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Women in Tech Interview: Vodacom financial services chief Mariam Cassim

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Mariam Cassim took over Vodacom's financial services division when it was making a loss of about R88 million (US$5.9 million), and three years later the unit has turned into a business that boasts profits of R1 billion ($66.7 million).

She takes the term "working mom" to a whole new level, starting her MBA when her first child was just a few months old and joining the telecoms giant when she was already six months pregnant with her second child.

Cassim spoke to Connecting Africa about her experience as a woman in the corporate world, working mom's guilt, the illusion of "balance," and about how we can bring more young women into Africa's telecoms industry.

Paula Gilbert (PG): You've had an interesting career so far, so tell me about the road that brought you to this role at Vodacom.

Mariam Cassim (MC): It's been a long journey. I've been in corporate for about 15 years now. I started off in the corporate finance space, which was very different to what I do now. I was in corporate finance for about seven years, and then I fell pregnant. When I got home after giving birth to my son I felt like something was missing, but I wasn't quite sure what it was. So, when my son was three months old, I decided to register for an MBA, which I did through the University of Cape Town's Graduate School of Business. I was literally breastfeeding and studying for the GMAT exam.

That was important for me because I've always been someone who needs to feel like I'm continuously learning and continuously developing myself. And so even during this time of having a new baby, I still felt like I needed to learn something new. So, I started the two-year MBA program when he was six months old. It was a very challenging time in terms of trying to manage everything but also very fulfilling because of what the MBA qualification taught me. The leadership component of that MBA really contributed to my life in terms of how I conduct myself as a leader. The critical aspects really helped me to be the leader that I am today and lead a team of the size which I do, so successfully. Also, [they helped me] with being a female leader, which is not always that easy.

When I finished the MBA, I felt like I needed operational experience. So I then took a commercial role in one of the largest short-term insurers in South Africa. That introduced me into the world of financial services, for starters, and it was a great experience to be able to be a part of the entire journey of bringing a product to market. I was there for about 18 months and then was approached to come and join Vodacom to run the insurance business, which was the only part of Vodacom financial services that actually existed at the time.

Initially, I was a bit hesitant to take the role, purely because I wasn't quite sure what it would mean to take a role running a non-core part of a business. At the time financial services was not telco, it was not tech, and how would that be perceived internally? This was also at the time that I was six months pregnant with my second baby. So, I resisted and asked Vodacom to contact me again once my baby was born. But Matimba [Mbungela], our HR director, wouldn't give up and eventually I was convinced.

PG: But I'm guessing you took some maternity leave?

MC: One of the biggest attractions to Vodacom was they offered six months maternity leave, which is very unusual for corporates in South Africa, except I didn't end up taking much of it. I often compare the growth of Vodacom financial services to my daughter, because I joined in November and she was born in February. I worked throughout most of my maternity leave.

I joined Vodacom financial services having come from an insurance background. I knew very little about the payments landscape, so I knew that in order to be able to make a real difference in financial services I would need to put in a lot of work. I remember getting home from the hospital with the new-born baby. I literally took two weeks to recover from my C-section and after that, I was on calls the entire day as we started mapping out what the new payments landscape would look like. So I didn't take much maternity leave, but that was by choice.

PG: It's also quite unusual to be hired while pregnant. I feel like that's something women really struggle with. If you want to have a child you need to think carefully about when you can take maternity leave and then you usually can't leave that job for a certain amount of time after.

MC: Absolutely. That was exactly the discussion that I had with Matimba. Most corporates these days, if you join whilst you're pregnant, you're not eligible for maternity leave. And most corporates also have a clause in the contract which says that you need to have worked at the company for two years before you can take any maternity leave. But Vodacom has very progressive thinking around these things. When I had the discussion with Matimba, he looked at me as if I was crazy, and he said that at Vodacom they don't employ people for the next year, they employ people for the next 30 years, so me joining whilst pregnant and then going on maternity leave was not even an issue.

PG: What was it like joining at that time?

MC: I joined in November 2016, to find a very small team. The insurance business was seen to be non-core to Vodacom. Everyone was focusing on voice and data. So, coming in and wanting to grow something new, it was different in terms of how people perceived it. It was different to what people knew. Getting the typical telco people to start thinking outside of the realm of voice and data in itself was quite challenging.

