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My Story – Part 2 – By Portia Heynes

With a Matric certificate in hand and no money, I completed a Secretarial course in Cape Town. I then enrolled for Medical Technology and successfully completed the theory. Disappointingly, the jobs were frozen and I was not able to complete the qualification.

During the same period, I fell pregnant at the age of 19, got married and moved to Atlantis as this was where my husband was employed. I battled internally to accept that this was my fate. One day I applied for a job as a Bank Teller in Cape Town, a career that was not open to all at the time, and was 65 km away from home. I wanted the job so badly that on the day of the interview I bought a business outfit on my store account. I was not sure how I was going to pay for it, but it gave me the confidence and brand presence to secure a job as a Bank Teller. This was the day I realised the importance of brand and believing in oneself.

This was the beginning of my banking career.

I joined United Bank where they encouraged employees to further their education and I eagerly enrolled. I recall opening the learning manuals – the first one was bookkeeping and I just gave up. What was I thinking? How could I expect to pass anything with the education I had? What If I failed? They would think I was stupid. The fear set in and then the “freeze”.

I mitigated this impasse, by making sure that I was the best at what I did and went into denial. I told everybody that I did not need an education to do my job; this strategy worked well for ten  years. Then Mandela was released and the Employment Equity Bill came into effect and I realised that there were so many individuals with qualifications out there and that no matter how good I was I needed to complete my degree to remain relevant.

I started with the subjects I was more comfortable with, and over time gained confidence. My degree had 36 modules. Completion required resilience and focus. I had three children and was only able to complete four modules per year. A nine year journey is no easy feat. I graduated in with a BCom in 2005.

Opportunity 1: Exploring Purpose
Whilst I was completing my BCom, and holding an Area Manager role, I was asked to assist in the transformation process by lecturing 2 modules on a Youth programme, to introduce young talent into banking. They were going through similar social and learning challenges to what I had experienced so I was able to support them.  It was no easy feat as there was no budget and no spare time.  A colleague and I would sit after hours and on weekends in book shops reading up Strategy and Leadership in order to design the content, as we could not afford to purchase books. This was the beginning of discovering my purpose.  I was able to integrate individuals much faster into the banking environment as I could relate to their context and concept of learning.

Opportunity 2: Informal development
My contribution to the youth programme, afforded me the opportunity to be placed as one of 28 individuals in Absa on the “Advanced Development Initiative” Programme in 2001.  The programme was designed to fast track future leaders in banking. I accepted the 3 year opportunity, whilst completing my BCom, being a wife, mother of 3, holding 2 roles and having to attend this programme in Johannesburg. I completed this journey in 2005.   I was introduced to systems thinking, valuing perspectives and more importantly about myself, my role and how important my “voice” was – profound and life changing.

Opportunity 3: Talent mobility
In 2004, I was afforded an opportunity to improve the customer experience between the branch network and the call centre.  The position however was in Johannesburg.  My husband and I decided that it was best for me to take up the opportunity for 6 months on the understanding that I was giving up my job in Cape Town, and therefore for all intent and purpose this was a permanent job move. On the 8th of August 2004 my husband and our 2 younger girls drove me to Johannesburg and flew back on the 11th of August.  I faced the emptiness of an apartment, new work colleagues and City. Whilst I commuted back home at least twice a month it was not the easiest of times, financially and emotionally.   My girls were 6, 8 and 18 years old at the time and I missed them so much.

What was I thinking?…..but then again isn’t this as a consequence of being deemed Talent.  One has to be flexible and mobile to take up opportunities as they arise.  It still does not make it easy.

One of the main reasons I also accepted the position in Johannesburg is that I would start my formal career in heading up a Training and Quality department, in a call centre, which I was excited about.  It would expose me to how youth prefer to learn, eradicating my old paradigms of learning.

Opportunity 3: Gifts in disguise
In 2005, I applied to the UCT Graduate School of Business to do the Executive MBA.  My application was deferred as they were concerned about the work pressure and commuting.  This was a blessing in disguise given what 2005 held in store for me.

My husband and I agreed that we would settle in Johannesburg by July 2005.   Sadly, he succumbed to a fatal heart attack at the age of 38 years old on the 11th of April 2005. The pressure from my family to move back to Cape Town, where I had more support was overwhelming.   I knew that the opportunities were in Johannesburg, and decided to leave my eldest daughter in Cape Town to pursue her education at UCT and moved to Johannesburg with the 6 and 8 year olds at the end of 2005.

After 17 years in banking, I started questioning the viability of only having banking on my CV.  I questioned whether the security banking offered me was sustainable.  The answer was “no”. So my next journey began, and I moved to CIDA Learning.  I held two roles, namely the Director for Learning as well as to open a Call centre for CIDA City Campus, the first free university in South Africa.

In 2007, I was accepted to commence with the Executive MBA, which I had to personally fund. Whilst being on the MBA I experienced challenges with accommodation so bought my own apartment.  I rented it out to other students when vacant.  A friend, who also loved property, asked if I would consider starting a property company with him.  This was the start of my entrepreneurial journey and we opened a property company.

In 2007, I decided that I needed consulting skills, so moved companies once again as a Managing Executive.  All went well until I ran into trouble with me MBA with literally 6 months to go till submission of my dissertation. I then decided to resign in September 2008 to start up a Consulting Company with the intent to complete my dissertation by the end of December 2008.

With great intentions and funds to carry me until July 2009 I started my new venture.  However as fate would have it, and unbeknown to me, the funds were tied up until I was 55 and  I nearly lost all my assets. I cried for 15 minutes and then pulled myself together.  Thanks to the power of my network I was able to secure some contracts. I completed my MBA despite all these challenges in 2009, and accepted an offer to head up Retail learning at Vodacom.  Like everything I do, there is always a purpose and I accepted this offer as I was interested in exploring learning and technology as I knew this was the next wave. During my tenure I also headed up the Learning and Development division which further exposed me to global learning challenges and practices.

The journey was great and I loved the adrenalin of the Telecoms industry.   However I had planned to commence with my Phd which was not going to be possible in this environment. So I decided to move on after 5 years and joined the hospitality industry, as it is less disruptive, and should provide me with the capacity to commence with my Phd.
So here I am, with no regrets, optimistic and a life-long learner. My personal gift to you if you so choose:

  • Explore your purpose: Ask yourself “If I had everything I wanted, what would I be doing?” If the answer is not what you are currently doing, it is ok – just rethink, plan and navigate toward your purpose. It is so emancipating and never too late.
  • Own your life’s journey. You only have one life, so live it the way you want and not what others tell you it should be.
  • Embrace your challenges and turn them into opportunities.

Portia Heynes is Head of Group Learning and Development at Sun International, a Board Member at BPeSA Gauteng, and Director, SA Apartments.

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