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Three women in finance – their personal journeys

New role models for today. Views from women participating in the economy – Anthea Gardner, Nerina Visser and Odetta Sekoko.

SIKI MGABADELI:  Good evening and welcome to the SAfm Market Update with Moneyweb. My name is Siki Mgabadeli. Happy Women’s Day. Today we are focusing on women in finance. South Africa has made great strides in gender diversity and addressing the gender gap, particularly in the public sector. But we still have a long way to go. We see large numbers of young women entering the workplace with strong academic and professional qualifications, and yet women remain significantly underrepresented at senior levels in the business world.

So today we are focusing on women in finance. They are going to talk us through their personal journeys and their views on how we can get more women to participate in the economy and be represented in the financial world. You know them, you would have heard them on this programme on many occasions.

The first one we are speak to is Anthea Gardner from Cartesian Capital. Anthea, thanks so much for you time today. A bit weird not to be asking you, “So how did we close on the JSE today?”

ANTHEA GARDNER:  Good evening, Siki. Indeed. It’s a bit strange to be talking about something other than the market.

SIKI MGABADELI:  Absolutely. So you own Cartesian Capital, you run this business. How did that start?

ANTHEA GARDNER:  Oh, wow. Let me start at the beginning. I don’t think my journey or my plan was ever to get into finance. I was going to be a teacher. I grew up thinking I was going to be a teacher. Sure, my father was a retail bank manager many years ago and my aunt was a teacher, and I really wanted to be rather like her than like him.

But somehow I got thrown into this. It was when I was working in London, probably pre-2000, that one of my colleagues – in fact my boss at the time – said to me: “What are you doing? Go do something interesting with your life. You should be in finance, you should be I the dealing room, in fact. You are that personality.” To be honest I wasn’t even sure what he meant.

So I came back to South Africa, studied a bit again and then realised I do actually like the numbers. I do actually like looking at companies and understanding what’s going on in the stock market. Of course, now I’m hooked.

SIKI MGABADELI:  Ja, you can’t get out of it. It is like a drug. I’m very interested, because a lot of this is about socialisation. It’s interesting that you wanted to be like your aunt, because it is sometimes like that – looking at the role models around you, the women that influence your life. You want to be a teacher because that’s what she is doing, and then your career veers off in a different direction. Did you have other women role models in your earlier career?

ANTHEA GARDNER:  In the financial industry, no. There wasn’t anyone in my direct family among the women that was in finance particularly, no. My aunt worked in corporate, my mom worked a bit. It really wasn’t that I thought I had to get into finance because I could see other females in my family doing it.

And, in fact, even looking outside of the family I don’t really remember anyone that stood out to me in the corporate or finance world that I said I want to be that person. In fact, I wanted to be Florence Griffith Joyner – do you remember her? She was the American sprinter.

SIKI MGABADELI:  Ah, very glamorous, she had long, beautiful nails.

ANTHEA GARDNER:  So, if anything, I wanted to be a professional sportsperson or a teacher.

SIKI MGABADELI:  So, as you navigated though this particular field, what was your aim – to always start your own business?

ANTHEA GARDNER:  I must admit, I think that was one of the things that drove me, yes. I did always want to own a business. I wanted to build something and leave some sort of legacy. And of course you never know when that’s going to happen.

In fact, it took me a while to pluck up the courage to actually do it, and so Cartesian is not my first business. I happened to have a property business in the south of France. When I was working in London I came across this property – probably a good investment – and then got into that, and then went off and started the business there before I came back to South Africa to start Cartesian Capital. And so now somebody else runs that, because it’s more of a property business and not really a financial business. Yes, it’s based on investing and property and finance. But the stock market gets the adrenaline going.

SIKI MGABADELI:  What advice would you give young woman who may be looking at you, thinking, I’d love to kind of do those things that she is doing, one day run my own business, actually work in a space where I don’t feel like I’m working. It’s actually my passion.

ANTHEA GARDNER:  The thing about women for me at the moment is that women are not brave enough. We don’t speak up enough. It certainly was my problem. I always felt like I didn’t want to say anything unless I was the absolute expert, or I thought I was the absolute expert on it. And that’s not true.

I hate to be gender-biased, but men definitely are braver, more confident, whereas women tend to shy away from speaking up. I wish more women would just take the initiative and be brave, really be brave.

SIKI MGABADELI:  That is very interesting. There have been studies done that, when men are being offered a job, they go in there: this is what I am going to do, and this is how much you are going to pay me, etc. We come in and it’s like money doesn’t enter into the conversation. We don’t even want to talk about money.

ANTHEA GARDNER:  We are very scared of that topic.

SIKI MGABADELI:  We are just trying to see how we are going to fit in to this space and how we are going to help and assist. You are saying we need to be a lot more assertive?

