In addition to a successful career in South Africa’s corporate boardrooms, Wendy Luhabe has been a pioneer in championing the economic empowerment of women to become active participants in the South African economic landscape. She co-founded Women Investments Portfolio Holdings, the first female-owned company to be listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and pioneered another first for South Africa by launching the multi-million Private Equity fund for women-owned enterprises. She is an avid advocate of social entrepreneurship and strongly believes in the potential of human capital. Wendy Luhabe: ‘Financial institutions need to re-evaluate their role and responsibility in society.’
Next month you will speak at the annual event of the Global Alliance for Banking on Values in Berlin. What will be your key message to this international group of bankers?
‘The current economic growth models do not work anymore. GDP as a measure is not able to capture the full value of an economy. It excludes the most important ingredient: human capital and our value in the economy. The banking industry therefore – as should any other industry – has a responsibility to use its services and products to get people out of poverty, not to drive them towards deeper levels of poverty by creating a dependency on debt for example. Banks have a moral responsibility to encourage consumers to live within their means. Banks must examine their role in creating poverty in the global economy.’
Bridging the gap between women and the economy is a common thread in all your endeavours. What motivates you to have this focus?
‘I believe very strongly in the potential of human capital to drive growth, equality, economic justice and prosperity in society. Women are underutilised in most parts of the world and therefore our contribution to society is lost or undervalued. It is essential that women are equipped and encouraged to assume their rightful role in all spheres of society because ultimately, human genius exists in human potential, not in our experience. The world should do more to develop human capital and create opportunities for both men and women to contribute meaningfully.’
Have conditions improved for the South African women as much as you envisaged when you founded Women Investment Portfolio Holdings and the Private Equity Fund for women-owned enterprises?
‘In 1994, when South Africa became a democracy, women took about 10 steps forward. Regrettably most of these steps have been reversed over the past 19 years. What needs to be done is for women to take responsibility for their own participation and contribution to society. We also need to collaborate more around common issues, share experiences so we can learn from each other and mentor younger women.’
Your work brings you to an international setting. Are the challenges women face in South Africa different from those faced in the rest of the African continent or other continents like North America, Asia and Latin America ?
‘Women face similar challenges because the origin and root causes of these challenges are the same. What varies are the conditions. Some are more oppressive than others and each part of the world uses a whole range of reasons to justify why women must only bear children and keep a home. The recent incidences with the 15-year old Malala and women who were raped in India are just a few examples.’
How do you define social entrepreneurship and what is needed to boost it?
‘It is a business or enterprise which is established to make a social impact through its approach, its ideas or its empowerment model which recognises that even business has a responsibility that extends beyond profit or the provision of employment. We must develop people so that they are equipped to contribute towards a shared vision. The younger generations are already driving a new business model. I meet many who want to give back and who want to make a difference. I am convinced that with the explosion of social media we will see this approach to the economy achieve scale.’
What role do you expect from banks in this process?
‘There are already banks here in South Africa, like Capitec Bank, that are revolutionising banking by creating access to the “unbankable” and charging affordable rates. Financial institutions therefore need to re-evaluate their role and responsibility in society, and they need to rethink their business model because technology will soon make them irrelevant if they do not adjust their current form.’
Today’s global challenges are numerous, from climate change and global health to food security and bridging the ever-increasing gap between the haves and have-nots. Do you feel that social entrepreneurship is the solution to address these challenges?
‘Social entrepreneurship is just one of the solutions. The fundamental solution is really about human values, our attitudes towards others, resources, ownership and opportunities. The levels of greed and corruption in society are unprecedented. This is a problem of the human value system. In many respects we have created these global challenges with our thinking, our attitudes and our values. We think we are in control and yet every day we are reminded that we are an insignificant small part of creation.’