Women leaders breaking barriers by leading with passion and purpose

15 MARCH 2024

06 March 2024: On International Women's Day, we acknowledge progress in gender equality while recognising persistent challenges. In South Africa's corporate landscape, echoing global trends, the call to amplify women's voices, especially in leadership, remains important. Highlighting inspiring stories of women pioneers is a powerful means to champion this cause and pave the way for future leaders.Smiling businesswoman

A woman on the rise

One such story is the journey of Mariné van Brakel, Deputy CEO and COO at retail consumer finance provider, RCS. She joined the company as a Finance Consultant in 2014 prior to being promoted to the role of Central Finance and Operations Manager. Just over two years later, van Brakel became part of RCS’s Executive team as Finance Executive before being promoted to Chief Financial Officer.

Ironically, she was reluctant to begin her journey to becoming a CA, due to her perception that working in finance involved very little interaction with people – something that she is very passionate about. Thankfully, after travelling abroad, working as a management consultant and eventually returning to South Africa to work for RCS, she found that this perception could not be further from the truth.

Today, she is deeply engaged in her role, fostering meaningful interactions, building relationships, and championing engagement initiatives that bring out the best in her colleagues and peers.

In van Brakel’s opinion, women’s uniqueness is their greatest superpower. “As women, we are called upon to play so many different roles. We can be leaders, role models, colleagues, daughters, sisters, mothers and caregivers, to name a few. Our inherent uniqueness lies in our capacity for bringing our voices, our minds and our hearts to each of these roles and to thrive as multi-faceted individuals who bring so much value to each of these realms of being,” she says.

A vision for a more inclusive future

By appointing women to several key executive roles, nurturing young talent and facilitating initiatives like its Women in Leadership programme, RCS has made inroads into building a diverse and inclusive workplace culture for the benefit of all. These initiatives have enabled the company to achieve a staff complement that is 76% women and has also resulted in a leadership body that is more than 50% women too. Two-thirds of the company’s local Directors are women, further illustrating its commitment to correcting historical gender imbalances in the workplace.

Van Brakel faced challenges entering the professional financial world, citing being the sole woman among seasoned male leaders as an initial barrier. Overcoming this, she emphasised needing to find her voice and focusing on the strength that can be found in diversity.

For van Brakel, part of the solution lies in establishing strong women role models in the workplace – women who can lead by example and share their experiences and knowledge with other aspiring women leaders. To do this, more companies need to focus on their internal culture to ensure it encourages each employee’s unique voice, and also cater for a flexible work environment, to attract the right talent.

Transforming corporate dynamics: a way forward

Her advice for women looking to advance in their fields is to “Find your village.” The phrase originates from a well-known African proverb about the importance of raising families in supportive, secure and collaborative environments. Similarly, in the corporate realm, the importance lies in fostering a culture of mutual support and solidarity.

As van Brakel asserts: “In a professional sense, it's about choosing a village – or a company that fosters a culture of inclusivity and provides opportunities to learn from diverse perspectives. I have found that at RCS.”

Gender transformation in action

Highlighting the need for businesses to commit and invest sufficiently in gender transformation ahead of International Women’s Day is Sandi Richardson, HR Executive at RCS.

Richardson emphasises the importance of leveraging women's immense talent to enhance business operations. At RCS, diversity in leadership serves as a model, providing tangible opportunities for all employees. Over the past 25 years, ongoing support for women includes initiatives like the annual bursary program, benefiting 277 children in 2023, and easing educational costs for employees, particularly single mothers. Further to this, RCS offers a rich employee wellness programme, including the provision of onsite clinics that can fully meet the primary healthcare of all employees.  This allows working mothers to be able to ensure their health is being prioritised while juggling the demands of their personal and professional lives.

Concluding on how RCS prioritises the empowerment of women across its operations and value chain, Richardson points to the robust partnerships the organisation remains committed to: “Together with organisations like the WPDI and TSIBA’s LevelUp programme, we are involved in growing entrepreneurs, the majority of whom are women. These programmes help us to ensure there is a strong diversity in our supplier network as these entrepreneurs enter our supply chain.”