Winning Women – Judi Nwokedi: A woman of many horizons

2014-06-09 08:00

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From tourism and nuclear power to broadcasting and founding LoveLife, Judi Nwokedi’s career and interests have reflected the dynamism of an energetic and determined businesswoman, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

In a busy business world, Judi Nwokedi redefines the meaning of the word ‘busy’. Our interview is sandwiched between a lengthy board meeting and in leaving, I pass 10 people gathered for another meeting.

It’s well into the afternoon yet Nwokedi, resplendent in an exquisitely woven and stylish red and black dress, is tucking into her lunch.

The newly appointed chief operating officer of Tourvest, the globally integrated tourism company of which she’s an executive board member, has hit the ground running – as she usually does.

Black-owned Tourvest is southern Africa’s leading tourism group, with products and services ranging from travel management companies to foreign exchange bureaus. It employs about 4?500 people and operates across Europe, the UK, India and the Caribbean.

Now it’s expanding further into Africa and other Brics (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries, a drive that Nwokedi is leading – it’s part of her brief as chief operating officer – as the company starts its next growth phase.

“We’re already in pockets of Africa, but there are further incredible tourism opportunities on our continent and that’s what we are now exploring,” says Nwokedi.

Her reputation for business re-engineering and innovative product development, which was gained when she was the managing director of public broadcasting at the SABC, is what made her so attractive to Tourvest.

During her SABC tenure between 2001 and 2005, the public broadcaster enjoyed unprecedented success in terms of viewership figures and advertising revenue.

“Under then CEO Peter Matlare’s leadership, we turned the public service platforms of the broadcaster into a cash cow by re-engineering business,” says Nwokedi.

Her dynamic energy has taken the psychology major from the Cape Flats into vastly different work realms.

“I grew up in a highly politicised society where I became interested in the work of Marx and Engels as I thought there would be little use for Latin in a revolution,” says Nwokedi, a master of the understatement.

“I was trying to understand the individual in society, and psychology seemed a good way to go,” she adds.

It certainly served her during her work for the Australian Public Service – she was part of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. She also set up that continent’s leading national HIV/Aids programme and helped redesign parts of Australia’s civil service structure.

Nwokedi returned home in 1994 after spending 18 years in self-imposed exile from the apartheid regime.

Shortly afterwards, she started LoveLife, a programme of the National Progressive Primary Health Care Network.

She recalls one of her defining moments as: “Sitting with Bill Clinton for hours around a table as we discussed innovative HIV programmes. Peter Matlare was there too and he realised that I could be an asset at the SABC.”

Nwokedi, who had been working in the NGO sector after she returned from Australia, says since then her life has never been the same.

After leaving the SABC, she drove sales in South Africa for US telecoms company Motorola.

Later on, she was appointed senior vice-president of Areva South Africa, the largest nuclear power company in the world and was, as she describes it, at the forefront of its nuclear renaissance here.

“We were gearing ourselves for a nuclear new build – to generate the much-needed capacity – as well as maintaining business around Koeberg,” says Nwokedi.

“Late last year, I was at the forefront of pulling together the best South African brains around nuclear, who were not currently working for a utility, for the SA Nuclear New Business Consortium,” she says.

But because South Africa is not building new nuclear power stations now, Nwokedi was attracted by the opportunity that Tourvest provided, “and naturally my previous media work comes in really useful”.

Nwokedi, who describes herself as “not being static”, says she tends to move on after a decade in a particular sector as she doesn’t “want to work anywhere for 20 years”.

An ongoing passion of hers, beyond the teenage son of whom she’s a single parent, is her voluntary work at the International Women’s Forum SA (IWFSA).

She chairs its Global Business Connect subcommittee. “Women don’t do the after-drinks meetings, the pub-crawls and the US Masters at the Augusta National Golf Club that men do. We need our own networking structures,” she says.

Nwokedi devised C-Suite Conversations. “C, as in chairman, CEO, COO, CFO,” she explains. “We connect women in business by meeting around their boardroom tables, in their citadel of power, to celebrate their achievements as well as to network.

“I established it because I think it’s vital to celebrate women’s success.”

She describes how some C-Suite Conversations have been held, ranging from a gathering in Wendy Appelbaum’s DeMorgenzon wine farm’s tasting room

to meeting at the BP chairman Thandi Orleyn’s headquarters.

“Women are affirmed by the presence of their peers in their boardrooms. Being at the top can be lonely,” says Nwokedi.

And with that, Nwokedi gets back to her lunch as she readies for her next meeting and plans for a trip to Angola.

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