I’m a revolutionary person, in a quiet sort of way,” says Wendy Luhabe, 38, as she sips her tea in the Gazebo restaurant of Johannesburg’s Sandton Sun Hotel. “I was at a conference in Namibia recently and we decided that corporations are often like prisons, and everyone in them is a captive. I think that sums up most people’s corporate experience.”
Today is National Women’s Day, a new postapartheid public holiday in South Africa. It’s a day to relax or attend rallies; Luhabe’s morning has been filled with appointments capped off by lunch with the Malaysian ambassador. Although she agrees with the idea of Women’s Day, she thinks the focus is wrong. “I haven’t heard one mention of economic empowerment,” she says.
For Luhabe, empowerment is the operative word. In the United States, the word has become cliché. But in South Africa “empowerment” describes not only a philosophy but also the history of a black majority emancipating itself after almost 350 years of white rule. What it has yet to describe, however, are relations in the South African workplace. That is where Luhabe’s Bridging the Gap comes in.
In 1990, after eight years in the marketing department, Luhabe walked away from South African BMW when she was denied a chance even to interview for a job she knew she was qualified for. For months she had thought about starting a consulting firm that would change companies by empowering their employees. On a lark, she entered a raffle at a local office supply store in the hopes of winning furniture for the day when she would open her own shop. Two months later she received a check in the mail for $7,700, with a note congratulating her for winning first prize. “I’d completely forgotten about it by then,” she says with a laugh, “but when that happened, I knew I was meant to do this.”
In January 1991 Luhabe opened Bridging the Gap, a consulting firm that works to prepare young black South Africans to enter the world of work — and helps to prepare conservative, change-resistant South African companies to accept them. When Luhabe started, she had no entrepreneurial experience, no private office, no client base, and little funding. Today, Bridging the Gap boasts four consultants, its own offices and support staff, and a client list with South African heavyweights such as Standard Bank of South Africa, Ltd., DHL, and the massive state-owned Telkom monopoly.
Luhabe now sits on the boards of seven major corporations. And last year, she founded the country’s first Women Investment Portfolio to improve the economic plight of black South African women.
At the heart of Luhabe’s work is the Zulu word “ubuntu” — honoring a person’s humanity. “I come from an environment that honors people,” says Luhabe, who grew up in a black township outside Johannesburg, “and when I hear of an elderly man on the shop floor being treated like a little boy, it breaks my heart; he is a grandfather and when he goes home he is treated with respect.” Luhabe’s answer is to change the way management perceives its employees. At DHL, for example, she has all levels of management taking part in her workshops.
Bridging the Gap works on both sides of the corporate equation. On one side Luhabe coaches black university students for entry into South Africa’s predominantly white corporate world. To prepare her students — many of whom are the first in their families ever to try to gain a corporate job — Luhabe offers a range of lessons, from analytical studies of the South African economy to seminars on what to do in an interview. “The point is that when they leave university they don’t leave as victims who approach a company and expect a favor in the form of a job,” says Luhabe.
On the other side of the equation, Luhabe is pioneering the use of industrial theater — live performances in the workplace to focus primarily on white middle managers who, in her experience, are often the most resistant to change. Here again, empowerment is the solution, this time empowering middle managers so they can discuss issues such as poor communication between employers and employees.
With Bridging the Gap firmly established in the South African consulting community, Luhabe has more time for the cause of social advancement for women. Her Women Investment Program empowers women economically by creating investment opportunities in industries of strategic importance to women such as food, clothing, and medicine. So far, the WIP has involved 30,000 women, and Luhabe expects to reach her target goal of 5 million within a decade: “My involvement in a project like this means I can say that I have helped to transform the lives of 5 million women by enabling them to use this vehicle to empower themselves.”
Eric Ransdell (email@example.com) is the Johannesburg Bureau Chief for “U.S. News & World Report.”