ANTHEA GARDNER:  Absolutely, yes. One of my things is that, when people talk to me about what I do and how I got to where I was, is that I’m brave. I make crazy decisions, like I went and worked in Tunisia on a whim, basically. People always ask: “You went on your own to and Arab country, as a woman, a single woman?” I did it. It was interesting. I lived through the Arab Spring, so I went through the whole revolution and certainly, yes, I’m brave, bordering on stupid. But what an experience! You can never take that away from me. So just go out and do it. Don’t ask too many questions.

SIKI MGABADELI:  I love that, and it’s a great note on which to leave it. Thanks so much for your time today, Anthea Gardner.

Next we chat to Nerina Visser, who is with etfSA. Thank you so much, Nerina, for making the time to talk to us a little about your own journey. I know you didn’t start out where you are today, so just take us back to where it all began.

NERINA VISSER:  Siki, you know me too well. Absolutely, I did not start out in the markets, in the finance or investments arena. In fact, I didn’t know anything about this until the age of 30. So I often say to people who say to me, “I’ve got make sure that I study the right thing, right from the word go, I’ve got to make sure that that first job is the clinch for me,” I say no, it is not the determinant. It really is about, I guess, throughout your life staying true to yourself, following your own passions, following what makes you tick. Those would not necessarily be definitive in terms of I want to start a business or I want to be an engineer or whatever the case might be.

But it’s about what are the things that you do effortlessly. That’s really your passion. It’s the things that you can do and time just flies by. You don’t even realise what the time is. And that is probably the easiest way to get yourself into a position where your job becomes your passion or your job is your passion because you just so love what you are doing.

And in my case it was numbers. It was all about numbers.

SIKI MGABADELI:  You had studied what?

NERINA VISSER:  Mathematical statistics and applied mathematics. There’s a lot of maths in there. Don’t worry, when I first came into this industry, the first job that I has was as a quantitative analyst. I could not even pronounce the word quantitative, let alone spell it. But really, it’s just that numbers always intrigued me. Maybe coming specifically from an applied area, you can apply numbers and the love for numbers in just so many different fields.

In my case I started out in the defence industry – that’s where I applied my love for numbers. I’m now ultimately applying my love for numbers in the investment field.

SIKI MGABADELI:  In the ETF field as well. That changing of your career – how did that happen?

NERINA VISSER:  You know what, I have a lot of time and respect and lots of thanks for the men in my life, who I think in large part made me what I am. My father was the one who had the love for numbers. It was my husband who actually found me this job, this career, this industry, who recognised in me the aspects that really were required for a role in this career. I did not even see it in myself, but he saw it in me. He was the one that saw the ad for this quantitative analyst position and said: “You know what, that’s you, the type of person that they are looking for, the attention to detail, the analytical approach, the love for numbers.” He knew me well enough, better than I probably knew myself, and he recognised that in me.

SIKI MGABADELI:  But you combine that with an innate ability to explain the most complex things in the easiest way. Is that just your personality or is it something that you developed over the years?

NERINA VISSER:  Siki, I guess it is in part my personality, but I think it is also because I came into this industry so late, and I myself had to figure out what do these things mean – what is it? I think sometimes that’s a huge advantage, not coming through a formal, almost academic, training in this industry, where you actually look at this concept – I used quantitative as one suggestion. I remember at my first job being asked to do asset-allocation research, and I thought, what? I didn’t even know these words. So I needed to first understand them myself before I could explain it to other people.

I think I draw nowadays on my early days in the industry, where I was probably too naïve to even realise how little I knew, and therefore was not scared to ask. I didn’t come in with preconceived ideas of, oh, I guess I probably should know this.

And maybe following from what Anthea was saying in terms of having to be brave, I think part of being brave is just to acknowledge when you actually don’t know something, and just ask because you’ll probably find that in your environment there will be a lot of other people – women and men, young and old, smart and less smart, educated and not educated, a lot of people across the board – who would think, ah, I’m so glad you asked that question, because I also did not know.

SIKI MGABADELI:  I always say there is no such thing as a stupid question.

NERINA VISSER:  Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more.

SIKI MGABADELI:  [There is] somebody out there who is asking that thing and is too afraid to put up their hand.

You’ve worked for different organisations. How has that felt, the adjusting to different cultures and so on?

NERINA VISSER:  After a formal stint within the defence industry I had my children and for seven years I also ran my own business. That was back in my twenties. It was a consulting business that I ran, but very much a one-woman show. Although it gave me the best of both worlds in large part, I think what I realised was that I missed out on the interaction with people. When you work for yourself and from home you are always home and you are always at work. You are never away from either of the two.

SIKI MGABADELI:  Yes, there isn’t a separation.

NERINA VISSER:  And, once again, my very clever and very wonderful husband, who was the one who recognised that by the time he got home from work in the evening it was like aargh, you know what, please can you just go out and talk to other people. I don’t want you to only talk to me. And that’s really what I embraced.

So yes, over the years many different cultures. I guess for me probably the key would be to stay true to who you are, rather than always thinking that you’ve got to be something that fits into a certain culture or a certain environment. That’s is probably where most of the stress comes from – not just for women but for all people, trying to be something that you are not really.

