LONDON — After a quarter century of funding and supporting women entrepreneurs, WDB Investment Holdings has been a powerful force for good in South Africa. In this interview its long-time chief executive Faith Khanyile explains why WDB is such a big supporter of the CEO SleepOut movement and lays down challenges to some of her peers. – Alec Hogg
In this latest episode of the CEO SleepOut update, we talk with Faith Khanyile. She is the Chief Executive of WDB.
It’s really good to have you on the line, Faith. WDB’s been a solid supporter of the CEO SleepOut since its inception, but perhaps you can take us back a little bit on the involvement and why you got involved.
Thank you Alec. Yes, we participated in the first CEO SleepOut in 2015 because the initiative resonated with what WDB is about, which is really about bringing transformation to South Africa, specifically targeting those that are marginalised in our society, which could be rural or homeless people.
WDB has a wonderful reputation within South Africa for the contribution that it’s made and you’ve been there a long time. I suppose some people would still remember it as Women’s Development Bank back in the very early days, but it must’ve been an interesting road.
Yes, I was very fortunate to have been present when the organisation was founded almost 25 years ago now and really, it’s a dream to make a contribution to the new South Africa and to put the women agenda at the centre of the economy thereby contributing to change in South Africa.
Are you comfortable with the progress that you’ve made over this period?
There have been positive strides that we have made or that we have contributed to making. If you look at, for example, the women’s participation in the economy specifically in leadership positions and on the boards of JSE-listed companies, we’re seeing that number currently sitting at about 20% of the boards on the JSE is female. At the same time, Alec, I think we still have much work to do because women represent over 52% of our population. However, if you look at their representation in the economy it’s low and it’s even more concerning in the rural areas where women’s economic empowerment and women’s access to financial services is still far below where it should be. Good progress has been made, however we still have much to do to ensure that all South Africans participate equally in our economy.
It’s crazy actually, if you think back at it. In many ways, half of the population have been excluded from participating. That is now becoming better with the patriarchal society becoming less so and people opening their minds, but I guess the battle will not ever be won until you see complete equality.
Definitely and twe know that it’s not just the work of women’s organisations like WDB; it really is the work of all South Africans. We know from the research that has been done, that for example, if we can get more women to participate equally in our economy we will see our economy growing 6%, 7%, even 10% and I think that really should be getting the decision makers and policymakers excited to make sure that we get more women to contribute meaningfully to this economy, but it’s easier said than done. We really just need everyone to get on-board to take this issue seriously.
It’s a huge incentive for everybody, but last year the CEO SleepOut was the “SheEO” SleepOut. It was just for the ladies and you were there, was it different?
Yes, what a privilege, we slept on Women’s Day at the Constitution Hill. You know what, Alec, I mean for me it really was life changing; just connecting with women leaders from the private sector, from government, we had some ministers there and just talking about some of the pressing issues that face young girls and boys in South Africa and just finding creative ways of dealing with some of those issues. For example, the issues of teenage pregnancy, the youth in the economy, entrepreneurship, and how we can encourage more youth to get into entrepreneurship, so many ideas and quality time spent with like-minded women who really want to make a difference in South Africa.
It’s almost as if you need to brainstorm then execute. Have you seen much execution, much result of the discussions that you had?
You know what, Alec, I think the execution part that I’ve seen is – that I’ve definitely kept in touch with some of the ladies that we spent the night with. We have initiated mentorship programmes for the youth working with some of the ladies. However, I definitely think that we need to focus more on executing some of the ideas that come out of these discussions. Therefore, I don’t think that I’ve done enough to follow up and to really see what constructive actions that we can take out, but I think that the beginning, the talking and the brainstorming really creates that space and opportunity to then ultimately come up with ideas that people can apply in their own environments.
The seeds have been sown. Last year in the SheEO SleepOut at Constitution Hill, that must’ve been an experience, but this year it’s at Lilliesleaf. What do you expect the feeling and the energy to be like on this 55th anniversary of the raid on Lilliesleaf where six of the Rivonia trialists were arrested, given that you were at this historic place last year? You’ve been through it last year; do you feel differently by being there?
Yes, definitely and I think that South Africa is in a different space at the moment. We are definitely in a more positive space, we are in a space whereby we are looking forward, we are looking for solutions to the problems that we continue to face in our country, and I really think that we’re going to see people being more energised at this year’s CEO SleepOut. We’re going to see people really trying to find ways to collectively make a way forward for South Africa because we have seen how people have really rallied behind the president’s Thuma Mina message. I see that, at least in the corporate world and people that I’m interacting with, people want to take action, and they want to participate. I’m expecting that we’re going to come out with ideas on how to take South Africa forward and how to make South Africa a great nation that we all want it to continue to be.
On a practical level, as a veteran of the SleepOut, what would you suggest that those who are participating like me for the first time bring along to ease the discomfort? Obviously there will be discomfort because we must think about the less privileged and the homeless people, but how can you prepare yourself?
Well, you know Alec; it’s all about your mind. Obviously on the physical side, bring warm clothes, your gloves, your pillow or your sleeping bag, but for me it’s really about getting your mind in the right space and getting yourself to understand that you are there to contribute, to make a difference and to bring your ideas and your energy and to really just give, share and open yourself to new experiences and to new people. Who knows you may come out there with some brilliant ideas that can take yourself, your business and South Africa forward.
Love and service.
Faith, who are you challenging to come along this year?
I would be challenging Mary Bomela, who is CEO of the Mineworkers Investment Company. I would also like to challenge Clive, who is the CEO of Tsebo Solutions Group and lastly I want to challenge Janine Hills who is the CEO of Vuma Reputation Management.
Faith, I know you’re not going to be there this year, but I guess you’ve earned the right to nominate somebody else. You’ve asked Nicola Gubb to represent you. Why did you select her?
Nicola is a longstanding member of WDB, she’s been with the company, I think it’s 13 years this year, so she really is a die hard of WDB. She believes in the cause and she really has been itching to go out there and make a difference and be uncomfortable, so we thought that Nicola, given her role in the company as one of the executives, would represent WDB very well.
Is she taking along other members of the WDB?
Yes, I think she’s taking along two more members of the WDB family.
Well, I’m so looking forward to seeing her. Just one final point, last year you were a huge contributor to the whole programme, the second highest of everyone. How did you do it and any tips?
Yes, Alec, what I did was I really went out to all our partners and friends and I basically reached out to them and convinced them about the programmes that the CEO SleepOut was supporting and I got them excited and to rally behind us. So yes, it was about reaching out to people that believe in what WDB is about, people that have been with us, most of them since the beginning and they really also believe in making a difference in South Africa. That’s how I got people to support us and to get us to a point whereby we raised close to R300 000.
Close to R300 000; Faith Khanyile is the Chief Executive of WDB, which has been around as she was telling us, for 25 years and a very solid supporter of the CEO SleepOut initiative this year. Faith will not be going herself, but her colleague, Nicola Gubb will be representing the team at WDB.
As ever, we look forward to more conversations on how to help to bring the forgotten half of the workforce into the economy more aggressively. It’s nice to hear that 20% of directors are women, but you can’t really rest until it’s at least 50%. This update of the CEO SleepOut will be followed by another one soon, but until the next time cheerio.