Vodacom’s managing executive of group strategy and innovation, Mamela Selamolela, is a warrior in the war on women in South Africa. She is a fighter because she is not silent about the fact that women’s disorder continues in our country, and she knows what needs to be done to curb this disorder. Selamolela’s advocacy for women’s rights is directly reflected in her work, where she actively empowers women.
We recently caught up with Selamolela to find out more about herself, Vodacom’s role in empowering women in the technology sector and what it takes to make it to the top of the telecoms sector.
Tell us about yourself and your career path…
As a black child growing up in South Africa in the 1980s, my parents were determined that I would not be exposed to the apartheid Bantu education system. At the time, church independent schools were the only other educational option for black children, so we moved to the East Rand and my parents sacrificed everything to allow me to be sent to St Columba’s School in Benoni. It gave me a solid foundation for accessing learning opportunities and supported my sense of intellectual curiosity that has significantly shaped my career.
After completing my Masters in Economics at the University of Cape Town, I joined the consulting firm McKinsey and Company as a business analyst. This gave me exposure to different industries and a wide range of business functions, from strategy to operations. The firm then gave me the opportunity to study for an MBA at the London Business School.
After about three and a half years in the UK, my husband and I returned to South Africa, where I continued to work for McKinsey as an engagement manager, advising various African companies on issues relevant to the continent, such as strategy, operations, and organizational effectiveness in various sectors including education, healthcare, energy and logistics.
What prompted you to enter the telecom sector in 2015?
Having worked in different sectors with different companies in a consulting role, I wanted to focus on one area where I could build a deeper level of knowledge and experience. Importantly, I wanted to work in an industry that had an impact beyond the commercial bottom line, but also had a tangible and lasting impact on society. I did not have significant experience in the telecommunications sector, but I was intrigued by the power of mobile technology to change lives and contribute to sustainable socio-economic development, especially in Africa.
I was working for another mobile operator when Vodacom approached me in 2016 to lead the group’s strategy and shape Vodacom’s transformation into a digital company. It took some convincing, but Group CEO Shamil Jusoub was persuasive and I was excited to be part of shaping Vodacom’s future at a time when new innovations in mobile technologies such as OTT [over-the-top media service] and digital payments have changed the future of the industry.
I spent an incredible five and a half years at Vodacom, including two and a half years as Head of the Central Region, where I worked with an incredible team to harness the power of technology to transform lives, businesses and public sector organizations in the Free State and Northern Cape. I am now Group Head of Vodacom Strategy and Innovation, working with all our markets in Africa to deliver on our Vision 2025 strategy.
What do you enjoy most about working in tech as a woman?
As a woman in a leadership position, I can bring a different voice and perspective to the boardroom, allowing for more balanced dialogue and decision-making. Working in a traditionally male-dominated industry, I have the responsibility and opportunity to be a part of the success of other women in the organization. While there are still far too few women in tech and especially in senior leadership positions, it was amazing to see the numbers growing and more role models emerging for young women and girls.
It was also great to see the impact of our technology on empowering other women, which benefits society as a whole. For example, by providing digital solutions for entrepreneurs and women farmers, we give them access to tools that increase their productivity and financial inclusion, which in turn benefits their families, communities and the socio-economic development of our country and continent .
What sparked your passion for the development and success of young South African women?
My parents did a fantastic job under very difficult circumstances. I had the best education, but even then I didn’t always have access to networks, information and advice on how to really navigate the world of work. There are many trailblazers like me who have no frame of reference when they start their careers. There are rules of engagement, especially in the corporate environment, that are not transparent, and a poor understanding of how businesses and corporations actually function can put young people at risk of not being able to progress and fulfill their potential.
Fortunately, I have been blessed with incredible mentors, sponsors, experiences, opportunities, and wisdom in my own journey, and I want to share what I and other “innovators” have learned in the trenches to hopefully equip, educate, and empower others to their travels.
How does Vodacom support and empower women in the telecommunications industry?
