Meet Fawzia Suliman, the JSE’s Iron Lady

Fawzia Suliman is a  glass ceiling-shattering CFO of the largest stock exchange on the continent and an Iron Man and Comrades running athlete in her spare time. Fawzia spoke to the CFO Club Podcast about how to build a more inclusive workplace and why SMEs are crucial. 

Written by: Leigh Schaller

When Fawzia started in the financial services industry two decades ago, the demographics looked different. “I remember very clearly sitting in an interview with eleven men, the only lady around the table.” Not that she let that stop her. “I guess the journey to being a CFO, in some ways, it’s been straightforward. I’ve always known that that’s what I wanted to do.” 

After 21 years in financial services across various C-suites, Fawzia was appointed as CFO of the JSE earlier this year. A vastly different workspace with an executive committee of 70 percent black, and 80 percent female individuals. 

“So you can imagine, I am surrounded by strong female leaders, and it’s wonderful to see that journey. If you think about the JSE being in the center of capital markets, and the infrastructure that runs it, and really to a large extent, putting some rules forward from a listings perspective to our participants and our listed companies to see that the JSE leads from the front [is wonderful].

“I am particularly passionate about females in the business. I think as a female you bring something very different to the table. I think what is really important for females is an enabling environment that really allows them to bring, and it sounds cliche because we talk about this authentic self, but to see it play out is really wonderful.”

Make sure you amplify the quiet voices

So what advice does Fawzia have for other women? 

“I remember when my husband said to me, ‘Don’t you want to try being an Iron Man?’ And I said, ‘Maybe not, but let’s go to the meeting.’ When I went to the meeting. . . I looked around and I said, ‘Well, actually, if they can do it, so can I.’ 

“And I think if you can employ that motto in your life to say that, ‘there’s so many people that have come before me that have done this, what do they have that’s different to what I have?”

Fawzia also believes senior leadership also needs to play a role. 

“In the environment where senior leaders are working with young black females to ensure that we grow that confidence, and it’s in little things. In a meeting, to make sure that the quiet voices get heard. Outside of the business environment, it’s to have those conversations with young ladies who might be doubting themselves. 

“So I think it’s something that we need to do as we become senior leaders to ensure that we’re constantly lifting.”

The backbone of an economy

Fawzia is taking over at the JSE at a difficult time. News reports abound on delistings, a drop off in the volume of shares traded, and how returns are pale in dollar terms compared to US exchanges. 

One way the JSE hopes to address these concerns is by making it easier for smaller firms to access capital. 

“Capital formation is important, and we understand that not all companies can go straight to a full listing on the JSE. So, we have recently launched our private placements business, and that is where we look to get issuers matched up with investors. 

“We do have a number of companies currently on that platform, and the capital is available on the platform as well. If I’m speaking to the CFOs out there, it is to say, ‘you know, as your company grows and as you’re looking for capital, speak to us.’”

Fawzia, whose husband runs a bicycle-importing business, is passionate about the utility of smaller businesses. 

“We talk a lot about the importance of SMEs and the fact that they are the people that create jobs. I always say to him, ‘Don’t underestimate the role that you play. You have employed 20 people. They are looking after their families. And I think that’s important for all of us to understand, even us in corporate. I think we must never take away from the role that SMEs play in our economy.”


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