Gender transformation is happening at a relatively slow pace in South Africa — just two women chief executives were listed among the chief executives of the top 100 companies by the JSE in December 2014.
Koo Govender says she believes only five advertising companies have women leading them. “We need to take a step towards empowering women to attain serious positions of leadership in the advertising and marketing industry,” she says.
“Almost 24 years ago, when I started working, I had the academic qualifications but no life skills to enable me to survive in the corporate world.”
Many young women find themselves in the same position today, she says. She recalls looking up to the women she saw in higher positions, but could not rely on them for mentorship because many did not seem focused on the advancement of women in the workplace.
Govender was appointed chief executive at brand experience agency VWV Group in September 2013 after 22 years with M-Net, where she rose to the position of director: corporate marketing and communications.
Last year she launched the Phakama Women’s Academy, VWV’s corporate social responsibility project. Phakama means “to rise” in a range of Nguni languages.
The academy is aimed at fast-tracking young women’s acquisition of skills. “We take on second- and third-year female students in the field of marketing and public relations, at the point where they are getting ready to go out and find internships,” she says.
The students come from three different institutions of higher learning: the AAA School of Advertising, the Vega School of Brand Leadership and the University of Johannesburg.
“All three offer courses that fit in with VWV’s sphere of business, and that’s why they were chosen,” says Govender.
The students are selected on their academic performance — they have to be achieving a solid 60%-plus —but there is also an interview process. One of the things assessed is their “passion for giving back to women”, says Govender.
The selected students are offered the opportunity of attending classes at VWV, packing in a great deal of learning every alternate Friday from 1pm to 4pm for three months.
A total of seven modules is covered in that period, focused on practical work skills such as writing an effective curriculum vitae, managing a personal brand in the workplace, finding a suitable coach or mentor, etiquette in the boardroom and modules dealing with negotiating office politics.
On top of this, each young woman is assigned an individual mentor. These are not VWV staff; Govender sourced appropriate chief executives and marketing directors, many of them personal friends who share her passion.
All of the 26 young women who were part of the 2014 pilot project and graduated from Phakama last November have found jobs; many of them, according to Govender, were employed by the mentors to whom they were assigned.
For her, this initiative is personal. “I want to lead a life of significance,” she says. “This is my legacy.”