Application Portfolio Head at Sanlam
Rivers Khumalo is not afraid of change - in fact, she embraces it. Not only has she changed careers several times, but she has ventured far afield in search of work that challenges and inspires her. After a stint in London, where she gained valuable experience but was unable to find something that she really connected with professionally, she set her sights back on South Africa.
“When I got to the UK, I soon realised that we are very lucky, in a South African and African context”, she says. “We have a broader skill-set that can be used in multifaceted contexts, allowing for greater career mobility and diversity. This speaks to my more adventurous side.”
It was with this mindset that Rivers found her way to Sanlam, where she feels like her desire to make a difference and impact others is being met. “I wanted to be in a field where I can add value. Financial services allows for that, in the most tangible way. You can link what you do to the value generated; not only for the organization but for South Africans too.”
Rivers’s career journey has had many twists and turns, but throughout she has been motivated by a desire to do good and find new challenges.
“I studied a Bachelor of Social Sciences majoring in Economics, after which I took a gap year teaching Economics to Grade 12s in kwaNongoma. I thought it would be a good way to ground what I had learnt by teaching the same principles to others. After that I went into currencies trading with Standard Corporate Merchant Bank, and later with Nedbank. Then, via a scholarship from the Mail & Guardian, co-sponsored by my then employer Nedbank, I ended up in the Netherlands for a couple of years, doing my MBA. A huge growth experience, and a lot of fun!”
“It’s really important to me that I’m acting as a value-adding member of the community. If you’re not challenged and driven to contribute in your own context, and therefore to the bigger goal, you lose focus and interest ultimately. In short, I have to care. I care to make a difference.”
After completing her MBA, Rivers moved into operations consulting. “The key theme around my career path has been defined by taking on change and challenge. It helps that I’m very adaptable, as a person. I like to reinvent myself, constantly.”
The promise of change, challenge and growth were key to her decision to join Sanlam and to move from operations to IT. “I was given an opportunity to step into a senior management role to lead, as opposed to being a specialist as had been the case until then. It was an appealing challenge, so I said yes and was promised all the necessary support to help me succeed.” She describes her move further, “After a graduate school stint, I went into operations consulting. This type of consulting, re-engineering processes, is often overlaid by IT. It was thus a natural transition to move from process optimisation to automation.”
Rivers seems to have really hit her stride in her current role, which she describes as, “constant flux.” She continues, “Most of our IT applications are custom so we have quite a large development capability. My role revolves around managing a portfolio of applications that are shared amongst the SPF organization, and one or two at Group level. In this I am assisted by a very supportive application management team.”
Speaking to the work culture further, Rivers says, “Sanlam is a people-centred organization, by virtue of what we do in looking after people’s well-being. It’s an aspect that’s also internally reflected. You are supported as an individual in terms of your own growth.” She continues, “Every day I am granted the opportunity to bring my voice to the table, and to make a contribution. That’s very empowering. And I like to think I give similar support to those I work with, in turn.”
A strong believer in constant growth and learning, Rivers has continued her education while working at Sanlam. “I had a great opportunity to be part of the Sanlam Executive Leadership Program in 2016, which definitely improved my business and engagement perspective. I also received great support in completing a MComm in Information Systems, this year.”
In her field, continued learning is a necessity to keep on top of the developments in the industry. “Keeping up with the constant changes in technology is an ongoing undertaking. From a management perspective, I am also challenged by the question: “How do I keep the people I work with equally challenged and engaged so that they want to stay and bring their smarts to the game?”
Speaking more generally to the challenges others face in the IT sector, she says “There are no barriers to entry anymore in IT, but it is still a challenge for women to prove themselves in the same way, particularly when we get to the age where we have families, and have to step out of the career ladder, periodically. But I believe with individual and structured career objectives and good planning, this could be mitigated. And sometimes this just involves maybe taking more career risks.”
Rivers’s desire for newness and change continues outside of her professional life. “I work to travel. I live to explore. I’m inspired by things I don’t know and contexts I don’t understand. There is so much to discover. Exploring feeds my energy and creates the balance I need.”