew up in Umlazi, KZN. Can you tell us about your upbringing and what you’ve been told about the kind of child you were?

I started school in 1989, which was a time of political unrest where our school curriculum would often be interrupted by stayaways. As a black child growing up in the township, you couldn’t ignore the political climate. Even though you couldn’t wrap your head around it, you knew that something wasn’t right in the state of South Africa. 

I was a well-mannered, respectful child with a bit of a lazy streak.  I enjoyed playing indigenous games (ushumpu and umagalobha), with my friends until the streetlights came on. Growing up in the time of a transition to a democratic state also meant that I saw opportunities open up in previously white Model C schools but was aware that there were many more others who still needed to be pulled up from the effects of apartheid and being economically side-lined.

I did relatively ok in school, but my teachers would always highlight that I could achieve so much more if I put in more effort. My parents put education above everything else and strived to give me and my siblings the best life and exposure they could manage.

Q. Representation and modelling are important, especially for young, black girls from underprivileged backgrounds. Who do we owe the credit to for directly or indirectly grooming the Zama Khanyile we know of today?

Indeed, seeing people of your hue and gender prosper from their humble beginnings, makes you know that it really is possible to reach and exceed your goals.  I hope that young girls coming up after me can be emboldened to know that they can do ten times more than what my generation had achieved.

I owe credit to a whole stream of individuals – from my grandmothers who were both strong-minded women who were matriarchs and spoke their mind, to my loving parents who planted good seeds in me and my siblings, putting our needs ahead of theirs, to my extended family and community that celebrated my small triumphs and encouraged me to believe I could do more, to my AWCA family that opened up doors, leached me to international platforms and supported my leadership journey , to my previous and current boss at the NEF who really believe in empowering women and giving them opportunities, supporting and coaching them while believing they can deliver excellently.

Q. A lot of moms, especially over the period of lockdown, had to find a way to bring work home – a space where children have access to you 24/7. What was a typical day like for you during lockdown as a mom? 

Lockdown has given me a unique opportunity to spend more time with my son. The workload of working from home can sometimes be a lot as we respond to the growing needs of black entrepreneurs.

On a typical day, I wake up and read emails on my phone, then I spend some time with my son. Thereafter I get ready and resume work activities. I spend quality time with my son during my lunch and coffee breaks. I’m grateful for the current setup because I’ve been there for all my son’s milestones over the last year. 

Then we have some play time when I’m done with work, we have supper and do our bedtime routine. Depending on the weeks demands, I will resume work at 10pm and read packs for upcoming meetings 

Q. A 7-year journey to qualifying in a profession for many people seems like a lot. What attracted you to being a CA?

Honestly, the inspiration to become a CA stemmed from observing the lifestyle it afforded you. But this was later strengthened by my affinity for numbers and how they tell a story. It’s a long journey but knowing that many others have completed the course made it easier to get through the difficult times.

Q. Funding is one that is fundamentals to turning ideas to lucrative businesses. Historically, black people have been marginalised and therefore start at a backfoot when it comes to competing in businesses. Why are you so passionate about entrepreneurship, especially when it concerns black women?

Entrepreneurship is a catalyst for a lot of good things. It’s like magic. You start off with one rand and can make more rands’ appear from that initial one rand. Knowing that big businesses started off and SMEs is what propelled my passion to see more businesses being established. 

Q. As someone who leads a team of investment professionals, carrying out the mandate to improve access to capital for black-owned entities, and overseeing the NEF’s women empowerment fund that finances businesses, where are we in reaching to a point where we see an increase in the percentage of women entities listing on the JSE?

We are far from that, and I would like to see this in my lifetime. I’m privileged to work at the NEF that has a Strategic Projects Fund that aims to create black industrialists and significant black-owned companies in the key sectors of the economy. This fund aims to support black entrepreneurs in project development so that they may take their innovative ideas from a convent to an IPO, of course the women agenda is one that runs firmly along that of black empowerment.

