Leading With Purpose in South Africa: Q&A With James Wilson

WE Communications Blog: Corporate Citizenship

— James Wilson, General Manager - VP 

In South Africa, empowering others and giving back are integral to both business and employees’ personal lives. We recently sat down with James Wilson, general manager of WE South Africa, to discuss updates on the WE Development Trust, a Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBB-EE) initiative, and to talk about how WE employees celebrate and live the values of equity, collaboration and service at WE South Africa — including how they are supporting WE’s global Month of Giving. 


Empowering girls and women in South Africa

South Africa has specific requirements around social betterment and giving back. How does this affect the way you do business?

JW: Since the advent of democracy in 1994, South African businesses have taken on an important role in combating social imbalances resulting from the country’s unequal past. Today, a company can’t do business in South Africa unless it is operating in a socially conscious way. Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) is designed to address the inequalities of South Africa’s past.  

As part of this transformation, WE is committed to B-BBEE, and in keeping with being a female-founded company, has established the WE Development Trust, a B-BBEE initiative designed to empower Black female beneficiaries. The trust, which has a 30.1 percent stake in WE South Africa, partners with St. Mary’s Foundation to help educate young, disadvantaged Black women. St. Mary’s is one of the best private girls’ schools in the country. It provides a quality education for the beneficiaries of the trust, thus promoting Black female empowerment in South Africa.


Can you speak to any further work you are doing around the empowerment of young women?

JW: In addition to the St. Mary’s Foundation/WE Development Trust, we have successfully negotiated and secured an internship program that will take place annually, starting in July 2019. Through our CSI partnership with St. Mary’s Saturday School (separate from the foundation), five high school girls from underprivileged backgrounds will join WE South Africa for one week during the July holidays. These young girls will work with our team, meet clients, and find out about the world of public relations through a formalized, on-the-job vocational training program. This is all about making PR an attractive career and vocation from a young age. If we contribute to the education of young women and provide informal internships during their education, we are helping close the loop between secondary and tertiary education — and ultimately a rewarding career in communications.


How is WE South Africa involved in the 2019 Global Month of Giving?

JW: Because we are so actively involved in giving and volunteerism throughout the year, the WE Month of Giving is a time we really shine a light on the work we do with our long-term partner Imizamo Yethu Zondi, a center for vulnerable children in Soweto. We support its childcare operations by doing things like organizing books, providing groceries and helping ensure it has comfortable facilities for the students. This year our entire staff complement will be visiting Imizamo Yethu on Monday, March 25 and engaging between 70 and 90 kids — mostly between 5 and 12 years old. We’ve decided to give each child a backpack with a soccer ball, some essential stationery, and, of course, a bag of sweets to sustain them during the holidays.

As part of giving back, many South African individuals and organizations are involved in Nelson Mandela Day, held on his birthday each year on July 18. Although this is meaningful and good for national morale, a more sustained approach is ideal. We first became acquainted with Imizamo Yethu back in 2010, around the time we first opened our South African office. Rather than giving back on one day, or week, of the year, we’ve turned our work with Imizamo Yethu into an ongoing partnership. All charities require a sustained, long-term view. By supporting Imizamo Yethu on an ongoing basis we can make a more meaningful impact.


Tell us more about Imizamo Yethu — what kind of work does it do?

JW: Imizamo Yethu was founded by a wonderful community leader named Maki Joyce Hlongwane (affectionately known as Dudu), who started caring for children in her tiny and modest home. These are children from disadvantaged and often impoverished backgrounds who have nowhere to go during the day while their caregivers are either at work or absent from their lives.

Where she can, Dudu provides the children with daily meals and clothing. She makes sure they go to school and provides a safe place for them to do their homework. She has done an incredible amount of work and, with the help of a WE employee alum, it has recently become classified as a registered charity, which will help immensely in raising funds and expanding to help more children.


Purpose as an element of culture

How does this culture help shape WE South Africa?

JW: Employees embrace the spirit of giving in ways that go far beyond our company’s work with Imizamo Yethu — it’s personal. South Africans don’t feel the need to tell people what they’re doing because giving back is part of their DNA. The same applies at WE.

When I look at young people in the workplace today, they want an employer that resonates with them from an ethics perspective. At WE South Africa, our culture shapes our purpose, and our purpose also shapes our culture and the caliber of people we attract and hire.


Why is purpose important for global brands?

JW: Purpose is a cornerstone for how a global organization operates. It helps define culture and determines the people who join the company. Creating a nurturing place for employees to thrive is critical to attracting and retaining talent. If you operate with integrity, you build a culture of trust that attracts people and inspires employees.


Read WE CEO Melissa Waggener Zorkin’s blog post on how the communications industry needs to focus purposefully on the stories we should be telling, not just the stories we can.