Making tough decisions reaps rewards for Shabana Aboo Baker

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For Shabana Aboo Baker, becoming group financial director at Mustek has meant listening to her gut.

From aspiring to a medical career to changing track to accountancy after realising that her blood-induced queasiness would pose a problem, Shabana Aboo Baker, group FD at Mustek, learned the value of following her instincts early on.

“In hindsight, sometimes I don't know whether that was the way to go – when you watch Grey's Anatomy, it looks pretty cool,” she laughs.

“But I think we all create our own value or add value in our own way in whatever we do in our careers.”

Creating value is something Shabana, who describes herself as a left-brained, numbers person, has definitely done throughout her professional journey. After attaining her BCom in accounting sciences at the University of Pretoria, she started off doing academic articles, and joined Deloitte in her second year where she served a range of public and private clients.

Completing her articles at Deloitte, Shabana stayed on at the company, climbing the ladder from audit manager to associate director, during which time she was seconded to Deloitte Global, developing and strategically influencing global audit quality projects that still run today.

Later returning to the African member firm to become deputy national professional director, which involved driving audit quality, Shabana was delighted to become involved at an executive level. Yet, just when she was en route to achieving her ultimate dream of becoming an audit partner, life intervened and derailed her plans.

An emotional exit

Immersed in a rewarding but stressful role, Shabana’s work-life balance was becoming extremely challenging. “I was pushing myself to become an audit partner and then in July 2018, I had my second daughter,” she recalls. “She was born in winter and had a bad chest and didn’t sleep well at night. Then I had a bit of a health scare.” By the time the end of 2019 rolled around Shabana had to make a tough decision.

“Either I was going to sacrifice my family and my health and drive this audit partner dream, or I was going to sacrifice the audit partner dream and put my health and family first.”

While she was devastated to say goodbye to Deloitte, Shabana knew that there is power in time and that God always has a plan. She made the tough decision and took up a senior lecturing post at her alma mater.

“Tuks had often approached me about a lecturing position, because I did my masters in tax when I was doing academic articles,” she says. “I enjoy the mentoring and the coaching, and I thought lecturing would be something where I could add value and do something I enjoyed.” Yet she only delivered one face-to-face lecture before Covid-19 hit and the country went into lockdown.

“For the eight months that I worked at the university, I talked to my computer – we went online and had to record our lectures because there were accessibility challenges with live lectures.” Yet Shabana connected with students who reached out for one-on-one online support. “The emotional strain that students went through over that period was enormous, and I was quite fortunate to be able to be there to support some of them in getting through the anxiety and difficulties they were going through.”

Making the right call

Towards the end of 2020, Shabana was approached by her longtime Deloitte audit client, Mustek, to take on the role of group financial manager (FM). While she felt she hadn’t had the full academic experience due to Covid-19, she decided to take the plunge. “When I’d audited at Mustek, I loved the culture and the business,” she recalls.

“I hadn’t had that footprint in business – I’d always seen it from the audit side of things. So, I thought, let me give it a shot.” She never looked back.

Aside from technical accounting work, Shabana has also became involved in certain operational elements. “I joined Mustek for a learning experience – one of my core values is to continue learning. It’s been a real growth experience.”

“I’ve made peace with the fact that whatever happens in my career, I need to be happy. I need to have a good work balance – with the help of my amazing support structure – and be there for my family and maintain my health. I'm strong in my faith, believe that there is power in time, and I put trust in God. His plan is the best of plans.”

Current challenges

When Mustek’s founder passed away unexpectedly last year, there was a corporate reshuffle and Shabana became the group financial director, a role that has brought invaluable experience. As an ICT equipment distribution company, Mustek benefitted from the move to remote working during Covid-19. Also supplying sustainable energy products, they’ve also done well amidst the Eskom-fuelled energy crisis.

Yet, they cannot become complacent, Shabana says.

“Ensuring sustainability is vital especially with interest rates at the levels they are and current market pressures. In addition, we’re very exposed to the volatility in the forex rates. The biggest challenge for me currently is working capital management and driving the importance of this into the business – making sure that we stay close to our cash and manage our stock and debtor’s levels.”

Navigating an environment that was previously led by three white men for years, as a young Indian women, has presented certain unique dynamics and considerations, says Shabana. “Yet this has also been a great opportunity and I am grateful for the support, encouragement and empowerment I have received from the CEO and MD. I also believe that I have been able to bring in an element of ‘freshness’ from the way things were done previously and that I have been able to significantly influence the group’s strategy and plans.”

“I see myself as being partner to the CEO. It’s not just giving him the numbers, but being part of the story behind what’s going to drive those numbers.” While being a new and young member of the board can be intimidating, the significant support she’s received has helped ease the transition.

While work-life balance is not always possible, it’s about time management and prioritising, says Shabana. “It’s important to instil in my daughters the importance of the independence of women, why I need to work and what am I doing. Especially for Indian girls, it’s about persevering, having faith, and knowing it can be done.” In her limited free time, Shabana exercises to de-stress and loves travelling with her family – seeing the world through the eyes of her children.

By coming to work each day and asking: “What can I do today that's going to make this place better than when I got here?"

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