Q. A lot of businesses closed down and some are battling with the effects of covid. How can you encourage entrepreneurs who are trying to hold on during this period?

It’s important that economic performance and opportunities are cyclical and so there will come a time when the economy rebounds and business attention comes’ back on an upward trajectory. Some of the lessons learnt are an agile, diversified business model. Keeping a lean and variable cost structure. And when the good times come, we may remember to keep sufficient reserves for a rainy day – dare I say rainy months.  There are a number of incentives and support measures that have been earmarked for black businesses that are struggling so it’s good to keep informed of these by regularly visiting the website of the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition.

Q. As humans, we all get to a point where we feel a little depleted and just need that push. What do you do to recharge?

What energizes me is the balance of quiet ‘me-time’ and quality time spent with loved ones.  Having a 2-3hours of pamper time has become a treat but I stay consistent with it, understanding that I must keep my cup full before I pour it out into anyone or anything. As I have gotten older, I’ve become more intentional about quality time with loved ones.

Sthembile Nkabinde 

Sthembile is a CA(SA) with 11 years’ experience in investment banking and private equity. She is the CEO of Khulasande Capital, an investment entity, which she founded alongside Investec in 2014. She has executed private equity transactions with an enterprise value of R10 billion and has sat on various boards.

Sthembile currently also sits on the board of the South African Venture Capital and Private Equity Association.

She is passionate about social development and was involved in assisting the Kolisi Foundation with aspects of its establishment and also spearheaded the establishment of a developmental programme for aspiring women directors at Investec. Sthembile is a graduate of Harvard Business School’s alternative to an executive MBA, the Programme for Leadership Development.

Q. It’s been quite a crazy time for many people the past year and a half. The pandemic had taken a toll on a lot of people. How are you feeling mentally, physically and spiritually?

It’s a period that has certainly had its ebbs and flows. I have allowed myself the space to wallow on those days that I need to do that. I do however believe that our reality is largely driven by our perceptions and that the quality of our lives depends largely on the quality of our thoughts. I’ve therefore been very deliberate about how I shape my thinking and have guarded my mind space during this time.

I’ve done this through my meditation and yoga practice, exercising and journaling. I’ve also decided to get a life coach this year. Sports men have coaches to help them achieve their optimal performance levels – I think this should apply to business and life in general too. This has helped me tremendously!

Q. We know you for the amazing work you have done under Khulasande Capital, Investec, and the many years you’ve been a Chartered Accountant. Tell us about the Sthembile most people don’t know. 

I have a secret aspiration of being a DJ. Apart from putting together what I think are killer playlists, I’ve only been on the decks once. At the rate I’m going, Malikkie may just surpass me in pursuing this aspiration, so my teacher Mr Leshabane aka Neo De Jenero and I need to pull up our socks!!

Q. As a child, what had you envisioned your life to look like and who had the greatest influence?

I didn’t really know what I wanted to become when I was younger and never envisioned my life to be anything like it is now. I was just very self-driven, hardworking and competitive. One of my favourite quotes by Abraham Lincoln states “Whatever you are be a good one”. I knew that whatever I was to become, I wanted to try to be the best I could be at it.

The person that had the greatest influence on me was definitely my mom – the kindest and most amazing person in the world. She has a pure heart of gold – and I’m not biased at all. 

Q. For most people, the whole point of starting an organisation is to solve a problem. As a founder of black owned and controlled private equity and investment vehicle, what problem are you aiming to solve within this space?

South Africa has astronomical levels of unemployment – currently sitting at 32.6% and one of the highest in the world. As a private equity and investment vehicle, Khulasande aims to create sustainable companies through growth capital and through supporting entrepreneurs. In doing so, we can assist more companies to create much needed jobs. As a BEE investment vehicle, we also assist companies with transformation initiatives, an imperative, given the high-income inequality that still exists in our country.

