CA (SA) was not Mariam’s plan – it was destiny and now she is Chief Officer at Vodacom Financial & Digital Services

  • Hi! My name is Mariam Cassim, a chartered accountant, an MBA holder from UCT’s Graduate Business School, and Chief Officer at Vodacom Financial and Digital Services.
  • After qualifying as a CA, I had no idea where I ultimately wanted to end up but I certainly knew that whatever I did, I wanted it to be my BEST effort.
  • 8 years down the line I realized that I wanted to be on the business side and so I decided to tilt my career towards business management and operations.
  • In 2016 I joined Vodacom Financial & Digital Services, a loss-making entity and together we transformed it into a profit-making business of R1 billion. 

Growing up and receiving a fully paid scholarship to Study Accounting

Growing up, life was positively challenging. However, it was also the biggest contributor to who I am today.

I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs as my dad worked in the family business and my mom was a work-from-home seamstress.

By the way, my mother being a seamstress meant that I had no store-bought clothing item for many of my early ages as she sewed all my clothes. So hard work was plentiful and we did not have many luxuries when we were young.

As the youngest of three, I was completely unplanned and arrived five years after the second-born. This meant that I had to be academically independent as my parents were done with homework and assignments by the time I came along.

Fast forward, when I left high school I wanted to study medicine but I found myself leaning towards accounting because I received a fully paid scholarship.

My parents’ financial position was challenging at the time, so I had no choice but to accept the scholarship and pursue the profession.

I had an inherent love for Mathematics and Accounting, so I did not mind embracing the opportunity as I was determined to make a success of whatever I studied.

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My academic journey: CA was not planned

I am a passionate academic with a drive for success. As a result, the journey to attaining my undergraduate degree was seamless and painless.

I worked exceptionally hard, studying all the time, to achieve good grades. This really worked in my favor.

After completing my undergraduate qualification, I wanted to find a job and support my family. This was because I did not know about chartered accountancy.

As destiny would have it, after attaining the highest mark in Accounting, I was called in by the Head of School of Accounting at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

He asked why I had not registered for a postgraduate qualification, which will enable me to write the first of two SAICA qualifying exams, the Initial Test of Competence (ITC).

I remember asking him to explain what a CA was as I had never been exposed to the profession – he insisted that I register for the postgraduate qualification and helped me by writing to my bursary to request an additional year of funding. 

He further encouraged me to apply for articles at one of the Big 4 auditing firms, which I then did and I never regret doing so. There are certain interactions that can significantly alter your course in life – and this was one of those memorable interactions for me and one I am truly grateful for. It is this type of impact that I endeavor to have on the people I engage wherever possible.

Fast forward, I passed everything on my first attempt, achieved excellent grades, and qualified as a CA. I was ecstatic! Obtaining this milestone cemented my belief that hard work does pay off.

After qualifying as a CA, I did not know where I wanted to end up

I really had no idea where I ultimately wanted to end up but I certainly knew that whatever I did, I wanted it to be my BEST effort.

Upon qualifying as a CA, my first role was in Corporate Finance and Valuations, where I learned about how businesses are structured and what unlocks shareholder value.

I did this for the first 8 years of my career and during this time, I identified so many opportunities where I believed the businesses that I was valuing could have done more to unlock shareholder value.

The experience was quite frustrating as my role did not give me any power to implement any of the ideas or changes I identified. This was because I was not involved in the management of these businesses.

What next?

Pivoting my career towards the business side

It was at that point that I decided to register for a Master’s degree in Business Administration (MBA) and tilt my career towards business management and operations.

The MBA was an amazing experience as it assisted me in building on my already solid CA qualification but also learn about other elements of a business besides finance.

Fast forward, in 2016 I was offered an opportunity to join Vodacom Financial Services - a loss-making entity of R88 million and a non-core business of the Vodacom Group. They wanted me to work my magic to transform it and I took the plunge to join Vodacom Financial Services. 

At the time, I found a small team that operated on the outskirts of the traditional Vodacom telco business. My mandate was to oversee the insurance business in its entirety, but other products were added to my portfolio, too. As I started to explore these new products, I discovered many little gems hidden in the business, which were not being utilized to their full potential.

People at Vodacom were primarily focused on voice and data, and nobody was unlocking value from these assets by looking at them through a financial services lens.’ Consequently, I dedicated the first months in office to creating a detailed financial services strategy for the business, focusing on specific products and services that were easy to tap into and which would deliver on the company’s broader purpose. 

In less than 5 years we transformed the business into a profit-making business of R1 billion! 

Hindsight is always 20/20, the reality is that it could have gone either way. But I truly believe that there is no problem that hard work, commitment, and a good team cannot solve. This has been the recipe for our success over the last 5 years.

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Meet this CA who went from extreme poverty to becoming a Partner at PwC, South Africa

Staying positive even when I miss opportunities

There were many times in my career where I missed a promotion – some deserved and some undeserved. But each experience taught me something, not just about myself but most importantly, about the tough corporate world and the many challenges to navigate.

There will always be challenges in one’s career, but what is important is how we choose to deal with them.

Not every challenge has to be fought – sometimes not doing anything can also be seen as fighting a challenge. For that reason, it is important to take learnings from the challenges and allow them to positively shape our decisions going forward.

Personally, I have had to deal with many specific career challenges, with age and gender being the most noteworthy and continuous.

This is a challenge I faced for most of my career wherein most of the positions I held, I was not just the youngest in the boardroom but often also the only woman.

It is said that unimportant factors like age and gender are still points of consideration over competence and a chance for diverse thinking.

Having been subject to these personal challenges, I have taken a firm stance in ensuring that age and gender are not determining points of consideration when recruiting and/or promoting people in my team.

As we stand today, the average age of my executive committee is 39, and nearly half of my broader 350-member team are women.

Advice to finance professionals on assuming leadership roles

Rising to senior levels of management is never easy for anyone, let alone for women. As such, the advice I have for women out there is few folds:

  1. Claim your seat and demonstrate ability. You deserve to be there, do not allow yourself to be undermined by others with louder voices at the table.
  2. Build a good support system around you to help manage it all – work, home, kids, parents, and siblings are all important.
  3. Following your dreams, aspirations, and ambitions leads to a unique type of personal fulfillment which is immeasurable and unquantifiable. It is only when one is personally fulfilled that they are able to give off their BEST self to those around them.
  4. Let go of the guilt of being a working mom, wife, and/or daughter. There are going to be times when things fall between the cracks. When this happens, focus on the big things and cut the noise.
  5. Self-love is incredibly important. Remember to take time out to spoil and care for yourself, and enjoy the fruits of your labor. Your youth goes by quickly – ensure it is memorable.

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