THERE is this perception – and this applies to most professions and industries – that business is run by an “old boys’ club”. Of course, this remains debatable.
However, much has changed since the apartheid era when women fought hard for gender equality.
And when we look at South African women pioneering in their respective fields like Bridgette Radebe (mining), Irene Charnley (MTN), Pam Golding (real estate), Wendy Appelbaum (insurance), Mamphela Ramphele (investments) and Wendy Ackerman (retail) – all of whom are among those who cracked Forbes’ list of Africa’s Richest Women – you can’t be but inspired.
A good starting point is always passion, an encyclopaedic-like knowledge of your field of interest, and fortitude. And Yolisa Phahle and Kershnee Govender have these traits in abundance.
WHEN you peruse Phahle’s résumé, you are left both stupefied and inspired. She started out as a musician before joining the BBC World Service, where music continued to permeate her life.
Having trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama as a violinist and keyboard player, Phahle went on to tour the world – playing for Duran Duran, Soul II Soul and Jamiroquai before settling into a different routine as a studio manager and, later, producer, at BBC Radio 1 and BBC World Service Music.
Blessed with the height of a catwalk queen, the striking and astute chief executive offficer of M-Net South Africa says: “Playing for some of the biggest-selling artists in the world was awesome. The feeling you get when you go on stage at a massive stadium is magic. It was also a great chance to travel the world. You get to see how other people live, and I also got to watch TV all over which was really informative.”
Born in South Africa during apartheid, she left the country with her parents in 1965 before returning and joining M-Net as Channel O’s general manager in 2005.
She continues: “For me, there are many parallels. As a musician you are only as good as your last show. The audience is the most important consideration for commercial musicians and playing in a band is a team effort. The same goes for creating entertainment channels.
“My job is to put together programmes that entertain and inform our viewers; we live and die by the ratings and working with creative people like actors, writers, and producers should be a team effort.”
Reflecting on her tenure at Channel O, which later expanded to MK and kykNET, Phahle notes: “The Channel O job was a dream job for me. I had been introduced to kwaito and met guys like Arthur (Mafokate) back in 1997 and the opportunity to manage a music channel that was made in Africa, for Africans by Africans, was beyond my wildest expectations.
“There were so many outstanding artists when I joined Channel O. Some of them are, sadly, no longer with us. Lebo Mathosa was one of the most intoxicating performers to watch. I really had fun working with many other amazing South African and African female artists.”
On her phenomenal successes with the launch of Vuzu, Koowee IsiZulu and Mzansi Magic – all within two years – she responds: “I always say you are only as good as the people you work with… and I work with a great team.
“I also work for a visionary company, which is committed to raising the bar of local programming. My philosophy is that we are here to give our viewers content that reflects their current reality and their hopes for the future. We have worked hard to bring in new formats, to provide the chance to tell local stories in new, more relevant and compelling ways.
“I do believe that creativity is valuable, it is not a commodity, and we are committed to working in close partnership with great creatives and to listening to the audience.”
And with the inception of Mzansi Magic Music and, last year, Mzansi Wethu, as well as Mzansi Bioskop, they have certainly been keeping their ear to the ground in that regard.
Phahle points out: “These channels came from a need to create local stories in local languages for viewers. We also believed that some of the big international reality formats like Idols, Clash of the Choirs and Big Brother would appeal to our audience. One of the most exciting parts of the Mzansi portfolio of channels has been the creation of Isibaya. It is a locally produced telenovela (now a soapie). I got the idea when I was in Kenya as the people there watch lots of international telenovelas.”
With her new title, Phahle oversees the Afrikaans channels, the M-Net and M-Net Series channels, the movie and Mzansi channels… along with Vuzu and Channel O.
“Luckily I have a team of first- class channel directors whom I will be working with hand-in-hand to try and retain existing audiences and gain new viewers. It’s a strategic job – reading the trends, finding new ways of doing things, building a high performance culture and providing opportunities to continue the transformation of our industry are all part of the job.”
And when she isn’t inundated with meetings or strategising, her life revolves around her family.
She shares: “I love music, my kids are both musical and my husband is a composer so we have good times banging out tunes together.
“I also spend a lot of time with my parents who have always supported my career and are really great about looking after the boys if I have to work late or travel.”
Her thoughts on women making in-roads in the industry?
“M-Net is a very good place to work. We have many women in senior positions: our head of regulatory, CFO, and other channel directors are women, many with kids and partners.
