Breaking the prejudice barrier

Lianne Levenstein. (Supplied)
Lianne Levenstein. (Supplied)

Cape Town - Overcoming the twin challenges of youth and being a woman to reach the top rung of the executive ladder is no mean feat. Lianne Levenstein, CEO of EconoBEE, emailed Fin24 with her story. She said she didn't feel she had achieved anything special in her career - until she went to an event a few months ago.

She takes up the tale: "One guest speaker was gauging the audience and asked how many are CEOs, COOs at a company. I raised my hand. She then asked how many are below the age of 30. Of about 40 people who had their hand up, it was down to me. I am 26 and the CEO of EconoBEE. I am also a woman."

Her accomplishment is all the more remarkable as a recent report by McKinsey showed that although Africa has gained ground in gender diversity in leadership over the past decade, only 5% of CEOs in the private sector are women, compared to 4% globally.

Further findings were that at board level, African women hold 14% of seats compared with a global average of 13%. In the southern Africa region, 20% of board positions are held by women, compared to the 14% average on the African continent.

READ: Only 5% of CEOs in Africa are women - McKinsey

Levenstein says she drew inspiration mostly from her family, and that her father and brother both mentored her. "My thinking - and especially forward thinking - has come from my dad. He has always been there to help me think through my thoughts and help prioritise my work. My brother has been influential in developing my work ethic and ability to develop myself. As a family, we always strive for perfection and are there to build each other up."

Another spur to success has been the need to always improve herself and aim for a better future. "I'm extremely inspired by the success of others. In a strange way, I'm fascinated by the bigger picture and love seeing the 'behind the scenes' of business."

Levenstein's experiences will strike a chord with any young woman struggling to break into a traditionally male-dominated professional environment. She says: "I am aware of how people may perceive me - a pretty, young woman walking into a boardroom to explain what BEE is. At the end of the meeting, the client is always impressed and understands the BEE requirements."

She considers "people judging me before they speak to me" as her greatest challenge, but knows exactly how to counteract this: "I know my subject matter really well and am able to explain a relatively complicated topic with ease, and of course with a smile on my face."

Asked if she was there for a job interview

She tells another story to prove that she is made of stern stuff: "A few weeks ago, I was at a potential client and walked in with my briefcase in tow. I was asked by someone in the reception area if I was there for a job interview." 

She realised at once that this was a senior staff member, and was proved right five minutes later when he turned out to be the person she had an appointment with. "I love proving people wrong and impressing them with my knowledge and ability. This happens on a regular basis."

But Levenstein believes in achieving things on her own merits. She states: "I have never really said because I'm a woman I need to be treated differently. I strongly believe in just getting the work done, and get it done well," adding "I think I have strong positive, mature views for my age and I'd like to motivate other women to be more successful."

She believes it's important for every woman to work her way up and to aim for improving and developing herself every day and with every situation. "Always ask yourself: am I adding value? Every experience is necessary (so) learn from it as it will guide you in the future."

She advises: "Work for a future salary based on your experience, don't look at what you earn now as your limit. People tend to look at the short term, and the short term may not be what you want." Nobody gets to their goal overnight, reminds Levenstein. It requires time and effort to get where you want to be.

* August is Women's Month and Fin24, in collaboration with the Sanlam Enterprise Supplier Development Programme, invites you to help us celebrate and showcase SA's extraordinary women in business.

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