Cathy (Prim) Smith is Managing Director (SAP Africa) at SAP.
She is the first female head of an emerging markets unit in SAP’s history.
Tell us about your background?
I am colored and the youngest of eight children. I feel like I was born to grandparents as my parents were quite old when they gave birth to me: my mum was 46 and my dad was 50. In fact, some people thought my elder siblings were my parents. I grew up in Coronationville township. As the youngest, my brothers and sisters had paved the way for me. They didn’t enjoy many of the privileges I did.
For instance, unlike them, I attended a multi-racial private school when I was old enough for high school. At that time, we were not allowed to mix across racial lines. However, at the school, we had Indians and coloreds together. I had the privilege of attending the school because my parents could afford the fees. Although, I also had a bursary. The experience had an incredible impact on me. It gave me an understanding of the role of family, especially in providing support for each other. It also helped me understand parents and how they go the extra mile to fulfill their responsibilities.
Attending St. Barnabas fundamentally changed how I thought. I went from a family where almost everybody worked in a factory, to dreaming about working in a different environment. Fortunately, I was able to finish my schooling career successfully and pursue those dreams. Upon completing my high school education, I went to the University of Advanced Design. In those days, we had to put in special applications to be accepted into the university because there was a quota system on how many people of color could get admission. I was accepted and I think that was the proudest moment for my parents, as I was the first in the family to finish school and attend university. Regardless, the stress of that experience was indelibly imprinted on my mind.
I attended university in the early 1980s. There were many school boycotts within colored townships and I was heavily involved in the politics of those years. We faced all kinds of issues, including police raids and I ended up missing many lectures. I didn’t understand the impact of these actions until the end of the year when I failed my exams. My parents were disappointed. However, I learnt to deal with the setback. Also, I took a job and paid back the bursary I was on at the time. The experience was instructive, though, as it taught me to be both politically conscious and responsible.
How did you begin your career?
After working in a couple of small roles, I joined an American insurance company, where I got the amazing opportunity to learn programming. In fact, I was one of the first few women of color to become an application developer and work in the ICT industry. This was over 30 years ago. They trained us to do things in a practical way. I had customers in different industries – finance, business, HR, and procurement. So, I had to develop excellent listening skills to understand their problems and find the appropriate solutions. Those formed my formative years as an application developer.
Years later, I realized I needed to fill some gaps in my academic training. However, I also had a responsibility to my employer. So, I did certification courses to bolster my academic and theoretical knowledge. Over time, I took on larger application development projects. That meant I had to learn to do things in a collaborative way, but also under difficult circumstances. As application developers, we had to be accessible all the time because businesses depended on our applications to work. I had to learn to balance my work’s demands alongside my family’s demands.
Many of the women we’ve spoken to had fathers who believed they could do anything. Can you comment on that, as well as on the impact of a supportive husband?
My father was 50 when I was born and I do not remember a moment during my upbringing when I wasn’t encouraged to do the best that I could. They had sacrificed for the previous seven children, undoubtedly, but they had little in those earlier years. Dad was the breadwinner while Mom was a stay-at-home mom for the majority of their married life. When I was given the opportunity to attend St. Barnabas, my parents supported me generously. Also, all my siblings supported it, which for me, was really special. That instilled in me a confidence to do whatever I wanted. It also instilled a sense of responsibility and the understanding that I could not squander the opportunity. They had such amazing dreams for me. And when I failed in university, they were disappointed.
I remember when I told my father I failed, he had tears in his eyes. Regardless, he told me: “This is how you pick yourself up and know that no matter what happens, we’re there for you.” I always feel like that was the encouragement I needed to go on. With that love, support, and belief, I stepped up and continued to move forward. These are the kinds of things that, even in your darkest moments, remind you of what is possible.
My mom was quite traditional in her outlook and mindset. I worked for IBM for many years and we traveled a lot. I visited one day after a trip and she said to me, “I don’t know why you got married!” To her, a woman should stay at home and look after the kids, while the man should be the provider. At the time, I could not articulate that I had a drive to work and do the best that I could. I just ended up in situations and positions where I could develop and progress my career. Fortunately, as much as she was not on the same page as me in terms of the role of a woman, I don’t think she ever allowed her beliefs to limit me.
Through it all, my husband has been incredible. I’m not saying it’s easy or that there haven’t been difficult times. For instance, in the early days of my career, an operator would phone to tell me about a crashed program at two o’clock in the morning. I’d get up, drive into the city and get to work fixing the problem. Sometimes, this took several days and I did it for several years. I often reflect on what it meant from a marital point of view and how my husband stayed with me through it all. But then, we made a commitment and we’re sticking to it through the good and the bad.
What was your experience at IBM like?
Working at IBM was like working for the entire ICT industry. Because although I was an application developer, my responsibilities cut across different professions. As a result, I learned adaptability, agility, and flexibility.
During my time at IBM, I used to look at the HR director and say, “That is the job I aspire to have.” Fortunately, IBM sent me to the UK for a few years to build some international experience. While there, I worked in different capacities from project management and running data centers to managing teams of subject matter experts at a technology level. Eventually, they asked me to come back and bring my business knowledge to bear as the HR director. However, while I had lots of business expertise, I had no HR expertise. So, I hired an HR expert to assist me in the role. It was really interesting having that job because women in the ICT industry, especially women of color traditionally had supporting roles. So, HR was seen as a support function. I decided that I would make the absolute best of it regardless of my race and gender.