Q. You were chosen to be part of a task team of young professionals to represent South Africa on an investment roadshow to Silicon Valley. This was an initiative that matched President Cyril Ramaphosa’s call for young entrepreneurs to invest in Africa. We know that Silicon Valley, in San Francisco, is the ‘Golden State’ for Billionaires. What was that experience like for you and what new information did it expose you to?

The experience opened up my eyes to the art of what’s possible when the environment is conducive for innovation and entrepreneurism. We still have a long way to go in this respect in South Africa. In every challenge there is also opportunity. African challenges need to be solved by African people. As has often been said, we are the ones we have been waiting for.

Q. Gender pay-gap, sexism, ethnic chauvinism, ageism and other issues remain a huge challenge when it comes to transformation for women across different industries. There’s also an issue of ‘The Boy’s Club’ in which many women have expressed how it further keeps women oppressed. What challenges have you personally gone through and how did you deal with them?

Being a black female in a white male dominated industry has definitely had its challenges and we still have a long way to go in this regard. The reality is that, having level playing fields will still take time and so for now I have tried to play the cards that I have been dealt, the best way I can. This has sometimes meant working harder and doing more than what would have been expected of a white counterpart, before you get the recognition. This has also meant finding a niche where being a black female is indeed an advantage. I have been very fortunate that some of my most supportive sponsors have indeed been white males.

Q. What do you do to relax?

I love reading a lot, so this is my form of relaxation. I combine this with my other favourite things – scented candles, good music, a glass of wine and a good book – pure bliss.

Q. What is your message to a young woman who sees herself in your shoes one day?

I love this quote and I’m not sure who said it: “A bird sitting on a branch is not afraid of the branch breaking because her trust is not on the branch but in her own wings.”

My message to young women is to become your greatest cheerleader. Back yourself and don’t self-reject.  Trust that your wings will allow you to fly. Trust that they will carry you. Trust that when you want something, all of the universe conspires in helping you achieve it (from my favourite book – The Alchemist). Trust that if you fall while trying to fly you would have indeed achieved something – even then, even when you fall – you would have achieved growth, you would have gained experience. That dream is yours for the taking. You’ve got this!

Maite Leshabane 

Maite is a dynamic young individual with a mind for solutionist thinking and an avid learner that takes charge of her development. She is skilled at interrogating and translating numbers into insights, using her expertise in Global Markets at a leading Corporate and Investment Bank. Maite is experienced in financial accounting and audit; having worked in the technology, media and telecommunications industries (TMT), at a big four accounting firm. She is also passionate about understanding and responding to client needs, as well as developing those around her.

Q. Today, we celebrate female Chartered Accountants. Do you think it’s important that we as women, across different industries celebrate each other?

Absolutely. We’re living in exciting times where women in their numbers are taking up space and assuming their rightful seat at the table. We are catalysts for change and our challenges as women aren’t (for the most part) unique to a specific industry, as such – a win for one woman is a win for all women. It is of utmost importance that we recognize and celebrate that as women, we are the collective custodians of our success and our time to shine is now!

Q. What attracted you to numbers?

My simple philosophy was that if I understood numbers, I would understand business, which would stand me in good stead to one day becoming a leader in business.

Q. We’ve just wrapped up June, being Youth Month in SA. As a young, dynamic individual with a mind for solutionist thinking, when it comes to the big issue that young people in this country are faced with, unemployment – what solutions do you think young people need to address this issue?

The unemployment rate among youth aged 15 to 24 is sitting at around 74% – this is a crisis. If we include youth aged 25 to 34, we’re looking at 46% – almost half of the country’s young people are unemployed. This paints a disturbingly grim picture for the future of our country. 

Bridging the gap between organizations and young individuals to address the issue of access to opportunities is low hanging fruit to curb youth unemployment.

The inception of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is an initiative that I believe has the potential to move the needle in regard to job creation for the youth. It is an opportunity to reshape markets and economies across the African continent as a means to improve output in various key sectors, thereby boosting the SA job market.

