Business and corporate activity has predominantly been a male dominated industry not only in South Africa but globally, with practices and systems in place designed for the ‘leading man’ archetype. Over the years however, we have come to an era of more female representation in leadership roles within the corporate arena. These women are breaking the glass ceiling and inspiring more people to follow their ground-breaking footsteps. Acting Managing Director and Marketing Director (rice and pasta) at well-known food manufacturing conglomerate ‘Tiger Brands’ – Thembi Sehloho, is a woman of this narrative.
Thembi Sehloho has been in the corporate profession for years and has developed a significant perspective of the industry that is uniquely representative of, not only the ‘female’, but also the ‘black’ experience that comes with being entangled in business. She is a force to be reckoned with and does not hold back when it comes to her work. The experience that she has acquired throughout her career has allowed her to gain better knowledge and a platform to assume a mentoring role for others who have the desire and passion to enter the corporate industry.
Covid-19 has affected business activity at a level that was not anticipated. Thembi Sehloho makes note of how important it has been to adjust to ‘the new normal’. Although Tiger Brands did not have to shut down its operations during the lockdown enforcement, she acknowledges the impact that the pandemic has had and will continue to have on enterprises, big and small. Thembi states that the abnormality of this situation has forced us to rethink how we do business and she has the following advice for small enterprises on adapting to this period, “it is important to value output over ‘clocking in for a certain amount of hours’. Making sure that people meet required targets and goals is more important than having them confined to offices for eight hours. On that note, reconsider the importance of office space. Is it really necessary for your business to have an office or are there new formats worth exploring? Lastly, there should be a fundamental shift in the employer-employee relationship to cater to the new format of business interaction.” Thembi observes that business will look different in the future as a result of this pandemic and the effects of a constantly changing world, people can therefore benefit from understanding the positives and learning from the negative aspects of this situation.
The popular phrase “this is a man’s world” may seem highly exaggerated but it is unfortunately rooted in truth when it comes to female accounts of corporate culture. Although companies have been forced to change their policies to allow women into leadership spaces, “the challenges that women have been facing in the corporate industry have remained relatively unchanged in the last 20 years” according to Thembi. She expresses that there is great room for improvement when it comes to redesigning this environment to include and accommodate women better, and offers the following description of this reality:
“Your social/corporate currency is reduced the moment you walk into the boardroom as a woman. It decreases even further if you are black. You are already devalued by the time you take a seat, before you can even say your piece. There is an immediate, involuntary responsibility that comes with being a black woman sitting at the table and it involves paving the way for others to come after you. Extra pressure is placed on you to achieve and succeed as a representative for people like you, this means working twice as hard as your counterparts just to be seen and taken seriously. Basically, by the time you’ve proven your value, you would essentially have jumped through hoops to show your worth and be recognised. However skilled you are, as a woman you will not be given that vote of confidence until you’ve shaken the house down.”
Due to this experience, Thembi absolutely appreciates other women who have assumed their positions in corporate leadership positions and are part of significant conversations that will meaningfully impact the world. However, she notes that in order to successfully navigate this environment, “do not lose yourself during the struggle to prove your worth. Walk in with your values intact and do not compromise them. There are many bullies in the industry that will attempt to break you down so be sure to speak up on injustices and prejudices and most importantly, understand who your cheerleader is and build that relationship.” If there is one thing that Thembi endorses, it is the concept of hard work. “You own your career so naturally blood, sweat and tears must go into building it. Challenge yourself, seek new knowledge and ensure that you solidify your skills at your current level so that you are ready for the next.”
The climb up the corporate ladder is not easy but it can be made bearable by allowing someone to guide you. Thembi makes note of the role that mentorship played in her career and how she intends to do for others what was done for her. “I intend to build teams that will excel independently and grow beyond the spaces that I have control over”.
It is undeniably vital to have women that young girls can look up to and aspire to emulate. Thembi Sehloho is a manifestation of this type of role model. Strong, determined and goal-driven, and with more women like her occupying remarkable spaces – the next generation of women will definitely be in good hands.