In 1996, a group of dynamic women started WDB Investment Holdings (WDBIH) with the bold aim of driving women’s economic empowerment in South Africa. Their plan was to do this in tandem with supporting the financial sustainability of WDB Microfinance, a not-for-profit microcredit programme that runs under the WDB Trust. WDB Microfinance itself had been formed five years earlier to provide developmental microcredit to rural female entrepreneurs. “Our aim for WDBIH is to make investments in diverse listed and unlisted companies in South Africa and then, to add value to these investments by sitting on the relevant company boards in order for us to positively influence the business strategy of these companies, as well as the advancement of women,” says Faith. The true mark of success for WDB is that they have been able to provide finance to almost 200 000 female rural entrepreneurs, and have had a knock-on effect in terms of job creation through their role as change agents in their investee companies.
On the balance sheet, that success is represented by WDBIH now being a R3 billion company, in addition to distributing dividends to the tune of R200 million to the WDB Trust, which uses those funds to finance business opportunities and job creation initiatives for female rural entrepreneurs. “We are proud of being unique and what we really wanted was to prove that, as an all-woman team, we can do it ourselves and, indeed, we have demonstrated that gender is not a determinant of business success. What matters most is purpose and execution. “I believe that corporates must take gender equality seriously, as research, again and again, demonstrates that contributions from diverse leadership teams lead to a positive impact on the business’ bottom line. Women have unique abilities that are critical to the overall functioning and success of society,” she says.
The company’s pay-off line is ‘Women Investing in Women’, and behind this commitment is a powerful belief in the power of women to make a success of themselves and their communities. “We believe in the unique abilities and talents of each individual woman and we follow this belief by providing finance to female entrepreneurs to help them realise their potential. As a woman-founded and woman-led organisation, we believe in growing and developing other women, including our staff and our board. All this is done to allow women to be equal participants in South Africa’s economy and society at large,” says Faith.
The natural pool of talent that the company captures is highly-skilled professionals such as chartered accountants, lawyers and MBA’s,but the company also runs a learnership programme through which unemployed graduates are able to spend a year at a time with WDBIH— an opportunity which gives them invaluable research and financial skills for them to use later in their careers. However, the issue of women leadership in the corporate world is something which Faith and her partners are extremely passionate about. “At the WDBIH board level, we have a development programme where we appoint young women in board subcommittees or even on main boards to give them exposure at a strategic level. In our investee companies, we always insist on having a board seat to allow us to add value to the business in general but also to drive the advancement of women in senior and executive roles.“We would usually insist that a WDBIH representative joins the Transformation Committee where we will advocate for the appointment and promotion of women in various critical roles,” says Faith.
The key to their success has been a strong emphasis on developing the individual, including creating an environment that allows each individual’s unique abilities and talents to be nurtured and realised, and providing ongoing development and mentorship. “We also challenge people by giving them stretch performance targets that are achievable but that require them to continually raise their game, while being results-oriented and expecting the highest levels of professionalism from everyone. This is a vital aspect of our company culture,” she says. Staying true to their commitment to small businesses, in 2012, WDBIH piloted a SMME fund that provides loan finance, training and access to markets for female entrepreneurs. Targeting the missing middle market, the fund provides loans ranging from R50 000 to R300,000 to female entrepreneurs in sectors such as agriculture, retail and light manufacturing. “In order to scale up our SMME funding activities and to significantly increase our impact in this important sector of our economy, we recently took a 30% equity stake in Seed Engine, an entrepreneur incubator and accelerator.
Through this investment, we launched the WDB Seed Fund on 2 September 2016, where we aim to raise between R50-R100million in the next 12 months. This impact fund will provide equity funding to SMMEs that can create jobs, but the fund will prioritise the funding and mentorship of black women and youth business,” she says. The recent drought and issues around food security have cast an ominous cloud over the national economy, but through their investment in agriculture, Faith sees potential, despite the lack of storm clouds on the horizon. “On a small scale, through the finance and technical support that we have provided to small-scale farmers over the years, we have been humbled to witness the challenges but also the potential in the agriculture sector. We have funded female farmers who, in turn, supply the likes of Tiger Brands and AVI and, with the profits that these ladies make, they are able to grow their businesses and send their children to school. We, therefore, know that, with the right tools (funding, technical support and access to markets), South Africa can establish a thriving, small-scale farming sector,” says Faith. However, she is quick to add the proviso that future success in the sector definitely requires focussed and intentional intervention by all stakeholders who are interested in growing this sector.
