Thoko Mokgosi did not want to stay in laboratory work for ever, despite chemistry degrees from Swaziland and the UK. After switching into pharmaceuticals marketing, she was poached by South African state telecoms company Telkom. It was so impressed by her marketing knowledge and can-do attitude, it hired her even though she was eight months pregnant. A stint at Siemens followed and in 2004 she took the top job at Hewlett-Packard (HP). There she has presided over double-digit annual growth and an 850-strong workforce, whose composition is changing rapidly to reflect the majority black population.
- You were really hired by Telkom when you were eight months pregnant?
Yes. At the time, all I knew about telecoms was the phone in my house. But my boss said they could teach me all I needed to know. I spent three weeks at work and then went on maternity leave. They gave me three months off, but I went back after six weeks. I was in a rush. I'm eternally grateful for that opportunity. No ordinary leader would have given me that chance.
- What stands out from your time at Telkom?
I was still there in 1997 when (US company) SBC and Telekom Malaysia took a stake in Telkom. I became understudy to one of the Americans running the marketing. Unbundling of the line and handsets is something I remember - telling people about choices. Then there was the strategic marketing activity of promoting the company as one that sells solutions, not products. Americans do things differently. They had done all this before. For us, it was a change of mindset to a customer focus.
- How do you run a technology company such as HP in a country with as much poverty as South Africa?
We segment the market. The high-end business market is just like the first world. Global companies need first-world servers, networks and end-user workstations. It's the same in the upper residential market, where people travel and communicate across continents. They have broadband, ISDN and 3G cell phones. The middle market, both SMEs and the mid-end residential, is also growing phenomenally fast.
At the opposite end, you have rural communities where the basic needs of food and clean water are not met and where children go through school without ever seeing a PC. What you can do there is set up a container with a computer, internet access and a printer that the community can access. We have a corporate social investment programme aimed at that part of the market. In one province, we've done an i-community project where the schools get a PC and some basic training. People from the community come and use it. One woman was bitten by a snake and looked up on the internet what to do.
- What are you doing to fulfill the government's Black Economic Empowerment [BEE] agenda?
In this country, economic activity was controlled by white people, who made up 20% of the population. So how do we change economic activity? It's not just ownership, it's skills development among PDIs (previously disadvantaged individuals) and employment equity. The government's ICT Charter has seven pillars for transformation and we are monitoring each one.
We have a business academy for suppliers that focuses on the lower end and gives people training in technical and business skills. They pay something for the technical side, but we subsidise the training for business skills. It covers managing a business, presentation skills, putting together a tender - things you need to know to run a business.
We started a graduate internship for PDIs; there are 18 of them this year. We also have an accelerated development programme for existing stars, where we give them the opportunity to acquire skills faster: 70% of people on that programme are PDIs. Our target is 60% PDI workforce by 2009; we're at 49% now. Some of that has been achieved through growth and some through specific interventions.
- It sounds like BEE takes up a lot of your time?
I probably spend a third of my time on that and on the softer issues. I'm a strong believer in mentoring. All our senior managers have mentees, and I mentor two ladies on a one-to-one basis; I do a lot of informal mentoring, as well. It's very important that people have access to me and all of us as managers.
- Don't white employees get resentful at the extra help given to black co-workers?
We don't put people in positions just because they are black. We need to ensure that we have more PDIs moving up without compromising our white stars. There is a balance to be had.
- Have you faced that resentment yourself?
Discrimination will always be there. But there comes a time when it falls away, when you become just a businessperson. It's an issue of respect. At a certain point, people see that this person has come to do a job and should be judged on that, even if they don't like you.