Brave New World

As WDB celebrates 25 years of existence, its vision of creating “social businesses” invested in the upliftment of women in South Africa gives a new take on making a meaningful difference in the corporate workplace.

You could call WDB a revolutionary organisation of sorts. Starting off with a basic business plan in a small room in Hillbrow, with the desire to take on poverty and offer rural women loans that would give them a leg-up into creating their own businesses and change their lives, was a giant leap of faith for Mrs Zanele Mbeki and her team of tenacious women for whom any glass-half-empty scenarios were simply out of the question.

Fast-forward to 1996, and you have Faith Khanyile and Tania Slabbert hatching plans to take on corporate South Africa and change the world through a little investment company called WDB Investment Holdings (WDBIH).

Khanyile reflects: “WDBIH was started in 1996 mainly to secure the financial sustainability of the WDB Trust. The ethos behind the formation of WDBIH was to continue with increasing the participation of women in the economy in South Africa. The aim was to create a for-profit business to support a not-for-profit development organisation.”

The early days of WDBIH weren’t easy, Khanyile says. “Without a balance sheet, it was very difficult to find ways to fund our operation and raise funds for investments.”

Slabbert says that in order to find money to feed the trust programmes and to allow the company to grow, they had to innovate. “We began to offer our services as consultants to companies, giving them advice on their transformation processes for a fee. As we grew bolder and more knowledgeable, we began to negotiate for part of the dividends from our investments to be paid to us and we also began to insist on being allowed at least one board seat on each of our key investments.”

It was a new South Africa, with new dynamics in the business world, but in terms of gender, the shifting boardroom goalposts were a constant challenge.

“It was a challenging time because we were redefining what the new South Africa was going to be, especially for women in business. We were pioneers and it’s never easy to be at the frontline of driving change,” says Khanyile.

After democracy, the advent of black economic empowerment (BEE) in the country began to open doors for WDBIH. “We started as a small BEE participant in the various BEE deals that were taking place then, following the democracy in 1994, but as we did more deals, we developed a track record and we were now invited to larger transactions, such as FirstRand transactions, Bidvest and many others. We went from being a very small investment company to becoming a really significant participant and player in the BEE landscape in South Africa.”

For the WDBIH team, holding on to the organisation’s autonomy was simply non-negotiable.

Khanyile explains, “Our independence was important because we wanted to control our future. We did not want to invite investors who would come in and change our vision or change our strategy; we were clear in terms of our vision and we wanted to control that.”

When it comes having a solid vision, WDB management has never wavered. “Our vision then and today is to increase the participation of women in the South African economy. All the way from grass roots to the boardrooms of South Africa,” Khanyile says.

A social business for women’s empowerment

The WDBIH figures are impressive, to say the least. “To date, WDBIH … starting from nothing so to speak, to net asset value of R3-billion, but also being able to distribute dividends to the tune of R200-million to the WDB Trust, and the WDB Trust having reached closed to 200 000 female entrepreneurs in rural areas,” says Khanyile.

For many companies, the bottom line is the Holy Grail, and then, further down the track, comes the focus on corporate social investment (CSI) programmes and having some kind of social impact. Too often, CSI programmes are seen as a “good to have” or an essential PR exercise but, according to Khanyile and the dedicated team at WDB, creating a true “social business” is the only way forward.


WDB is a social business for women’s development.

“We are a social business for women’s empowerment. WDB Investment Holdings was really were created solely to drive the WDB vision of making an impact in the lives of rural women in South Africa. So that’s really what we are about – we are making a social impact on women.”

Khanyile says that, looking back over the years, it is sobering to see what can actually be done with solid vision and incredible teamwork. “I am really very excited that we were able to build such a significant business over the period.”

Onwards and Upwards

While 2016 is offering the opportunity to look back at lessons learnt and the successes over two decades, the team continues to focus on growing its portfolio of investments. Khanyile and her team have recently launched the Enterprise Development Fund to target the “missing middle” and grow women-owned businesses.

“In our pursuit to really make sure that the women’s participation in the economy is significant, we recently started an Enterprise Development Fund that finances female entrepreneurs with loans from R50 000 to R300,000 rand. The whole idea behind this fund is to provide financial access to female entrepreneurs as well as business development support, mentoring and access to markets.

WDBIH has also just entered into a partnership with Seed Engine and has established WDB Seed Fund, which is hoping to initially raise about R100-million to support small and medium-sized businesses, as well as businesses that can create jobs that can be meaningful in South Africa.


WDB operates in South Africa’s deep rural areas.

What does the future hold for WDB?

WDBIH has “grand plans for the future”, says Khanyile. “We want to continue to impact South Africa at large; we want to scale up our Enterprise Development, SMME Funding initiative. From the investment portfolio, we are also looking to diversify into other strategic sectors in South Africa – such as renewable energy, fast-moving consumer goods and infrastructure, so we have got huge aspirations for the future and we are very excited about it.”

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