Formed at great depths in the earth under tremendous pressure and at high temperature, diamonds are the hardest material known to man and are used industrially to polish and shape other materials, including other diamonds. Similarly, exceptional human beings are strengthened under challenging circumstances to become not only noteworthy achievers, but also compassionate people who live to lift others out of their adversity and shape better futures for them.
Dr Snowy Khoza, Executive Chairperson of the Bigen Group, has proven herself to be one of these inspiringly resilient yet benevolent individuals who dedicate much of their time and energy to making a life-changing difference to others. In her private capacity, Dr Khoza is a passionate human rights activist and benefactor to the disadvantaged such as young people who cannot afford an education. At Bigen, an African solutions-driven infrastructure development Group, she leads a team of “engineers with a conscience” who not only actively pursue the Group’s vision of improving quality of life through the development of sustainable infrastructure solutions, but are also committed do “doing good while doing business”, the Group’s official creed.
Dr Khoza subscribes to the highest personal and business ethics and has also strengthened the Bigen team’s anti-corruption stance. As a committed Christian, she is, despite her many achievements, prestigious awards and exceptional qualities, a humble woman always seeking her Creator’s guidance in all aspects of her life.
Tell us about your early life, what was your upbringing and training like?
I did not so much overcome a childhood marked by poverty, deprivation and apartheid struggles in Hammanskraal and Mamelodi, but grew from these challenges that life threw at me at a tender age. With the support of bursaries from various organisations, I was able to complete my high school education as well as a PhD in Social Policy, an MBA, and various financial, economic and management courses.
Earlier in my career, I was a Group Executive for over a 10 year period at the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA). At the same time while at the DBSA, I was the founding chair of Knowledge Management Africa, a development knowledge engine for Africa. I also chaired the multibillion-rand Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority (TCTA), and have chaired the Water Research Commission (WRC), as the first woman to fill the position. I also chaired the Centre for Social Development in Africa at the University of Johannesburg, Family and Marriage Society of South Africa, Bihati Holdings and Khayalabo Investments Holdings Boards. I also served as a board member of the National Housing Financing Cooperation (NHFC). Charing HS Risk committee. In addition, chaired the National Lotteries Commission Distribution Agency for Arts and Heritage.
Directorships held include those of Statistics South Africa, Freight Dynamics (Transnet), SekelaXabiso and Transport World Africa magazine. I have also served on the ministerial advisory panels for two government departments.
I was also a trustee and chairperson of the Women Development Businesses (WDB) Trust, now I am a member of the advisory board of the Water Institute at the University of Pretoria and Board member of ANSYS chairing its Social and Ethics.
When I was appointed CEO of Bigen Africa in 2010, I became the first woman to lead an engineering company as a non-engineer in the 40 years history of Bigen. It was my goal to spearhead its transformation from an engineering firm into a successful infrastructure development Group and thought leader with an extensive Africa footprint, currently spreading across 19 countries. In 2016 the shareholders elevated me to an Executive Chairperson to oversee the expansion of the Bigen Group in the continent through a restructured capital structure with its head offices in RSA and Mauritius.
With core capabilities in socio-economic development, financial, technical, institutional and environmental services, and led by a dynamic leadership corps under the spirited guidance of its new CEO, Anton Boshoff, Bigen Africa offers the full value chain of infrastructure development including feasibility studies, funding applications and project preparation, management and implementation. This one-stop-shop approach results in tailor-made projects, honed to customer and regional requirements, and provides a regional and local delivery platform for multinational and international companies seeking to do work on the continent.
What does the role of being the Executive Chairperson at Bigen Africa mean to you?
It has been very fulfilling to serve as Bigen Africa’s CEO for five years and play an active role in determining the business strategy of the Group. I am pleased to say that I have seen my ambitions for the Group fulfilled in terms of strengthening its positioning in the infrastructure development industry as a thought leader, respected service provider and socio-economic change agent in the continent particularly in Southern, Eastern and West Africa.
Since becoming Executive Chairperson in 2016 and handing over the reins to my very capable successor, I have been freed up to focus on leading the Board in realising the Group’s broader aspirations of opening up its capital structure, reviewing its legal structure and operational structure thus creating an African Supermarket for partners in the continent and outside to deliver sustainable infrastructure so as to improve the quality of life of people in our beautiful continent.
Bigen Group with now Bigen Global based in Mauritius and Bigen Africa Group Holdings in RSA, requires robust governance structures and proper execution strategy of infrastructure development across the continent and well managed in such a way that all countries legislative protocols are met. Other than chairing both entities boards, I am also involved in the strategic positioning of the Group as brand ambassador and spokeswoman for the Group. All these mean a whole new set of exciting challenges for me.
You have had several professional achievements. Please list them and indicate which one stands out for you and why?
Having achieved high-ranking executive roles in a male-dominated industry through sheer determination and hard work, I was thrilled to be invited to present at the male-dominated Infrastructure Development Conference held in Khartoum Sudan in 2014. I was also invited to present two papers at the International Federation of Consulting Engineers (FIDIC) centenary congress in Barcelona in the same year, where my message was: “It is time for Africans to find African solutions to Africa’s infrastructure development challenges” and “how should we fund infrastructure projects to support governments”.
