Q&A With Wendy Luhabe: Empowering African Businesswomen

Avatar
Written by Ann Brown

South African Wendy Luhabe founded the first fund providing capital to women-owned businesses in South Africa.

Luhabe considers herself a social entrepreneur dedicated to empowering African women in business. She spent more than a decade working for corporations internationally, and pioneered initiatives for the economic empowerment of women and their increased participation in South Africa’s economic landscape. The chairwomen of the Women Private Equity Fund, she was appointed by then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the International Council on Women’s Business Leadership.

“Because at the dawn of our democracy men were organizing themselves and leaving women behind, I felt a sense of responsibility to use the new opportunities we were being granted by our new democracy to find out what we were capable of as women and what is possible when women come together,” she said.

Luhabe graduated in arts from the University of Fort Hare (1977) and in commerce from the University of Lesotho (1981). Following 10 years in the national and international corporate world, she founded consulting firm Bridging the Gap in 1991. Its mission was to prepare young black South Africans to enter the working world and help South African companies integrate them into the corporate arena.

She also founded the Women Investment Holdings in 1993, the first fund to provide capital to women-owned business in South Africa. She is the author of “Defining Moments,” a book that tracks the evolving career experiences of black professionals in South African corporations over three generations in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.

AfkInsider interviewed Luhabe about empowering the women of Africa.

AFK Insider: Why did you decide to leave the world or corporate marketing behind?

Wendy Luhabe: I was overlooked for a promotion and decided to pursue a business idea I had been thinking about for about three years and to find out what I was capable of.

AFK Insider: Why do you enjoy being a social entrepreneur?

Wendy Luhabe: I get to create businesses that make a difference, that change lives, that make money and that are meaningful.

AFK Insider: What made you launch your first business, Bridging the Gap?

Wendy Luhabe: My experience of looking for employment after I graduated made me realize that there is a big gap between black and white graduates. I wanted to use my experience to enable black graduates to be better prepared and equipped for the marketplace.

AFK Insider: Why did you decide to focus on women in your next ventures?

Wendy Luhabe: Because at the dawn of our democracy men were organizing themselves and leaving women behind and because I felt a sense of responsibility to use the new opportunities we were being granted by our new democracy to find out what we were capable of as women and what is possible when women come together to change the course of history as well as to change their circumstances.

AFK Insider: Why is it important to focus on the “economic citizenship” of women?

Wendy Luhabe: Because women are the backbone of society and when they have resources everyone benefits, they use resources responsibly, they plough back into their families and they intuitively know how to grow and manage money.

AFK Insider: Are the numbers of female entrepreneurs in African growing?

Wendy Luhabe: There are many initiatives that exist in Africa that are helping to grow a generation of female entrepreneurs. (They) are creating businesses that provide solutions to social and community challenges, for example providing solar lighting and heating,  hygienic toilet facilities in informal settlements, providing affordable sanitary pads. These initiatives like Anzisha and Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards, both of which I am involved with, are breaking new ground and encouraging a growing number of women to initiate innovative businesses.

AFK Insider: What are some of the challenges faced by female entrepreneurs in Africa?

Wendy Luhabe: Access to resources remains a huge challenge as well as traditional and cultural stereotypes about the role of women in society. We must use technology to leapfrog women’s access to opportunities, to create networks of support and sharing of experiences and to provide coaching to business challenges as well as online training.

AFK Insider: You recently stepped down as the chairwoman of the Industrial Development Corp. and the International Marketing Council responsible for Brand South Africa. Why?

Wendy Luhabe: Because I do not believe in growing roots; I believe that leadership should always make way for new blood, therefore I generally do not remain in a leadership role beyond 10 years. No one contributes to any role after 10 years. Complacency creeps in and they lose the ability to bring in fresh thinking.

AFK Insider: You were on many broads. Why is this important and how did you jiggle all your responsibilities?

Wendy Luhabe: I have retired from all board positions except my own investments and the IMD, a business school in Switzerland. I have been on boards as both non-executive director and as chair(woman)…..I have to admit that it was not the most exciting part of my career and professional life, definitely the least challenging because boards are filled with people who have so much experience that their minds are closed and not open to new ideas. I prefer to be in a dynamic environment.

AFK Insider: Please tell me more about entrepreneurship in Africa?

Wendy Luhabe: It is not well supported, lacks a coherent ecosystem and is not our first option because our education system still assumes that people must look for employment. We are however seeing a growing number of initiatives that are building sustainable ecosystems which include incubators, training programs, reality TV shows, venture capital funds, angel investors and awards.