I know that engaging with Audrey Mothupi — even on Zoom as the third wave takes hold — means downing a ton of Berocca so that I can keep up with her. She is that energetic. Before this driven and charming CEO started the SystemicLogic Group, a technology-solutions company, eight years ago, she was CEO of group strategic services at Liberty Holdings and head of inclusive banking at Standard Bank. She is also on multiple boards and the chairperson of Orange Babies South Africa — a non-profit that looks after orphans with Aids. I am tired just writing that. The mother of two has a global vision, and she is not stepping off the forward-thinking trajectory any time soon.
“I always say to people that I am a pan-Africanist but I am actually quite global. My parents were in exile from apartheid South Africa in Uganda when I was born. Then Idi Amin happened, so we moved to Nairobi, Kenya, then I went to Canada. Most of my high school was spent on scholarship at the Lester B Pearson College UWC in Canada. There were kids from all over the world — 63 countries were represented there — Black and white South Africans, Israelis and Palestinians. I was very influenced by a global perspective, which has guided me throughout my life and career: trying to understand people first.”
Her schooling experience taught her lifelong lessons. “It was the culture of the school to come together on the basis of our shared humanity and to believe in the possibility of social change through courageous, selfless leadership. Having been raised strong and political at home and knowing the anger that I felt, the school really helped take that forward and to channel it into action. Every single role I have taken has depended on understanding people and the premise of what makes them tick; you may not like it but try to understand it. My life has been very colourful, so in my journey I see the lights and not the darkness — it manifests in everything I do.”
Her journey as a young professional after her degree in Canada has been defined by curiosity. “Being born and raised in exile, my father insisted we grow up in a very African way, reading Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Karl Marx. My history teacher was very surprised that I had interrogated The Communist Manifesto and what it meant for the developing world. My experiences at Standard Bank and Liberty were like university. Now I think I am something like the ‘chief hustling officer’ — my primary aim is to create jobs. Now I am a good capitalist, I tell my dad, and in creating jobs we create lives.”
Talking to Mothupi feels like getting a masterclass in management. “If you are going to be disruptive, don’t take on challenges that are unexpected and self-destructive — just because I have taken this path before does not mean I must continue. I take the skills I have learnt and use them in complementary, non-linear ways. I have been a management consultant, worked for the public broadcaster, wealth insurance, banking, and am now running a data and innovation company.” To this non-linear path she has just added an education in artificial-intelligence machine learning through MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) — during the Covid-19 pandemic. “In the disruption you should be relearning and using different tools. I am always studying. My daughters thought I was crazy, doing assignments. I just found something that excites me, I have a curiosity to constantly learn.”
Even when Mothupi is rebooting, she is doing so creatively. “The hardest part of the journey towards disruption is the self; when you are your own stumbling block. So if I can’t solve my problem, I will go for a walk, read something, or cook. I am a serious introvert, I find my peace in my own space. I have had to learn to be an extrovert for work and my journey, because of what I preach in terms of creating jobs. I have to be the face of the business. I have no problems with public speaking, but after I am done on stage I will disappear into my onesie and my home.”
Clearly, her system is working. From being an eight-person startup, SystemicLogic now employs over 200 people and has created innovative digital solutions for a slew of international and local financial-service companies. “A lot of the work we do is partnering with banks to optimise their services. We create a marriage between disruptors and traditional banks and play the role of an accelerator. We take on the youngsters to accelerate their business and act as a bridge from the ideator to the traditional bank.”
Listen to the voice in your head. You are not crazy, it is your truth seeking your action
Her advice to young entrepreneurs? “Every step you take and everyone who comes into your life — good or bad — learn from them and the experience, and weave that into the next job. I worked three jobs in Canada when I was at university. One job was from 7pm to 7am in a factory where we would put the tops on deodorant bottles. I loved talking to people in the breaks, elderly women who had been there for years who took the time to teach us. They did not have to, but they taught me to be patient and not to be resentful of where you are in life. I think in that patience you learn how to listen. We have a tendency to want to get to the answer and lose sight of some of the insights we would get by standing still. At that conveyor belt at 1am or 2am, these women just wanted the best for me. In the break they would encourage me: ‘Pull out your books to read. Why are you still standing, don’t you have books to study?’”
I still use that lesson if I find myself in a difficult meeting, I pull the meeting back and step back to reflect on some of the human lessons.
“That was the lesson I drew on when, years later, I had to travel and hustle. I went to Nigeria and, as South Africans, we don’t realise that the rest of the continent does not sleep. I sat outside the CEO’s office and pitched at 1.30am — eight years later they are still an amazing client. It comes full circle, being in the world and understanding different cultures. We are all human, and I was not foreign to them. In my business journey, borders have not created a barrier for me, just an opportunity.”
Her philosophy boils down to the advice she gives her daughters: “They call them ‘Audrey quotes’. Listen to the voice in your head. You are not crazy, it is your truth seeking your action.”
• From the July edition of Wanted, 2021.