Siphesihle Kala’s years of experience as a business consultant coupled with her experience as the Founder and Managing Director of Blaqgold Holdings has provided her with a treasure trove of wisdoms concerning business, particularly being a woman in business.
Making the discovery
Were it not for a high school teacher who encouraged her to apply for the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation’s Fellowship Programme, Siphesihle would have never even realised that she was an entrepreneur. At the age of 14 she was already drawing up a business model for her mother’s sewing business – a costing strategy that helped the business become more profitable. Yet she never thought of this as something an entrepreneur would do. In fact, she found nothing peculiar about the way she thought: “I have always looked for solutions but I have never known what to call that. I’d just always thought that everybody else is doing the same thing.”
She found the contrary to be true only much, much later and credits the Foundation with being instrumental in helping her recognise and eventually realise her unique entrepreneurial potential. “I’ve realised that we all think very differently and maybe there’s another 100 000 people all sitting there who also think that someone else has already done it.”
From “(f)unemployment” to founder
Her decision to go it alone and give up the security and benefits of a McKinsey and Company salary was made during a six-month break (doing freelance consulting) after working at McKinsey for two years. She did a lot of self-reflection in that time, a habit she picked up while in the Fellowship Programme and one that she finds strategic and fruitful to this day. The apparent lack of quality education to those who need it most was a topic that was foremost in her mind at that time. She then returned to McKinsey but knew it would be temporary. In June 2015 she finally called it quits to begin what she terms her “(f)unemployment”. After about six weeks of that, she ditched the unemployment-part of her routine and started working on her education app as her own boss.
Blaqgold Holdings has a consulting leg and a strategic solutions leg, focusing on technology enabled solutions. The one part of her business allows her to put on her very familiar and comfortable strategic hat to help small and medium businesses scale up and plan for the future. “That’s what I’m passionate about in SMEs: turning businesses into assets because a lot of small businesses aren’t really assets,” because its existence relies so heavily on the presence of its owner she explains.
A witness who makes a difference
Her business’ strategic solutions leg is currently engaged in developing an app that will provide high quality education to learners in the poorest areas. Why work in education and technology? Her reasoning is simple: “to make a difference faster than the government.” Having managed a number of tech projects in the past, she also wants to disprove naysayers who believe one has to be a techie to manage a tech project. With her education app she hopes to bring Maths, English and Science tuition to students who are spending at least R300 on extra classes – ironically from the same teachers who teach them during the day (the reason they need extra classes in the first place). She knows that her product will be of superior quality and hopes to make it available at a cheaper price.
Another reason for doing something in the education sector is the realisation that she might be the only “witness to this mugging.” She explains that apparently a person is more likely to die without anyone calling 911 if there are ten people witnessing a mugging, than when there is only one witness. This is because everyone is assuming that the other person will do something. “It opened my eyes to the fact that I might be the only witness here and therefore I should jump in and intervene.”
Challenges facing businesswomen in South Africa
“Being a woman in South Africa right now is frustrating, at least for me.” There’s the burden of constantly having to prove that you are as capable as your male counterparts; the pressure of living up to a commonly held (but oft ill-fitting) perception of what a woman is – nurturing, friendly, polite, demure; the double standards that male and female managers are held to (no brows are raised when male managers scream at employees, but when female managers transgress, they are called hormonal and sent to conflict management workshops); and the fact that most women happily accept the status quo. Siphesihle believes that the greatest challenge for women is to stand together and expose inequality because if only one bravely speaks up, that one woman is labelled an anarchist.
Think like a woman
What would a shrewd businesswoman behave like? Siphesihle’s basic response to that question is: not like a man! She offers the following words of advice to women in business:
- Do not get intimidated. As a woman you are fully capable of working with men; you do not need to work like them, you need to work with them.
- Don’t play the game the same way that the guys do. There are so many things that are ours and ours alone. Women are naturally better at perceiving and reading a room. In situations where feelings influence decisions, for example when negotiating, women can use their nature to their advantage.
- Know how to manage yourself. While there is great freedom and great strength in being yourself, you must know how you are perceived. In other words, ask yourself: “What are my perceived strengths and weaknesses?” then play to that. To illustrate, if I were my(unmanaged)self, people’s first impression of me would be that I’m an out-of-place 18-year-old. To counter that I wear glasses to first meetings and make sure that everything I say is serious. After I’ve proved myself to be a capable human being, I then let out my jovial, comical self.
- Friendliness and politeness don’t void transactions. We’ve been taught that a good girl is polite and a good girl doesn’t shout, but when you’re running your own business, politeness will only take you so far. Do not undervalue your service or product otherwise you will resent doing it or selling it. Also resist the urge to think of yourself as a typical woman who nags when it comes to collecting payment. Femininity doesn’t mean a lack of firmness or resolve.
- Avoid mixing business with illicit pleasure. There is nothing that undermines a woman’s drive and ambition more.