22 Jul Interview with Faith Khanyile
CEO of Women Development Business (WDB) Investment Holdings
Transforming South Africa’s business and social landscape through the development of women
WDB Investment Holdings (WDBIH), a strategic transformational investor founded and led by women, is a success worth celebrating. In 1991, WDB was established as a micro-finance programme by Zanele Mbeki and a small group of powerful and determined women to support the programmes of the WDB Trust, with the aim of lifting rural women out of poverty. WDB Investment Holdings has allowed the Trust to be self-sustaining, building an investment portfolio with total assets under management of R4 billion, and has paid cumulative dividends of more than R200 million to the Trust.
Tell us your story — how did you get to where you are now?
I was born in a small village in KZN, the second of six children. I went to primary school in the village and attended Ohlange high school just outside Durban. When I was in matric, I applied for and received a scholarship to study in America. The scholarship was sponsored by private schools there that were in solidarity with South Africa’s struggle against apartheid. I left South Africa in 1986 to complete my schooling at an all-girls school in New York. This school fostered my awareness and consciousness around women’s equality, gender equity, and empowerment. I then studied economics at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts. At the time, it was a women’s college, and it was during my four years there that I realised that this issue around men and women — who is better at what — is just an illusion. In reality, it is all about what you bring to the table, not your gender. It is about your character.
After completing my degree in 1991, I took a year off to gain some work experience in the United States. I completed an MBA in 1994, focusing on finance. I returned to South Africa at the end of 1994 and started working in financial services, initially in private equity. I then took a position in investment banking with Standard Bank Corporate & Investment Banking, where I remained for 12 years. During this time, I met Mrs Mbeki and the ladies who had started WDB. I was very interested in women’s development, and they were doing great work, specifically focusing on developing women in rural areas. I then decided that, as part of my community involvement, I would work with them and share my skills and expertise. I assisted them in the formation of the investment company, as I had the necessary background in private equity and finance. I wanted to be part of an organisation that was focused on women’s economic empowerment and development. I re-joined WDBIH in 2013 in an executive capacity, and I have been the CEO for the past seven years.
What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in getting to where you are now?
The first challenge I faced was being the only woman in the boardroom and in places where decisions were made. It is hard when you are the lone voice and you have to push the issues you feel passionate about. Sometimes it feels like you are an outsider, but you learn to just get on with it, and you learn to understand that this is the journey you are on. You have to find ways to be constructive and to make the change.
The second challenge is balancing work and family. I am a mother, and it was really hard when my children were young. I was basically not around. Thankfully, my husband was and is very involved with the kids. It’s tough wanting to be a woman who makes an impact and having a family and a life outside of that, but I have learnt to live with it and not feel guilty about it. I feel fortunate to have the support that I do, at work and at home.
Another challenge early on in my career was understanding myself and why I was doing what I was doing, and being comfortable in my own skin. Once you understand why you are doing what you are doing, what you bring to the table, what your strengths and unique qualities are, you become a more effective person and leader. Those are the three challenges I faced. Some of them, I guess, I continue to face.
Looking back on your career and life, what advice would you give your younger self and other young women in South Africa?
My first piece of advice is that you have to believe in yourself and your abilities and qualities. Fostering women’s self-worth and self-belief is critical, and we often undervalue ourselves. We don’t appreciate the power we have and the unique qualities we bring to the table. As a result, we are easily defeated when we face challenges. You have to constantly nurture your abilities. By nurturing your abilities, you build your self-confidence, your self-worth.
My second piece of advice is to always ask yourself why you are doing something. That speaks to finding purpose or meaning in what you do. If there is purpose in your life, in your career, the decisions you make are guided by that purpose.
The third piece of advice is that you have to find a mentor. You cannot succeed on your own. I think that is something that I could have been more deliberate about earlier on in my life, because some of the struggles that I had to go through I could have managed differently if I had had someone who had been in similar situations to guide me and be a soundboard.
My fourth piece of advice is that you have to invest in your own growth and development. Again, this has to be deliberate. You have to sit down and ask yourself what the vision is you have for yourself. How are you going to get to where you want to be, and where and what are the gaps? You then need to start really investing in yourself. Be curious. I would also encourage women to learn about things outside of their immediate environment. For example, if you are in finance, maybe learn about things in politics, or sociology, or art. That will make you a well-rounded person.
Lastly, you have to ask for help. As women, we have so many responsibilities at home, in society, in the world of business. You need to find friends and support. Don’t be shy to ask for help when you’re facing challenges, or you won’t see light at the end of the tunnel.
What are you most proud of in your career and personal life?
I’m truly proud that I’ve been blessed with four children, but even prouder that they are well-rounded and conscious kids. They care about what is going on in society. I think they have been privileged in terms of the education and material things they received, but what I’m really proud of is that they are humble. They are conscious of other people. They want to serve others. When I watch them talking and doing things, I see that they really understand that they have a responsibility to share, to give, to be of service to others. That makes me very, very proud.
What is your wish for gender equality and women in South Africa?
My first wish is for a heightened focus on the holistic education of girls, and for it to be earlier in their lives. We should not be teaching girls only science or maths, but also life skills and self-worth. If we could teach girls to have self-worth, we would be teaching them to look after themselves — physically, mentally, and spiritually.
With regard to the future, I do think we need to think differently. If, 20 or 30 years from now, we are to have a society that we are all proud of, we have to start doing things differently now. This would also benefit boys and men, because, if you start teaching boys and girls at a young age about life skills, about appreciating one another as human beings, about not looking at each other through society’s rigid structures on gender roles, we will live in a different society. The challenge facing us now is that we are not changing the way we teach, yet we expect different results.
My second wish is the closing of the gender pay gap. I think that, if we can start to seriously address the gender pay gap, we will also be on a path to addressing some of the other gender issues we face in this country, such as violence against women and women’s dependence on men. If you are economically disadvantaged, you are at the mercy of someone who is economically advantaged. That is why I truly believe that, if we can deal with the gender pay gap, it will help us to address some of the other gender-related issues, in addition to helping the economy grow. We have women with skills and talent who, sadly, are not participating effectively in the economy.
My third wish is the eradication of gender-based violence. We as a society have to dig deeper and understand the root causes of gender-based violence in South Africa. The causes are complex and hard to deal with, so we shy away from trying to deal with them, and, year after year, we just keep talking about gender-based violence. As long as we only look at this issue on the surface — looking only at the ‘what’ and not asking ‘why?’ — we are not going to successfully deal with this devastating problem.