Naspers SA CEO Phuthi Mahanyele-Dabengwa. Picture: ALON SKUY
Naspers SA CEO Phuthi Mahanyele-Dabengwa. Picture: ALON SKUY

When I was a teenager my father bought me shares in an Afrikaans newspaper and magazine publishing company called Naspers.

At the time I was bitterly disappointed — I’d wanted roller-skates instead.

Now, years later, as I find myself the CEO of Naspers SA, I can truly appreciate his foresight.

Back then, the shares were worth about R17.50 each. They’re now worth over R2,400.

Even in my 20s, working at independent investment firm Fieldstone in New York, it would have been a stretch to think that I might one day be an executive at a company that was once synonymous with the "old SA". But as I have learnt from many years in the boardrooms of corporates, foreign investment firms and development institutions, stereotyping people or organisations can be misleading when it comes to transformation.

While some companies may look good on paper, their transformation strategy is often more of the box-ticking variety than what I’ve seen more innovative companies embrace.

At Fieldstone, contrary to my expectations, it was not women senior partners or those of colour who showed me the ropes and helped me eventually grow into the position of vice-president.

It was a white male senior executive who took the chance and mentored an intern from Africa.

Stereotyping people or organisations can be misleading when it comes to transformation

Nor is successful transformation specific to a sector — while some companies in more traditional areas such as mining have proactively used transformation to take their companies forward, others in newer sectors have been left behind.

But whether it’s health care or mining, tech or hospitality, companies that integrate transformation into their culture innovate more and grow faster.

Innovation and its accompanying growth do not come from listening to the views of the same homogeneous group of people, they come from the sometimes uncomfortable interaction of diverse ideas that spark creative solutions to societal challenges.

Many of the companies that I’ve had the pleasure of serving on the boards of — such as Discovery, Vodacom and Gold Fields — have recognised this and have harnessed technology to speed up change.

For me, this is one of the most exciting prospects of working in the age of digitisation, automation, machine learning, robotics and artificial intelligence.

McKinsey estimates that, far from the doomsday predictions of machines replacing humans in the workplace, digitisation could help create 1.8-million jobs in SA by 2030 purely as a result of improvements in productivity.

That could increase income levels and consumer spending, investment in construction and infrastructure, and funding for education and health care.

Technology is opening doors for SA’s previously marginalised communities. In the mining sector, traditionally the preserve of men, men and women can now operate heavy mining machinery many kilometres underground from a computer in the safety of an office above ground.

Meanwhile, digitisation has enabled young tech entrepreneurs to develop apps that help connect thousands of domestic workers to job opportunities in SA’s major cities.

We’ve seen this with SweepSouth, one of the tech businesses that Naspers is backing through Naspers Foundry.

One of the most pressing and most complex socioeconomic transformation challenges SA faces is youth unemployment. How do we equip our young people to work in a new digital age?

The answer is not simply teaching a young person to code or work on a computer, though these are obviously vital skills; it’s about giving them the confidence and the space to put forward and develop their ideas.

Our youngsters have plenty of places where they can drink and smoke, but few safe zones where they can meet together to create, to build and to inspire. This is why I am so excited about the work I am leading with Naspers Labs. The initiative blends a physical space, the "Lab", with a bespoke online learning and development platform to build the confidence and skills of young South Africans.

The labs are located in communities most affected by unemployment and poverty.

My corporate experience aside, I’ve had first-hand experience of the struggles faced by 100% black-owned emerging businesses through my involvement with Black Umbrellas — a nonprofit incubation organisation which aims to change start-ups’ high failure rate.

The first three years of a new company’s existence are critical: entrepreneurs need not only resources, but also skills development, mentoring and access to markets.

In short, they need nurturing if they are to grow into successful, job-creating businesses.

Small business, I believe, is critical to the empowerment of historically marginalised South Africans, and it needs partnership between the private sector, the government and civil society.

But it will take genuine and long-term commitment.

Mahanyele-Dabengwa is the CEO of Naspers SA