Joan Joffe – riding the wave of success

[Image] Joan Joffe, business leader turned ‘venture catalyst’.
(Image: Joan Joffe)

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Joan Joffe

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Timing has a lot to do with being successful, says Joan Joffe, one of the most recognisable faces in South African business. “Well, you certainly caught the computer wave,” I mention to her when we meet at a Rosebank hotel. “I caught three waves!” she responds. “The PC wave, the cellphone wave and the black economic empowerment wave.” It’s not just a matter of luck, though. Joffe says if you want to succeed “you have to be out there looking for opportunities all the time, and work very, very hard”.

The owner of her own IT company, a former senior executive of Vodacom and a former Businesswoman of the Year, Joffe should know. Having left the cellphone giant about 11 years ago, she has worked as a business consultant and served on the boards of several companies, including that of Nozala, a broad-based black empowerment women’s investment company. Today, says the seventysomething-year-old, who looks fit and vibrant, “I stay below the radar.”

But to her that means working from a home office and facilitating several projects. “I call myself a ‘venture catalyst’ – rather than being on the operational side, I initiate projects. People approach me with products and ideas and I introduce them to other people who can help bring their plans to fruition.” The sweet feeling she has when a deal goes through is still there, she says.

Women do things differently

A maths and philosophy – “the logics side” – graduate, Joffe says she never found being a female in male-dominated industries a disadvantage. She also never felt compelled to emulate men’s workplace style to get ahead. “Business is about differentiating yourself from others. It is different, being a woman when there is a majority of men, so use it.”

On the whole, women do approach things differently, says Joffe. “The skills a woman brings to a company or a board are different from the skills considered stereotypically male. In general, women have a more consultative, empathetic approach, and that is the kind of leadership we need in South Africa today. We don’t need autocratic leadership.”

Organisations are realising this and so there are many more opportunities today for women who want to succeed. “Companies want women in executive positions and on their boards.”

There are also infinitely more resources available to women today, says Joffe – “through the internet there is much more opportunity to acquire knowledge” – and females in this country are in a strong position: “The only thing limiting us is our vision of ourselves. Women should realise they can be anyone and anything.”

Forging a career

Joffe’s father was a prominent Johannesburg lawyer and a community leader and it was from his example that she chose her own path. She planned to study law but after she completed her bachelor’s degree at the University of the Witwatersrand, the world of computers called and she began working as a programmer for ICL. Then her husband got the opportunity to study at Stanford University and she joined him in the US. There she was able to study computer science for two years and spend some time working in the IT industry. The couple spent a total of four years in the US. “The standard at Stanford was much higher than at Wits. When we came back I felt I was ahead of the pack.”

She worked for some years at IBM as a systems engineer and then joined Hewlett-Packard. The company’s scientific and financial calculators were in huge demand and she opened a business selling them in Braamfontein, in Johannesburg. Then, she said, “I attended a meeting where they talked about the latest innovation, PCs, and a red light came on for me. I knew it was the future.”

She personally flew to the US to buy computers from an IBM retailer and in 1977, Joffe Associates was born, supplying computers to individuals and big companies in the Johannesburg CBD. In 1986 she sold Joffe Associates to Datakor and some years later, was approached by Vodacom to take up a position as marketing director. When she left the cellphone operator in 2002 she returned to consulting and became a director of technology group Datacentrix.

Apart from always “keeping their antennae up for opportunities”, Joffe’s advice to women who want to make it in business is:

  • Be prepared to take a risk. “Be careful about how big it is and do your research first, but take a risk.”
  • When it comes to juggling family responsibilities – Joffe has two sons – she says it must be managed well. “Companies should help women with children; it helps if management is sensitive to these issues. Speak to your boss and if you don’t receive support, consider moving on.” At the same time, there should be quid pro quo. “If you take time off for the school gala or lift scheme, for example, work the time in, and never take advantage of the arrangement.”
  • Don’t limit your thinking – be ambitious in whatever field you are in.
  • Work exceptionally hard.
  • Surround yourself with people who are positive and co-operative.
  • Be prepared to share and help others, and bring them up the ladder with you.
  • Prioritise family, never neglect them in favour of work.
  • Pick a supportive partner because, “if your partner is unhelpful or does not accept your ambition, your options will be to leave your partner or to leave your ambition”.
  • There is no need to copy men. These days success is based on ability, not gender.
  • Be visible: “Tell people if you have done something fantastic; don’t be a shy violet.” Joffe said it was a challenge when she first saw her image on a front-page newspaper advertisement for her company. “My ad agency said we had to place the ad because I was the USP [unique selling proposition] of the company. I was horrified.” But she got used to it and her business grew exponentially.
  • And finally, “see the positive aspects in every situation, don’t focus on the negative. Keep you vision in mind.”

One might add remain gracious and grounded, because it strikes me that South Africa’s first lady of ICT is those things as well.