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Brigitte da Gama, McDonald’s South Africa

The second thing that strikes me about Brigitte Da Gama, the HR Director for McDonald’s South Africa, is the calm energy that she brings into the room. The first is her engaging smile. “I wanted to be a social worker,” she grins in response to my question whether she had always wanted to work with people. “Two of my three brothers are teachers, and my family comes from a long line of teachers, so I thought that social work would be vastly different!” She tells me that during high school she read the text books that her brothers, students at the University of the Western Cape, brought home. “The psychology books fascinated me, and I ended up studying Industrial and Organisational Psychology at UCT.”

After completing her studies, she stayed on at UCT to manage the HR business partnering services for the faculties. “I really appreciated my time in the academic environment,” Brigitte says. “It taught me to think critically. We used to have deep and insightful discussions, which I loved. I have a great respect for academia, for the way in which they create new knowledge and disseminate it.”

Her time at the university was one of tremendous professional growth. The institution underwent a restructure where many departments were incorporated into one Faculty of Humanities. “A lot of people had to be retrenched and I headed up the project. It was difficult; there was a strong culture of collegial belonging in the university and retrenchments destroyed that psychological contract. It was my first real HR challenge.” I can see the emotion on her face as she remembers. “I have high empathy and compassion, and I care about people. It was hard.”

Her next job could not have been more different. “I joined an IT company who specialised in online gaming,” she says. “The company culture was young, fun and vibrant. I particularly remember the drinks after work on a Friday afternoon at Sea Point in Cape Town, and the amazing off-sites. Being part of a young leadership team, who had lots of money, was a great experience!”

From gaming, Brigitte moved into fresh produce, working for a parastatal in charge of checking quality for export to Europe. She recalls having to report back to portfolio committees in parliament. “These politicians gave us such a hard time,” she chuckles. “But afterward we would have delicious lunches in the dining rooms rubbing shoulders with the political elite. I always found it funny that, even though the opposition parties have a go at one another in parliament, at these lunches they would get on like a house on fire.”

The subject of fruit leads us to a discussion on nutrition, Brigitte’s latest passion. “I don’t really have a favourite fruit,” she muses. “But I love watermelon.” She shows me a picture on her phone of her fridge stocked to the brim with fruit and vegetables, from which she extracts juices. “My favourite morning juice is a green one – spinach, green apple, celery, half a lemon and cucumber.”

Brigitte has also worked in asset management and banking and she earned her MBA from the University of Stellenbosch in 2009. Her hobbies include yoga and reading. “I’m currently reading Jacques Pauw’s ‘The President’s Keepers’. I think it’s important to know what’s going on in the country.” In response to my question on current trends that she’s picking up from employees, she replies: “The changing world of work is very relevant to employees at the moment. Questions like how they can equip themselves to be ready for this, is front of mind for McDonald’s. We have various development programmes in place to train our people on relevant skills.” Another trend she mentions is how stressed we are as a society in South Africa. “2017 was a terrible year with one scandal after another – just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did! But we are resilient as South Africans. We are direct, authentic and honest, and I think that will pull us through.”

She is rightfully proud of McDonald’s impact as a nett job creator. “Every time we open a new restaurant,” she explains, “we create brand new jobs. And our employees only need matric. The culture is one where ambition and hard work is rewarded. There are many examples of where employees started at the bottom and worked themselves up to top positions. It’s a very empowering culture.”

Her big aim in life is to make an impact. “It’s something that Greg Solomon, my CEO, speaks about often. I try to make an impact on people’s lives by helping them and inspiring them to achieve.”

She tells me the story of a young bursary student whom she employed a couple of years ago. “Although she has left the company where we worked together, we are Facebook friends. I love seeing how her life is progressing – from becoming a mother to following her career successes.”

“My philosophy in life is one of the eternal optimist,” she confides. “I believe that things will always get better.” She giggles. “I suppose my epitaph would say ‘The best is yet to come’!” We both laugh out loud at the vision of this absurd tombstone.

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One Comment

  1. Daphne Smit Daphne Smit

    Briggite seems like such a authentic compassionate leader, I would love to learn and grow under her wing ?

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