My mandate was to be fully responsible for the insurance business, but also there were a few other products, which kind of had a telco and financial services flavor to them, which were thrown into my portfolio as well. There was the expectation that I would build out a broader financial services vision for Vodacom, as it started to really explore that space.

PG: So, at the time the business was not really doing well and I gather they were expecting you to come in to build out a new strategy, but also to turn it around?

MC: At that time, I had a team of 30 people who kind of felt like they were the poor cousins at Vodacom. They were never at the forefront of any big budget allocation. This entity had also borne the costs of the two unsuccessful launches of M-Pesa [in South Africa] and hence had inherited a big loss. So, when I joined, I inherited a company that was loss-making of about R88 million ($5.9 million) -- and that's the same company that we've now turned into a R1 billion ($66.7 million) profit business.

PG: How did you do it?

MC: I think there were some things that definitely worked for us. One of those things was that being in a big corporate, sometimes not being a priority can be a disadvantage, but sometimes it can be a real advantage. When I first joined, I remember sitting with some of the colleagues on the finance team and asking when do I get to put the budget together? And they kind of told me that the business is so small, you're not really contributing much to the bottom line, it's not going to be a big budget.

There were two things I could have done with that type of response. I could have gone back to the HR director who recruited me and said to him "I'm not sure what you've bought me here to do, but we're not even getting accounted for in the budget process."

However, the approach I took was to go back to my team and say this is absolutely great, because what it means is we've got a blank canvas, to just create what we want without having the heaviness of a specific budget that you have to track towards. We were still flying under the radar and I saw it as an opportunity for us to just keep our heads down and really do what we believed was possible with this business. Because as a team, we all believed that there was massive potential. In that first year we really took a deep look at the existing business, to understand what were some quick changes that we could make to improve both revenue and profitability.

I also focused on the skills and competence within the existing team, and also the attitude of people, which is very important to me. Energy levels were assessed, then I knew that the people here really wanted to be here. I also brought in really good resources from the outside. I started to create a conducive environment, so people knew that although this is a big corporate, at the same time we operate in a very nimble and agile way.

I've now got a team of just under 200 people and we have created a really awesome team culture. We try to hire young professionals who are fresh out of university and want to make a difference, and really believe in this new era of fintech that we're exploring and staying on the cutting edge of all the new things that are coming.

PG: You are one of the few women in high profile roles at telcos. What is that like? And do you think there's space for more women in the sector?

MC: Oh, absolutely. I'm just so tired of walking into meetings -- of ten to 20 people -- where I'm the only female in the room. I'm becoming a lot more conscious of it now, especially because my role requires me to interact with people from both the tech and financial services industries, and I must say that the female representation within both those industries at senior levels is actually sad. So, is there room for more females? Absolutely. Within my team, we have almost equal gender split, 49% of my team is female, which I'm very proud of because it's unique for most tech companies, which are still very male dominated.

I think as a leader I am completely relentless when it comes to bringing new people on board. So up to about two levels below my level, I personally sign off every single new person that we employ. The reason I want oversight is to be able to ensure that both from a gender as well as an employment equity point of view, we are keeping the team very balanced.

I believe that females have an immense amount of value to add in the workplace. I believe they bring a certain level of emotional intelligence, which our male counterparts don't always bring. It's that softness and that ability to really think differently. I think as females we are so used to multitasking, if you think of how we manage families, how we manage kids, how we manage running a home as well as running a career. I think that diversity that females bring to the workplace should not be underestimated. I think we are seeing a big drive globally as well. There is a lot of research that's been done, which shows females are actually the decision makers in the family. More and more women are at the forefront of making the big investment decisions for families.

PG: So how should we change things in the corporate environment to make sure that more women are empowered to get into the big roles?

MC: As women, I believe that we don't support each other enough. I believe that there are a lot of good females in senior positions, but I'm not sure we often take the time to really make those big changes when we're in a position of power. So firstly, I think as females we owe it to ourselves to be able to lift as we rise, because often that doesn't get done enough.

Secondly, something that I've experienced for a long time is we often second guess ourselves; we often doubt ourselves even when we get a seat at the boardroom table. So we need to get out of that mindset, out of that inferiority space, to where we feel like we can be an equal contributor at the table. For a long time in my career I was often the youngest at the table, and also one of very few females at the table. Initially it's extremely daunting. Because you get into the settings which are very male dominated and firstly, how do you get a voice at the table? How do you feel confident enough to raise your opinion? Or even make a comment given that you're often in a room with very strong personalities, majority of which are men.

