CFO Cynthia Pongweni argues that more women need to be brought to the table.
Cynthia Pongweni is grateful for the stimulating challenges that the Mineworkers Investment Company (MIC) continues to bring her even after almost 15 years as its CFO. “It’s such a diverse environment. Every day is different and offers new lessons,” she says.
“The role grows in terms of its breadth as opposed to its depth, so what makes me tick is rooted in a desire to keep learning.” In line with this desire, Cynthia completed her MBA five years ago at the age of 37 with a 10-month-old daughter at home.
“I needed and wanted to do it, I wanted to learn and challenge myself,” she says. Studying through the University of Chicago, Booth Business School of Business, she was selected as one of Poets&Quants’ 2017 top 50 executive MBA students globally.
The MIC was originally established by the Mineworkers Investment Trust (MIT) in 1994 to provide ongoing funding for the trust’s social and educational projects, which feeds into Cynthia’s dedication to making a tangible impact on the lives of those less fortunate. “The values of MIC and the ultimate contribution to the MIT really speak to me because we make a difference every day,” she says. “We’re focused on making investments that will ensure that the MIC generates enough income to fund the MIT’s projects, which focus on education, training, poverty alleviation and micro-enterprise development for members of the National Union of Mineworkers.” To date the MIC has paid more than R700 million in dividends to the MIT.
In terms of making a difference, Cynthia is also proud of the MIC’s board observer programme, where young black women are given the opportunity to join the MIC board, not as legal directors, but as participants. “That way, they’re able to understand governance and strategy so that when opportunities arise in the future to serve on boards, they have the required board experience that is otherwise difficult to come by,” she says. “We now have the fifth woman in our programme and while that’s a relatively small number, we do believe it’s a tangible way of changing the diversity of boards.”
In her previous position at Deloitte, Cynthia was the only female partner in her division, which gave her a good grounding in terms of working in a financial world that continues to be male dominated. “When you go into boardrooms and when you’re sitting in meetings or negotiating deals, you’re often the only or one of a few women,” she says. “I’d had a little bit of practice from Deloitte, so I didn’t find entering boardrooms as intimidating as I otherwise would have.”
However, there’s still much work to be done in terms of achieving gender equity in the boardroom, she says. Having just one female director is not enough, she adds. “It takes a few people to change the culture of any organisation. It takes two or three of you to start changing the thinking and challenging the norm.”
Cynthia’s own career journey is proof of the value women can bring both within the financial world and to the boardroom. Having attained her articles at Deloitte in Zimbabwe, she made the move to the company’s Johannesburg division, initially as part of the firm’s secondment programme and then as a permanent staff member. “Two years in, I was appointed a partner at the Deloitte Johannesburg office,” she recalls. “A few years later, the MIC who had been my audit client came knocking because they had a vacancy for a CFO. The rest is history.”
Speaking of some of her proudest accomplishments, Cynthia says the work she and her colleagues have done in terms of growing the MIC portfolio stands out. “When I joined in 2008, we had a net asset value (NAV) of just under R2.5 billion. Today, our NAV is R6.6 billion. Having been able to diversify our portfolio into financial services, telco, business services and more has been a career highlight for my entire team. “
Much of this expansion also amidst the challenges brought by Covid-19, something that remains a source of pride for Cynthia. “We managed to deploy just under R1 billion in investments in an environment where we were all working from home and there were barriers in terms of generating deals, negotiating and so on,” she says. “I was primarily involved in the execution for two deals in strategic sectors for the company and the networking in terms of getting deals on the table. As an accountant by trade, being able to do something that makes a difference in the deal-making space was confidence building.”
As part of her role, Cynthia also serves on the boards of Primedia and Tracker Connect and is a member of the FNB Divisional Board. “We sit on boards to look after our investments, drive strategy, transformation, corporate governance and so on,” she explains. She was also previously an independent non-executive director at Consol Holdings.
“It’s about bringing your own diverse thinking and value in terms of influencing what is being discussed,” she says, speaking of being a board member. “Ultimately, it’s about the ability to drive change from the top in terms of how the businesses are operated, over and above the governance that comes with being a board member.”
Whether it be in the boardroom or any male-dominated work environment, Cynthia offers the following advice to female professionals:
- Believe in yourself and know you are in the position you are in because you can – you’ve got the ability. You are not a number. No one is doing you a favour.
- Be intentionally aware of the fact that you are in a male-dominated environment and be aware of what’s happening around you to limit surprises. Be aware of what your environment means for you in terms of both opportunities and challenges to your progression and act accordingly. Be consistently true to who you are both as a woman and as a leader, while being assertive when you need to be.
- Create a support system rooted in the sponsorship and mentorship of a diverse group of people, whether they be men or women. Have people who will vouch for you when your name is being discussed around boardroom tables and who will guide you along your career.
“In life you don’t just get by just by working hard, that’s just the reality,” she adds. “That’s why you need self-belief, awareness, and a support system.”
Personally, Cynthia thrives on the simple things in life. “What I value most, first and foremost is my family,” she says. “I’m very grounded in family values as well as my spiritual beliefs, which provide an anchor and a driving force.” She keeps active through running, walking and golf, all pursuits which give her a mental outlet and the energy she needs to keep going.
Instead of striving for an unattainable work-life balance, Cynthia believes in creating what the media terms a ‘life balance.’ “You need to find a way for both of them to coexist and it’s difficult,” she says. “What works for me is having a strong support system at home to help me in terms of my hectic work schedule.”
Her family supports her career, and her workplace also supports her family commitments. “Creating an environment at work where people are able to live their lives but also deliver is also important,” she says. “You need support in getting the balance right.”