“There really is no substitute to education; it empowers, opens your mind, presents opportunities, all of which are required for a corporate career. I started out managing one channel, was involved in the launch of six others and am thrilled that, as a company, we have and continued to invest in the local television industry.
“I am really grateful to the people inside and outside the organisation who entertained my ideas and also to the staff who have been inspired to make many great suggestions and to trust my leadership. I now have to make sure I keep on learning, and keep listening to the team, the creative people we work with and, of course, our audience.”
Of course, doing it all isn’t a simple feat.
She laughs: “There are trade offs – the truth is you can’t have everything. But thanks to my husband, a real Renaissance man, my parents and M-Net, who have a policy of work-life balance for all employees, some luck, and lots of passion and hard work… I’m hanging in there.”
WITH her new appointment as Corporate Affairs Director at M-Net, Kershnee finally gets to marry her love for entertainment and corporate affairs.
A very unassuming person, with an infectious go-getter disposition, Govender joined M-Net in November. But she has taken to her duties like a duck to water, so to speak.
On why she never pursued a career in the entertainment sector, she offers: “Growing up during the apartheid era, it felt like one had to have a split personality. I was certainly one of those people.
“On the one hand there was that burning desire to pursue a career in entertainment – something I was passionate about – and, on the other hand, I had to face the hard reality that some industries were either a little out of my reach or difficult to break into. I didn’t stray too far away from my passion though, as I still managed to pursue a career where I could put my inherent skills to use, which is why I chose to study Communication Science. It is therefore fortuitous that I have eventually landed in the entertainment industry.”
What’s most interesting is that this is a vibrant new playground for the corporate affairs director, who has held high-flying positions at Sasol, Eskom, Nedbank and Absa.
She says: “Even though I worked for a variety of industries, the skills and experience gained was not lost each time I changed jobs because I remained in the corporate affairs field. I was able to build on these skills every time and had the privilege to test them out in different industries. Corporate affairs is corporate affairs, regardless of the industry one is in.
“Reputation management, corporate positioning, brand marketing, sponsorships and donations and media management are all facets of corporate affairs and are the main vehicles for building and sustaining corporate reputation.
“The only marked difference between the industry I am in currently and the rest of the companies I worked for is that apart from it having less of a rigid corporate culture, it is a highly dynamic and creative environment. And when you’re largely right-brained, every day is a thrill!”
A few months into the job, Tonight enquired about the journey so far.
“It has been a very steep learning curve as I have had no prior exposure to this industry. I had to make contact with relevant people fast in order to learn as much as I could before I even started contemplating a corporate affairs strategy and getting into my job. Most people in this industry seem to have cut their teeth here so that can be very intimidating to a newbie. I was really pleased though at how welcoming and helpful people have been. I put that down to the fact that most people in this industry do what they do because they genuinely love it which is probably why I haven’t encountered huge egos or insecurities.”
And, in case you are wondering, it was her proclivity for social media that bagged her this job – she was recruited from LinkedIn.
Enlightening on her key responsibilities, Govender shares: “With reputation management being a key priority in my area, stakeholder management is very relevant and very important. As a result of this I have my daily work routine like most people that are office-based, but in the evenings and over weekends I am entertaining stakeholders. Family or switch-off time is thus a luxury.”
Naturally, given her new portfolio, Govender wants to make effectual strides.
She nods: “Corporate positioning and profiling is what I do best. M-Net has a rich, remarkable history and is so much a part of South African culture. M-Net has been a springboard for so many people’s careers – people who have become household names. But, there are also those people who work tirelessly behind the scenes to bring our viewers the high calibre of productions that have become synonymous with the channel.
“M-Net has also always been an avid supporter of the local arts, culture and entertainment industry. This company writes its own story. Now I’m here to tell this story.”
While this job is demanding, when Govender has time to unwind, it is with family and friends.
She laughs: “Me-time is a luxury these days. When I do have time I choose to spend it with my family and friends. They allow me to unwind, recharge and to go fullsteam ahead. I always maintain that I am a mother and a wife first.
“I love having a career and being busy, but it is all secondary to my first passion… my family. The time pressures are always an issue. I try as far as possible to still be a home- maker while maintaining a career. It puts tremendous demands on me, but I would have it no other way.”
Now that she is “living the dream”, Govender jokes: “I feel energised and alive and I have put up the ‘Do Not Disturb” sign.”
In a way, Beyoncé’s Run the World (Girls) is a song that embodies the spirit of the transformation we are seeing. All I have to say is, “You go girls!”