“I have never held a job that had anything to do with corporate social responsibility,” says Judi Nwokedi. “I have always just made it a strategic part of my business or division.”
Nwokedi is widely known as the founder of loveLife 21 years ago, so this statement may come as a surprise, but social responsibility is so deeply woven into her life that she takes this creed with her wherever she is working or living.
“The reason I’ve always embedded responsibility, accountability and ethics and values in my job is that I have a very strong political conscience,” she says. “What has defined me is that it’s been part of my DNA.”
Nwokedi’s history has informed her conscience: “I bring existential experience to this debate.”
She was born into a family that was forcibly removed five times, ultimately landing up on the Cape Flats as a child.
“I grew up there; it was a completely unserviced area, there was just a house. No water, no sanitation … I didn’t have to learn about the importance of these things,” she says.
The understanding of injustice that was bred into her marrow was reinforced when she entered the world of business.
“Being a woman, you understand injustice: you’re not there, in the position you hold, because you’ve been embraced; you’re there because you’ve had to push hard for it.” In addition, she says, she was a black woman in a corporate environment that was overwhelmingly white. “Understanding the disadvantages of race, class and gender — it gives you a competitive advantage,” she laughs.
Added to her individual experience is that of her extended family — ranging from teenage pregnancy to drug abuse and gangsterism. “It’s an experience you can’t escape, no matter how you change your personal situation,” she says.
One evening she and a friend who came from a similar background and had also achieved a great deal were confronted by a group of young men walking towards them on a city street. They looked like gangsters, she recalls, but her friend just laughed and said, “Don’t worry, that’s my cousin.”
“Family — they will find you wherever you are,” comments Nwokedi. Which means that she continues to be informed in a meaningful way about the very issues that corporate social responsibility (CSR) confronts.
“So you walk into a boardroom and all of a sudden you’re unconscious of all this stuff?” She shakes her head, unable to envisage that. Instead, she believes that “all this stuff” has to become an integral part of doing business.
“CSR has to be part of a 360-degree value proposition within your company. Take the mines: if you haven’t dealt with gender-based violence and sexual harassment in the community from which your workforce comes, you will never succeed with a workplace project.”
That’s vertical as well as horizontal, she points out — the values and truths of a CSR project have to infuse the organisation right up to the boardroom level, as well as reaching out into the community.