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Whitehead and Wiener – two women make history

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In an Absa Jewish Achiever Awards first, two deserving winners, Gia Whitehead and Mandy Wiener, took top honours in the Europcar Women in Leadership category. Accepting their awards, Whitehead, the chief executive and co-founder of TSIBA Business School, spoke of the power of education, while Wiener, a renowned journalist, author, and broadcaster, stressed the importance of media credibility.

The calibre of nominees in this year’s Europcar Women in Leadership category was so high that selecting just one winner proved to be too challenging, said the judges. “These two winners were the epitome of resilience, determination, focus, authenticity, social responsibility, putting truth to power, being creative, and spurring others to follow them. They are both absolute leaders in their fields,” said clinical and organisational psychologist Dorianne Weill, who formed part of the judging panel.

TSIBA is a free-to-student business school which opened in 2004 and is working to challenge high rates of youth unemployment and create South Africa’s future entrepreneurs and leaders.

“My leadership style is about having a strong sense of who I am and what my purpose is – to make a place better,” Whitehead said. “If other people are aligned to that vision, then things flow easily.” While being intuitive and tapping into her innately feminine skills is key, she said, having a strong voice and showing decisiveness while maintaining integrity and humility is also important.

Accepting her award, an emotional Whitehead spoke of the almost 20 years she’s dedicated to TSIBA. “It feels like there’s something about the people in this room specifically that are here and making a big difference in this country,” she said. “If it wasn’t for all of this power, we wouldn’t still be here today.” She emphasised the role our community is playing in creating a strong sense of hope for South Africa.

We don’t always find our purpose early on in our careers, said Whitehead, and some spend their whole lives searching for a sense of meaning. “TSIBA has been that place for me, really finding something that you’re so passionate about because you’re seeing so many people’s lives changing daily.”

Some TSIBA students are the first members of their families to go to university, let alone be part of the working world, and the shift this creates is huge. “We speak about this gemstone and our students are these shards of amazing,” Whitehead said. “They may have this potential already inside of them, but it just takes that ignition of who they are to build and change. We’re not just creating job seekers but job creators that are going to change the lives of South Africans.”

In the business of helping to craft the South African narrative, Wiener reflected on her career highlights. “I’ve had the great privilege of having a front-row seat to history for the past two decades, and there’s nothing quite like a breaking news story,” she said. From the Oscar Pistorius trial to former South African President Jacob Zuma’s court appearances, she’s covered some of the country’s biggest stories. “There really is an adrenalin rush that comes with a big breaking news event but then also just the ability to be able to digest it, break it down, and give context and analysis is something I love to do.

“Our problems are deep, they are profound, they are complex, and I think that we need real solutions.” Deeply invested in South Africa, Wiener works to motivate others to act in the face of the challenges we face. As a journalist, holding power to account and exposing wrongdoing is vital, she said, yet she’s also cognisant of her role in influencing how people talk and think about the country.

Acknowledging her phenomenal fellow nominees, Wiener reflected on breaking news in Israel in recent weeks. “It’s been a bad week for journalism,” she said. “What we’ve seen over the past fortnight is so much disinformation, misinformation, and bias and it just goes to show how important it is to have credible, trustworthy sources.” We need to know who to believe and trust, and we need to be discerning about our news sources, she said.

“I’m incredibly honoured and grateful that many in this community consider me to be one of those sources that’s trustworthy,” she said. “I do consider that an enormous responsibility – to make sure that I always try and tell the truth and be as credible as possible.” Growing up in Pietersburg, now Polokwane, Wiener said she’s always felt the Jewish values that were instilled in her by her parents and community, values that have endured throughout her career. “I’ve always felt very much celebrated by this community, and I’m very grateful for that,” she said.

Acknowledging all those working at the Achievers event, Wiener made special mention of the CSO (Community Security Organisation), who were working extra shifts. Thanking her husband, Wiener ended her speech by reflecting on a meeting she recently had with 102-year-old Holocaust survivor, Ella Blumenthal, whose mission it is to remind people of the atrocities she lived through.

“She is just one of the most amazing women, who lost so many of her own family members in the Shoah, who survived the gas chambers of Majdanek, who survived Auschwitz and still has the most remarkable outlook on the world,” said Wiener. “I thought about her a lot these past two weeks and the comments she always makes. When I had tea and biscuits with her, I asked, ‘Why do you do this, why do you always tell people’, and she said, ‘There’s no room for hate.’ I think about that a lot, and I think about the power of women like Ella Blumenthal.”

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