'If you believe it, you can achieve it'

IT WAS no accident that Venete Klein, chief corporate affairs and sustainability officer at Absa, ended up in the financial sector.

Not only has she taken charge of her destiny, but Klein has proved to the world that women have a significant role to play in the financial services sector, which is still male dominated.

She has broken the stereotypes to prove that women are as capable to build a strong economy as their male counterparts.

After spending more than 30 years in the sector, Klein has earned her place as one of the most influential women in the banking and business sector.

She boasts an endless list of accolades that include being the first woman to serve on the World Trade Organisation's international policy commission.

Today, the Harvard University graduate is regarded as the epitome of women's success, yet her feet remain firmly on the ground.

Q: What is your role as Absa's chief corporate affairs and sustainability officer?

A: I see my role as key in providing guidance and leadership while strengthening the role the Absa group plays in being a responsible corporate citizen in all our communities.

The division is new in Absa and it allows me to take a clean playing field and convert it into a vehicle that can effect significant change in our country, down to the lowest level of our society. This division is the glue that keeps the organisation, its people, stakeholders, regulators, our communities and governance structures together.

Q: What would you say has been your contribution at Absa since you joined them?

A: I joined Absa in June 2003 in the agriculture business division. I was appointed in June 2005 as executive director: Absa Retail Bank, responsible for the transactional and deposits division.

In this role, I ensured that 16000 employees were motivated and that a branch network of 974 branches were maintained. One of the biggest contributions was the role I played as group executive member, who formed part of the team that successfully led the Barclays integration. To date, this still ranks as the biggest direct foreign investment transaction into South Africa.

Q: What attracted you to the financial sector?

A: When I entered the labour market, the banking industry's top structures were visibly not accessible to women. It was always in my character to break the moulds and to challenge stereotypes. What enticed me into banking was not just the opportunity to pave the way for other women, but to prove that women are as capable as men to build a strong economy. I made a conscious decision to venture into a male-dominated sphere. Looking back after more than 32 years in the industry, I don't just see my personal growth trajectory, but can proudly stand back and admire the successes of other women in finance.

Q: How is the participation of women in this sector? Are women lagging behind, if so, what can be done to increase their participation?

A: Women are still under-represented in the upper echelons of the financial-services sector. However, more and more women are breaking the barrier and are aggressively entering the market. It will take time to achieve "normal" equity status in our country, but I am impressed at the pace at which women are finally challenging long held mindsets.

Q: Why do we still have few women in leadership positions?

A: Even though there is a steady pace in the appointment of women to leadership positions, not enough is done to rectify the imbalances. It is up to us women to empower ourselves and encourage other women not to allow their historical past to shape their future, potential, and ultimately their destiny.

Q: It is often said that women are not good leaders; is there truth to this? How do you relate with your team?

A: I find that conjecture laughable, if anything. I believe that women leaders bring a new era of wisdom and compassion to businesses. There are lots of examples where women leadership has been generally measured far better than that of men. I have a fantastic team of dedicated women and men and they don't relate to me as the boss, but as a colleague and guiding figure.

We need to keep the women's agenda high up in every business and political dialogue. We need to ensure that young women today do not bear the scars of the past, but that our stories are an inspiration for them to grow to even greater heights.

Q: What legacy would you like to leave behind?

A: The real legacy I would like to leave is: "Do not let any system define you. You have been born for greatness. If you believe it, you can achieve it."

Q: Where to from here?

A: Doing exactly what I am doing today. This is bringing significance to others' lives, being the voice for those who are silenced by corporate inertia and making a difference in the most vulnerable sectors of our society. The setting might change, but my purpose in life will remain.