Focus on and embrace all the “yous” that you are, all the different aspects of your own personality, and you will then find resonance with other people in your environment who share those specific attributes. And that for me is one of the warmest and safest places to be, to realise I’m actually not alone. You can be alone in a big organisation but, if you embrace what’s inside you, you’ll find the resonance with other people around you and it suddenly becomes a much warmer and friendlier place.

SIKI MGABADELI:  Nerina, as always, a great pleasure to talk to you. Thanks so much for your time today.

We are chatting now to Odetta Sekoko, a qualified financial planner at Liberty. Odetta, thanks so much for your time today. A financial planner – was that your plan?

ODETTA SEKOKO:  Thanks, Siki for having me. It’s actually a wonderful, wonderful experience to be here. Financial planning – no, it wasn’t. I am actually from a background of no qualifications in my family and I think everyone tried to live through me. So there was always a mother, an uncle, a grandad who pushed me – push for this, push for education. I think education for them was such an important factor and everyone around me felt this will actually help you get better and be better in life. Absolutely, absolutely true.

The first institution that gave me a break was Wits University, where I studied for my LLB law degree. I studied for a full four years. In the fifth year I was supposed to actually re-write my majors.

SIKI MGABADELI:  Why?

ODETTA SEKOKO:  Unfortunately, I had actually failed two of my major subjects. So I had to rewrite to actually obtain my degree. At that point – I don’t know if it was a foolish error – I felt I had to work, again mostly because of financial constraints.

So I went into not really financial planning, but Liberty came through for me. I started working at Liberty as more like a contact-centre type of agent, if I might call it that. Again, I was given opportunities. Opportunities for me sort of presented themselves along the way.

SIKI MGABADELI:  But as you work harder then all those opportunities started to show themselves. But it’s interesting. I’d like to get a sense from you what those setbacks actually taught you, because a lot of people would give up at those moments if you don’t have within your family, for example, role models of people who are highly educated. You have this thing, you think, aargh, really I can’t do it. Then if you are at university and you fail a subject, you think ooh, I must give up. What kept you going?

ODETTA SEKOKO:  I think the first thing would be mostly about me. I’m a very competitive individual. It can be bad sometimes, but I love where it’s gotten me, and I love the dedication that I’ve always had towards my own plans. So I’ll set out a goal and for me to achieve it I’d have to be fully committed. If not, then for me that is just what I should be going for. Failing was not an option.

It happened very early in my life. When I was a student at Wits University I think at that point I would have just taken sort of a drawback and said, that’s it, I wasn’t going to do that.

Like I said, mostly for myself, being from the background I was from, I wasn’t going to actually let myself go through life without the dedication I wanted, dedication that everyone wanted for me – and again to actually make my family proud of me. Every time they spoke to me about this, every time I could see someone else living their dream through me, I could actually see their eyes lighten up. And for me that was a push for me. That told me that I had to do this, and I had to do it for myself, I had to do it for my family, I had to do it for my siblings. They actually had to see that it is possible, it’s a possibility.

And when I got to tertiary there were a lot more students from the same background that I was from – so it actually made more sense for me to be there.

SIKI MGABADELI:  So you are obviously a role model. You are my new role model from today as well. But who do you look up to? Who are your role models?

ODETTA SEKOKO:   Oh, I have so many. Liberty has given me so much. I’ve been with Liberty since 2008. I was taken on into a team of financial advisors by one Boitumelo Motswagae and Boitumelo is also part of media. She speaks a lot with media. Even what I’m doing now in terms of following and pursuing some sort of dream or career – what it turned out to be in terms of media, in terms of writing, is mostly because of Boitumelo. I look up to her.

She took me on and through her I was able to actually obtain my full financial advisor qualification. Last year I completed my NQF6 Wealth Management and this year I’m completing my majors in my law degree. Can you believe that I’ve gone back to that? It’s quite an experience.

And from the communications side I’ve got Tenyane, who’s always looked up to me with her boss Babazile. I sit next to Babazile and I feel like such a star. I feel like it is possible. And it is all these African women that I look up to, beautiful, intelligent women.

SIKI MGABADELI:  And for me that’s important – to see people who look like you, speak like you, really achieving. Then you can actually go, well, if they can do it, then surely I can as well.

ODETTA SEKOKO:  Correct. Always, always. There’ve been challenges in my past and through them, seeing them every day, being around them, conversing with them – just a simple chat with those ladies has actually changed my life enormously. I don’t know if they know, but I know they’ll be listening. So it’s all thanks to them, it’s all thanks to so many women around me, my mom – fantastic, bossy.

SIKI MGABADELI:  Aren’t all moms? Thank you so much and thank you to them for motivating you and for lifting you up. And thanks for making the time to talk to us today, Odetta Sekoko, a qualified financial planner at Liberty, bringing us to the end of this special edition of the SAfm market Update with Moneyweb. Have a fantastic Women’s Day further.

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