AEC Strategic Conversation With Hlengi Portia Masimula, Chief Executive Officer of Karisani Group.

Hlengi Portia Masimula, Co-Founder and CEO of Karisani Group, South Africa

Hlengi Portia Masimula, South African-born Entrepreneur is the Co-founder and the Chief Executive Officer of Karisani Group. Portia is a force to be reckoned with in African continent. In six short years being in the ICT industry, she has gone from a dream and concept of owning and running a tech business to having a staff of developers and business contracts. From an early age, her family instilled in her that success is not an entitlement but has to be earned. In 2014, she put together a business plan to learn, train, understand, and develop a technical support and solutions company because she saw that there were no black female-owned tech support companies in South Africa and very few females working in the Tech Sector. She recognized that there was a huge void in the country’s business culture in which women could take advantage and open up powerful new avenues for all women in the workforce.

Portia co-founded an ICT service specializing in web and mobile applications, and her brand and company were solidified early when she was invited to attend Gitex, one of the biggest conferences in Dubai, UAE as one of the speakers. Through hard work and sheer perseverance, she managed to get her big break when their company, Karisani, landed a deal with international sports channel ESPN, where her and her team developed a web application for the organization.

In 2020, she was nominated as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. She was featured on Forbes as Power Woman Under 30 in ICT, and as a game changing and independent business leader by Mzansi 100. In addition, she was nominated by the IFC in London, England as an entrepreneur who is making an incredible contribution in the ICT industry. More recently she was invited to Paris, France in which she had the opportunity to engage with esteemed global icons such as the President of France, Emmanuel Macron and the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg. In 2021 Portia and her company Karisani was invited to London tech week where Karisani exhibited its services.

Portia engaged in powerful dialogues at upper levels of society with the Consulate of the Kingdom of the Netherlands on how to create inclusive economic growth by empowering women in business, as well as to help increase participation of women specifically in the ICT industry. She was also one of the judges for The Inspiring Fifty, an European award established by the Consulate of the Netherlands.

Philanthropic work, Portia believes that when women participate in the economy everyone benefits. In 2017, she launched a women’s empowerment digital platform in partnership with the SMG MBW Cape Town to empower emerging female entrepreneurs in Africa particularly in the rural and townships. She has been booked to be a keynote speaker at many conferences and seminars over the last six years during her meteoric rise as an up-and-coming young business woman. Portia is one of the few South African women who can boast the varied and successful career which she managed to build
over the few years in ICT.

Portia built Karisani from nothing into a well known brand locally and globally.The proud was when Karisani being part of the ESD Accenture programme and this is one of the greatest opportunities that has tremendously opened doors for her as a company where her company translates business problems and develops technical solutions and continues to push for government programs to aid and support burgeoning female entrepreneurs.

She gives Afripreneur Conference an in-depth and perspective intervew on the place of women in African business world.

What was your journey like to get where you are?

In my early 20s, I had a dream of being a fashion designer; designing, fabricating, and wearing my own clothes. I met people in 2013 who saw my vision and helped me get capitalized with what I needed to be able to manufacture my designs in a shorter amount of time. I hustled from shop to shop, not only selling my outfits but wearing them into meetings with store owners. It was a tough business but I ultimately was able to start placing my frocks in stores and begun a modest business. While the clothing lines gave me a sense of how to approach business owners and how to sell myself, as well as my designs, I felt that there was something bigger I should be doing.

I began to research just how many female tech owners there were since the Tech Sector was so big and the world was turning more and more digital. Realizing that there were literally no women in the top positions in ICT, I began to formulate a plan to learn everything I could about computer technology, technical solutions, apps, software, and what kinds of issues companies face on a daily business. In 2014 I met my Co-founders; Mhloni and Sim who are developers. We have built small apps that allowed us to learn what we needed to know about input technical requirements, coding issues, logistics, and graphical user interfaces.

As technical team worked becoming better at their skills, I went from seminar to conference, talking to government officials and top business people about what they find are chief issues needing resolutions.

After a time, my network grew and I was invited to more and more events where I was able to pitch our company’s capabilities. Over a three-year period of time Karisani was not getting very far. It was only until I struggled to the point of starvation that people took notice of this woman pushing through the pain, the frustration, and the lack of opportunities and gave us a medium-sized project with ESPN. Not only did we knock out the tech solutions for them under budget and on time, we got major press for having completed a successful project with a named brand company.

This publicity allowed me to move deeper into high level business circles and even worked with heads of state from other countries, looking for the possibility of opening up more business internationally. Make no mistake, finding businesses willing to take a chance on a smaller organization is always a gamble, but Karisani has shown a strong set of ethics, pride in our work, and a commitment to give the customer what they ordered on time every time.

Could you tell us some of your experiences doing business in Africa?Moreover as the woman that you are?

