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As South Africa celebrates Women's Month, we speak with Janene Laas, General Manager of Trade Intelligence, about the opportunities and challenges that come with leading a majority-women business in South Africa's rapidly-evolving consumer goods sector.

While the glass ceiling is showing signs of strain, it is far from collapse in South Africa's consumer goods sector, where most corner offices are occupied by the same demographic they were forty years ago, and forty years before that. Increasingly, though, women are taking roles of leadership in the industry, bringing a fresh approach to the challenges faced by women in business, and a new eye for the opportunities that arise from meeting consumers on their own terms.

The most obvious of the challenges is combating gender stereotypes that could affect perceptions of leadership effectiveness or acumen from stakeholders who hold traditional views about women's roles in business. "This has been less of a challenge for Trade Intelligence because of the commitment of our stakeholder company Smollan, who have supported us through many tough times and celebrated our wins and progress, and because of the trusted advisor reputation we have built with our clients and industry stakeholders over the years," explains Trade Intelligence General Manager Janene Laas.

Another challenge that businesses like Trade Intelligence face is the one of work-life balance as women grapple with being effective in the workplace and available and present at home. Again, this is one that the business has overcome. "At Trade Intelligence we have intentionally created a work environment and culture where there is equal focus on high-performance and family orientation," says Janene. "Women also have a natural tendency to be resilient and overcome challenges which has been displayed at Trade Intelligence with the business being able to double its revenue in the period between FY20 and FY22, and further growth expected in FY23 despite the tough economic environment."

Janene herself has taken a non-traditional route to achieving leadership of this growing business, having joined the business as a consultant in change management some 10 years ago. "My professional journey has been colourful and varied, with the privilege of working in a number of different industries including Apparel Retail, IT, Tertiary Education and Call Centres," she says. "What I have learnt in this journey is that although the industry may vary and have its own unique nuances there are some fundamental truths that exist no matter what industry you are in." One of these truths is that without trust it is impossible to build lasting teams and partnerships and without partnership and collaboration it is impossible to transform and grow as a business. "Another truth is a very overused term - your people are your greatest asset and if you treat your people with care and compassion, they will do the same for your clients," says Janene.

Janene takes a lively interest in the role of women in the FMCG industry where she has found a home. While progress has been made, she says, there are still challenges to address. “Women have been underrepresented in top leadership roles within the FMCG sector in South Africa, as in other industries” she says. And while there are many initiatives aimed at achieving gender equity, including mentoring programmes, leadership development programmes, and policy, some of these initiatives are still not making a notable impact. “This could be because EDI is a human issue not easily fixed by programmes and policies” says Janene. “Until we have a significant shift in finding value in gender diversity change is unlikely to happen. Another challenge is the lack of belief that some women have in themselves as leaders, so they unconsciously hold themselves back from stepping into their leadership power.”

She does however point to many instances of women successfully breaking through the glass ceiling and taking on leadership roles in the FMCG sector, in both the executive suite and on the board, where they serve as positive examples for others. “The appointment of Bertina Engelbrecht as CEO of Clicks has been very inspiring” she says. “Under her tenure, the business has gone from strength to strength. It’s the biggest retail pharmacu business in South Africa, and has recently opened its 700th pharmacy.” She also believes that platforms like the Standard Bank Top Women Awards, in which Trade Intelligence won last year’s award for Top Gender-Empowered Organisation: Retail & E-Commerce go a long way in highlighting these success stories and encouraging women to step into place as leaders in the industry.

Janene believes that since women make many - if not most - grocery purchasing decisions, it is essential for the industry to actively engage and empower them in decision-making processes. She lays out a number of strategies which the industry could consider giving women a stronger voice. Firstly, she says, while having women in leadership is important, other areas of business should not be neglected. “We need to ensure that that product development teams are diverse and inclusive, for example,” she argues. She notes that it’s also critical for retailers and manufacturers alike to focus on supplier diversity, supporting women-owned businesses and promoting their products within the FMCG supply chain.

Communications is another critical area. Businesses need to actively seek and incorporate feedback from female consumers, conducting surveys, focus groups, and research to better understand their preferences, concerns, and priorities. “Shopper intelligence is core to the Trade Intelligence value proposition and something that is highlighted in many of our industry reports” she says.

Finally, she says, businesses need to focus on the professional needs of their own staff, implementing mentorship and leadership development programmes specifically designed to support and promote women within the industry. “Trade Intelligence has had great success in mentoring young women through the business, and will continue to invest time and effort in mentorship programmes aimed at young women in the future,” she says. It’s also important to take personal needs into account, recognising that many women juggle multiple responsibilities, including work and family. Offering flexible work arrangements can enable more women to participate in decision-making processes. “Creating an environment that genuinely values and promotes women's voices requires a sustained commitment to cultural change and ongoing efforts to challenge biases and barriers,” says Janene.

Diversity, Janene believes, is a wellspring of innovation and progress. “Our team's rich tapestry of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives is a cornerstone of our strength,” she says. “We believe that each voice, regardless of gender or background, plays a pivotal role in shaping not only our narrative but that of our industry too. Our success is not just ours; it’s a testament to the synergy we create through collaboration, mutual respect, and the shared pursuit of excellence with our clients and trusted partners.”

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