The representation of women remains a challenge for our business and the wider telecommunications sector, which is why Vodacom supports gender empowerment initiatives both within and outside the organisation.
We need to start from the ground up by encouraging and empowering young women to pursue careers in technology. One such initiative is the Vodacom CodeLikeAGirl program launched in 2017 targeting girls aged 14 to 18. Girls learn to code and develop communication skills to stimulate their interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). career. More than just giving girls access to digital skills, the program helps instill confidence in working with technology and provides a platform to engage and inspire other girls interested in STEM and to meet women in technology who are powerful role models for imitation.
I am also particularly proud of the Vodacom Scholarship Programme. As a scholarship recipient, I know the impact this kind of support can have, especially for young women. Every year, Vodacom South Africa provides funding to students from disadvantaged communities, enabling them to gain qualifications in STEM and helping to address South Africa’s skills shortage. Last fiscal year, we awarded scholarships to 80 full-time students, of which approximately 60% were women.
In addition to increasing representation, we must help women move into higher levels of leadership and influence. In our own organization, we have a strong focus on building future women leaders. We have expanded our Women’s Networking Forum, which aims to leverage various development programs to advance women to higher and higher management levels. To promote women’s success in the workplace, Vodacom also focuses on equal pay, supporting work-life balance and striving for gender balance at all levels and areas of the business.
Why do you support women’s empowerment and gender equality?
I would really like to see us live in a world where women’s empowerment and gender equality are no longer issues that need special attention. I would like to say that we fulfilled the dreams of our grandmothers and mothers before us and achieved the equality for which they fought and sacrificed. Unfortunately, we don’t have it.
Therefore, I believe that our generation has a responsibility to continue the fight for equality. Those of us in leadership have an even greater responsibility to create an environment that enables and accelerates the success of women who look up to us. Our daughters need to live in a world where there is no such thing as ‘male dominance’ and where they are free to dream, strive and achieve on their own terms.
In South Africa in particular, we live in the middle of a war that has been declared against women and children whose lives are threatened every day by gender-based violence. Therefore, we must step up and strengthen all that we do to empower women and ensure that they are equal citizens who have the right to safely enjoy all that this country has to offer and reach their full potential. I am proud of Vodacom’s commitment to women’s safety through the work we do to end gender-based violence and support survivors in all our markets.
Can you share some personal tips on how to reach the top in your industry?
My first piece of advice to young professionals is to understand that your career trajectory is set in the first 10 years – how you start your career path is incredibly important, as it sets you on a course that can be difficult to realign later on. You need to decide early on what your ambitions are, what kind of environment you want to work in, and who you want to deal with in terms of leaders and managers.
My second piece of advice is that just showing up isn’t enough to get to the top – if you want more, you have to do more. You must be willing to go beyond the basics of your role and outside of your comfort zone. By proactively seeking access to learning opportunities and interacting with diverse people inside and outside the company, you expand your capabilities and demonstrate to decision-makers in your organization and industry that you are willing and able to do more.
I cannot overstate the importance of adopting a growth mindset and cultivating curiosity. Our industry is rapidly evolving and growing at an unprecedented rate. To stay relevant and continue to grow, we all need to be mindful of learning, growing, and constantly rethinking. Take advantage of any learning opportunity, whether it’s formal classroom learning, new experiences at work, or a voracious appetite for reading – learning should be a lifelong pursuit.
Finally, find sponsors. Mentoring is great, but you need sponsors to realize your ambitions. No one makes themselves. We all need people who are willing to put their capital on the line – social capital, influence capital, intellectual capital, time capital and even financial capital – to invest in your success.
What words of inspiration do you have for women in tech?
It’s important to understand and believe that you have a seat at the table because you deserve to be there. You have unique strengths, experiences and insights that can contribute to a more inclusive, innovative industry and society. We need to support each other as women in tech so that we can all achieve our maximum success, achieve our highest aspirations, and reach the very top of our chosen profession.