Tell us about your background and childhood
I was born and bred in Soweto. It was a tough time when everybody was looking to leave South Africa. When I was young, I left for Swaziland and neighboring countries in search of a decent education. Later, in my early twenties, I traveled to the USA to further my education.
If I think about what got me here, it’s mostly trial and error. I started my career looking to provide a solution to the quagmire “How do we get social justice?” At the time, I was very influenced by justice. That’s what happens when you grow up in a system that lacks justice, which is what the system in South Africa lacked. I intended to work in institutions that will make South Africa better. That was my initial goal as that was what consumed me while growing up.
When I came back, apartheid hadn’t ended. So, it was difficult to get into the spaces I had in mind. Instead, I stumbled into marketing. So, I started to use it as a voice to ensure people are heard. And that’s how I entered advertising. When I began, there was a sense of “The way women and black people are portrayed is not well.” My mantra then was “How do we communicate with women? How do we communicate with marginalized societies?” I went ahead and spent a considerable amount of time in advertising and marketing doing the work that needs to be done to make sure people see themselves in the work that companies put out.
Eventually, I left to do my MBA because I did not have any business skills. I had strong social skills and a sense for justice, but I lacked business skills. So, I went to school to develop this. When I came back, it was with the idea of running a company. Given South Africa’s history, I felt it was important for me to come back and do that. It was not enough for me to be part of the workforce that interprets how companies see us, I wanted to drive the narrative. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to buy into an advertising agency; I spent the next 15 years trying to shape the African voice and what it means to be a working woman and mother. I never had that as an individual because my mom was a stay at home mom. She was well educated, but she was a fulltime mom all the same. I didn’t understand that dynamic and it was important to me – I was a CEO at the time – to ensure people understand you can be both a leader and a mom.
In our conversations with women like yourself, we have noticed that something happened early on that contributed to their drive. In your case, what do you think that is?
My father was not educated – I think he only got to grade three – but he was good at business. On the other hand, my mother went to university. She was smart and knew the business part, too. In fact, she laid the foundation for the business before my father leveraged his public skills to run it. Growing up I wondered how this happened. How my mother, who was very intelligent, only worked behind the scenes. Looking back, it would not have been easy for my mother to run the business, even if she had tried. My father had to change his name to Mr Roberts to open a business in downtown Johannesburg. So, if it was that difficult for a man, I imagine it would have been impossible for a woman to run a business. Besides, it was next to impossible for my mother to work while catering to nine children. Regardless, it was important for me to show that you don’t have to choose between your family and career. And I did that.
I took on a company where advertising was predominately male and killed the 5 o’clock bar session where big decisions were made. I moved it up to teatime. Consequently, big decisions were made at 10am. I was deliberate about changing the culture to one that nurtures and accommodates women. At the time, many women were giving up on their careers around 28, 30, 32 to have babies. And that was what 30-year-old me was driven to change.
It sounds like you are talking about work-life balance. Can you expand your views on it for us?
I don’t know what to call it. However, it was important to be able to create an opportunity to have both: a family and career. Of course, there are certain things I gave up, but I was able to teach women to make deliberate choices they could live with. In my life, I don’t see it as an imbalance but a collection of choices. And that’s what I live with. Of course, I have to consider my family while making these decisions.
However, what those decisions look like changes over time. My decisions in my thirties look very different to my 40s and now. If you were to ask me today if I would work in Kazakhstan, I might say ‘yes’ and that is because my children are grown. In my 30s, I decided not to take on work that was further than 5km from my daughter’s school.
That is my balance.
What kind of support did you put in place when your kids were younger so you could excel at your career?
I think it was the family ecosystem and the people I had around me, like those I hired. My mother was very instrumental. For instance, when I worked at Nike, I had to travel a lot. During that period, my mother was my cornerstone. So, I would say my family played a huge role in my accomplishments, alongside other elements of my ecosystem.
I advise women to put in effort when making decisions about their ecosystem, like they would if they were acquiring a company or making a big investment. For me, investing lots of my energy into my ecosystem, like I do with my work, enabled me to reach the heights I have attained.
Tell us about the last mile of your journey, since leaving advertising.
