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Cutting a path to a transformed investment industry

It can be hard to see how South Africa has changed since those gloriously heady days in 1994. It is easy to spot the problems and list where we have failed. Every now and then an opportunity comes along to look at the progress.

It was a privilege to interview six bright and brilliant young actuaries who are cutting the path for others. Their stories appear in the Association for Savings and Investment South Africa’s recent Transformation Report.

The report contains useful data and charts unpacking various measures of transformation in the investment industry. It is the personal stories that bring the subject to life for me. See short excerpts of interviews with six young black actuaries below or read the much more comprehensive articles in the report: A Five-Year Transformation Journey 2018-2022

Embracing diversity, ‘where the true magic unfolds’

From school, where “everyone was so much like me”, to deciphering all the accents at Wits University, Krishna Kanjee applies a wide-angled lens to inclusivity.

Kanjee, Head of Product at Momentum Wealth, attended a small Hindu ethos Model C school from nursery school to matric. When she started at Wits University in 2011 the diversity of her class was a bit of a culture shock, she says, “daunting, but very exciting.”

She soon discovered so many like-minded people. “A strong, values-based upbringing had a big impact on me and helped me to unlock the magic when embracing diversity. After spending all my school years in a Hindu ethos school, university showed me how different points of view lead to beautiful solutions, even to technical problems.”

After Wits, she joined Momentum and, she says, diversity was even more magical at work because, suddenly, she was working with people from different backgrounds, ages and levels of experience. “Diversity brings in the magic when you’re working in a team.”

It takes a village to build a career’

We know it takes a village to raise a child,” says Kelefilwe Kungwane. “It also takes a village to build a career.”

The Head of Insurance Risk Insights and Data Analytics at Liberty Group says the support she received on her journey played a big role in her success. “I was supported every step of the way – from my parents who are both teachers, to the support I get from colleagues today.”

Raised in Pretoria, Kungwane is the second of six children in a family that always placed value on education. At 16, she joined the Up With Science programme run by the University of Pretoria – an extra-curricular programme for high school students who excelled in science or mathematics.

Time and effort put in after school and at weekends paid off. “That programme opened up a world of opportunities for me,” says Kungwane, a Fellow of the Actuarial Society of South Africa and a Chartered Enterprise Risk Actuary since 2019.

Kungwane says the support continues at Liberty. She describes having easy access to expert colleagues, people who have contributed to industry policies and frameworks that inform and govern her work today, people who “have shaped the way things are”. 

We need to start talking about gender

Ten years ago, if you walked into a room full of investment managers in South Africa, you could probably count the number of people of colour on one hand; today, you might need two hands, says Sandile Malinga, Co-Head of Multi-Asset Funds at M&G Investments. “Transformation is happening, but it is slow, and we are working off a very low base.”

 He adds: “It is high time we started dealing with the other glaring aspect of transformation in investment teams – the gender dimension … SA’s scorecard on transformation in terms of gender is very poor – as bad as the industry in Europe or the US.”

He has always been surrounded by impressive women – a mother who “has been a strong supporter of every crazy idea that I have had”, a wife who is “absolutely amazing”, and three daughters, aged three to 17. He agrees that this has influenced his awareness that the best decisions are made by diverse teams.

Malinga, a Fellow of the Actuarial Society of South Africa since 2021, has always worked in asset management, starting in fixed income before moving to multi-asset allocation over a career at two investment houses. Even if he hasn’t worked in a traditional actuarial field like life insurance, he says, actuarial studies and the professional exams “teach you to not hold assumptions too preciously, to be open to being challenged, to constantly re-evaluate”. This is useful in life in general, including working in a complex society like South Africa.

In terms of transformation, one real change he has seen has been a shift from asset managers talking about the need for transformation to clients demanding it, which “means we have a much better chance of making transformation work”.

Changing course, and opening new paths

A piece of advice that Ann-Maree Tippoo might give her 16-year old self would be that it is okay to change your mind. It took her some time to unlearn the single-minded determination she learned from her parents, which enabled them to build lives of dignity under apartheid.

Allowing herself to change direction made it possible to change course when she realised that she did not want to be an actuary after graduating with a degree in actuarial science in 2012. She did not, however, abandon financial services and is now a portfolio manager at Ninety One (Investec Asset Management until March 2020).

Education was always important in her family. Her parents pushed her and her brother to do well at school. She describes going to Westerford High School in Cape Town as “one of the best things that happened to me … They treated us like adults, in an environment that allowed me to flourish.”

When she was at high school, Tippoo danced with Cape Town City Ballet, and at first considered a career in the arts. Her second choice was medicine, but she chose actuarial science after representatives from the South African Actuaries Development Programme visited her class at Westerford and introduced the scholars to the possibility of a full scholarship for members of previously disadvantaged groups.

The programme goes beyond paying costs; assistance was provided for extra-curricular projects. This proved to be a good basis for a career at Ninety One, where, Tippoo says, “talent density” is valued, meaning that employees are encouraged to develop different capabilities and varied experiences rather than traditional silo thinking.

People who don’t look like you can be allies too

When she started working, Vuyelwa Nyezi, Capital Actuary at Discovery Life, struggled to connect with people around her. But, once she got to know her colleagues, she was pleased to discover that many were passionate about transformation and that there were allies amongst them.

When new people join the business now, she tries to ensure they feel as supported as she did, “to make sure they know they belong here”. She encourages them: “Get to know the supervisors, even if they don’t look like you.”

Nyezi grew up in a village outside Mthatha in the Eastern Cape. Her dad was unemployed, and her mum was a street vendor. She grew up in poverty, but her mother worked incredibly hard to make sure there was food on the table every day and that her children got a good education.

“We lived in a village, but she took us to school in town, where the teachers were better, and we were able to see a bit of another world,” says Nyezi.

When her older brother was doing a finance degree at UCT with the help of a sponsorship, he heard about actuarial science and thought it sounded perfect for his brilliant little sister. He told her about it, saying it would be difficult, but he knew she could do it. She liked the sound of it, and after being awarded the Eastern Cape Premier’s scholarship for being one of the top achievers in the province in her matric year, she headed to the University of Cape Town, where she completed her Bachelor of Commerce in Actuarial Science in 2015. She went on to write her professional exams from 2016 to mid-2021 (while she was working) and was admitted as a Fellow of the Actuarial Society of South Africa in October 2021.

After she started working, she had to tell herself for a while that “Everyone wants you here; you are here for your skill!” and now she believes it.

Keeping his eyes on the glass half-full

Top of his school and a leading matriculant in his province, Nadeem Fakier remembers discovering that he was well behind most of his university class because they had taken Advanced Maths (AdMaths) in matric, a subject that wasn’t offered at his school. But then, he says, some others were using a computer for the first time.

Fakier, a Pricing Actuary at Swiss Re, decided to focus on the glass half-full to become part of the 30% of the class expected to make it into the profession. He admits that thinking about that 30% success rate when everyone in the class “must have been in the top 1%” was intimidating.

As a member of the first generation of his family to attend university and go into the corporate world, Fakier says he has often found aspects of this unfamiliar world difficult to navigate. Education was a priority in his family, but when it came to university, neither parent was familiar with the lifestyle or the demands.

He filled the gap with a good support network of classmates and others, many of whom “were facing similar challenges”.

Again, when he got to the corporate world, he felt “overwhelmed”. This is not a unique experience, he says: “A lot of people who are first-generation graduates going into the corporate world don’t have support in the sense that the parents have never experienced a corporate environment.”

The gap continues to exist around him, and Fakier often finds himself fielding questions from younger colleagues. He helps them focus on the glass half-full.

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