The beauty of trailblazing

2011-11-19 09:35

She’s the founder of cosmetics giant Justine, winner of the Businesswoman of the Year Award twice and one of only two South Africans to make it on to the Wall of Fame of the direct selling industry worldwide. With a CV like that, it’s difficult not to act like a “groupie” when you meet Veronica Devine.

It doesn’t help that she’s got quite a contagious personality – witty and outgoing with an energy and flamboyancy that belies her seniority.

Devine is the newly appointed deputy president of the International Women’s Forum of SA (IWFSA), an affiliate of the International Women’s Forum, a global organisation of pre-eminent women leaders across different fields and cultures.
The South African chapter was started 11 years ago by former first lady Zanele Mbeki and lists among its members distinguished businesswomen such as Cheryl Carolus, Wendy Appelbaum, Bridgette Radebe and Dr Mamphela Ramphele. Several of the country’s female ministers are also members.

Its purpose: to nurture the next generation of women leaders across all sectors through leadership training, mentorship and support.

It’s been a hectic day – two funerals in one morning and a list of meetings she has to attend. Elegantly dressed, it’s easy to see how Devine was able to make Justine a success.

“What I like about cosmetics,” she says, “is that for me they are the only vehicle that I know that reminds people of their beauty.”

Last month, the IWFSA held the Women and Economic Empowerment in SA roundtable, where delegates interrogated the scale of female empowerment in the country.

Despite having made significant progress in improving gender equity, South Africa continues to lag behind when it comes to the advancement of female leadership, particularly in the private sector.

According to The Status of Women in South Africa report by Frontier Advisory, only 4% of chief executives of JSE-listed companies are women.

Devine, who’s been an IWFSA member since its inception, says the findings of the report, which was deliberated on during the conference, are not surprising.

Business’ commitment to attaining gender parity, particularly ensuring the advancement of women in decision-making positions, has not been as steadfast as it should be over the years.

“Government has done a lot in 17 years to make sure that women are given that platform. Some things have happened, but not enough has happened,” says Devine.

She points the finger at women as well, saying that they need to start being assertive and realise that they have gained their own freedom.

“The majority of women have yet to realise that,” she says.

And companies are losing out on the positive impact of having women business leaders, she adds. Referring to the findings of a recent study by consulting firm McKinsey & Company – which found that the presence of at least three female directors on the boards of companies can lead to stronger performances and healthier bottom lines – she says achieving gender equality is important if South Africa is to have balanced organisations.

“It’s like a bird. For it to be able to fly, its wings must be balanced. We will never be able to fly as a country if we do not have that balance.”

Referred to as “vivacious Veronica” by those who know her, it’s easy to tell that being assertive has never been a problem for Devine who, in 2006, was voted by Financial Mail as one of the country’s most influential businesswomen.

She says her drive to be particularly financially independent started after her father died, leaving her mother, who was a housewife, to look after her and her siblings. She was 13 years old.

“I decided then that I never want to be dependent on anyone and that I’ll always be financially independent.”

At 26, while working for another cosmetic company, she met cosmetic chemist Paul Symes and convinced him to join her and start a similar company of their own, whose products would be specially formulated to protect skin from the harsh African climate.

He agreed on condition that she secured funding. And she did eventually – R10 000 – after more than 10 interviews with her bank.

By the time the duo sold the business to US giant Avon in 1996, Justine – which was named after a sophisticated and headstrong fictitious character in the novel The Alexandrian Quartet – had 26 000 female employees and was exporting products to countries in Africa and Europe. Its direct selling model was a
resounding success.

In 2002, Devine co-founded Resilience together with psychologist Merle Friedman and entrepreneur Wendy Luhabe. The company specialised in teaching employees how to become more resilient. Three years later, she took up the position of chief executive of the Virgin Cosmetics Company.

What drives Devine is being actively involved in ensuring that the next generation of female business leaders is better “armed” to take advantage of opportunities.

“When I started my business in 1973, I didn’t have female role models or mentors to guide me. But I knew I could not let the ball drop.”

Almost four decades later, Devine has stayed true to that assertion.

» Do you think you’re a leader? Visit the Chivas Regal South Africa Facebook page, take the Time to Lead Challenge and you could win the grand prize of a R25 000 Fabiani voucher, a Tag Heuer Chronograph S watch, a gold-carpet dinner for 12 and the full Chivas range.

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