Learning From Business Elders – The South Africa Business Odyssey

As a student of classics, I was fascinated by Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. The account of Odysseus’s decade long journey from home, the tale, with its twists and turns, is a classic account of the perils and excitement of a voyage – as well as the life impacting learning that can derive from any voyage – if we allow it to do so.

It was with this in mind that when the idea of the WCEO Academy was conceived in 2012, the Academy determined that one of its programmes would be to provide emerging female business leaders with an opportunity to experience a life transforming business adventure that would offer deep business knowledge, and provide further understanding and insight on the entrepreneurial journey, through learning from the business elders – a group of carefully selected established business leaders that had moved from success to significance on their own unique entrepreneurial journey.

Odysseus’s adventure- took him through the Ionian Islands and the Peloponnese and as far away as Egypt and North Africa and the western Mediterranean. In conceiving the Business Odyssey it was also decided that, just like Odysseus, this business journey had to be away from home. The journey had to be out of one’s comfort zone, in an among people and a nation that perhaps one was not familiar with, and more importantly, in keeping with African tradition, we wanted to learn from the elders in this journey – those in the business community and eco-system that had gone before us to establish great businesses, had enjoyed business success, and had transformed from business success to business significance along their journey.

And so it was that the inaugural Business Odyssey was in South Africa this past June. South Africa was chosen especially for the inaugural odyssey because we were confident and assured that precisely because of South Africa’s political and economic history we could and would identify extraordinary pioneering business examples – visionary business people that dreamt greatly and dared greatly, despite tremendous obstacles, and had in the process enjoyed extraordinary business success.

Four women from across West Africa – Ghana, Sierra Leone and Nigeria – sojourned to South Africa to learn from our business elders: Wendy Luhabe, Vusi Khanyile and Jenna Clifford. We also engaged with our peers, Lynette Ntuli in particular, in a decisive effort to determine how we might foster cross-border engagement, business learning and personal growth.

Anxious and at the same time excited to meet these phenomenal business leaders, I was struck though not entirely surprised by the great humility of each of our business elders. Warm, friendly, engaging and generous with the sharing of their experience and insight, the leaders first and foremost taught me that true leaders are people of purpose and without ego. It became immediately apparent with each of them that what drove them, what still drives them, is purpose and not ego.

From the unforgettable Vusi Khanyile, Chairman of Thebe Investments, I learnt that, to use his own words, “you don’t decorate your house and then become a stranger in your own home”. In starting and building Thebe Investments in the immediate aftermath of the apartheid era, its management and Trust wanted to create an environment in which they and their stakeholders could function at their best – and thus they focussed on deploying traditional African community values in starting and operating the business: the very values and structures that had bolstered their survival in the apartheid era. The notion here was, here we are in a democratic South Africa but are we going to do business as usual, and without attention to the needs of the masses, or are we going to operate a business with altruistic motives, a business that is owned by the community and represented by the Trust.

My greatest lesson from this was the need for searching for honourable values and deploying sincerity (organisational values) into the operations of your business. Running a business is not a cut and paste function. It requires a driving force, and that driving force, in its uniqueness and idiosyncratic format, can be your greatest asset. Today, Thebe Investment is one of South Africa’s leading businesses.

From the formidable Wendy Luhabe I learnt two things: (a) when you are pioneering you need people who have courage on your team, and (b) the best stakeholders – business partner, staff, clients, third party suppliers – are people that you do not have to convince of you and your business’s value proposition. She expressly emphasised that the carefully selection of your ‘constituents’ – from team members to who you serve – is imperative.

From the spirited and revitalising Jenna Clifford we learned that the world is our oyster. From very humble beginnings, Jenna Clifford has proven the art of the possible in taking a passion, an art and a dream, and making it your determined life’s work. Doggedly hardworking and remarkably creative, Jenna Clifford and her team prove that creativity is an art, they demonstrate that art is work, and that life is to be lived and enjoyed doing exactly what you were created to be and to do by the Creator.

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