Women Don’t Need to Compete; They Thrive on Any Playing Field

Published: 8 March 2021

The call on every woman in leadership is to inspire young women to achieve their dreams.  In doing so, gender equality becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, says Retail Capital Chief Operations Officer (COO) Thea Olivier.

Olivier, a business leader who heads up the operations at the vibrant fintech-based alternative lender to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs and SMMEs), says that over the past year, especially in the face of a global pandemic, women have excelled and proved to be highly resilient and competent business people.  Investing in women in leadership should form part of every business strategy.

“We disburse funds to a wide range of SMEs across a broad range of industries. These are companies using access to capital to drive digitisation or take advantage of new market opportunities. The gender split of those we serve is almost equal, with 47% of all funding going to female-led businesses,” says Olivier.

Olivier says that beyond this, 30% of funding disbursed by Retail Capital has gone to businesses run by people under the age of 35. “If ever there was a positive story to tell, it is that a third of all business cash advances are going to the youth, and of those, about half are going to women, essentially positioning the SME sector as a powerful tool in the emancipation of women generally, and young women specifically,” she says.

To demonstrate how women are making waves and enjoying success in the SME sector, Olivier points to inspiring women running SMEs who were not only able to survive, but pivot and thrive during the hard lockdown.

Today, Mama Bongi is a hot brand in the foodie space, delivering hundreds of orders to homes and retail outlets. Mama Bongi and Julia Finnis-Bedford spotted a gap when they realised that Mama Bongi’s baking talent was second to none.

“We are exceptionally fortunate to have such an intimate relationship with the SME sector in South Africa, and so we know that while the country was in lockdown and many businesses were wondering how they would survive, Mama Bongi the cookie brand went from a few batches a week to an Instagram sensation. This is a story of two women taking their opportunities and delivering passion and success.

“Their story goes beyond merely being an inspiration for women who come from previously disadvantaged backgrounds to an inspirational story for the entire country – and the beauty is that the entire success, the pivot from Mama Bongi making lunches for a film location business that Finnis-Bedford ran to becoming a hip, online and relevant foodie brand, happened by women, with women,” says Olivier.

“We have so many businesses in our network that it becomes difficult to single out individual successes, but another story that demonstrates the tenacity and creativity of a woman entrepreneur is perhaps that of Caroline Boucher, who ran a successful events business,” explains Olivier.

While there has been much talk lately about how Covid-19 has disrupted industries, Boucher’s experience was not merely academic. As the country went into hard lockdown, she could no longer produce events – her business stopped. Naturally, she tried to move to online events but clients were worried about spending money in uncertain times.

“She needed to pivot quickly, and she did. Today, Bash in a Box is a successful business that provides customised boxes for various celebrations. During lockdown, it was a creative way to celebrate through social distancing. Today, it is a new product offering that provides an extra offering for her events business while providing a perfect addition for hybrid events or those that don’t enjoy the full contingent of delegates, meaning they, too, get to enjoy some of the experience,” says Olivier.

Olivier believes that it is not merely having been given opportunities, but identifying those opportunities herself, that opened doors and started conversations which ultimately led to her owning her role in the C-suite of a leading fintech business in South Africa. 

“We stand today on the shoulders of women who played the game and rose to the occasion.  It is about using the platform we’ve created as women leaders to inspire other young women, to give them the permission, to be brave and bold in the world of business.  I speak from experience: the potential for growth and job creation is limited only by your imagination and determination (and access to small funding, of course),” says Olivier.