Meenakshi Naipal was born in Mumbai, India but chose to move to Port Elizabeth, South Africa as a young girl to live with her father’s sister and husband (whom she also refers to as her parents). “When we came to visit them, I became so attached to them that I didn’t want to leave. When we returned, the family decided to send me back to live with them.”
Meenakshi completed her BCom Honors in Business Management before moving to Johannesburg where she began working. However, it was her move to KwaZulu-Natal that gave her the opportunity to join Sasfin seven years ago. She relocated shortly before she got married and was looking for a job when an opportunity in Sasfin’s new sales department arose. “The best things happen when you least expect it,” she says. She was one of just three sales consultants. “I’ve seen this place evolve, not only in my career but also Sasfin as a whole.”
“The best things happen when you least expect it.”
Since she started at the company, Meenakshi has been determined to learn as much as she can, add value, and contribute to the team. It’s that attitude that has led to multiple opportunities, taking her from the sales team to the service team, where she’s worked her way to her current role as the Head of Client Services in Business and Commercial Banking.
Part of her success, she says, is thanks to her management team: “I was fortunate enough to have an amazing management team looking after the overall team that helped guide and also nurture the journey for me.”
Meenakshi attributes her success to Sasfin's culture, which has allowed her to be exposed to and thrive in various areas of the business. “The opportunities I've received here from a learning and exposure perspective are one of the biggest things I've enjoyed about Sasfin. Sasfin isn't your average run-of-the-mill company. People in management know who their people are, and for me, that's very important because it resonates with how I deal with people. When I walk past a senior person in the passage who greets me by name, that makes a huge difference to my day. I’m not just another number.”
“Sasfin isn't your average run-of-the-mill company. People in management know who their people are; you're not just another number.”
As someone who is big on building relationships, that personal care is important to her. “It’s being able to walk up to someone and ask for help, and people are always willing to help. It’s very much an open-door policy at Sasfin. That approachability with people makes a massive difference.”
Frank Ferreira, who has since left Sasfin, is one of four people who have had an impact on her journey there. “He gave me a lot of opportunities to do things that I wouldn't have in a typical sales role.” Roger Dunn, Althea Hau and her current line manager, Natisha Lazarus, have also played key roles in her journey. “They've been amazing support systems, leaders and mentors.” Especially, she adds, during her latest move from KZN back to Johannesburg, which she says would have been a much harder transition had she not had their support.
She’s also been blessed with an incredible support structure at home, which includes her husband and in-laws, who moved to Johannesburg with her and her kids while her husband remains in KZN for work. “Without them, this move wouldn't have been completely possible. They've been an amazing support. They have supported me from a career perspective and assisted with my kids.”
Her two girls get her up every morning, literally by jumping into her bed, but also by motivating her to set an example of what they can achieve. “It’s to show them that if they put their mind to something, they can achieve it. They don't need to be dependent on anybody.”
It’s that mindset that has allowed her to grab opportunities when they were presented to her. “Opportunities are important, but you also need to know what you want out of life and your career.”
“Opportunities are important, but it's also important for you to know what you want out of life and your career.”
It’s a message she shares with her team: “I spend a lot of time trying to bring them up to levels that I'd like to see them grow into.
She’s able to do that because she cares about her team. “I love my team. I've got an incredible mix of personalities, ages and maturity levels, but I don't believe there's a single person that doesn't get along with each other. We work really well together. Anybody can chase targets. Anybody can chase a strategy. That's our primary job. But if you work well with your people and have a good core team and personalities to work with, the rest will come naturally.”
“Anybody can chase targets. Anybody can chase a strategy. But if you work well with your people and have a good core team and personalities to work with, the rest will come naturally.”
When it comes to finding time for herself, Meenakshi says that right now, trying to settle her family into a new home means it is hard, but her support system helps ease that. “Because of the support system I have at home, I'm able to take a few minutes to be alone and re-center myself.” Having her in-laws live with her also means she can carve out some me-time for herself. “They'll step in and give me the time I need.” It’s crucial time, she says, because, as she was once told: “Only you're going to be able to look after number one, no one else is going to do it.”
She also believes that the idea of balance is a myth. “I don’t believe that everybody can truly balance their work and personal life.” The closest to balance she says is being fully present in your surroundings. “I believe you’ve got to give your all in everything that you do. When I'm at work, I’m Meena, I'm focused. When I'm at home, I’m Mommy and my full focus is given to my girls and my family. Whatever I'm doing, I give my all to that at that moment. And that's the best I can do in terms of trying to get some balance in my life.”
Part of finding that balance comes down to asking for help – advice she would give other working moms. “There's nothing wrong with asking for help. I'm blessed with the support system I have and I know not everybody has that. Ask for help and if that help needs to come from external factors, it's okay.” In addition, she’s a big advocate for taking care of your mental health. “As human beings, we juggle a lot on a daily basis. People have challenges. People walk into the office not knowing what issues the next person's dealing with. There are options available to us, whether it’s via your company or your doctor. Get help. There's nothing wrong with it.”
Meenakshi’s journey has taught her many lessons, but the biggest lesson is to treat others the way you want to be treated. “I truly believe that how you speak with someone reveals a lot about you. This is something I learned early in my career. Getting the job done doesn't always imply that you're a good leader or a manager. It simply means you are good at doing your job.” The human element is vital, she says, especially when it comes to leadership. “As leaders, we should keep in mind that as important as it is to chase our goals and targets, it's also important to look after, guide and lead the people behind it. Without the human element, I believe business can only get so far.”
“As important as it is to chase our goals and targets, it's also important to look after, guide and lead the people behind it. Without the human element, I believe business can only get so far.”
That ties in with her views of success, which she says comes down to being a good person. “Being able to wake up in the morning and say, ‘I'm going to be a good human being, I'm going to treat people right.’ I've got two small girls, I've got to lead by example. It's the only way they will learn how to do things. For me, if I can be a good person, everything else just follows.” It’s not just a lesson she learned from her career, it’s a lesson her mother instilled in her.
The women in Meenakshi’s family have been breaking new ground for generations. Her paternal grandmother was among the first women to matriculate in Kashmir, India. When it comes to women in leadership and the fact that there is still an imbalance between the genders, she says it can be tied to cultural norms. Especially with women of colour, “that is why I give a lot of credit to my support system because, culturally, it's not the norm that you see a lot of. It's difficult because there's an expectation that you have to look after your kids, cook and clean and be Mom when you get home. But Mom can also be a leader. Mom can also be in a winning position professionally.”
“Mom can also be a leader. Mom can also be in a winning position professionally.”
It’s what she’s emulating to her daughters as she continues to learn, add value, seize opportunities life throws at her, and win.