Further I participated in 2015 at the Africa CEO Forum in Geneva in at various other infrastructure conferences in Zambia and the Intellectual Property Organization’s Conference in Senegal.
I have been honoured to receive awards over the past few 3 years, named:
- The Top Women Leaders in Africa Award by Women4Africa, a London-based organisation, in 2016.
- Named one of the three South African Women Ambassadors for Most Influential Women in Africa by CEO Global in 2015.
- Top Performing Business Leader Award in South Africa at the 13th South African Business Awards in 2015.
- Winner of the Business category in the Unashamedly Ethical awards in 2015.
- The Africa Lifetime Achievers Award of Africa’s Most Influential Women in Business and Government in the infrastructure sector in 2014. I am most honoured by being counted amongst the women achievers in the continent. It is necessary that the women of our country are made aware of the lifelong struggles, aspirations and achievements of those women who are dedicated to improving their own lives as well as making a difference to those of their fellow continental women. I thus continue to mentor a number of women to become top continental business women.
Have you had any particular challenges as a woman professional that you think differ from your male counterparts? How have you tackled them?
I have experienced:
- Male Chauvinism– men doubting me as a woman that can manage and lead a male dominated division e.g. (DBSA) and company (Bigen) – I had proved them wrong through staying focused in my vision, being resilient and surrounding myself with capable men and women who understood my vision and help me to deliver.
- Women petticoat syndrome – women doubting me and tried the “pull her down” tricks through unwillingness to support me or bad-mouthing me unnecessarily – I made them my friends irrespective, pulled them up and mentored them.
- Life-work balance – societal norms and expectations for women to be all-round irrespective of their positions in business. As a married woman and a mother, caregiver, social activist and entrepreneur I had to still do these irrespective of my role at work. I had to balance my work-life and remember that I am only one-person and me-time and family-time is critical.
What advice do you have for younger professionals who are looking forward to joining the profession?
Know who you are and where you want to go. Without a vision, people perish. Without faith, people succumb. I draw my strength from God, Jehovah. Capacitate yourself to obtain an education. Be determined to triumph in every situation. Be positive. Always do your best and be resilient and courageous, so that you can fight back to become even better than before. Walk your path with integrity and never accept mediocracy as the norm. And lastly, remain humble and live for more than just yourself.
What are you currently working on and what can we expect from you going forward?
I always have, and always will, invest my life in creating a better tomorrow for others especially for women and children through various initiatives and projects. Driven by my strong Christian faith and principles, I am passionate about the development of those who face the same struggles and obstacles I experienced such as debilitating poverty, divorce and discrimination. I continually strive to create sustainable support systems for children and families in need of care and for poor and disabled people, as well as the youth at risk and women living in marginalised black communities. I believe in the importance of education as a transformational agent, and as such my family Trust funds some of these to aid child prisoners to obtain an education. I will continue to write books. Currently working on my website to encourage people as they journey in life.
As a prominent African, what issues or challenges are you confronted with?
In South Africa and on the rest of the continent, the most burning issue for me is social and economic inequality amongst people, including gender inequality, poverty and unemployment. Education deficits, in particular, are heart-breaking as education is the key to a better future for both the individual and society. The people who work to change this have to do so tirelessly because the need is so great. Nevertheless, we are making a difference and are rewarded by seeing previously disadvantaged people rise above their constraints to become productive members of society.
The infrastructure development industry plays a key role in this process, and I am gratified that many women and children in Africa are benefiting enormously from improvements and participating in investments in for example new road networks, water, sanitation, electricity provision, construction of schools and hospitals to name a few.
In short, poverty, infrastructure backlogs, theft and corruption, poor governance, unemployment of youth, disease, political instability and environmental degradation remain high. Are these challenges unsolvable? NO. United we stand as a continent to address these. Progress is slow but governments, private sector and civil society are working together to address these. As an African I am hopeful that the future generation will lead Africa out of these someday.
What principles and values do you think are important for any professional and why?
A person operating upon a firm personal foundation based on his/her relationship with God, will easily maintain ethical behaviour and integrity-based decision making in business as well. People who value and respect others, communicate honestly and place team concerns before personal ones add value to the workplace. While pursuing business success is laudable, it must never be done at the cost of another person’s rights or dignity. So in short, godliness, Ubuntu, honesty, integrity and giving are the basic principles and values that drive my professional career.
What would you say are the most critical resources for your successful leadership? How would people describe you as a Leader?
My critical resources are:
- Vision led capabilities
- Courage and resilience
- Love for humanity
- Passion to make a difference
People call me Mama Snowy. I believe they will say: “She is courageous and resilient, a visionary leader with a great heart. She is compassionate, loves humanity and want to improve the lives of others”.
What is the legacy that you would want to leave by the time you retire?