The world is outpacing education when it comes to progression; we seem to be playing catch-up in a system that was intended for education to lay down the framework. There needs to be a shift from the archaic approach to schooling, to finding innovative ways of predicting and forecasting future global trends. This will create a clearer picture of the most sought-after skills that will be required by the job market, thus informing the way in which the syllabus should continually be adapted. This is how we ensure kids are fit for purpose by the time they enter the job market. Further to this, a continued and targeted focus on skills development to ensure youth are adequately equipped.

Q. A shockingly low 43% of the country’s latest aspiring-chartered accountants have passed the SA Institute of Chartered Accountants (Saica) examination. In an even more concerning outcome, just 24% of the 1 792 black candidates passed Saica’s Assessment of Professional Competence (APC) exam written in December. In a country that is already experiencing a low number of black, female CA’s, what do you attribute this challenge to?

The dismal performance of African candidates in the December 2020 SAICA Assessment of Professional exam shone a spotlight on the plight of the black child. The exam moved to compulsory e-writing (electronic writing) in 2018 which I believe was a step in the right direction considering digitisation is in alignment with global trends however, what I think this transition may have failed to account for is the disparity between White and African candidates when it comes to the comfortable (and confident) use of technology, and how this would translate into training offices adequately preparing candidates for the exam – that is the fundamental flaw. With the 2020 exam in particular, the situation was further exacerbated by remote learning owing to COVID-19 in a country where WIFI isn’t the order of the day for most households and the price of data is preposterous.

Q. We know that the numbers of black professionals in this industry remain low. What is keeping women out?

African females have made up the largest category of candidates sitting to write the APC exam since 2017. In addition to the reason provided in the previous question, one also needs to consider whether African females are being afforded the necessary work exposure at training offices (given that the exam is based on professional competence), as well as sufficient support in the workplace. These factors could be causing major barriers to entry.

Q. Wholesome living is about living for more than yourself – living a full life in service to others and in the pursuit of personal growth. In what way does this apply to your life?

In every single way. Wherever life plants me, I aim to leave an indelible mark on the people I interact with by bringing my authentic self, striving for excellence and paying it forward. Every sphere of my life – I am also an advocate for health & wellness – is a work in progress in the relentless pursuit of personal growth and self-actualisation.

Q. What would you say is most rewarding about being a CA?

Knowing that before I enter any room, my capability and competence is already spoken for in part. Limitless learning opportunities. The confidence in knowing that the world is my oyster. The opportunity to interact with incredible minds.

Q. What is your mantra that you refer back to in tough times?

I am enough.

Phumelele Zwane 

Phumelele Zwane is a qualified CA (SA) with over 6 years of Investment Banking experience with key focus in structured trade finance. She boasts a portfolio of diverse global clients across both the agricultural sector, energy and metals sectors. Her client portfolio comprises both mid-tier and global traders. Having worked on numerous successful transactions, two of those transactions are recipients of the prestigious Global Trade Review Deal Of The Year Award.

Q. If you had an out of body experience to observe the type of person you are, how would you best describe yourself?

I would definitely say assertive and personable, those being the main drivers of the rest of my personality and how I actually interact with people around me. You could put me in a room full of people with different personalities and coming from different backgrounds and you’ll actually find I am able to connect with or relate to each and every individual in that room quite easily. 

This is also an interesting observation, a childhood friend of mine shared with me when I hosted friends for my 25th birthday dinner, where I had my childhood friends, friends I met in high school, varsity and at the workplace present. She was like ‘friend, do you realise that you have this table full of a group of people with varying personalities, from your typical shy girl to divas and the sort of inbetweeners (I won’t mention the names lol) and yet somehow you relate to each and every one of these people with so much ease?’. I was taken aback and after thinking about it, I realised she was actually right, and I could only relate that to being assertive and people find that assertiveness pleasant. 