Faith knows full well the value of a quality education, having had the opportunity of studying in the United States. In 1994 she brought back to South Africa a wealth of knowledge and experience gathered while earning her MBA as well as a Degree in Economics. She then spent five years with Brait Private Equity, and it was there that she met the founder of WDB Microfinance, Mrs Zanele Mbeki. “She introduced WDB to me and I was hooked from there,” recalls Faith. Without a doubt, it’s been the people behind the business who have built WDBIH into the investment giant it is today, and Faith has a clear vision of how to assemble an effective team.First and foremost are the people—appointing the best people, incentivising them and challenging them. Secondly, a business needs to have a purpose, and it’s this purpose which is so important when it comes to motivating staff and keeping them engaged with their work as well as with the goals of the company. Of equal importance are relationships, as you do business with people that you trust, which is why it is important to maintain and nurture relationships. Finally, comes leadership of the company and within the company. “Leaders must always support their team and must also be prepared to get their hands dirty,” says Faith.
“Lead by doing… and serve others. You have to be resilient and determined, you have to be a people’s person because leadership is about others, not you. You have to be driven by something more than profit—find a purpose that serves humanity, the profit will naturally follow and have a lot of energy, as you need it to deal with the challenges that are certain to come. I think you need to be ‘whole’—mind, body and spirit—in order to sustain the high pressure of being a leader.”
Faith believes that, for South Africa to achieve the more than 5% annual growth that’s required to deal with our current high levels of unemployment, poverty and inequalities, it’s important to harness all the talent we have within the country. “Women make up more than 51% of the population, but only constitute 27% of Senior Managers in the private sectors and worse, at less than 10% at board levels. We need to ask ourselves why the representation of women dwindles dramatically when it comes to high paying and decision-making positions in both the private and public sectors… and then we need to deal with the root causes,” she says. Some of these root causes that Faith highlights include the fact that corporates, in general, do not create environments that are conducive to the retention of women at senior levels, as well as the fact that there are no mentorship and sponsorship programmes targeted towards female talent. The result is that women tend to exit these organisations just before they hit their career peak and when their impact and influence could make a major difference, both to their business as well as in terms of the wider perception of what women are capable of achieving.
“The CEOs and ExCos must own female talent management and sponsorship of women and must be held to account through their performance targets,” she argues. “Corporates and government organisations must create work environments and establish policies that encourage women to have flexibility as they go through the various stages in their personal lives. This is not about special treatment for women, it is about normalising the abnormal, ensuring that all talent is harnessed for the sake of growing our economy and, most important, it is about walking the talk in creating a fair and equitable society for all.” The investment industry is an exciting and challenging field for anyone, but Faith believes it is an industry in which women can thrive. She believes it’s important for ambitious women who want to make their mark in this sector, to first set clear goals but, at the same, they need to be open and flexible to take advantage of any opportunities that may arise for them along the way.
“You need to be centred internally and know who you are and what drives you. On top of that, you have to be prepared to work hard, make some sacrifices along the way and, most important, to find mentors and sponsors to help you navigate your way through the business landscape,” says Faith. “The fact that women from all backgrounds— black and white, privileged and underprivileged, young and old—have come together as WDBIH and have managed to build an organisation that has touched the lives and assisted so many people across South Africa’s rural communities and, in the process, has grown into multi-billion rand organisation that is a role model to others, makes me realise that nothing is impossible to achieve, as long as you have dedication and passion.”
As an empowerment leader, mentorship is naturally close to Faiths’ heart and is a part of her personal and corporate DNA, and she has personally mentored many young men and women during her career.
“Young people are impatient and energetic; they want success and promotion and they usually want it all now, but they are also socially conscious and they know what they want out of life,” says Faith.
She has many good memories from her time at Standard Bank, including one where she helped an ambitious young female graduate who was desperate for a promotion to Manager, following her 12 months of training. “I liked her courage and chutzpah but had to gently guide her to show her that she wasn’t ready for the promotion. Instead, I assisted her in writing a career plan and setting goals for herself. “Later on she did well in the bank and moved to another division in a senior role. The satisfaction that I get is when one of my mentees grows and thrives as a result of my relationship and guidance. Mentorship, I believe, doesn’t just benefit the mentee—the mentor also gains tremendously from the interaction,” says Faith. In addition, WDBIH introduced a scholarship programme in 2015 aimed at supporting female university students in fields where women are scarce, such as in the faculties of engineering, finance and science—they have partnered with two institutions in this initiative. This sense of community, sharing and caring for all South Africans underpins the company’s competitive advantage as a purpose-driven organisation.
“We are not just about making money—we are also about making a difference in the lives of the most marginalised individuals in society, who are rural black women. We have such a unique business model that runs in our DNA and our partners are attracted to partnering and supporting us because of this. “At 25, we are more than a grown-up—we now have a responsibility to impact South Africa and women on a larger scale. We have built a solid foundation to enable us to dream even bigger than we did in 1991. With our partners and friends, we believe we can achieve the impossible in the next 25 years and can contribute to continuing to make South Africa great.”