The tech industry has a way to go, but there have been positive changes over the years.
Jayshree Naidoo – Head of the Entrepreneurship Centre of Excellence for Standard Bank
In the two decades that she’s worked in the banking and tech industries, Jayshree Naidoo says she’s seen a lot of change. Back when she started out, both had a well-earned reputation for being male-dominated professions and she had few female peers.
Today, Naidoo says: “We have amazing senior women leading our organisation in both the financial and technology spaces.”
This is especially true in her current role as head of the Entrepreneurship Centre of Excellence for Standard Bank, where 90% of her team is female. The Standard Bank Incubator, which launched in 2015, is the vehicle through which Standard Bank works with startups and entrepreneurs across many sectors, maintaining co-working spaces in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town, as well as a recently opened space in Maputo.
Through the Incubator, Naidoo helps ambitious entrepreneurs to grow their firms and develop new market opportunities in South Africa and internationally. Her work also serves a dual purpose for the bank itself. Not only does it provide insight into the kinds of products entrepreneurs need to succeed, but because employees are encouraged to submit their own ideas and projects for incubation, it’s helped the bank to drive its own internal transition to become a more innovative organisation that can adopt new technology and products more quickly.
Heidi Custers – Digital transformation manager at Deloitte Digital Africa
Working with teams and customers, helping them to steer their multibillion-rand organisations into the headwind of the 21st Century, might sound like a tough and demanding role, but it’s a task that Heidi Custers has relished. As a manager in Deloitte’s Digital consultancy, she has just returned to her Joburg HQ after a lengthy period on-site with one of South Africa’s largest companies, working on a project to digitally transform its operations.
Custers’ CV is remarkable. She quips that when old friends see her latest LinkedIn profile, which talks about “digital transformation design”, they think she’s gone back to her roots as a user interface specialist, rather than assisting organisations to reimagine their businesses, products and services by capitalising on “exponential technologies” that are changing the world of business in every industry.
Custers has an intuitive understanding of her subject matter, and a huge amount of knowledge gained over more than a decade at the sharp end of tech. Her background is diverse, from the typical disciplines required by a management consultant, to significant experience gained from being involved with technology startups and understanding the principles of coding, helping her in her job to advise African enterprises on navigating digital disruption.
The toughest message she has for local executives is that they are no longer competing with only South African, or even African peers.
“Corporates aren’t worried enough about the non-traditional competitors, big or small, domestic and international, that are enabled by disruptive technology,” Custers says, “but they should be. We look at digital maturity and how firms should be preparing to embrace and take full advantage of exponential technologies that are becoming easily accessible.”
That requires a change, not just in the tools a business uses, but also in its mindset. As much as her job is about solving business challenges in leveraging cutting-edge technology for enterprises, it’s also about managing people and fostering a spirit of continual innovation.
“Understanding of culture is really important,” Custers says. “Part of our engagement contracts with clients is to do ‘culture transfer’. A critical success factor in digital transformation projects is embedding an attitude of innovation and digital into every part of the business, so that legacy thinking doesn’t put digital progress at risk.”
Nancy Meyer – Chief operating officer of Kyocera SA
Few industries have been as battered by technological change in recent years as printing, but the chief operating officer of Kyocera SA, Nancy Meyer, is upbeat about the future.
“I always use the analogy of the cellphone,” Meyer says. “The cellphone died, but the smartphone replaced it. There’s a decline in demand for traditional single-function printers, but we’re building intelligent devices that are part of the next phase of digitisation.”
Meyers’ background includes stints as a chartered secretary, a business consultant at KPMG and PWC, and training as an accountant, before she joined the tech world. She describes herself as “more of a generalist than a specialist” who’s always got an eye out for the next big thing.
As well as working to transform a legacy print firm into a digital ICT leader, she also sits on the firm’s Transformation Committee and is a big supporter of its CSI project in Soweto, where youngsters can learn technical skills.
“I’m a product of people cutting me some slack,” she explains. “I was able to take time off work to study, got company loans and rebates to help, and I understand young people need the same breaks.”
As a result of her own background, she says, she’s able to influence learner programmes to include critical life skills. “It’s no good training someone to be a technician if, when they graduate, they don’t have a driver’s licence,” she explains. “They’re still unemployable.”
Lesley Williams is right at the centre of Joburg’s thriving tech startup scene. Her work covers two of the most important startup incubators in South Africa. She’s the co-founder of the Impact Hub in Rosebank, and COO of the Wits-sponsored Tshimologong Precinct in Braamfontein.
Williams has spent most of her career building networks for entrepreneurs in both the commercial and social spaces, back to her time as local president of the UN-affiliated student foundation, AIESEC.
With AIESEC, she spent some time abroad at the start of her career and says she came back “more aware of the social economic divides in South Africa than before, and aware of the global opportunities that digital technologies provide for startups here to take on work anywhere in the world”.
With that in mind, Williams pushes local entrepreneurs to embrace global methodologies and markets. One key role she says is helping young technologists to design products for ordinary people.
“I’m surrounded by all these amazing and bright people,” Williams says, “but they don’t always know how to communicate clearly. We do a lot of work pushing people to think beyond digital, and validate their ideas with real-world users.”
Jayshree Naidoo is also the interim CEO of Feenix.org, an innovative crowdfunding platform that helps students to raise donations for tertiary fees from corporate and individual donors. “The platform is being supported by Standard Bank as a demonstration of our commitments to address the fees challenges faced by students,” she says.