ELENI KWINANA has notched up an admirable list of top positions. She began climbing the corporate ladder as an 18-year-old student who, after walking into CNA to request a job, within three months was tasked with taking up her first management role. A few years later, she was requested to draft a business plan - without a template, or previous exposure to such a big responsibility - overnight! It gained her boss the new store he wanted, and wet her appetite for bigger and better things in business.
Eleni's career includes positions at the Spar Group, Clicks, Musica and Dimension Data among others. These diverse experiences have enabled her to provide on-point business advice in a range of fields. As well as running the business units of Vodacom enterprises, she is on the board of SmartXchange, Durban, which nurtures entrepreneurs and incubates businesses to achieve success.
Achieving growth through technology
Eleni describes her role in Vodacom as enabling start-ups and SMMEs to thrive in the 4IR digital era, achieving growth through technology. The pride Eleni feels in providing a supportive role is apparent when she describes her business venture, Pure Pharmacy, which supports small pharmacies in rural areas and mining towns to withstand the threat posed by corporate pharmacy groups, thus ensuring their sustainability.
Eleni is happy with her accomplishments saying, "not many can tick all the boxes at my age". Adding that she's realised that "Either I would die young, having done everything, or I would live to give back to others." Eleni looks at people who have great ideas, but lack skills and experience, and can't wait to start imparting her learning to fast track their success. She's enthusiastic about being their cheerleader and "seeing them grow to be a billionaire one day!".
She attributes her success to her formal education, and the support of others. She graduated with a psychology degree after transferring from medicine. "It was the right decision as now, in the 4IR, doctors could be replaced with robots capable of making diagnoses while my focus on emotional intelligence makes me less likely to become redundant."
Eleni disagrees that women need a different approach from men to achieve success in business and stresses the importance of being yourself. "There's nothing more precious than being authentic," she maintains.
Being an inspiration
Her greatest support has been her mom who, as a domestic worker being paid less than the minimum wage, was able to leverage a network of people who assisted to support Eleni. While she stayed with a friend to get to and from school each day, her mom subsidised her studies by waking at three each morning to cook and sell 'magwinya' (vetkoek). "So", Eleni adds, "every woman I see who works in her tuckshop, or sews traditional dresses, is my 'Shero', and that's what inspires me... A lot of people have big stars as their inspiration; for me it's the millions of women sitting in rural areas and townships with children, who come up with great entrepreneurial ideas to sustain themselves and their children, and one day go to a graduation for their children, going into whatever field it may be, from nothing."
Eleni herself feels under pressure to be an inspiration. "Because I was the first one to have a car, a degree, all my cousins look up to me; failing or dropping out is not an option. I cannot fail, because otherwise I will give them a reason to fail... I push myself to inspire them to be able to grow as well."
Being fully present
On maintaining a work-life balance, Eleni admits that the boundaries are blurred, "Because I love what I do... it doesn't feel like work," she smiles. Concerned she was spending too much time working, her daughter's affirmation was welcome, "Mom, I want to be like you... You do so many things, love what you do, and give us the best of everything." The trick, Eleni feels, is being fully present in whatever she does.
Eleni's approach to life has been coloured by her life experiences. Although born into apartheid SA, she shuns the label 'previously disadvantaged'. "That's not the way I see it," she says, although she describes the dichotomy of never being quite enough of one thing or another to fit in, always feeling something of a misfit.
After graduating, Eleni married, raising her two children while struggling to survive a violently abusive marriage. When she decided to leave the marriage, she was empowered by the fact that she had the financial independence to set up her own home. Eleni's advice to her younger self, who stressed a lot and wondered 'why me?', would be to enjoy every step of the journey; when having fun, have GOOD fun, and know that everything you go through is going to make sense one day. Rather than being bitter about challenges she's faced, Eleni is gracious and pragmatic about how they've enabled her to strengthen her connection with others.
Partnerships are important to Eleni. As a business leader, Eleni loves her team; she never talks only about KPAs, but connects instead with the person inside, assisting them to reach their personal goals. She enjoys the warmth of KZN, and the opportunities to partner with government leaders and businesses to achieve pockets of excellence.
Eleni urges people to stop exporting their skills: "Keep them here and make do with what you have because we are sitting on a pot of gold... That's how I got here". She pauses momentarily, then adds, "and because of my Mom... my biggest champion".