Q. How long have you been an investment banker for and how has that journey been?

I’ve been in investment banking since 2015 and as tough and demanding as it is, it has been a very fulfilling journey where the learning just does not stop. I am fortunate enough to be in an industry (i.e. commodities) that has global ties, so chasing deals comes with a lot of catching flights too! Whilst on the job, I’ve visited the UK, Belgium, France, Dubai, Tanzania (of all the places I’ve been to, Dar es Salaam has to be my favourite city), Kenya, Zambia and Lesotho. Besides traveling, what I love most about the job is that it is fast-paced and ever changing so each day comes with its own challenges and chances of redundancy are quite slim. Another perk is that it can be financially rewarding too!

Q. Every industry has its own challenges. When you look at when you started out vs now, in your opinion, how has the industry changed? 

Joh! A lot has changed hey, and most of those changes are all related to regulation. Banking is a highly regulated industry and as a result of that, change is always imminent. What makes our business even more susceptible to change, is the global presence I mentioned above, so we have to keep an eye out on each jurisdiction where we do business. So, I can say when I started out, transacting was more about chasing deals and writing new business so that meant more time spent outside of the office attending conferences and the likes but changing regulation has added a lot of additional but informative admin to our everyday work which has seen us spending more time at our desks instead.

Q. The percentage of women in this industry remains quite low. What do you attribute this to and what do you think it will take to address and eventually change these challenges?

I think it all ties back to the historical systemic exclusion of women from the workforce. Although a lot of redress and reform has been done to correct this, those efforts have unfortunately not been enough. What makes it even more difficult within IB are the persisting stereotypes of how difficult and demanding the job is that you hardly find time for anything – and when they say anything it’s usually in reference to starting a family and settling down, meaning if you choose to be in IB then there’s no time for that. 

This is obviously nonsensical as we do have very successful women in the industry who are excelling at both. However, with women still being the main caretakers of their homes, this then has the tendency of discouraging a lot of women to join the profession. Although diversity and transformation at the top of the food chain are necessary to bring forth the change, I think it is equally important to make sure that IB attracts women talent at the entry level as well which has the potential to expand the pool of women available to assume leadership positions as they grow in the profession.

Q. The modern times we are living in require us to constantly evolve and upskill. What informed your decision to marry all your passions as a CA, social media influencer and content creator? 

I’m all about challenging stereotypes – society has found a way of attaching negative connotations to social media influencers and digital content creators, labelling them as ‘uneducated airheads who have chosen an easy way out’. On the other hand, IB is a profession that people hold in high regard and therefore I was met with a lot of side eyes when I branched into the former. But then I thought why not, I can do both. And I remember someone actually went as far as approaching a friend of mine to tell them to sit down with me and convince me to cut down on the social media influencing side of things because I am killing my chances of ever being a CEO or CFO. Of course, my friend politely responded by saying, “you clearly do not know Samantha”, (that’s my second name by the way).

Q. On that note of upskilling, why do you think it’s even more crucial today to constantly educate ourselves and learn more about what’s happening within and outside our industries?

I truly believe that it’s one of the easiest ways to identify new opportunities and innovate according to those identified opportunities. The world is constantly evolving, and upskilling is necessary to make sure we stay relevant. It also ensures that whilst chasing these new opportunities, we remain vigilant of the inherent risks and find effective ways of mitigating against those risks. For example, there is currently a big frenzy around cryptocurrency – it’s definitely a game changer that will bring about some change (and I think it has already), but do we know enough about the inherent risks associated with this particular asset class and how do we bridge this gap? You will not be able to make an informed decision unless you actually take the time to learn about its developments and how it’s affecting investment behaviour on a global scale.

Q. What’s that one societal or political issue that currently irks you that if you had the power to change it, you would in a heartbeat?

Our focus on a protectionist as opposed to an expansionary policy discourse; the latter acknowledges the importance of global capital flows in all forms in any growth story. The status quo has hindered the country’s growth as capital is flowing to more accommodative and predictable destinations, which we compete with for capital.

Q. Which artist or song is currently on high rotation on your playlist?

Cassper Nyovest – Siyathandana