06 Aug Interview with Phuthi Mahanyele-Dabengwa
CEO, South Africa, Naspers | Member of the USB Advisory Board
Naspers is a global Internet group and one of the largest technology investors in the world. Naspers companies operate and invest in countries and markets across the world, with the South African business focused on local media and Internet interests, as well as a R1.4 billion early-stage business investment initiative aimed at developing and growing the local tech ecosystem. Phuthi joined Naspers as CEO, South Africa, in July 2019. She previously held various positions, such as co-founder and Executive Chairperson of Sigma Capital, CEO of Shanduka Group, and Head of Project Finance South Africa at the Development Bank of Southern Africa. She began her career at Fieldstone in New York, in 1993, and worked her way up to being Vice President. Phuthi holds a BA Economics from Rutgers University, the USA, and an MBA from De Montford University in Leicester, UK. She also completed the Kennedy School of Government Executive Education programme Global Leadership and Public Policy for the 21st Century at Harvard University.
Tell us your story — how did you get to where you are now?
I grew up in Claremont in Durban, Maseru in Lesotho, and Dobsonville in Soweto. My parents moved around a lot, and we moved with them. I attended primary school in Maseru, and when we came back to Johannesburg, I completed my schooling at McAuley House Convent, in Milpark. When I arrived at McAuley House, I barely knew how to speak English, and my school friends, whom I had to fit in with, lived in a world that was really foreign to me. My school friends used to invite me to birthday parties at venues that didn’t accept black people back then, so arrangements had to be made for me to be there. Every day when I went home to Soweto, my reality was very clear to me, that my life was very different to that of my school friends. In the late eighties, while the Group Areas Act was still in force, my dad, through his Jewish friends, bought a house in Calvin, in Sandton, and that enabled us to travel shorter distances to school, which made life a lot easier for us.
I didn’t have the choice of making my own decisions. I had very challenging parents, but, fortunately, that worked for me. If I had had the choice, I would have chosen to become a ballerina, because that’s what I wanted, but I doubt I would have been sufficiently talented. Since completing my Master’s degree, it’s been a matter of sheer focus.
My drive has, without doubt, been motivated by what I saw in my parents. They instilled in us this belief that, just because you’re having a certain experience today, doesn’t mean that that will always be your experience.
You can change it if you put in the effort. I saw what education did for my parents. My dad studied when he was much older, so my parents’ drive really motivated me. I watched my dad do his BA in economics, his Master’s and, finally, his doctorate. Seeing my parents’ activity birthed in me many thoughts of my capabilities — the capability to achieve — and those are the things that really drove me to where I am now.
What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in getting to where you are now?
One of the biggest challenges was losing my mother at the age of 17, whilst I was still in matric. Shortly thereafter, I had to start my university life in the States. Living by myself in a country I’d never been to was a challenge, but I worked very hard and, having watched my parents, I never focused on staying in challenges, I always looked for opportunities. My parents had paid for my school fees from their own pockets, so there was no choice, I had to do well. Many years later, I was very thankful to receive two great awards from Rutgers University. So, I have had challenges, but I’m very thankful to also have been able to reap a lot from those situations.
Looking back on your career and life, what advice would you give your younger self and other young women in South Africa?
The advice that I would share, that I certainly got from my parents, is that we are each placed in this world for a purpose.
So, despite what anyone might do or say, if you focus on achieving the purpose that is in your heart, you can achieve almost anything.
The second piece of advice I would give is to stay in your lane and to respect your parents and follow the guidance of elders. Even if you feel you know better, do so in a respectful manner, because you don’t know everything. If someone is older than you and they are being hurtful or disrespectful towards you, you don’t have to respond by being disrespectful back to them. Just make a ‘note to self’ to never behave that way as an adult yourself, and then focus on becoming the person you were created to be. But most of all, just live your purpose. That is the goal for all of us. I think we all come across challenges in different forms in our lives, but the issue is to be able to still continue to become the person you were brought into this world to be, despite the challenges.
As young people, we find ourselves in situations where there are so many opportunities for so many things. If you decide to be a person who pleases people, you are going to find yourself being all over the place and eventually not knowing who you are. This is why we need to intentionally remind ourselves of who we are. If not, if you are like I was and you don’t really have a clear sense of who you are — I didn’t — you are constantly looking for ways of connecting with the person you really are.
I found that engaging with people who knew me well and knew me growing up was very helpful, just in random discussions and conversations. Make time to spend with those people, because, as a young person, you are actually so busy. Your work life, your social life, everything is demanding and pulling you in all directions, but it’s a matter of choice. Just remember those people who had an impact on you before you had those friends, or before you had that job, and remember to make time for those people. Isn’t it funny how those are the people who least ask of your time? It’s almost as if they are not there. You go away for ages and come back as if you were never gone, and they still behave as if everything is normal, and they don’t complain.
I think it’s important to remember the people who knew us back then and to connect with them, so that we can connect to the person we really are.
What are you most proud of in your career and personal life?
I’m most proud of being able to name Andrew Capitman, whom I met after he had done some work for my dad and whom I worked with decades ago, and call him a friend today. I am also proud to call Mrs Sandy Nicks, who was my Grade 4 English teacher, my friend. She still tells me, “Phuthi, you don’t have to call me Mrs Nicks anymore, call me Sandy”, but I can’t, because I still see her as Mrs Nicks. There are many other things that, on paper, look great, but these are the things that I am personally so thankful for and proud of.
What is your wish for gender equality and women in South Africa?
Gender equality starts in the home, with opportunities given to both girls and boys — opportunities to learn, opportunities to be rewarded, opportunities for education of both boys and girls.
And so, my wish would be that children be brought up in an environment where they are respected. Secondly, it is my wish that children be given opportunities for education, and, thirdly, that children are able to become the adults that they are supposed to be and, hopefully, adults we can look up to.