Nene Molefi. Picture: SUPPLIED
Nene Molefi. Picture: SUPPLIED

Driving transformation in SA is an uphill task which few understand better than Nene Molefi. As CEO of Mandate Molefi HR Consultants, she designs strategies for large-scale change which dig deep below the surface of ingrained beliefs on both sides of the racial divide.

Her passion for the process has been a wake-up call for top executives at many of SA’s leading companies, and has gained her a reputation locally and internationally as a thought leader in diversity, inclusion, leadership and transformation.

In addition to private sector companies, state-owned entities and regulatory bodies, the country’s highest courts have booked training with her company to speed up transformation in the workplace. It is clear that SA is still making woefully slow progress more than two decades after the end of apartheid.

Molefi believes one of the main stumbling blocks is unconscious bias. It is a concept that has taken on increasing importance in corporate culture across the world as managers realise they are not fostering the diversity which would help them attract the best talent, comply with legislation, avoid lawsuits, and improve the bottom line.

The bias she talks about refers to the subconscious beliefs and assumptions that most people hold about race, gender, appearance, age, wealth and much more. They influence our perceptions and judgment and lead to decisions which are irrational and often harmful.

"It’s a waste of time to argue that we don’t have unconscious bias — it happens to everyone and it cuts across social class, race, gender, and professional qualifications," she says. "In this country we cannot deny the fact that we grew up completely apart. We all have work to do."

In her book A Journey of Diversity and Inclusion in SA, she describes unconscious bias as "an invisible suitcase" which must be "unzipped and examined to see what you have learnt in childhood about someone who is different to you, from those you loved and respected.

"Begin the process of opening your baggage, sifting through it, and removing what does not serve you, is hurtful to others, and was packed without your permission. That job is yours and yours alone."

The message is central to the task of training leaders how to implement strategies for diversity and inclusion — which is particularly challenging in the corporate sector because of the tendency to separate what is seen as "people issues" from "core business", she says.

A recent global study from management consultancy firm McKinsey shows that companies with more gender diversity on their executive teams were 21% more likely to achieve above-average profits, while those with more ethnically and culturally diverse boards of directors were 43% more likely to do so.

SA companies are clearly falling short on those objectives. The latest report by the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Commission finds companies listed on the JSE have only 38% black board representation, and the ratio could be lower as only 30% of listed entities reported.

"There are CEOs out there who are truly willing to walk this journey. I call it a journey because the work I do is not about ticking the boxes — change is not linear and success is not a straight line. For me the leaders who succeed in this hard work are more resilient than those who are just counting numbers."

Molefi says her own experience with discrimination, and her success in overcoming it through understanding, communication and working with her own emotive triggers, often helps her to break through the unconscious bias barrier which she believes is more insidious than outright racism.

She completed an honours degree in social science at the University of Cape Town and, at the age of 21, became the first black social worker at the Red Cross Hospital in the city. It was a good experience, but she didn’t enjoy living in Cape Town and in 1988 left for a job at Eskom, which in those days was leading the way in employment equity.

She was later offered a scholarship to go to the UK, but opted instead to join a company called "Mandate", as an equal partner with a woman she had engaged with at Eskom.

The rest, as they say, is history. But upon becoming the company’s sole owner in 2003, Molefi encountered all the setbacks and obstacles which black entrepreneurs, particularly black women entrepreneurs, still face. It was difficult to get a loan to buy her partner out, top clients left, and the banks dropped her company’s overdraft.

Now, Mandate Molefi has a team of 20 people, who train teams and leaders on how to embed values into the running of their organisation so that its culture will shift.

Her clients include large-scale SA and multinational firms. She is a regular presenter at conferences around the world, including the US, Germany, Italy, Malaysia and Pakistan, and is now a board member of the US-based Centre of Global Inclusion and a member of the Diversity Collegium, a think tank of globally recognised diversity experts.