Thabiso loves working with start-ups, and finds it inspiring and motivating to be part of helping them grow.
There is one sector of our economy that continues to flourish and that is the tech industry. Covid-19, and the resulting demand for IT solutions, benefitted the sector and there are several South African tech companies that have amassed millions in funding since the start of 2021.
Someone who is very excited about African start-ups is Thabiso Foto, the CFO at Founders Factory Africa. Founders Factory Africa (FFA) is a corporate-backed investor, venture builder, incubator, and accelerator. They operate a unique early-stage investment model that involves leveraging investment partnerships with corporates to back promising founders with cash, operational support, and partnerships to accelerate access to markets.
Thabiso has a passion for socio-economic development initiatives and has first-hand experience of how technology can be leveraged to improve quality of life. Her work experience includes being chief of staff at Absa Investments as well as CFO/COO/executive director at ALUWANI Capital Partners. Her experience spans across several African countries including South Africa, Zambia, Namibia, Botswana, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and Kenya.
Thabiso grew up in Zimbabwe with a mom who motivated and pushed her seven children to excel at school, which resulted in all of them now having successful careers in various disciplines, barring one sibling who suffers from a brain disorder.
“My parents were very strict when it came to academics and invested the little they had in ensuring that we had the best possible education they could afford. Luckily, my older siblings did extremely well at school. I am number six out of the seven and therefore, they set a strong example for me. I had to follow suit,” she says.
“I often remind my mom, who was a stay-at-home mom, that we wouldn’t be where we are without her encouragement and discipline. Home was an extension of school away from school,” says Thabiso.
She was a sprinter and basketball player at school and at some point, considered professional athletics. It was her older sister, who influenced the CA route. “We grew up in a township. Upon completion of my high school, my sister, Tammy Makgatho, who is also now a finance exec, was already working and assisting my parents to financially support her younger siblings, including myself.
“She advised the CA route as the most appropriate, given our circumstances, and that it would enable me to study part-time at UNISA through a scholarship offered by Deloitte, while serving articles that would eventually lead me to becoming a CA with the hope of earning a better income.
“So, yes, my career began at Deloitte when I was 19 and I studied part-time for my undergrad. I spent three years there, and then relocated to South Africa in 2007 to join some of my siblings who were already living here in Joburg. From there on, I went on to work at Grant Thornton in Cape Town, completed my articles and qualified as a CA in 2010.”
Thabiso enjoys the fact that FFA is not a traditional venture capital firm. “We are venture builders dedicated to solving some of Africa’s biggest challenges through technology, with a focus on healthcare, financial services, and agriculture. In addition to being a seed-stage investor, we turn ideas into investable businesses through our Venture Build Program. Through our Venture Scale Program, we partner with founders who already have a product in market and are seeing some early signs of demand, and we work with them to accelerate their growth into other markets.
“We invest in seed-stage start-ups in fintech, healthtech, and agritech across Africa. Our model allows us to invest cash, provide operational support and we broker partnerships with corporates to accelerate our founders’ ability to launch their products in market quicker. In exchange, we take a small equity stake in the business.
“We have a team of experts in every discipline required to build technology start-ups from an idea into investable opportunities. We also have a team that helps these start-ups to be investor-ready as well as make introductions to our global investor networks. On average, we have six Venture Build start-ups and 15 Venture Scale start-ups going through our programmes annually,” she says.
FFA is a corporate-backed business, and its partners are Standard Bank, Netcare and the Small Foundation. Thabiso says the corporates have contributed about $30 million (approximate R492 million), but they give more than just money. “When we want to pilot a new product, we rely on them to give us the platform to test it and distribute. Standard Bank has a large client base and an extensive footprint across Africa, which makes it the best partner to launch innovative fintech products on the continent.”
Thabiso mentions that FFA’s target is to build more than 80 start-ups over a five-year period, and they are halfway through that target already. She enjoys working directly with start-ups and witnessing innovative ideas being turned into scalable businesses.
“The team holds equity in those businesses, and therefore it's in our best interests to support every single business to improve its chance of success,” she says. She not only leads finance and operations for FFA, but also works with founders to help them with their own finance and operations strategies. She currently serves as a director for two of their portfolio businesses, a fintech/logistics tech start-up and a healthtech start-up.
Thabiso has extensive experience across a broad set of fields, having worked in multiple sectors. She has learnt many lessons along the way, and she shares some highlights from her current organisation.
