Jesmane Boggenpoel is a striking illustration of how growing up in Westbury in Johannesburg – infested with gangsters and drugs – need not be the predeterminant of a life of hardship. In fact it’s quite the reverse for this leading South African businesswoman, who has a Harvard degree and work experience most only dream of attaining.
And therein lies the difference, because the elegant Boggenpoel did not dream – instead, she set out to carve a career of her own by making and creating opportunities, and seizing challenges.
Yet, all the while, having been classified as coloured by the apartheid regime, she experienced “immense bouts of shame and incredible self-doubt. Who was I and where did I come from?” she ask over coffee green tea in swish Hyde Park Corner.
She answered that question in her recently published book, My Blood Divides and Unites, which, characteristically, she self-published (through Porcupine Press).
“I wanted to determine when it appeared,” said the softly spoken, yet assertive businesswoman. She used a career gap after a three-year working stint in Switzerland “to write it. Now was the right time for publication before I considered the next steps in my career.”
She was referring to the timing of her book’s message of inclusivity in a world rent apart by fears of refugees, xenophobia, racism and an abhorrence of “the other”.
The last point was what she felt during apartheid as she and her identical twin sister attained their school’s highest marks despite tiring lengthy daily walks from Westbury to Chris J Botha High School in Bosmont.
In spite of her cleverness, “I didn’t want the As I got in matric as I did not want to attract the ‘nerd’ stigma”.
But she realised she’d been handed “the smart card and that I should play it”.
She was offered a bursary to study at Wits University, where she graduated with bachelor degrees in commerce and accountancy, and she went on to qualify as a chartered accountant. Earlier in her career, she gained experience in the corporate finance departments of KPMG and Anglo-American.
A stint in the private equity department at Brait followed before she became a founding shareholder and executive director of a BEE investment holding company.
After gaining entrepreneurial experience, she moved on to independent advisory work and sat on the boards of the Land Bank and Senwes. The latter provides, inter alia, the handling and storage of grain for farmers.
She became passionate about agricultural development, “particularly in Africa, for I believe it will play a major role in developing the continent as well as its rural population”.
That passion did not deter her, however, from applying for a scholarship to the Harvard SA Fellowship Programme, and she now serves on the Harvard SA Alumni Board.
In 2012, she completed a mid-career master’s in public administration at Harvard’s John F Kennedy School of Government.
Then, because she “wanted more international exposure”, she joined the World Economic Forum (WEF). Boggenpoel was chosen as a Young Global Leader of the WEF and, between 2014 and 2016, was the head of business engagement Africa for organisation.
She is a shareholder and founding board member of African Women Chartered Accountants and Investment Holdings.
Six years after leaving South Africa for the US, she came home to consider invitations to sit on various company boards, one of which was ETG Input Holdings, the largest distributor of fertiliser on the continent.
She’s visited 22 African countries ranging from Rwanda and Ghana to Ethiopia and Kenya, and points out that her DNA is about 28% African (it also includes Ashkenazi Jews and slaves from the Middle East), and she believes that agriculture converged with technology is a gateway for African economic development.
“I’m passionate about Africa and, coming from a poor family, I understand how hard it is to break the cycles of poverty.”
Her father, a mine construction carpenter in Namibia, “was broken by exhausting, abusive work and suffered a nervous breakdown”.
It crippled him and so her mother, who worked in the accounts department of World Vision, became the breadwinner of a family of three children.
Boggenpoel describes herself now as being at “a busy juncture in my life”. She relaxes by reading books on technology, economic development for emerging markets in Africa and investing, and loves the outdoors and nature. She does CrossFit and loves travelling – she’s visited every continent except Antarctica.
The Westbury childhood of this gentle, determined businesswoman, far from imposing borders, has been the spur to seek endless horizons.