Specifically South Africa is a difficult if not impossible place for female business owners to thrive.The business culture is strictly a male-dominated industry, not for the faint-hearted or thin-skinned. Industry is tough, Mine was an idea, one in which I believed that a successful business could be built with a will and a proper network of business partners, a team full of capable developers, and someone like me putting herself out there as the face of the company. I was determined to leave build and to leave a legacy behind and that has kept me going and focus into my vision irrespective of all the challenges l had to learn the language of business, run in the proper circles, know the important people, build relationships with people who generally did not view me as a serious business woman and, even today, must fight for a level of respect for which men do not. My company was “graded,” “judged,” and scrutinized in every meeting, every conference, and during every contract. As a woman, its far easier to become a social media influencer, marry into money, and support the male-dominated landscape, but I felt the need to actually BE a part of that landscape, to rise above the average and promote myself as a capable young lady with a mission. It’s still a struggle every day to be taken seriously and I have many times been stressed to the point of giving up. What keeps me motivated are a certain few individuals, successful business people, who see my abilities and drive as needed in this world. I confirm that I’m doing the right thing for others and myself whenever I meet young women after a speaking engagement who tell me that they see me as a role model. I feel it is my duty and honour to pave the way for anyone who struggles and wants a better life for themselves, taking the less traveled road.

Are there any specific challenges faced by businesswomen in Africa?

Working as a woman in a male dominated society is challenging enough, but even mores if women do not attempt to gain access to higher paying technology jobs as a career. We do not have a proper support mechanism for women here in Africa who would like to be in Finance, Technology, Medical, Pharmacological, Computer Engineering, and Software Engineering. Also most women are not being supported by their male partners when they try business. And accessing the right networks and funding are also biggest problems that hinders women not to pursue their dreams.

Have you ever felt that you encounter specific obstacles in your career because of your gender?

I feel that all the answers given to this point strike a poignant tone about how dire a situation it is for female in business in Africa. Many times I could feel that rather than them treat me as an equal. The big game is to be respected as an equal among men and this is a particular challenge for women looking for ways to break into an industry, be taken seriously, and know that they truly earned their place as a top boss or leader. Still a long walk to freedom for us to win this battle. The reality is that, we still live in a male dominated world and as a woman you have to work 20x times harder to earn the respect.

Do you think you are a role model for other women?

I hope so. I truly wish the best for women who struggle to survive but mores for those that could have a successful career in business but don’t know how to start, get distracted, are told they can’t make it, aren’t taken seriously, don’t have the relevant education or training to even break into even entry-level jobs. I plan to be there every step of the way, proudly talking about my journey so others can see that there is someone looking to pave the way, make things easier for them, bring a sense of pride to having women in the workplace, and share the trials and tribulations of my journey so they have a yardstick to measure their own success by.

Does female leadership exist?

It does, but in a wrong way personally i still believe that true leadership is not about them but about those they serve, and being a woman owned business is a different game and mainly more about hard work than publiciy. It pains me seeing the youth of today wanting instant success by looking on Instagram glamour life. Too many of our young women look to the celebrities, and glamour photos as their idea of “making it.” Real wealth comes from building a sustainable business that can grow and support your lifestyle for the rest of your life and it takes a lot of hard work. The truly wealthy people are silent, working behind the scenes to create even more wealth. There are a few individual women who are moguls in their own right here in South Africa, but you would possibly never know it because they are making boss moves rather than showing off. We need more female leaders who will be role models to our young girls. Women who will lead by example and who are in love of doing the work more than publicity or fame.

Is there a company operating in Africa that particularly you admire? and why?

Accenture, is a good example of of one who believes in promoting diversity in the workplace, supporting educational needs, entrepreneurs and provides training for women who yearn to get ahead. Our company Karisani probably wouldn’t have aligned so closely with most other organizations. Only through a careful deliberation process of working with many different organizations did we finally bump into Accenture. We realized that in South Africa it’s difficult to thrive as a small business without the support unless you align your company with giant IT consulting companies such as Accenture. Currently Karisani is part of Accenture ESD Programme. Accenture ESD Programme has brought a significant change and growth to our business and we are always grateful for this opportunity.

Professionally, is there someone who inspires you?

I personally love how Oprah Winfrey became a business model simply because she would not back down, pushed her ideas forward, and made boss moves when it came to equal rights and equal pay for the same job. She was forced to leave a rather good paying job in front of the camera because of unfair pay scale differences, so she decided to sink everything into doing a show on her own in her own inimitable style. She started local, grew her audience, syndicated, and finally gained the right to claim her title of Queen of Daytime Talk Show Television. That inspires me.

And outside the professional world, is there an African figure that particularly inspires you?

My grandfather’s story is one of poverty, despair, hope, education, and family values. I will never forget the lessons learned from him, my greatest inspiration.

What do you do to relax after a day’s work?

My mind is constantly thinking, making moves, deliberating decisions, going over meetings in my head almost all the time. At times, I need to have my personal mental health days, meditating, and visiting various wineries around Cape Town. I modestly play guitar and am an avid reader of all different types of subjects. “Theater of the mind” is a wonderful way to break free of the mundane and take a trip without ever having to leave home.

What kind of girl were you when you were 20 years old?

Summed up in one word – ambitious. I knew from an early age that I was destined to blaze my own trail, forge my own business, travel, and be in corporate meetings discussing relevant topics that would effect change in many people’s lives.

What is the next country in Africa you want to visit and why?

Two countries growing in technological possibilities are Kenya and Rwanda. I would love the opportunity to visit and work with business leaders there to discover the possibilities of making peoples’ lives better through technology.

Today, are you where you have always wanted to be?

Happily, I believe I am on the correct path, yes. Am I where I feel I need to be to affect the maximum amount of people, No. I am building up to that event and cannot foresee where that path will ultimately take me, but I am eagerly awaiting the journey forward. I am now and probably always will be a work in progress. I imagine that I will still be learning how to be the best version of myself as Portia I can be all my life.

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