Nonkululeko Gobodo’s advice for shattering glass ceilings
Written by: Leigh Schaller
Nonkululeko Gobodo, one of the founders of what would become South Africa’s largest black-owned accounting firms as well as the first black female CA(SA) spoke to Chwayita Deliwe, co-owner of CN Outsourced Finance on the CFOClub Podcast.
The two women shared their experiences of overcoming imposter syndrome, the value of self-belief and how gender roles need redefining.
Overcoming imposter syndrome in a panel-beating shop
“I fell pregnant at 17, and I didn’t know what I wanted.”
As adulthood loomed, it wasn’t evident that Nonkululeko Gobodo would shatter glass ceilings, becoming not only the first female black chartered accountant but also the founder of what would eventually become South Africa’s largest black-owned accounting and auditing firm.
“I grew up in a family where I was the shy one. I was the quiet one, and my strong mother was very worried about me thinking, ‘yo, what’s going to happen to this child?’ and [she] tried to toughen me up and out of that, I then developed this low self-esteem,”
Not knowing what she wanted to do, Nonkululeko started working in her father’s panel beating shop, where she discovered two things: the world of auditing, accounting and bookkeeping and, secondly, confidence and an unwavering sense of belief she would need to rise to the top.
[11:29] The first day she arrived, one of the white managers working for her father asked for her name, saying that it was too difficult and that he would call her Mary.
“I was like, ‘No, you will do no such thing. You are going to call me by my name. You are going to write it down and practice it.’ I always thought when I look back, ‘Where was that Nonkululeko all along when I believed I was going to be a failure?’ I realised that Nonkululeko was always there.
“The powerful person that you are is always there. You just have to allow that person to come out, and there will always be opportunities that will push you in the right direction.”
An unwavering sense of confidence
What came to define Nonkululeko was not the shy girl her mother used to see, but confidence and belief. Rising, first to complete her studies and become the first black female CA, then to rise through KPMG and turn down a partnership offer.
Later, Nonkululeko became CFO at the Transkei Development Corporation and restructured her department. “It’s this whole thing of believing in yourself, trusting yourself. Because if you approach something already believing that you’re going to fail, imagine what’s going to happen.”
It’s this belief that helped her to walk away from her cushy CFO position to follow her dream of starting her own practice.
[20:06] “Everybody around me was scared. My father, people from the community [asked] ‘How can you leave this comfortable position to go and compete with the Big Eight?’. . So there was all this fear around me, and I had to be very resolute that I have this dream. I want to do this.”
Good managers understand their shortcomings
As Nonkululeko’s firm expanded, so did the need to hire, manage others and retain them in an environment where quality accounting skills are always in demand.
[46:47] “I always say that one of the biggest challenges of my career was people.”
“When you’re young, you think you are it, and everybody must do what you say. You [think] you are right and everybody must follow you, and you go through that frustrating time because people will be themselves and make their own choices about life. So you’re always fighting with people, losing people.
But you have to wake up and realise that you have a vision that you want to achieve, and you can’t achieve it without people.”
“That’s when I started this journey of dealing with myself and dealing with my own weaknesses . . so that I could deal with people in a better way.”
“It’s fine that we don’t have it all.”
“You have all these other people around you who compliment you where you are weak. Instead of wanting them to be like you and fighting them because they are not like you, you need to sit back and appreciate what value they are bringing into your life.”
We need to have difficult conversations about gender roles
“If you are a professional and your wife is a professional, how can you expect her to still carry the full burden of domestic responsibilities?”
Nonkululeko believes difficult conversations around challenging gender roles are needed.
“We’re only talking about balance when it comes to women. When it comes to men, we’re not talking about balance because men are free to pursue their careers, pursue their ambitions, but society expects women to carry this big burden of balancing domestic responsibilities [with career ambitions].”
This can lead to resentment and breakdown.
[41:28] “I never realised, at that time, that I could have had this conversation with my ex because we all assumed that it was my responsibility . . . until at some point I got exhausted and I just couldn’t do it anymore. My only solution was divorce.
“We need to get to a place where as a society where we acknowledge that times have changed and we’ve got to redefine these roles. . . For instance, in my own family, I was the ambitious one. I was the one who had more capacity to create more wealth for the family than my ex. If we had sat down and said, ‘Okay, it looks like we’re now in this marriage, you can play this role better’ instead of feeling ‘I’m a failure because my wife is earning more than me’, how can we support you? “
“It’s 2023. Let’s create an environment where everybody can thrive, and you can make this thing work.”
Leaving a legacy
Nonkululeko stepped away from what was then SNG in 2014, “I was very clear that I’ve done my part. Now the next generation must do its part. At my age, then you can dream other things, and I’ve got other passions that I wanted to pursue, which I’m pursuing right now.”
These include serving as a director on boards and having recently written her memoir Awakened to my true self. “I’m vulnerable in this story. I share my whole journey and my passions around race and gender. Inequality is one of the themes of my book and how I found healing by focusing on my own healing.”
Nonkululeko also runs a social initiative called Awakened.
[1:03:30] “I really just want to contribute towards releasing black people and women from this inferiority complex that is just such a hindrance for them to really move forward and contribute to the country.
“You know, we always want to play it safe. . . let’s just sit here and share in this piece of the pie. Meanwhile, the country needs many pies. So I want to dedicate my life to assisting and supporting black people and women to find who they truly are, deal with their limiting beliefs, and contribute to growing our country.”