Up until that time, I had this naive view that people see me for what I’m worth as a human being, instead of as a woman of color. All that mattered to me was substance, hard work, taking responsibility, and ensuring people saw me as someone they could trust. When I got into that job, I got to see what happens in office politics. I witnessed how decisions are made and that formed my next level of consciousness. The first was political consciousness at university. This new level made me aware of how decisions are made in corporations, and the importance of knowing who I am, what I stand for, and how to be true to myself. It was an important part of my development as a leader and I got to understand leadership and seniority.
After a few years, I realized I would be of more use and contribute more if I was in the business world and not HR. After reviewing my portfolio of skills, I realized I didn’t know much about sales. It was a significant gap given the industry I operated in. So, I decided to learn it. I went from being the HR director for IBM, Middle and East Africa, with a beautiful office, a spectacular oak desk, and a fabulous personal assistant, to a salesperson who sat in an open plan office. During that period, I learned selling, as well as how to bring all of my skills from application development, project management,and HR, to bear. Eventually, I ended up running the whole public sector for Africa.
How did you end up working for SAP?
It’s an amazing story. The woman I hired to be my HR specialist while at IBM told me I was meant for more. Because of her, I was invited for an interview with Cisco after which they hired me as the CEO in charge of sub-Saharan Africa. That experience taught me the importance of building credibility and strong relationships where people see what you can do and have faith in you.
When I got the Cisco job, I knew nothing about networking technology. Nevertheless, I decided to go for it. I did and I had the time of my life at it. It wasn’t easy as I had to learn new things, and build trust and credibility. Still, I succeeded.
I spent three wonderful years at Cisco. Then, I got invited to work for SAP in South Africa and look after their Sub-Saharan Africa region. I was the first woman of color to lead both Cisco and SAP. I have been at SAP for over three and a half years. In that time, we have navigated through some interesting periods.
What are your thoughts on diversity within the ICT industry?
We have a lot of work to do in the ICT industry on the diversity front. This includes gender inclusion, racial inclusion, physical disabilities, creativity, and the ability to accept different points of view.
For instance, in South Africa, especially the ICT industry, the female demographic is less than 25%. There is probably a lesser percentage of women in leadership positions in the ICT industry. And that is despite the fact the industry has existed for over 30 years. This is, in part, because women find working difficult in industries like ours. One of the many things I’ve had to navigate over the last three decades is that things done outside of the boardroom, like the bar and golf course, have a significant impact on the industry. I’m not saying they are bad. However, they don’t fit my value system as I want to do business in the boardroom. From a gender point of view, it puts women at a disadvantage, as it’s not just that we have lots of men in the industry, it’s also the fact that there is a culture of making decisions and networking that is fundamentally different from what most women are comfortable with. I think that is a contributing factor to why we don’t have more women in the ICT industry and it is something we should address. It should be okay for women to not attend parties after hours. It’s fine if they want to, of course, but it shouldn’t be a necessity.
Also, people forget I am a woman of color because I do not look like a colored person. It’s made for an interesting journey for me over the last 30 years as I get to see how people truly think. I see issues that I wouldn’t normally see if people could instantly recognize my race. Sometimes it has made it easier for people to give me a job since they think I look like them. Of course, I’m speaking from a South African context. And while it has made things easier for me in some instances, it’s important to me that people know that nothing should stop anybody from being successful. In light of that, I try to help people accomplish their dreams and ambitions.
For me, increasing diversity starts in middle management. Many organizations have a diverse executive leadership team. However, when you examine the entire organization, you’ll discover that many people are still behind the curve because of their race or their gender, both from a salary point of view and from a job grading point of view. This is because middle management determines who to hire, where the next promotion happens, when the next salary increase happens, and so on. So, my goal is to have a truly diverse and transformed middle management team that cuts across race, gender, and all facets within the organization.
Is there any advantage to being a female leader?
The ICT industry is male-dominated and sometimes it’s an advantage to be a woman especially in today’s world where there’s a big focus on equality and respect. What I find has been a real success for me is my listening skill. As a result, I can get people to talk to me, which helps me better understand situations and informs how I make decisions as a leader. Furthermore, I have found being a woman useful in difficult circumstances as it helps ensure certain situations don’t get out of hand.
Why do you think there aren’t more female CEOs in the ICT industry?
I have already touched on some of them. However, there are many other reasons.
For example, over the course of my career, I have realized that this work can be tiresome. You need to relentlessly stay the course and navigate an environment where you have to change people’s minds to make decisions. The stress of all these can drive you nuts. So, I absolutely understand why women walk away. In my opinion, many women determine it’s not worth it. I’ve seen many women either take a less front-facing job or leave the industry because of this stress.
I also think we need to be more confident around saying, “This is what you will lose if you don’t have me as a CEO.” If you have clarity of thought, you will exude a level of confidence that will convince the decision-makers to choose you.
Also, I think women should have options. Having options will protect you in your career and in difficult circumstances as it allows you to walk away from unfavorable situations.
Finally, you need a support structure. This includes your belief system, values, family, and every other thing that gives you the strength of mind to continue to work through the bad times. There are many good things about this role, including the impact you can have and the ability to think creatively, among others. However, there are also horrible times. And you have to find a way to work through them. Your support structure will help with that.