Johannesburg - As a teenage girl Pongo Pule was unlike other girls her age. While her peers were out playing and enjoying their youth, she was at her family business handling cash and balancing the books.
Pule, now 40, attributes that point in her life to her success as a businesswoman. Born in Botswana and schooled in Grahamstown, she is the current chief executive and partner at AfriBiz Invest, a company with interests in the infrastructure and built environment space.
“I have grown up and been instilled with an entrepreneurial background from the age of 12. My dad was running a family business which is still in existence, its a third generation business, so basically I was not like a normal child who would go and play with the other kids, I was balancing the books and collecting the cash, this entrepreneurial spirit was instilled in me then,” she said.
Her family ran a funeral parlour business in Botswana which inculcated her spirit of entrepreneurship.
Pule, who is a strong believer in God, compares business with the ministry and says without faith and without God, one cannot succeed.
“Business is like ministry,” she said.
“Being broken is not for your death, being broken is for you to stand tomorrow and tell your testimony and say I made it after being broken. I lost it, and I was still restored, which is why you can’t separate business and God,” she said after recalling how she survived two instances of her company being liquidated in her early years in business.
Pule said challenges and adversities in business were real, and in a bid to help young women in business, she started an empowerment mentorship programme called Enabled Women. It is specifically for women in the infrastructure, insurance, business management or strategy sectors, aged between 25 and 35.
She said the programme aimed to empower young women to avoid making the same mistakes she did when she was starting out in business and help them grow their businesses and grow their profits, by offering mentorship and advice.
The ethos of the programme, she said, was to create a network of successful businesswomen who would commit to doing the same to help other young women in business.
Pule said although there had been a slight shift with bluechip companies appointing women in key roles, it was important for women in male-dominated spaces to prove themselves and be persistent.
“I strongly believe that if you are a girl child and you say you want to do well in civil engineering, so you study it and you go and work for the big firms.
“At the end of the day, regardless on whether you start at middle management or top management, you have to be able to prove yourself. Diligence is key. Where you can prove yourself and you show your value, you show your persistence and you know your value,” she said.
She said women in the sector were still looked being doubted by their male counterparts.
“My model is that I must listen first, because they have already taken a decision that you are the lady and you know little about the infrastructure space, and unfortunately it’s always the perception until such a time where they can hear how you contribute to the issues at hand and you show your capabilities.
“Then they don’t have a choice to undermine you, because you are now at par and you adding value to what they are speaking. Why now should I be less than you when we are contributing equally,” she said.
Her advice to young women in the male dominated spaces:
“You need to understand your value as a person, you need to understand your capabilities. I always take it as, as long as you know your value, as long as you stand there and demonstrate you have the expertise and capabilities, people will value that,” she said.
Recently on Mandela Day, AfriBiz Invest along with the Collen Mashawana Foundation donated three houses to poor families in Soshanguve and Nigel.
Talking about this brought Pule to tears.
Among the three recipients who was gifted a home by the company, was 101-year-old Boy Mohedo of Nigel, Ekurhuleni, who had been on the housing waiting list for over 20 years.
Mohedo’s partner, Johanna Nsibande, said at the time upon receipt of the house after they left their shack for good.
“The conditions in the informal settlement were not good,” she recalled.
“The rats in the informal settlement were the size of my foot, they were eating our furniture breaking everything,” she decried.
Pule said the company had set itself a target of 30 houses for 2019 and last year, they had built 15. She said the money was raised from profits within their many companies and from external sponsors.
“It doesn’t matter how many times we do it, every time, I will just cry when I get home. To be able to understand that you are successful and you are blessed to be able to change somebody else’s life. Other than that, it’s not about you, yes we are making money and our lives are good, but it’s not about you,” she said.
“I’ve never been brought to such a place of humility,” she said teary. “For me personally, I was blessed to be brought up in a family where my dad was a successful businessman in Botswana. I have always been in a situation where I have always had.
“You just look at the before and after (pictures), you begin to comprehend that someone never had water, electricity, a safe roof and they are going for a 100 years. You put yourself in their shoes and see the transition overnight, it brings me to that level of humility that I can’t even explain,” she said.
Pule said AfriBiz Invest, which has a footprint across South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe, was looking to expand into Africa if there were opportunities.
But her main goal was to ‘enable’ young women with her mentorship programme and create a new network of female business leaders in the built environment, insurance, business management and strategy space.
“I think I am good (example), in that I am able to share knowledge, transfer skills and hence why I have the Enable Women mentorship programme,” she said.
But her advice to young women in business who may be undergoing challenges and adversity:
“Being broken is not for your death, being broken is for you to stand tomorrow and tell your testimony and say I made it after being broken”.