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Seapei Mafoyane, the small-town girl who dared to take her seat at the big table

Seapei Mafoyane, the small-town girl who dared to take her seat at the big table

She thanks her parents for giving her a passion for education.

“People talk about women smashing through the glass ceiling, but nobody talks about how you cut yourself on the shards. That’s why women need thick skin.”

All you need to succeed in business, she says, is big dreams and a hide like a crocodile.

Seapei Mafoyane had just started her job at a bank when she was invited to a meeting with some of the institution’s senior executives. She was nervous and spent hours preparing and studying complicated banking regulations.

This is it, she thought, smiling at the directors around the table – all of whom were men. She’d worked hard to earn her place.

When one of the men asked her if she was going to take the coffee orders, Seapei was confused.

What’s coffee got to do with banking regulations? she wondered. Had she missed this reference in the readings? And then the penny dropped.

“He thought I was the tea lady,” she says. Seapei felt awful…but just for a second.

Seapei knows that for women, especially Black women, to rise to the top in business they must have, as European Central Bank president Christine Lagarde noted, “skin as thick as an old crocodile.”

“My skin is impenetrable,” Seapei says.

Her skin is crocodile-thick because her parents instilled in her an unquenchable work ethic, her speech-and-drama teacher Carol Ashman drew out her insecurity, and her mentor Stephen Mitchley encouraged her to dream. They helped Seapei see that she was worthy and deserved her seat at the table.

Seapei grew up in Mafikeng in the North West and describes herself as “a small-town girl with big city dreams.”

Twenty years ago, she set out to get a foot in the door of corporate South Africa. She not only got her foot in the door, but she also barged inside. Well, not barged. She got inside by distinguishing herself, arriving at the office before anyone, leaving long after everyone and working incredibly hard.

At 44, she’s been the CEO of Shanduka Black ­Umbrellas, a business incubator supporting black entrepreneurs, and now she’s the managing director of Espy Advisory, a successful business and entrepreneurial consultancy.

She thanks her parents for giving her a passion for education.

“My parents couldn’t give me a trust fund, but they could give me an education,” she says.

On Sundays Seapei’s dad handed out newspapers to her and her siblings, quizzing them on the stories and explaining words they didn’t understand.

“He taught me the importance of communication. Those stories also made me realise there’s a whole other world outside our small town.”

Seapei won a scholarship to attend the International School. After school, she had her heart set on studying speech and drama, but her mom wasn’t having it.

“It was 1995 and my mom told me, ‘The new South Africa doesn’t want speech and drama… it wants an education.’ She wanted me to do something safe. She’s the ultimate Black mom!”

That something safe was microbiology, but when Seapei graduated, she realised she didn’t want to spend her days staring at microbes.

She had a bigger vision. She joined a player the financial health industry. Their young leaders’ energy was infectious and Seapei worked hard, won accolades, and was highly regarded.

Six years later, she was restless and wanted a change. That’s when she found herself at the bank being asked to take coffee orders.

“My father taught me not to run away from difficult experiences, but to learn from them. I realised that I had to start all over again to prove why I, a young Black woman, deserve a seat at the table,” she explains.

Seapei eventually left the bank, and her career took more twists and turns, including completing an MBA (her dissertation was on the challenges facing Black female ­entrepreneurs) and joining Black ­Umbrellas in 2012 with a mission to help small Black businesses grow into large sustainable corporations.

Three years ago, she made another leap, launching Espy Advisory, a consultancy offering a mix of economic development and transformation services.

Seapei says women who have succeeded in business have done so because they’ve waged a war against societal expectations.

“People talk about women smashing through the glass ceiling, but nobody talks about how you cut yourself on the shards when you smash that glass ceiling,” she says, adding that’s why women need thick skin.

Seapei has made it to the top but insists she’s still a small-town girl at heart.

“I’m grateful for having grown up in a small town because it’s where I learnt the value of respect and neighbourliness and operating from a place of kindness; the things I carry with me everywhere I go.”

Seapei’s life has been filled with change, challenges, and rich experiences, which have given her a three-dimensional view of the world.

So, what’s next?

“The double bass,” she says sharply. “I told my friend I want to be a bassist and she asked: ‘To what end?’ I said, ‘Wherever it takes me.’ And that for me is exciting. The world is wide open.”

Jonathan Ancer

Change expert, Jonathan Ancer, believes that the big change equals big opportunity.

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