How Xoliswa Kakana And ICT-Works Tackled A Male-Dominated Field

How Xoliswa Kakana And ICT-Works Tackled A Male-Dominated Field


Vital Stats

Xoliswa Kakana was a busy kid. While other children did chores to earn pocket money, she liked taking things apart to see how they work, fixing people’s watches, irons and other electronics.

When she came across an article in the early 80s about a Japanese woman engineer who was also an astronaut, her mind was set and she signed up for an electronics engineering degree.

In 1999, she launched ICT-Works to create what she calls “an environment that would allow women ICT professionals the space and freedom to express themselves.”

We asked her to describe how she built a business that has won many industry sector awards alongside some of the biggest corporates in the country.

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Did you face any hurdles at the outset?

It was challenging, but we persevered and ensured that every contract we signed was delivered on. Because it was critical to build a track record, we had to take on some projects that were not immediately profitable.

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Starting up in such a male-dominated field, how did you go about convincing clients that you were right for the job and could be relied upon?

The overarching thing is that people buy from people, so they buy from people they already have a relationship with. Therefore, that’s where you feel most that you are a woman – because our male colleagues get to know each other on the golf course and other social spaces that women are not easily let into.

Once you get past that hurdle, for most people the fundamentals are the same – they want to be assured that the job will get done, and that you can be relied upon to deliver.

There are companies that recognise these impediments for women and for black people, and they have taken deliberate, bold action to do something about it. Coega, for example, issued a large tender near the beginning of ICT-Works’ journey.

It was stipulated in the terms of the contract that Deloitte would be the lead partner on the project for 18 months, with ICT-Works as the junior partner. Thereafter, ICT-Works would take over as the lead partner in the consortium on all project responsibilities for the remainder of the contract.

That was one of the key projects that gave us a track record, credibility and a relatively large income over an extended period. This positioned us for future opportunities.

How did you set the business on a growth path?

When I realised that my capabilities were stretched, I asked for help in the right places, inviting my business partners Sindile Ncala and Margaret Sibiya to leave their corporate jobs and join me.

When we were smaller, we relied a lot on fleet-footedness. We were opportunistic, chasing anything and everything that came our way. Our roles changed every day.

One moment I was a CEO who doubled as a sales person, the next I was a bid writer, and after that, the main delivery resource. I even swept the floor when necessary. You have to be willing to do anything in the early stages.

How did you establish these partnerships? How did the early phases of your operation provide a suitable platform for these partnerships?

You have to have something you’re offering to the larger partner that they don’t have. Like any relationship, you need to stick with each other through challenging projects. These partnerships need to be long-term and strategic in nature.

We offered larger, more established partners the agility of a small company. When the owners themselves are practitioners, as is the case with ICT-Works, they are not simply the face, but are in fact doing the work.

Our larger partners get three highly skilled and experienced black women and their team working with them on technically demanding jobs. An added bonus is that our overheads as a smaller entity are minimal.

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How and when did you secure a coveted Oracle Platinum Partner distinction?

xoliswaOracle has a set criteria for partners to achieve in order to qualify for recognition as an Oracle Platinum partner. We have achieved product specialisation in more than five product areas, which is evidence of breadth and depth of expertise.

This means that as a Platinum Partner, our clients can be assured of the highest level of knowledge in the development, implementation and support of their Oracle environment.

ICT-Works first achieved the Oracle Platinum status in 2010 when we displayed our depth of knowledge and innovation around the Oracle product, which led to being awarded the National Government’s IFMS contract.

Did you make any mistakes?

We made many mistakes, but we learnt from each of them. Firstly, we underestimated the amount of selling we would have to do, because we assumed that, in a BEE environment, being 100% black-women owned and managed would give us an advantage.

Instead, it demanded ten times more effort and continues to. We were always being called upon to prove ourselves.

We also misjudged the need for start-up and working capital. I launched the business armed with one month’s salary and a big chunk of my mother’s pension. The cash-flow lesson was a hard and rough one. We had never anticipated late payments and lack of customer readiness.

Lastly, we underestimated the long decision-making cycles typical in Government. As a result, there were times in the beginning when we had to borrow money from our home loans to be able to pay our staff, ourselves and some of our suppliers.

To build a track record, you took on jobs that weren’t immediately profitable. What were these jobs, and how did you balance them with those that were lucrative?

Typically, these projects would be in areas that require high levels of innovation. In such cases, ICT-Works took a strategic decision to invest in high-value opportunities by taking smaller margins if we saw that there was scope for us to innovate and develop further IP for ourselves that could be used more profitably on other opportunities down the line.

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Once you’ve packaged the IP and know-how on the non-profitable projects, this eventually balances out because you are able to replicate the offering more efficiently, and at a lower cost, thus improving your margins.

It was also at this early stage that we learnt one of our key success drivers – partnering. Our strategic partnerships have helped propel us to the next level.

We are an Oracle Platinum Partner, which is the second highest level of partnership, and few companies have that recognition in this country.

Monique Verduyn
Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.

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  • khlubi

    Xoli forgot to mention how she handled the Nommer asseblief phone at her home.That is part of how her inquisitive mind got her going!! Bravo Xoli!!