I had no idea I would be here, but I believe everything I did in my previous roles played a role. The past six years with Facebook have been absolutely incredible. The company gave me the opportunity to get into an industry I didn’t think I would work in, which is the technology industry. I say that because sometimes, as women, we look at ourselves and think, these are the few things I can do. When women ask me how I got here, I tell them to allow themselves the freedom and opportunity to try something new. I came into technology to try something new, and it has been a fantastic ride. Most importantly, it has given me the opportunity to do something I have always wanted to do, which is to have an impact on this continent.
I sometimes ask myself how we’ve always lost as a region and why we always come out last. I came to this role hoping we can use some of the new technologies that are coming to the fore to help Africa catch up or leapfrog old systems that have held us back. I look at some of the companies we work with in fintech and I am proud to see how people have used new technologies to skip some of the legacy systems that have held this continent back. I hope we will continue to do that and that technology will continue to democratize education and help us operate at a level that is equal to anybody in the world, at the very least.
For myself, I hope that, together with the team, I can change the trajectory of Africa with technology.
What positive impact do you think Facebook has made on the continent?
Let’s start with SMBs. If you look at our landscape, I think the ability to use technology to drive small businesses and help them grow is at the forefront of what we do with SMBs. Now, small businesses can, with R100,000, or its equivalent, sell from one city or country to the next. We have seen small businesses grow on our platform. We have witnessed women stop selling on street corners and use technology to expand their market and access. We continue to have constraints in this region, because we are the most ununified region. However, we hope that, at some point, Africa will open to Africa and we’ll be able to trade amongst each other. Technology will provide small businesses with the ability to transact beyond their communities, cities, and even countries. Already, women can buy anything instantly with Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook.
I spoke about education earlier. There is no reason why education is still inaccessible and expensive, we should be able to use technology to remedy that. Over the last 22 months, the nature of education has changed. Some kids in far reaching areas where access to laptops is limited, had their curriculum delivered on WhatsApp. At Facebook, we believe we have a job to connect people in this region as there are still many people who do not have high speed internet. Last year we put in approximately half a billion USD together with network operators to build the largest subsea cable in the world, because Africa is still largely unconnected.
There is still two-thirds of Africa’s population that is unconnected, let alone get on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.
What unique challenges have you faced as a female senior executive?
That is a difficult one. There have been a couple of problems. When I think about it, the challenges I have faced happened in the past. I think you get to a level where access makes things better. I think the single biggest opportunity we can give women is to provide them with access to senior positions and roles, whether through training, connections, or setting aside certain positions for them. I don’t necessarily have problems I face today but I see what the people I work with face and providing access will solve many of them.
Do you think being a female executive gives you any particular advantages?
Absolutely, it does. I’m very big on playing to my strengths and I think that some of that comes from being a woman. My leadership style is fundamentally embedded in what I know as a woman, and I believe that has helped me. It’s helped me focus on growing the business and people’s careers. I take this seriously and I think it comes with how I lead. I am vested in making women grow and I am acutely aware it is my responsibility to do so.
Why do you think there aren’t more female CEOs across Africa?
I think it’s not great to blame and it’s much better to take responsibility. In my opinion, there aren’t more female CEOs because of the paternalistic view we have in Africa. We have fewer women because we still have a cultural issue with women in leadership. If you come to South Africa, on paper, we have some of the most progressive gender laws, but it doesn’t translate to women in leadership positions. Notionally, we know how to do it, but we don’t act on it. I think culturally we still have a long way to go. We need to systemically work towards ending that.
By the way, my views are from my experience in South Africa and I can’t comment on other African countries or their culture.
What can the corporate sector do to ensure more women can climb the corporate ladder?
I’m not sure. One thing that puzzles me is South Africa’s broad based empowerment law, and I have been asking myself why it hasn’t resulted in more women climbing up the ladder. Is it that companies don’t practice it or do we still have work to do amongst women to make them take advantage of this law? I think it’s a little bit of both. I think we need to do more mentorship and be more deliberate about it. Also, we should hold companies a lot more accountable. I think systematically we are not doing enough.
There are bodies, like the IWF, dedicated to training women and helping them get to the top, yet few women rise to the top. But it’s not enough. We have a lot of work to do legislatively and punitively to hold companies accountable for not moving women as fast as they should.