I have been fortunate to see the Bigen Group team strengthen its inherent dedication, creativity and social conscience, and it thrive despite very challenging economic climates over the past few years. It is my aspiration to see, upon my retirement, Bigen riding the crest of success as the leading infrastructure development Group on the continent, assisting governments in realising their infrastructure development goals through a “one-stop” professional service incorporating a wide network of industry partners – an “African supermarket” of infrastructure development services. Bigen is already forging such a network, unlocking vast professional resources capable of radically transforming the economies of African nations. On a personal level, I want to see women and youth empowered to make contributions in all spheres of their lives and the lives of others on the continent. I also want everyone to know who they are in Christ.
How do you strike the balance of career, business and interpersonal skills?
Acknowledging that you can’t know it all. Surround yourself with people smarter than you. Acknowledge others and let them contribute in making you a better leader. I know my weaknesses and that I’m not perfect, but always strive to be better.
How is the company doing in terms of Transformation objectives?
As a BEE-compliant company with a Level 2 rating, Bigen Africa is committed to empowerment and socio-economic development within its own ranks as well as in broader community in different countries. Fast-tracking of black management also ownership, particularly women and youth, is a priority.
I am particularly passionate about increasing female representation in business, both at Bigen Africa and in the industry in general. At Bigen, I have appointed women in many key positions and the company has excellent career development programmes in place to ensure that the right candidates will be fully groomed to step into the right role at the right time.
The current CEO continues to drive black empowerment and ownership at senior management level. In the engineering field, there are only a few women in Africa who are leading such a company at present. This means there is scope for black young people to enter and excel in this field – even more so for non-engineers to head an engineering company. As a company we also believe in transformation of communities where we work ensuring that we employ youth and women; empowering them to become entrepreneurs and transfer technical skills to them. Co-creating jobs means transforming people out of poverty thus improving quality of life of people.
Transformation is about renewing of the mind. Communities need to feel empowered to take responsibility to partake in projects that improves their lives. Socio-economic transformation is what Bigen is all about. Doing good while doing business for the benefit of all.
What makes you tick or keeps you awake at night?
My strongest motivation is “how can I make a difference?” This is where I am fulfilled in life and this is what is meaningful to me, and also what excites and challenges me. Of course obstacles and discouragements are a part of life, especially when one is trying to change the world for the better, but I don’t allow them to derail me. If I lie awake at night, it is only because I am excited about a new project I am starting as that will bring meaningful improvements into the beneficiaries’ lives.
What have been the highs and lows in your working career?
The highs have been a transformed organization, delivering best results for shareholders and improving the quality of life of people including our staff. The lows have been the tough economic environment and political unrests in some countries we work in. No matter how hard it is to work in some countries, we remain bullish to supporting improvements in the quality of life of people.
How does the organisation take part in developing the profession you belong to?
The Bigen leadership oversees a competent workforce, as a result one of its key enablers is to be “the employer of choice”. This policy is aimed at attracting and developing talent, focusing on the indigenisation of staff to support localisation efforts, ensuring that Bigen remains a safe place to work at and providing superior employee value proposition. The result of this approach is that employees, future talent and future organisational leaders are developed and honed in both business and technical areas. Future leaders have access to various leadership programmes to ensure continuity in growth. Bigen has embarked on a Leadership journey of development of young leaders to executives with the various leadership programmes identified. In order to maintain our competitive advantage, Bigen will pre-empt and respond effectively to the rapid pace of business and technology change in the operating environment we believe the development of great leadership and staff will ensure sustainability and relevance in the industry.
Who stands out for you as a role model and why?
First and foremost, my grandmother. Her wisdom is unparalleled by any book I have ever read. She taught me mainly three things: Firstly, that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” – meaning there is a greater “I am” up there. As an individual, I cannot be my own. Secondly, that “life is a problem-solving process”. In our lifetime, we cannot avoid challenges and problems, but we should not become weary. Thirdly, that “every action we take has consequences”, which means that we should be wise when making decisions. We have to understand that our actions and choices impact on others – hopefully for the good – and that is one of the reasons why I find fulfilment in my role at Bigen.
My career development has been influenced by many women who have proven that they can stand on their own in the midst of trials and tribulations, such as Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, Vuyelwa Sonjica, Graca Machel, Thuli Madonsela and many others. To me, these women epitomize virtue. They are positive about life, always want to do their best for the countries they live in and are eager to prepare the ground for other women to win the race.
When you’re not at work, what do you get up to, including family life?
My family, friends and community development work take up almost all my spare time after work hours and on weekends, unless I am travelling on business the weekends.
I am deeply involved in initiatives for improving the quality of life of disadvantaged people and strive to create sustainable support systems for children and families in need of care, impoverished and disabled people, youth at risk and women living in marginalised black communities. One of my own initiatives is through my family Trust, which assists children and child prisoners in obtaining an education. To relax I do house designs and love interior and garden designs for friends and family.
Although I am extremely busy, I do get “me time”, where I go on holidays or pamper myself. I do a lot of exercising, e.g. running, and singing while playing the piano.
Where can people follow you online?
Twitter@joyfulforJesus – this is my way of thanksgiving to God. My messages to lead.
www.skjournal.com – (to be launched soon) – this is a journal of me addressing various issues that people like asking me about.