NAME: Dr Nolulamo Gwagwa
AGE: 59
SECTOR: Financial services and private equity

Dr Nolulamo (Lulu) Nobambiswano Gwagwa is an impressive individual. She completed her Bachelor of Arts at the University of Fort Hare, then her Master's in town and regional planning at the University of Natal’s Planning School. She then gained qualifications from the London School of Economics and Political Science (an MSc), and a doctorate from University College London. On top of it all, she is currently studying philosophy.

This is pretty impressive for someone who, as a young child, had no idea of what she might like to be one day – it didn't occur to her to think she could become, for example, a doctor (although this isn't where she would end up at all). “I had no idea what kind of person I thought I would become. Growing up in a rural area with no exposure limits one’s imagination of what's possible. So, what I thought I would be was not as clear when I was growing up.”

She has since had an expansive career. Being a woman in some of the most male-dominated industries, including the financial sector, Dr Gwagwa understands the importance of the centrality of women in development. “This is not just political speak. It is based on scientific research that I and many other scholars and practitioners have conducted.”

Dr Gwagwa spent the early years of her career in spatial planning in NGOs, as a lecturer, and finally as deputy director general in the Department of Public Works as well as a five-year stint at the Independent Development Trust (IDT), where she worked in the fields of community and infrastructure development. 

At some stage the investment bug bit.

As the chief executive officer of Lereko Investments, a black-owned investment company, and one of the principals in the Lereko Metier Capital Growth Fund, Dr Gwagwa entered the industry of investments as a result of serendipitous coincidence. It was neither planned, nor did she have any particular interest in it – which only makes the stellar work she has done and continues to do all the more striking.

Those interested in investing should begin by doing their research, Dr Gwagwa notes. “It’s best to first understand the investment landscape, identify areas of focus depending on one’s risk appetite and an ability to fund the investment," she says. "A lot of young people invest in not so well-thought out investments which promise overnight high returns. Consequently, their hard-earned cash disappears, and they have no claim against anyone.”

Dr Gwagwa is one of many women who has lived through the demands of balancing their professional and private lives, having to make choices that men are rarely faced with. She mentors a group of young women through Girl’s Lunches hosted five times a year. “It started with my lunches with my own daughter, Nana, then it spread. Right now, we have more than 40 young women involved,” she declares. “I get a lot of personal satisfaction out of seeing young people gaining confidence to chase their dreams.”

Her philanthropic work extends beyond young women. Dr Gwagwa also founded the Mhakazi Trust two decades ago in order to empower the young people of Umzimkhulu. “I founded the trust in honour of my parents who taught me the value of supporting others. I am where I am today because of many women and men who scaffolded me in many ways. So I am simply ploughing back and paying it forward.”

What has set Dr Gwagwa apart? How does one become such an experienced and influential person? She answers with humility that would catch many off guard. “I don’t necessarily think there’s anything specific that sets me apart from a whole lot of accomplished women in this country and continent. When given an opportunity, I simply do my very best, and I invest in continuous self-improvement. I am very clear about my capabilities and limitations. I have also come to realise the importance of seeking advice and support – which I have not always done in the past."

Her parting words for young people? Words we’ve heard multiple times but ring true each time, “There are no shortcuts in life.”

I get a lot of personal satisfaction out of seeing young people gaining confidence to chase their dreams.

NAME: Dr Phethiwe Matutu 
AGE: 52
SECTOR: Government agency 
POSITION: Group Executive of Strategy, Planning and Partnerships

As the group executive of strategic planning and partnerships at the National Research Foundation, Dr Phethiwe Matutu is truly an accomplished professional. With a PhD in mathematics from UCT, Dr Matutu has worked at the Department of Science and Technology for nine years as chief director of human capital and science promotion. Prior to that, she spent 16 years as an academic. She served in numerous committees including being a member of the Department of Higher Education and Training Ministerial Task Team responsible for drafting the Implementation Plan of the White Paper on Post-School Education and Training.

Dr Matutu’s interest in mathematics began at home, working in a shop where she had to calculate the patrons' change. Now she’s at the point where she can use her skills for the betterment of the research field in South Africa. Passionate about transformation in her industry, Dr Matutu focuses on where knowledge begins.

“When you realise that thousands of learners in rural areas cannot read, especially in English, it’s systematic. Of those I went to school within the former Transkei, those surviving are from educated families. Consequentially, we’ve gone far in life. The divide is inequality and it keeps replicating itself.”

How did Dr Matutu get to the place she is now, that includes doing work that will impact the future of young people deeply? She’s profoundly aware of the privileges she was afforded and how she made the best of the circumstances she grew up in. “I’ve never been one of those who believe in being ‘special’. I don’t believe I’m a high achiever. I believe it’s an issue of opportunity – it's those that avail themselves according to your position in society and the environment you’re in that enable growth in your life.”

“The home I grew up in, the husband I married, the homestead I then created and the institutions I found myself in – these along with the qualities I have, determined my path. I’m a relatively focused person, confident, hardworking and I do not give up. And I think highly of people. These factors are real and play themselves out, they impact who gets ahead and who doesn’t.”

Humble to the core, Dr Matutu is cognisant of every part of her life leading her to where she is currently. She speaks on her experiences as chapters of growth, “...the only difference now is that I’m at a systematic level that allows me to make changes through policy, funding and guidelines that lead to transformation.”

Dr Matutu inspires change, and in that, highlights self-certainty as a black woman, “My boldness and confidence in what I do pays off. I was in my second year of university when I told my lecturer that I was going to do my doctorate in mathematics and become a mathematician.”

Even with an extensive career path that screams “goals!”, Dr Matutu understands and places importance on finding your way gradually and not being too hard on yourself as you do. “Initially, I threw my life into work and developing my career to establish myself – attaining goals and achieving at a rapid rate. But right now, I have more meaning in all areas of my life, a balance which I really appreciate.” It's difficult finding balance while chasing your dreams but it has developed in time and Dr Matutu prides herself on remaining true to herself throughout the process and in all she does.

“It's important to me to be on the ground in terms of the way I interact with people, whether it’s the employees at work or family. There’s a certain expectation of how a scientist or an executive looks and behaves and that’s not me. I chat to people like I’m in my kitchen. That humility, that accessibility and being true to my core – grounds me. I'm just a human being.”

...the only difference now is that I’m at a systematic level that allows me to make changes through policy, funding and guidelines that lead to transformation.