The day Grace received her matric results, she started looking for a job. With no money for printing or photocopying CVs, she carefully handwrote ten resumes on exercise paper in blue ink. Then she borrowed taxi fare from her grandmother and dropped off all ten CVs at office blocks in the Johannesburg CBD.
One week later, she was an enquiries clerk at a bank. It was the first small step towards the career Grace wanted, and which she had worked so hard for throughout her childhood.
“We grew up in poverty,” shares Grace. “My mother was a bread winner and did odd jobs such as cashier, cleaner, domestic worker and tea lady and had a burden of taking care of her siblings and us. My father wasn’t there for us. But I always had imagination and hope. I knew that just because I was growing up with so little did not mean my kids had to grow up the same way.”
By high school, Grace had secured a bursary to attend Athlone Girls High. “It was a strange experience – at my township primary school, our circumstances were all the same. Now I was at school with kids who had so much more than me. I had the same school uniform from standard six to matric. I didn’t have fancy clothes to wear for civvies days – or at least, I didn’t have clothes I wanted to wear – and sometimes I had to walk 5km to get to school and back as I didn’t always have taxi fare. Most of the time, I arrived at school without any food. But you’ve got your pride, so you won’t accept food from anyone else either. I’d say I was fasting instead.”
Grace doesn’t begrudge anything though. Her smile lights up rooms and her energy is infectious. “I knew what I wanted to become, and that for me to change the situation I had to work hard, be dedicated, have a vision and stick to it. And that’s what I’ve always done. I’ve gone for my dreams, and I married a man who has supported me every step of the way, even to the point of being mom and dad to our young children while I was working, traveling and completing my MBA.”
Go out and make it happen
Grace’s early realisation that if you want something, you have to make it happen has shaped her entire career. From her first role as an enquiries clerk, she has focused on upskilling herself.
“When I had a gap, I wouldn’t relax,” she says. “I’d help out the customer service department instead, learning how to I assist clients with statements, invoices, and cheque books, and I discovered that I really enjoyed interacting with clients. When there was a vacancy in the department, I was given the opportunity to join them.”
Now working in customer service, Grace immediately started upskilling herself in balancing cheque books. “The branch was struggling in this area and so I learnt how to do it so that I could support the branch manager. There is always a way to add value, you just need to find it.”
In quite a short space of time, Grace had been promoted to a branch host. “You really only host between 9am and 3.30pm, and then you have time on your hands, so I used that time to sit with sales consultants and learn what they did. I’d help them with their filing and learn, learn, learn. When someone sees you are passionate, they will give you their time as well.”
When a vacancy opened for a sales consultant, Grace was promoted to the role, and for the next few years she built herself from consultant, to top performing salesperson, to sales manager, to branch manager, moving from small branches to medium and finally one of the busiest branches in Braamfontein.
Learning to have it all
Because Grace is always looking for a challenge, it wasn’t long before she took a new position as an Area Sales Manager, focusing mainly on acquisitions. From there, she applied for a collections role that frequently took her into Africa – and simultaneously started her MBA degree.
“It was only when my little one started calling me ‘sisi’ instead of mama that I realised after 3 years I needed to make some changes,” she says. “I took a role at Land Bank that kept me at home, I had completed my MBA. It was such a learning curve, I remember arriving in high heels at my very first farm visit. It was a disaster,” she laughs.
In 2018 Grace joined Sasfin and today heads up operations in the asset finance division. “I’ve always known that to move forward I need to put in the work,” she says. “If I wanted to be a chief operating officer it wouldn’t happen without me making it happen.”
It has also been a journey of sacrifices, however. “I have always known that as a black female, I needed to work twice as hard to reach a senior level. My lack of qualifications was holding me back, and so I needed to juggle work, family and studying. But it had to be done and my incredible family supported me.
“I have a passion for customer service and making a difference in someone’s life. It’s been an exciting journey and every step of the way I have learnt new things, developed new skills and pushed myself to discover what I am capable of.”
It’s what Grace is teaching her kids, both through her words and actions. “If you’re complacent and think that things will be handed to you on a silver platter, or that the world owes you or South Africa owes you something, you won’t get anywhere. Success begins with knowing what you want, striving to reach it, making sacrifices and putting in the hard work. The sky is not the limit anymore – be positive, persevere and enjoy the journey and don’t give up. You can have it all.”
Rumbi Mathema, Head: Quantitative Risk Management is a big believer that life is not a destination, it is a journey – and what you do along that journey shapes who you are as an individual, a partner, a parent and in your career.