One way that I've overcome that for myself is ensuring that I beat my peers in terms of preparation for that meeting. Preparation gives you a level of confidence before walking into the room and allows you to add a lot more value in the meeting. I really believe it just takes one or two insightful comments for people around the table to sit up and realize okay, this person has value to add, this person is smart. Also, you never want to be seen to be just talking for the sake of talking. But when you do talk, you want to have people stop what they are doing, sit up and listen.

That also comes with time and experience. If you had to ask me this question ten years ago, I would have had a very different response. I think now, so many years later, I've been able to sufficiently prove my worth. I think the other piece of advice I'd give to women is, the more you can demonstrate in terms of actual delivery, the better it is for you. I believe that when you've actually been able to prove results, no one can question that.

PG: What kind of advice would you give to young girls who maybe want to get into tech or go into telecoms, but don't have that confidence?

MC: Always ensure that you have the minimum skills competence to be able to get you a ticket to the game. You need to understand the specific area of tech that you want to get into and then do a lot of research in terms of the specific skills and competence that is required. If you tick that box, then it's about confidence, to believe that you're able to be an equal match to any other male counterpart that's in the room.

I think it's important to also find really good mentors in this space. The corporate world is challenging and often having good mentors, who have navigated that space before, can help in terms of giving young females guidance. You know, I've had a lot of good mentors in my life and I believe it's important to now pay it forward.

PG: You are a working mom who has risen to such a high level in your professional life. How do you balance your home life and your work life, and is balance even possible?

MC: If you're someone who really has a clear drive to want to progress to senior levels in corporate, unfortunately, it's very difficult to say that you can have a real work-life balance. I think with every decision in life, there are choices that you have to make. I know there are females, who work in my team, whose mindset is they never want to get to the top of corporate. They are happy to do their job, be stimulated for eight hours a day, and then get home and still be there for their kids from a time point of view. I think those are choices that you need to make.

The bottom line is, if you want to get to senior levels of corporate, it's very difficult to keep everything in balance. However, I think what kills most women is the guilt. And if you're going to allow the guilt to kill you, then you're going to end up losing both battles because you'll be a really bad mom and you'll be bad at work because you're not really sure where you want to be or what you want to do. So I personally believe in quality of time as opposed to quantity of time. Even though I only get to spend two hours with my kids every day when I get home, those two hours are theirs. When I get home, it's completely switching off from work, giving them their time until they go to bed and then my laptop comes out and I start working again. When it comes to weekends, unless Rome is completely burning, that is my time with my kids. And I believe that I'm a better mom, because I'm sufficiently stimulated in my life such that I'm able to be the best mom to them that I can be.

I also think it's really awesome for young girls growing up with working moms, to be able to see that and aspire to being awesome themselves. It's difficult to manage everything, but you've just got try do it.

I'm not always perfect. There was an instance a few months ago, where I had been traveling and I hadn't had a chance to catch up on the chat with the school moms. There was a day where the kids had to do a character dress-up from a book and my son was the only one who wasn't dressed up. In that situation there were two things I could do, I could either beat myself up about it, and really punish myself for being a bad mum. Or I could look at it and say, well, there are going to be times in his life when he's not always going to arrive somewhere as he should. And how do you start preparing your kids for the big world? Because life happens and you're never going to be on top of everything in your life. The way I looked at the situation was saying to him, "that's okay, did you at least try to be innovative and talk about your best book character even though you weren't dressed as the character?" So, for me it's around the communication and it's around how you receive the message as the parent to ensure that you position that in the best way to your kids so that it doesn't affect them.

PG: Do you think we're moving towards more of a gender balance in terms of these things? Where it's not going to be this very black and white situation where moms have to give up things for their careers and dads don't?

MC: Absolutely, I can already see it in my family. My husband and I both have high profile jobs so the only way to do it is for both of us to share home responsibilities equally. Because otherwise it's just not sustainable to keep everything in balance. You know, gone are the days where the dads went to work and the moms stayed home. The times have changed significantly, and the world has evolved. I think now it's all about having a good support structure as a family. I think from a personal time point of view, as husband and wife, you have to share the responsibilities equally in terms of the kids. It's definitely where the world is going.

Paula Gilbert, Editor, Connecting Africa

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