Winning Women – Yvonne Themba: Ain’t no mountain high enough

2014-10-27 07:00

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Yvonne Themba, chairperson of Shanduka Black Umbrellas, takes calculated risks whether she’s summiting mountains or growing people, writes Sue Grant Marshall.

You can feel the energy swirling around Yvonne Themba, chairperson of Shanduka Black Umbrellas, as she enters the room. She’s talking about climbing the seven summits of the world before she’s even sat down.

Her enthusiasm is infectious as she ­describes getting to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro two years ago. It dims only slightly as she mentions her failed attempt to conquer Aconcagua in the Andes, Argentina, last year. It’s the highest mountain in the southern hemisphere at 6?960m.

“We had reached 6?100m when we were forced to turn back and I was incredibly frustrated. My tears didn’t fall – they spurted out horizontally,” says Themba, her hands flashing and her gold hoop earrings swinging.

She has set herself the goal of climbing the seven peaks to raise funds for the Shanduka Group’s Adopt-a-School Foundation. She sponsors her own adventures but lobbies friends, family and colleagues to support her efforts.

Themba raised R90?000 from her first climb and R150?000 for Aconcagua, “so yes, I was successful from that perspective”, she acknowledges.

She plans to return to conquer Aconcagua and then to tackle Mount Elbrus in Russia, as well as Mount Vinson in Antarctica, all nest year.

“I will go on climbing for Adopt-a-School, no matter how old I am until I’ve done the seven summits,” she declares.

It’s clear that Themba approaches everything in her life with determination, whether it’s mountaineering or her job as human capital director for black-owned and managed investment holding company Shanduka Group.

When we meet, she’s about to jet off to Germany “because our talent management programme at Shanduka is in the top three in an international competition, the Best of Consulting 2014”.

Themba heads the programme and has been developing it, and the talent in the Shanduka Group, for two years now.

This she does with Detecon International, a consultancy in the field of information and communication technology.

“My challenge is to work out how to get the best out of everyone at Shanduka, and to focus particularly on the ­‘hypos’ – those people with high potential.”

She is particularly focused on Shanduka Black Umbrellas’ aim to address the low levels of entrepreneurship and high failure rate of black-owned emerging businesses in South Africa.

“Only 6% of black-owned businesses succeed and a 94% failure rate is, in no way, good. So we nurture them in the critical first three years of their existence by providing incubators that have office infrastructure, training, a vehicle with a driver, professional services and mentorship programmes.

“We also get them to the stage where they can attract financial support.”

These programmes allow the Shanduka Group to contribute positively towards supporting emerging and small black-owned businesses.

Shanduka Black Umbrellas operates in every province in the country and plans to continue until there is a groundswell of successful black-owned businesses.

Themba knows about small business failure.

“I crashed and burned with three black male colleagues in our own small business in a downtown Joburg call centre in August 2006.

“We mistimed it, but looking back I am glad I had that experience. It helps me understand the problems encountered by Shanduka Black Umbrellas entrepreneurs so much better.”

Themba’s life has been rich with challenges.

She was born in Soweto, but her famous journalist and writer father, Can Themba, left South Africa because of the pressures of apartheid.

“I never knew him – he died when I was 18 months old,” says Themba, who grew up in Swaziland with her mother.

She obtained her Cambridge O Levels at Waterford Kamhlaba United World College in Swaziland in 1982 and graduated with a BA in social science (economics and accounts) from the University of Botswana in 1991.

She worked over a 13-year period – while she was studying, and after she got her degree – in Sun International’s casino industry.

“In 1983, jobs were scarce in the field in which I had studied, so I started as a trainee dealer, became an inspector and eventually became a pit boss – looking after tables and rotating croupiers – before moving into management. I made good money, which helped support my mother,” she says.

She also developed the first formal blackjack training manual.

Themba’s work experience since 1996 has been mostly in the financial services sector.

She did a Master of Business Administration at Wits Business School and graduated in 2002.

She has been the deputy director of the Life Offices’ Association, headed the group corporate communications department at African Life Assurance and the corporate ­social investment and communications department at ­Sanlam.

Themba joined the Shanduka Group in 2007. It has investments ranging from energy to financial services, property and food.

She describes her family as daughter Zuzile Ganda, “one who conquers” and her dog Oliver, “one who slobbers”. Her hobbies include golf, travel, photography and reading. Themba does not mention mountaineering, so I guess that’s almost a job now and a hazardous one at that. It’s also extremely uncomfortable because she goes for days without washing and on one future climb, she says she will burrow under snow to sleep ­in a warm and safe spot. Little pink book

BUSINESS TIP: Develop your own personal brand because a title is only ‘lent’ to you for the period of time you work at a company.

MENTOR: My late mother is my icon. By the time you’re working in a business, you are already shaped – rather like a young sapling being pruned – to grow into a mighty oak tree.

BUSINESS BOOK: David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. It helped me to understand my weaknesses and strengths. My strength is being an extrovert, but I need to listen more intently to others.

INSPIRATION: I am inspired by my ambition to ensure that my daughter does not have to look after me in my old age.

WOW! MOMENT: Hearing that our talent management programme at Shanduka was in the top three in an international consulting competition.

LIFE LESSON: Make friends on your way up the corporate ladder. You don’t know whose shoulders you will need to lean on on the way down.

.?For more Winning Women, watch CNBC ­Africa’s Women on Wealth programme every Wednesday at 9.15pm on DStv channel 410

.?On October 30, the Shanduka Foundation will celebrate its 10th anniversary with an Enterprise and Supplier Development Summit at the Wanderer’s Club in Johannesburg

To find out more about attending, email:

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