She admits that being surrounded by creatives and innovators has allowed her to see “design thinking” methodologies in practice. Adapting to a design-thinking mindset has transformed how she approaches problems in every aspect of her life.
She adds that she now has a better appreciation for building ecosystems and not just focusing on your immediate business needs. “When businesses come together, big and small, magic happens. It's not about who is taking the bigger slice of the pie. We have seen how large corporates are being disrupted, because for the longest time, they have focused on just their piece of the pie and set barriers of entry so high and discouraged other smaller players from participating in the economy.
“But now start-ups are disrupting these historical, oligopolistic setups, and finding ways to circumvent these barriers using technology. Therefore, it is imperative for survival that large corporates explore ways to collaborate with start-ups,” she notes.
“The obvious advantages are that both parties benefit from knowledge sharing, and access to innovative talent – which is needed to build more innovative and inclusive products and solutions that the communities around them love and need. In doing so, we all contribute to creating employment opportunities, addressing existing inequalities and ultimately contribute positively to the economy. The building of the entire ecosystem benefits us all.”
Thabiso says that early on in her career, she also got to learn how important it is to build a network and to surround herself with great mentors and sponsors. Her first mentor and sponsor, who remains active in her life today, is Mary Vilakazi, who is now the group COO at FirstRand. They worked together at MS Group in 2010, when Mary was the CFO there.
Thabiso also mentions that James Gurney, who was the MD and a geologist at MS Group, constantly challenged her thinking. “James challenged me on everything, whether it was an accounting standard, or tax compliance issue, and in my mind, I questioned how a trained geologist could challenge me in that way. This taught me the importance of the diversity of minds, and since then I seek opportunities to work closely with people who don’t have the same background and thinking as me.”
Thabiso recalls that through opportunities awarded to her at ALUWANI Capital, she learnt to be more curious and have more self-belief. “ALUWANI was a management buyout from Momentum Asset Management. It was my first-time leading investment operations. What was intimidating for me, was the fact that all the investment operations leaders across various asset management firms were relatively older white males, and for a moment that gave me a feeling of ‘I don’t belong’.
“Fund operations is, in most parts accounting for investment transactions, managing operational risk as a custodian of others’ assets and executing efficiently. What helped me navigate this role was simply going back to accounting principles and risk management principles and I drew from that. I am also grateful that I was surrounded by a leadership team and a board that were supportive and had extensive industry experience, and I could draw from that.”
Looking towards the future
“I envision a future where I will continue to do work that seeks to invest in undiscovered brilliant opportunities for investment, work that seeks to close the funding gap for underrepresented businesses and that includes SMEs and start-ups. I want to continue to do work that contributes to solving inequalities in Africa,” she says.
“I am currently doing my executive MBA with SaÏd Business School and part of why I chose Oxford, is because of how the programme is tailored for entrepreneurship, technology and innovation and building sustainable businesses and ecosystems.
“I would love to see more investments going into the unlisted space. There are many great companies that need investments, but due to traditional ways of scoring businesses and existing biases, they don’t get the funding. I am excited to be in a space where we have already started to drive that change.”
The balancing act
Thabiso and her husband are the proud parents of a nine-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son. Her daughter takes after Mom and loves all kinds of sports, from diving and swimming to gymnastics and hockey. Her brother is still finding his favourite, but for now he loves swimming and playing soccer with his cousins. He also loves cooking.
It is not always easy to balance a demanding career with personal life, but she learnt early on how important discipline and boundaries are. “I had to work and study at the same time from the age of 19, and back then in articles, we often worked up until midnight. That gave me only the early hours of the morning to study. That is when I became an early riser and I still wake up early to get a head start. I am fortunate to have a job where I can enjoy most of my weekends with my family. I also try to set boundaries for work and family time in the week. I do the morning school runs and try not to schedule meetings after 5.30pm so that I have time with my kids, to have dinner as a family and read them a bedtime story. I am grateful that my husband is very hands-on with the kids and household responsibilities, so we help each other.
“Mom guilt is real when you are a working mom, but I am learning every day to be kinder to myself. I am grateful to have a strong support system through my family as well as my amazing helper and nanny.”
Thabiso’s preferred way to exercise is on the basketball court. She plays socially for Phoenix Flames, a basketball club that meets weekly at Wanderers, and from time to time participates in the various leagues in and around Joburg.
It was Michael Jordan who said that some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, and others make it happen. Thabiso Foto is definitely part of the last category.