Award-winning entrepreneur and CEO of Hesed Consulting Vumile Msweli is not one to back away from culture-shocking change. It is this quality that seems to have seen her coming full circle so early in life.
City Press caught up with the Durban-born and bred single child who oozes passion when she deliberates on her life story, how she wanted to be a beauty queen while growing up and having a close relationship with her grandfather who encouraged her.
“I just wanted to be Miss South Africa. I remember as a kid my grandfather would let me get in the back of his van and he would make a loud announcement, and I would wave to an imaginary crowd,” she said with a tinge of laughter at the childhood memory.
While at St Mary’s High School, she read enough to know that she wanted to become a chartered accountant. She then carved her path as an A-grade student, which afforded her the opportunity to go abroad for a few months as an exchange student in Australia.
“It was a small town called Shepparton, about an hour outside Melbourne. I remember it was me and another black student who were the only black people in the entire town,” she said of the experience.
Msweli experienced another culture shock after enrolling for a Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Pretoria, but that too she handled well.
“I had never been exposed to Afrikaans before, and the culture, but by the time I got to my final year I was in the student representative council and part of the house committee. That is when I also spoke to the newcomers in isiZulu – that had never been done before,” she said.
She managed to get a number of temporary jobs after completing her undergraduate degree, the first of which was at South African Breweries as a packer in one of the departments.
“I failed my honours in finance twice and I realised that it was not for me,” she said, adding that she discovered more about herself while hopping between temporary jobs, including as a teller at Nedbank and a call centre agent.
The realisation that being a chartered accountant was not as interesting to her as operations and strategy became evident when she was at Investec in 2007, and she has never looked back since.
Msweli returned to Nedbank three years later, but this time in the private banking division, before going to Barclays to head up its business operations unit reporting to London.
Despite loving her job at the banking giant, she opted to quit and finish her Masters of Business Administration (MBA) at the University of London.
“At that time I knew that every time I come into a boardroom, I needed credibility beyond the
fact that I was young, female and African. So, to counteract that perception for myself and other people, I need that MBA to say I have the know-how from technical perspective.”
Armed with an MBA and unemployed, she spent almost six months carving her future, but confesses it was not as professionally frustrating as it was personally because she lost her grandfather at that time.
It was during that period in 2012, a period she speaks highly of, that she managed to establish her flagship entity, Hesed Consultancy, and later joined FNB as head of client services.
Two years after joining FNB, she got an opportunity to exit the banking sector and join Vodafone.
“I would have never have left FNB if it was not for the opportunity to leave the sector. It’s hard to get out of that sector,” she said.
Msweli took the plunge to forfeit the security of ordinary employment after two years at Vodafone, but another shock awaited her.
“It was shocking. The closest thing I can think of is [the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki] because I thought I only forfeited the salary. I didn’t realise I left behind a lot more including the security of being in numbers and the comfort that comes with that because [as an entrepreneur] you are psychologically alone, but in exchange there’s the freedom,” she said, adding that it was always her dream to own her own time.
“I did not think that as a 30-year-old I would have left corporate,” she said.
Under her holding group company, which includes a number of businesses she has managed to establish over the last decade, she now has interests in retail, property, transport logistics and has even established a foundation.
“My strategy for property has always been about net asset value growth. I am not worried about rental revenue, so I now have around 10 properties including in Nigeria.”
Her transport business is her cash flow strategy business as it generates money on a more regular basis.
Having scooped a number of awards including Elle Boss of the Year in the Corporate Category and the Gauteng Premier Award for Excellence in Leadership, Msweli said that the biggest motivation is leaving a legacy.
“That motivates me. It’s how I can impact the thinking of others,” she said.
On transformation, she said the change would only suffice if the pursuit was beyond the numbers and head counts.
“We have taken a model that isn’t African, implemented it in Africa and expected it to work,”
Though she understandably does not have much time to kill outside navigating the business world strategically, when time allows she indulges in colouring activities, reading and walking her dog as her favourite pastimes.