Wendy Luhabe has a string of global business accolades, but what motivates her is building gender equality and helping and inspiring other women to achieve.
Wendy Luhabe. Photo: Flickr, Colby Stuart.
Wendy Luhabe is a tough businesswoman. She is a straight-talking, no-nonsense kind of person. She doesn’t suffer fools and certainly doesn’t sit back and wait for anything. She is innovative, determined and makes things happen. But despite a hard edge, most of her career has been dedicated to helping other women. She has assisted countless women to achieve their goals as contributing members of the economy. She doesn’t know their names or what they have achieved, she just selflessly helped them when they needed it most to advance their careers.
Why does she do this? Simple – because she can, and because at the beginning of her career there were a few people who gave her a hand. That tiny helping hand was all she needed and now she is paying it forward. In fact, all she asks of the women she helps is that when they can, they pay it forward too.
So who is this strong-willed, powerful angel? Some may know her as the wife of the larger-than-life politician Mbhazima Shilowa – former secretary general of Cosatu, Gauteng premier and co-founder of the Congress of the People (Cope) party. But that would be to deny this powerhouse of a social entrepreneur, who is formidable in global business. “She is one of the most influential businesswomen in South Africa, if not the African continent,” according to Financial Mail
A decade ago, she was recognised as one of the top 50 women entrepreneurs in the world by the US-based Star Group and has had three honorary doctorates bestowed on her. She was appointed the first chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, during the transition from it being ‘the old Rand Afrikaans University’ to a successful and admirable establishment. In 1997, the World Economic Forum in Davos recognised Luhabe as a Global Leader of Tomorrow.
“While it is wonderful to be recognised for what I have done, I don’t attach much value to this and I wouldn’t feel less accomplished or do less without it,” explains Luhabe. “I think the value in it is that it inspires others to achieve because they can see what is possible. For that I am grateful, because I want women to be inspired to make things happen for themselves.”
From humble beginnings in the “old Benoni location” on Gauteng’s East Rand, Luhabe says she grew up in a happy home, unaware of the apartheid system.
“Growing up, we didn’t know of dreams and ambitions or even how to spell it – we weren’t exposed to an education system that inspired that,” says Luhabe. “We were preoccupied with getting an education and getting food to sustain us.” During her school holidays, Luhabe would assist her grandmother cleaning homes. “Those families would give me their daughters’ old clothes as payment.”
Despite her circumstances, her mother – a single parent and a nursing sister – was determined her five children would get an education, despite not having sufficient resources. “She understood the value of education and was going to make it a reality for us somehow.”
So, Luhabe started a degree in social work – not because it was something she particularly wanted to do. “Education in the 1960s and 1970s was not a systemic well-directed process. Black women who went to university studied social work, nursing or teaching – their choices were very limited.”
Her degree was disrupted by the 1976 uprising and she moved to the University of Lesotho, where she began a commerce degree simply because they didn’t have social sciences there. “I didn’t have plans to go into business. I didn’t know anyone in business. I just planned to get an education to enable me to have a better life.”
Despite that, she was one of the first black South African women qualifying with a BCom. She was also the only black woman in the Management Advancement Programme she did at Wits Business School
in the mid-1980s.
Partly because of being one of the first women with top business qualifications, Luhabe discovered when looking for work that the only jobs available to black women with her qualification were clerical, and she was not going to accept that. “I spent a year searching for a job that would be an opportunity aligned to my qualifications,” she says.
“I was eventually introduced to (South African business tycoon) Johan Rupert, who offered me a job at Vanda, his cosmetics company.” Luhabe has maintained her relationship with Rupert, having recently celebrated his 60th birthday with him. She is also the chairperson on the board of his company, Vendome SA. She excelled in marketing while at Vanda. “I was comfortable and confident in this area and I got that this was what I should be doing,” she says. But after she had motivated and arranged for the designing of skincare products for black women, the company informed her they didn’t believe there was enough of a market for it. Luhabe saw this as a sign that it was time to move on.
