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Sandiso Sibisi: the Trailblazing Career Woman Inspiring Us All

‘Hard work pays off’

Sandiso Sibisi is a young black South African woman trailblazing her way through the business world and there’s no stopping her yet.

She’s recently been appointed as Accenture’s Open Innovation Lead for Africa, where the mandate is the acceleration of entrepreneurial growth by giving start-ups market access to Accenture’s clients.

Besides her appointment, Sandiso has an exceptional list of other accolades: she is a Mandela Washington Fellowship 2016, a Sustainable Development Goals ambassador, one of Mzansi’s 100 Aspiring and Inspiring Leaders, a Play Your Part Ambassador with Brand South Africa and she recently spoke at a United Nations event in New York about educating young women.

We chatted to her about her career journey, her advice for young entrepreneurs and more.

1 What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs trying to establish themselves?

‘Do not despise small beginnings, they are such an important part of the journey. You inevitably will make some mistakes along the way and starting small allows you to learn (in private) and not make them again on a larger scale.’

2 What’s the most useful piece of advice you’ve received? Who was it from?

“‘Hard work pays off.” My Mom always says to work hard, even when no-one is looking, and that it’ll pay off eventually. Hard work makes you credible and allows people to begin trusting you with bigger tasks.’

3 What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt while establishing a start-up?

‘Rejection is part of the success journey. My Khwela co-founder and I have been rejected so many times, but that has never made us doubt our start-up because we believe in what we do. It’s so exciting when we get a “yes” because they don’t come often.’

4 Tell us more about your Born to Succeed programme. What was the inspiration behind starting it? And what do young South Africans have to do to be part of it?

‘I started Born to Succeed in 2013, when the youth-unemployment issue was brewing in South Africa. For me, growing up in eSikhawini [a township], I had always seen my peers (neighbours) pass grade 12, and unable to study further due to lack of funding and not getting a job.

‘I also knew that not enough was being done to address youth unemployment among women. Women have different needs to men and I wanted to provide a platform that shows women that despite their circumstances, they are Born to Succeed. If young, unemployed women want to be part of it, they can follow our Facebook page to learn more about our upcoming workshops.’

5 We’d love to know more about your career journey. What did you study? What was your first job? How did you get to where you are now?

‘I really wanted to study fashion but my parents did not allow me. So I studied a Bachelor of Commerce at Wits. Post-studies, I wanted to work for the best technology consulting firm so Accenture was my only option. During my third year, I applied but was not accepted. Therefore, I decided to pursue my honours qualification, so I got Accenture to pay for it. After my fourth year, Accenture eventually accepted me into their Graduate programme.

‘For my first three years at Accenture, I just focused on honing my business and technology consulting skills. Once I established a solid rapport, I established Born to Succeed, to which they were very supportive of.

‘My work then transgressed to management consulting, which probably sounds sexy, but I found it so cutthroat – a lot of the work I did was around cost reduction, which effectively meant cutting of jobs in a business, but my philanthropic heart didn’t quite like that. Then I moved to a new division called Accenture Development Partnerships (ADP), which is where Accenture consultants provide consulting services to international non-profits and government to make an impact. That was by far my best role at Accenture – it allowed me to travel extensively outside of South Africa and gave me an opportunity to enhance my leadership skills as the role was very demanding; one is expected to identify clients and opportunities and see it through to delivery of the project. After ADP, I got some time to work on my start-up venture for three months, where we completed the Khwela pilot (my start-up). This led me to my new role as Open Innovation Lead for Africa.

‘All my business and technology consulting, international development and start-up experience gave me the skills required to be entrusted with such a big role. I must say, it hasn’t been a straight path – my career has mostly been about following my passions, working really hard at what has been entrusted in me and being unsure of what the future holds. If I had stuck to a five-year plan, I would have missed this great opportunity because my job today didn’t even exist five years ago.’

6 Is business something you’ve always been interested in? Was there anything that sparked this interest?

‘Yes, I have always wanted to be a woman in business. Both of my parents were entrepreneurs – my mom used to make wedding cakes and my dad was a videographer for events. So, from a young age, I knew I had to pursue it to make them proud.’

7 What does being an entrepreneur mean to you?

‘It means going where no-one is going and doing what no-one is doing. Being a game-changer and believing in your “why”.’

8 What are you most looking forward to about going to the US for the United Nations Global Compact Leaders Summit and Forbes Under 30 Summit and One Young World?

‘I am excited about the United Nations General Assembly week as I have heard about how New York is just buzzing with world leaders. My main purpose while there is to identify opportunities of investment and other support for African start-ups.

‘The Forbes Under 30 Summit and One Young World is going to be so much fun. I am looking forward to meeting other young people as crazy as me and see how we can connect start-ups around the world to other African start-ups to allow for knowledge exchange and effectively shorten the learning curve.’

9 Many women in business feel that they are still undermined or not taken seriously based on their gender. What struggles have you faced as a female in business? 

‘Mine is twofold – I look younger than I am and I’m a woman working in a male-dominated industry. When my boss (male) introduces me to prospective partners, as the Open Innovation Lead for Africa, they often speak over me or exclude me from conversation about my division. I think it’s because they think I am the kid on the block and I am a woman – they don’t realise how much autonomy I have. I always laugh it off because my boss always puts the ball back in my court and allows me to make all the decisions for my division. I have formidable support behind me – my boss and my boss’s boss (female) both believe in me.’

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