Winning Women – Cheryl Carolus: Blazing trails for women

2014-06-23 08:00

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Leading businesswoman Cheryl Carolus, patron of the recently launched Girl Child Institute of Mentorship, has challenging and thought-provoking questions for those she will mentor, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

Cheryl Carolus bounces into the Peotona boardroom with the slim-figured vigour and enthusiasm that is her byword, whether she’s being South Africa’s ambassador to London, repositioning SA Tourism or chairing SANParks.

Now she’s throwing her formidable energy into being patron of the newly launched Girl Child Institute of Mentorship (GCIM).

“At Peotona we have long had a mentorship programme for women, in which role models at the top of their game ‘adopt’ a mentee. It’s our investment in the next generation,” explains the executive chairperson of Peotona Group Holdings.

This is a wholly female-owned company with assets in resources and infrastructure feeder industries.

Its vision, when it was set up 10 years ago, was to leverage sustainable opportunities for people and communities in the “second economy” through Peotona’s “first economy” activity.

Peotona Capital is an investment company that is owned and managed by Carolus and three other high-powered women: Wendy Lucas-Bull, Dolly Mokgatle and Thandi Orleyn.

In addition to its commercial side, however, it has a section?21 not-for-profit arm called Peotona Development, which creates opportunities for new enterprises with a specific focus on women and people with disabilities.

Peotona Development helps the enterprises to gain access to business networks, to source and market goods as well as eventually get them into the mainstream economy.

“About 70% of all our large investments have been placed in ring-fenced community trusts for education and enterprise development,” explains Carolus. Many people were doubtful that Peotona’s business model would succeed “when we started it 10 years ago”.

Instead, it has flourished, with educational and sports projects, university bursary programmes, and the building of schools and small businesses being just some of its noteworthy achievements.

On the mentorship side, Carolus says that senior personnel from their investee companies are among those who have been enthusiastic mentors “of a most vulnerable group of youngsters: those who are between school and university, and need help in bridging that scary gap”.

“It’s a difficult time for most kids, but for those from underresourced backgrounds, it’s particularly challenging,” says Carolus.

“We don’t want the degradation, humiliation, violence and sexual abuse that our generation suffered to be passed on to the next one,” says Carolus.

“The women of our generation who have broken through barriers have many scars. We need to own these and ensure that no woman ever has to endure such nonsense. Through active mentorship we care for and nurture present and future generations.”

It made sense for Peotona and Cell C, with its Take a Girl Child to Work Day, to join forces.

Carolus came up with the idea of an institute that would enable women in the workplace to reach out to children with leadership potential for a whole year and not just one day.

The GCIM already has a network of 35 leading businesswomen who are pledging their time and support to high-achieving girls in grades 10 to 12.

Carolus, who grew up on the Cape Flats in a working class family, was politically involved from the age of 13 and was instrumental in the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983 in the Western Cape.

She was imprisoned and then restricted to the Cape magisterial area of Wynberg. Seven years later, Carolus was part of the ANC team that met the apartheid government at Groote Schuur to discuss South Africa’s way forward.

She’s held many powerful positions over the years and is passionate about the role of women in society today.

“We have the right to a career and an identity, along with a husband and kids. Why should we have to choose? It’s never expected of men.”

Carolus launches into the multifaceted roles women are expected to play, ranging from being a success in the workplace, a mother, a baker for the school fête and “knowing the Kama Sutra backwards as well as never being too tired for sex”.

Her lively, no-nonsense approach to life sees her suggesting to women she mentors that they keep

“a brag book in which they need to detail phenomenal achievements such as winning a megadeal. I also suggest they delete toxic people from their phone book.”

Mention networking and she grimaces as she elaborates on how women are notoriously bad at it, “but if you’re going to put something on the table in the boardroom, you need to have an existing support base”.

“You need to create allies and explore, beforehand, what is possible and what’s not. You can’t go in cold with a proposition.”

Carolus points out that before she agrees to mentor someone, she first asks three questions.

“I want to know how you’re looking after your mother, if you are mentoring somebody younger than you and finally if you are giving back to society through an NGO. The latter cannot be done through your company’s CSI [corporate social investment].”

Carolus also likes to know what the women she mentors are doing in terms of self-development for the coming year, “whether that’s academic study, an astrology course or going on an interesting road trip”.

The latter is something she does every year. She has been to the Bokdrol Bar in Dordrecht, “where they have a bokdrol spitting competition”.

She’s hiked many of South Africa’s trails and was recently the first black person to have a drink in a conservative white community’s bar.

“They didn’t know what had hit them, but you soon discover you have more in common than you have differences.”

That’s trailblazing Carolus at her best.

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