Change the world


“My roots are in the Eastern Cape village of Centane where Wipagriculture, a subsidiary of Wiphold, has established a maize and soya bean farming project on 2500 hectares of land with 2800 landowners, of whom 52% are women,” says Gloria Serobe, leading South African businesswoman, CEO of Wipcapital, a subsidiary of Wiphold (Women Investment Portfolio Holdings) and pioneer in the field of broad-based economic empowerment for women.

Serobe was conferred with an Honorary Doctorate from Nelson Mandela University during the virtual graduation ceremony for the Faculty of Business and Economic Sciences on Thursday 22 April.

“We have always championed people in the rural areas, women in particular, and responded to what is needed,” says Serobe. “Food security and food production has come into sharp focus during the pandemic and Wipagriculture responds to this need, particularly in poor provinces like the Eastern Cape and Limpopo.”

She explains that all the landowners in the Centane project are shareholders in the farming project and get annual dividends of between R5000 and R8000 per year and rental in the form of 10 bags of maize each at the end of the harvest, which they requested instead of money. Each landowner family, many are headed by widows, has about one hectare of land. Projects like this boost rural household incomes which are very strained. “Our intention is to grow this type of project and expand into cattle. It helps to build localised economies where people earn and spend their money in their communities.”

Serobe has always built from the ground up in a variety of ways. Recognising that the economic asset base of rural people is often communal and not recognised in traditional banking and insurance mechanisms, in the early 2000s she motivated that economic value be inclusive of livestock (a key asset of rural households) so that it could be regarded as collateral and insurable against loss. In 2006 Mutual & Federal made this insurance available.

“It’s essential to engage with our diverse communities and how they operate in order to be responsive to their specific circumstance and include them in opportunities for economic advancement,” says Serobe who knows first-hand what it is to rise above your circumstance. She was one of nine children and grew up in Gugulethu township in Cape Town where her grandfather had moved from the Eastern Cape village of Centane in search of a better life. Her parents ran shops in the community and she learnt about hard work and perseverance from them while her grandfather’s gift was self-belief. “He made me feel important and that I could do anything I wanted to do in life,” she says.

A strong student, she was awarded a scholarship to the well reputed St John’s school for Boys in the Eastern Cape. From there she did her BCom at the University of Transkei. “What happens at university is very important and we had an incredible mentor in the person of Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu, who, in 1976 became the first black CA in South Africa. He lectured the first and final year students and we were in awe of him. He played a massive role for many of us and many of, myself included, pursued a life in finance to impress him,” says Serobe who at the age of 21 was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to Rutgers University in New Jersey, US, where she graduated with an MBA.

“With hindsight it would have been far better to do my MBA once I had work experience because the class would be asked questions like ‘what do you do when your staff go on strike?’ which I have now many times experienced, and dealt with both sides of the problem, but about which I had no knowledge at the time. However, since I had been awarded this incredible scholarship I took it up. I have always treated all opportunities as if they would not be there tomorrow and grabbed them with both hands, and I encourage all graduates to do the same.”

With a solid education behind her, when she returned to South Africa from the US she worked in accounting for the Munich Reinsurance and Premier Group) until the age of 32 when she took a leap of faith from accounting to investment and merchant banking by taking up a position with Standard Corporate & Merchant Bank (SCMB).

“You have to make daring decisions in life, well calculated ones but daring ones. At SCMB I learnt about corporate and project finance and mergers and acquisitions, and I met Louisa Mojela there who became one of my future partners and co-founders in Wiphold,” says Serobe who is currently the CEO of Wipcapital which focuses on operational financial services. Wiphold has 1 200 direct beneficiaries and 18 000 indirect beneficiaries through the Wiphold Investment Trust. A further 200 000 women benefit through the Wiphold Trust, making a substantial economic impact in South Africa. She is also Chair of the Solidarity Fund which has contributed to the country’s many needs in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Wiphold tale bears repeating. From 1994, Serobe and her three co-founders - Wendy Luhabe, Louisa Mojela and Nomhle Canca - toured all nine provinces to mobilise potential women investors in order to build up a viable business fund. In 1997 the fund was launched with an Initial Public Offer to women throughout South Africa for R25 million. The response, says Gloria, was “mindboggling”. Eighteen thousand women took up the invitation and bought shares.

It has been far from plain sailing for Wiphold, which almost fell off the cliff after listing in 1999, but they clawed back, delisted in 2003 and established Wipcapital. Two years later, Wiphold secured stakes in Old Mutual, Nedbank and Mutual & Federal - a deal worth R7.2 billion - one of the biggest BEE deals in the country at the time.

“The burden of being a pioneer is that you can’t afford to fail,” she says. “You are a role model and this makes you even more anxious to succeed, not only for your own sake but for all those who are looking up to you. Of course are pitfalls in anyone’s careers but they can overcome them if you are driven by a thirst for innovation, excellence and strong ethics and principles.”

She says the starting point for graduates entering the world of work is that they are in “the extremely special position” of having a good university education. “You have completed this first big step and now the biggest step is work. Excellence is everything in your career and there is no substitute for super, super performance and your principles have to be clear at all times. This is the only way people will be comfortable working with you. You may lose out on certain business deals as a result of taking a principled stand, but these deals are probably not worth having this in the first place.”

A committed South African, it has never crossed her mind to live anywhere else. “When I was younger I travelled all over the world to acquire knowledge but it was never with a view to living somewhere else; it was always all about bringing the knowledge back home.

Serobe says if she was graduating today, she would choose to go into the financial services sector: “I would want to understand what goes on in banking, and the short-term, life insurance and retirement fund industry because these are the biggest investors in any economy. It’s very important that there is a high level of protection of these sectors.”

“South Africa today is going through all sorts of major political and economic challenges and changes, and it demands of all us, particularly our graduates to play their part in the rearranging the socio-political system of our country to move it forward. The COVID-19 pandemic has deepened the very difficult economic space that we face but I find it exciting to see how our university graduates will apply their intellectual capacity to help self-correct our country.

“We all see the corruption, the failing municipalities; we see the harm that has been done. The graduates are the new auditors of this corruption and the last thing you want, having spent so many years studying is to have your reputation tarnished by not being completely ethical and professional.”

Article written by Heather Dugmore –

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