A year previously, she had been sitting opposite Eberhard von Koerber, the managing director of BMW, at a breakfast event. “We chatted through the morning and, before it was over, he offered me a job. I didn’t pursue it until a year later, when he totally kept his commitment to me.” Today, Luhabe is a member of The Club of Rome, a global network (think tank) of leading political, business and science personalities. Von Koerber is the co-president.
Luhabe says she refused to engage with the world in her career as a black woman. She says: “I chose to engage as a human being and while I certainly don’t disown being a black woman, I just haven’t wanted to take on the liabilities of engaging as such.”
Her years at BMW culminated in spending three years working in Germany and the United States. On her return, she was overlooked for a promotion and decided that it was a signal for her to start her own human resources business. “I had been thinking about it since the 1980s, but it only came together in 1991."
From the beginning of her career, Luhabe got involved with initiatives looking into gender equality in business and the situation of women in the workplace. It was purely her interest and passion that drove this, rather than something she did to benefit her career. “It has always been a part of my life,” she says.
Her first business, Bridging the Gap, focused on organisational development and training of young graduates and students. “The idea was to help students make informed decisions about what they study and to be better prepared for looking for work,” she explains. Like everything she has done, this work was innovative and way ahead of its time.
“I have been blessed to be able to do innovative things. I generally tend to look at what’s missing and contribute in areas that are not being addressed,” she explains."
Within a year or two, she was involved in discussions on the future of the South African business landscape as democracy was dawning. “I realised then that there were insufficient numbers of women in this picture. The choice was either women wait to be invited into the newly formed organisations or we create our own that will assist pioneering the involvement of women in the economy.”
She invited a group of women, including Gloria Serobe, Nomhle Canca and Louisa Mojela, to discuss this, thinking whoever showed up would be involved in the set-up. After 18 months of meeting every Tuesday at 5pm and doing extensive consulting, they came up with a formal model that became Women’s Investment Portfolio Holdings (Wiphold). This incredible innovation was a landmark initiative in women’s empowerment specifically, and black economic empowerment in general. “Our idea was to educate women about how the economy works and help them to become first-time investors in a portfolio of businesses we had acquired. This was a real way for women to become shareholders in the economy. So, we became a proxy for a stock market, but in a safe way.” Through Wiphold, they got more than 18 000 women investing in the economy and they got 300% return on their investment in the first 10 years. They created a trust, which is now worth more than R1 billion.
In 1996, Luhabe wrote a book called Defining Moments
(which is also the name of her present company), which was based on inspiring stories of South African women who have excelled. “I didn’t write it because there was an author in me screaming to emerge, I just wanted those stories to be captured so that other women could learn that all life experience has a purpose and it defines us. When we engage with our experiences, particularly the challenging ones, they can enrich our lives.”
The proceeds of her book are used to pay for the education of women who are deprived of it through a lack of resources. “I am simply responding to a need as I get so many requests for financial help.” She doesn’t ask for feedback and mostly she doesn’t get it. “I don’t keep records of whom I have helped. I don’t do it for that. I have been blessed to be able to change people’s lives.”
Changing and improving people’s lives is something that Luhabe has in common with her husband. “Our professions had nothing to do with bringing us together, we simply fell in love and we both recognised in each other that someone with whom we could share our lives.” Some have said that when they met, Shilowa was a bit rough around the edges, but that didn’t last long. “I take no credit for what he has done. When you are with someone, I suppose you inspire each other without actively realising it.” Discussing her private life is not something Luhabe finds easy, nor something she was prepared to dwell on.
But she was very happy to talk about mentoring and guiding young women. “The greatest disappointment in our democracy has been what has happened to education. So, my advice to women is make sure you get a good education, as it increases your options in life. It allows you to make independent choices, realise your potential and when the situation is not right, to walk away. But don’t just get the education, use it wisely. Don’t waste your talent.”
She says she makes sure that she turns every challenge in her life into a blessing. “It enables me to grow and demand more from myself.”
As to her future, she says: “I don’t plan. I allow God to use me. I make myself available and surrender to my purpose.” Her higher purpose is clearly helping build gender equality in our economy.