Winning Women – Farzanah Mall: Minder of the gender gap

2014-11-23 15:00

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Farzanah Mall, newly elected president of the Business Women’s Association of South Africa, will set the organisation alight with her 15 years of experience in risk consulting, governance, strategy and business development services, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

Farzanah Mall is so keen for the Businesswomen’s Association of SA (BWA) to grow, that she told her bosses she would take a cut in her salary to devote a day a week to her task.

This is no small step, considering she is a director in the advisory risk consulting division at KPMG Durban.

However, the company believes that gender diversity and promoting the inclusion of women in the corporate world are key to economic growth.

Her salary was not cut.

“It’s extraordinarily good of my firm to support me and women, in general, in this manner. I want to ensure that BWA’s voice is heard in government and in the corporate sector,” she says.

She’s a high-profile, sought-after speaker and also facilitates discussions on governance, strategic risk workshops, leadership and economic issues.

In the past, she has debated crime statistics with the minister of police.

Mall’s energy and determination are evident in her hands-on involvement in driving projects that have contributed to the development of more than 4?000 women, both in entry-level and leadership positions, in the past five years in KwaZulu-Natal.

She was the previous BWA regional chairperson of KwaZulu-Natal and has also been active in the education sector for 10 years.

A project close to her heart is the BWA annual Future Business Leader’s workshop that is attended by 500 Grade 12 schoolgirls drawn from 100 schools across KwaZulu-Natal.

“We wanted to find girls with talent but little opportunity. We provide them with a one-day workshop aimed at helping them make informed career choices, inspired by businesspeople who share their success stories.”

Bursaries and laptops are also provided.

Mall also mentors girls from historically disadvantaged backgrounds.

One of her other key areas of interest is health.

She organised a Women in Health leadership summit “and we have built up a unique compilation of SA healthcare data”.

At Mall’s initiative, this has been captured in a beautifully produced healthcare magazine. It identifies the top diseases affecting SA women, ranging from TB to cancer and obesity, as well as the major weaknesses in our health system.

There are proposals from women for addressing the key challenges in this sector.

“This is essential to driving our economy. Healthcare costs about R250?billion a year in South Africa and adversely affects productivity,” she says.

Mall was born into a Muslim family in Durban “to a generous mother who was always giving, and an academic father who was an activist”.

She grew up listening to conversations about how South Africa should be changed “and my father encouraged me to interact with people in different communities”.

She listened and acted, and in her high school years began teaching English to non-English- speaking students.

She qualified as a chartered accountant in 2002, and married and lived in Melbourne, Australia, for four years.

Mall worked for the Coles Group, alongside Russians, Greeks, Chinese and Australians.

When she gave birth to her daughter, Layyah, now 11, she realised she had to renegotiate her working hours “because I needed to breast-feed her and for other personal reasons”.

She presented her motivation to a panel of four senior white males, all of them over 50 years of age, in a culture that is noted for its chauvinism.

“They agreed on the spot and adjusted my salary and working hours,” she says.

“Imagine if I had never had that conversation? In later years, that gave me the impetus to negotiate my working conditions. Too many women do not have that confidence,” she says.

Mall adds that we work in a digital world today “where in certain industries there is no need to measure time in terms of sitting in an office. We now have the option of working from different locations.”

But she stresses that this is a two-way street and we need to know that we should not abuse the privilege of custom-making our work environment.

Mall returned to South Africa with her 18-month-old daughter when her marriage ended and decided to do charity work for a year.

She lectured part time at the Durban University of Technology, but about eight months later, the head of department called her in.

“My dear, you are destined for better things. Go back to the corporate world,” he advised.

She soon accepted a position with one of the Big Four accountancy companies.

More than three years later, she was head-hunted by KPMG “and that’s where I increased my involvement with the BWA. I love mentoring and growing women, whether they are CEOs or graduates.”

Mall is emphatic about having a balance in her life and spending time with her family.

“Today Layyah and I walk and paint together. Painting is my hobby. It relaxes me totally.” Mention the possibility of politics and Mall shakes her head and smiles. “I concentrate on implementation,” she says. The little pink book

Business tip: Success is a team sport. Your team will gladly follow a leader who recognises, acknowledges and rewards the contribution of others.

Mentor: Nosipho Damasane, CEO Richards Bay Coal Terminal, and Pria Hassan, the CEO of WOA Fuels & Oils. They are my sounding board, and challenge my thinking and decisions. We need honest mentors prepared to hold up a ‘mirror’ and to question our choices.

Business books: The Leader Who Had No Title by Robin Sharma and Lemon Leadership by Brett Johnson.

Inspiration: My parents and grandparents. Their love, faith and simple belief gave me wings.

Wow! moment: Being a keynote speaker at a university graduation ceremony when I was only 32 years old.

Life lesson: Live each day fully with inner contentment, kindness and care.

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