Phuthi Mahanyele-Dabengwa, CEO of Naspers South Africa, believes the best of technology with the best of human potential will unlock the full potential of South Africa’s young people.
Phuthi Mahanyele-Dabengwa, relaxed and comfortable, sits in a chair in a small break-out room in the WeWork Rosebank co-working space that is home to the Johannesburg office of Naspers.
“I never thought of joining Naspers,” she says. Her background is in the financial sector, and she was comfortable in her post as executive chairperson of Sigma Capital, a privately held, majority-black-owned South African investment group.
Before that, she was CEO of Shanduka Group, an investment holding company, eventually securing deals with companies such as Coca-Cola and McDonalds. She sits on the boards of Vodacom and Discovery Insure, and was on the Advisory Board of Stellenbosch University Business School.
“I wasn’t exactly looking for a job,” she laughs. Then she got a call from Bob van Dijk, Group CEO, Naspers, and based in Amsterdam. “I knew about Media24 and Takealot,” she says. “But I went and did some research and was a little taken aback when I realised that it was a leader in the consumer digital space.”
People Driving Change
So, she went to Amsterdam and met Van Dijk. She pre-empts the obvious question, with a smile. “What did it for me? The team — that really finalised it for me.”
And therein lies the key strength of Phuthi Mahanyele-Dabengwa and why she finds herself in her current role. She confesses she was impressed at the speed with which Naspers had moved to become a leader in the consumer internet space, its size, and its scale of acquisitions. But it was after meeting the people that clinched the deal for her.
For Mahanyele-Dabengwa, the focus is always on the people that drive change. She believes successful digital transformation in South Africa will require social transformation.
“It is the technology that is driving diversity,” she points out. “But it’s the leadership that champions the diversity. You can’t expect ongoing growth in a changing environment from the same type of people. We need to be utilising technology to tap into our diversified culture. Let’s use all the people we have access to so that, as the environment is changing, we have access to different perspectives.”
The big picture is to create a different work environment, one that reflects the diversity and local cultural and social dynamics.
Improving The Future For Ordinary South Africans
The digital space may be sexy and exciting but, for her, digital transformation has a far more alluring attraction: it will provide much-needed solutions to unemployment and improve the future for ordinary South Africans.
She calls it the transformation of diversity. “If we don’t push this, South African companies are going to miss out on the economic dividend that resides in the young people of the country,” she adds. We’re not doing enough to develop young people to become economic contributors to our country.”
Two initiatives address this and are close to her heart: Naspers Foundry and Naspers Labs. Naspers Foundry is a South Africa–focused tech startup initiative of R1.4 billion – roughly $100-million – to invest, as partners, in local tech entrepreneurs whose businesses use technology to address societal needs.
“I want to help drive the development of the local tech business eco-system, to identify and harness the energy of our “digital natives” and enable these ambitious entrepreneurs to scale their businesses and benefit the country,” she says.
And she wants more companies to be thinking about how to explore the digital landscape.
“Entrepreneurs think differently,” she says. “Even though we’re facing economic challenges, entrepreneurs always look for opportunities. We – the corporate sector – need to encourage that.”
Digital transformation will happen only in companies that attract and develop highly talented people with strong digital and analytics capabilities. “If we can’t find them, we must produce them,” she says in answer to where South Africa will find these talented people.
Mahanyele-Dabengwa believes a unique blend of the best of technology with the best of human potential will unlock the full potential of South Africa’s young people. She is determined that they – and the country – are not left behind.
Naspers Labs is a development programme to help young, unemployed South Africans to open doors to their first employment opportunity.
It provides a structured development journey, enabling students to realise their potential and tap into online learning platforms.
Within the space of two years, a significant number of young people who have been through the programme are employed.
“When you have the right entrepreneurs with capital behind them, you can grow organisations significantly. We’re trying to put our money behind organisations that can become the next big digital organisations. Google, Facebook, and our very own Takealot started small. But what more can we create here in South Africa?” she asks.
And the answer to that is what makes digital transformation so alluring to this CEO.
Words by Donald Paul