Marian White Eldeman said: “You can’t be what you can't see,” but Anisa Vallee will tell you how wrong she is.
Anisa grew up in Durban, in a community in which most of the girls didn’t complete high school. Growing up, she had few examples of young women studying or having a career. Despite her surroundings, not only did Anisa achieve outstanding results at school and university, she also built herself a career in an industry dominated by men. Today, she is the Head of Technical Accounting for Sasfin.
Anisa’s drive to get an education came from her parents, who, despite never having gone to university themselves, encouraged her to do so. It was a legacy they could give their children. “My mum believed it would be a game-changer and life-changer and she was right. It totally changed my life.” Her parent’s perseverance and family’s support gave her the encouragement she needed to do something no one else in her family had done.
Not having that generational support and knowledge for things like knowing how to apply to university or secure bursaries were challenges she took as a learning opportunity. But looking back, she would have told herself to seek out people and mentors to guide and advise her.
Initially, Anisa saw herself becoming a doctor, even securing a place at medical school with scholarships, but in Grade 11, her accounting teacher, seeing her potential, encouraged her to pursue accounting. A visit to an audit firm for Women’s Day sealed the idea. She was instantly inspired by the corporate world and powerful women she met and decided it was a place she wanted to be.
Accounting, she says, was meant to be. “I believe in God’s plan - the career I chose gave me many different options and opportunities to try new things.” It also, notably, led her to her husband, Irshaad whom she met in her second year at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
They married and moved to Johannesburg, where she completed her studies and was selected for academic articles at KPMG. She stayed with the firm for 11 years, first as an auditor and later as an Associate Director in technical accounting. Through KPMG, she was awarded an opportunity to go on secondment to London – an experience that would prove to be life-changing.
Being in London gave Anisa the confidence to believe in herself and to realise that she could hold her own. “Before joining the London office, I questioned if I could live up to the high regard that I held of the team. But I learnt that I – this Indian Muslim girl from South Africa – could actually hold my own. I learnt a lot about myself, life and who I wanted to become.”
“But I learnt that I – this Indian Muslim girl from South Africa – could actually hold my own.”
It was her boss in London who helped her realise that she was adding value and ready for a senior position. That vote of confidence made her realise the importance of getting feedback and not relying on self-assessment.
Having dealt with imposter syndrome, Anisa thinks women need to give themselves more credit. She says: “Don't discount the experience that you have, the knowledge, the training and the personality that you bring to the table. Even if you don't know everything, if you go in with an open mind of wanting to learn, grow and ask questions, you will always succeed.”
“Don't discount the experience that you have, the knowledge, the training and the personality that you bring to the table…if you go in with an open mind of wanting to learn, grow and ask questions, you will always succeed.”
Joining Sasfin was another career-defining moment. Having been at KPMG for 11 years, it was a significant change going from an audit firm to the financial services sector. “Coming to Sasfin opened up a big opportunity for me to learn and grow.”
That growth is supported by being in a team where people care about each other. “I've always felt very supported at work. It’s genuine care for each other and I believe that’s what helps us to be a better team.” Sasfin has also allowed her to be a leader in her own space whilst learning directly from the senior members of the team. “You are seen as part of their team,” she says. “They value your input and opinion.”
One of the biggest things she’s enjoyed at Sasfin is the strategic thinking and being part of a team that brings everything together. “Collaboration is what gives us the success that we see and leadership recognises that and brings the teams together. It’s refreshing and something that I actively do when I work with my own team.”
When asked how she knew she wanted a corporate career when that path was never modelled for her, she says that she’s never been limited by not being able to see others doing what she wanted to do. “Never be afraid to do something even if you can’t fully see it in front of you – don’t limit yourself, ask questions, never stop learning – just go for it!”
“Never be afraid to do something even if you can’t fully see it in front of you – don’t limit yourself, ask questions, never stop learning – just go for it!”
Anisa is a mom to two boys and when asked how she balances everything, she says: “Let's be honest, it's never in balance. There'll be times where you give a little bit more on the work front and another time a little bit more to your family and friends. It’s about finding a work-life harmony while never compromising on your values and never compromising on your quality and commitments.”
“Let's be honest, it's never in balance. There'll be times where you give a little bit more on the work front and another time a little bit more to your family and friends. It’s about finding a work life harmony while never compromising on your values and never compromising on your quality and commitments.”
However, Anisa says, making time for yourself is critical in balancing everything. She makes that happen by planning. “No one is going to give you that time,” she says. “You have to do it for yourself; the impact of it is that you are a better mum and more present because you are content. You are better for your kids and better in your workspace because your mind is fresh and re-energised. It's time well spent.”
For Anisa, success is deriving joy and contentment from the work that she does, while always learning and being challenged. In her personal life, success is spending time with her family, striving to be a better person in her faith and giving back to her community. In addition, she says, realistically – financial freedom and independence. “It's not about chasing money, but the reality is that financial independence is important.”
What drives Anisa to succeed is gratitude for the opportunities in her life. “Being grateful for this life that I have and the amazing opportunities makes me want to make the most of everything. I had a health scare as a child and later in life, a close family member had serious health concerns and needed my support - those life events remind me to appreciate every day.”
That positivity and attitude of gratitude is something that Anisa has cultivated. “There is so much to be grateful for. Even in the most challenging times, you have to choose to look for the things to be grateful for. If you look for it, you will find it.”
“There is so much to be grateful for. Even in the most challenging times, you have to choose to look for the things to be grateful for. If you look for it, you will find it.”
It’s an attitude that’s allowed Anisa to become the person she wanted to become but couldn’t see. It’s something she wishes more young girls and women could realise – that they can do the things they dream of. “You can do all the things you want to - you can be a working mum, have an amazing career and fulfilling relationships. You can be successful in a corporation and still be strong in your faith.” It’s something she didn’t think was possible when she was just starting out. Today she knows that she can be multifaceted and that choosing the path of career doesn’t negate the other parts of her – the mother, the Muslim, the wife, the daughter, the friend. And that it is every part of her that contributes to where she is today and where she hopes she will be tomorrow.