After several years in the finance sector, Sulet Van Niekerk founded the coaching and consulting service Think Growth Consulting, but she soon realized that the transition was more difficult than she had anticipated. Sulet needed a sounding board—someone who would listen to her concerns, provide solid business council and also offer encouragement when she was beginning to doubt the path she had chosen. After applying to the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women’s mentoring program, she was paired with Amy Korsakoff from Bank of America. Amy became a mentor to learn more about early-stage business development, but also to share insights on effective team management and identifying and attracting a target market. Together they worked on Sulet’s goals, including building her confidence and exploring avenues for business development. Since working with Amy, Sulet has significantly grown her client base.
In the following, Sulet provides insights on her professional experiences, the value of receiving support from her mentor, Amy, and the importance of giving back to others.
What is your background?
Growing up in South Africa, I was very fortunate in my education and my experience—there is a saying that South Africa has first world technology with third world economic problems, and there are millions of South Africans who did not have the same educational opportunities. When I was young, my parents took me to a career counselor who conducted a number of tests to determine my strengths, and auditing was one of them. Becoming a chartered accountant (CA) in South Africa is seen as a very prestigious career—it’s estimated that nearly half of the CEOs of companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in South Africa are CAs. It is a good career choice as long as you’re aware of the demands. For three years, your company “owns you.” I worked incredibly hard, but the experience was great and gave me a stepping stone for where I wanted to go next. For a few months I worked in our Toronto office as an auditor. The experience I gained was immense and I’ll be forever grateful. And I have much empathy and understanding for the people I work with now in my consultancy business because of how I started.
Was it difficult being a woman in the finance sector?
In South Africa, it’s still difficult to be a woman in a corporate environment. Over the course of my career, I’ve heard much talk about gender equality, but each workplace is distinct. For example, I had only one general manager who was a woman and serving on the company’s executive committee, a prestigious position that is appointed by the Board of Directors. But these challenges are also global. Over time, I’ve noticed that some companies are becoming more progressive. There are also more young people who demand opportunity for progress, development and promotion.
How did you decide to start your business?
While working in finance, I realized that in spite of having a good title, a good package, and excelling at my job, I simply wasn’t happy. Through a journey of self-discovery and some one-on-one and group coaching, I dug deeper into my dissatisfaction. Was it financial? Was it the company? Was it the people? I decided to move away from finance after realizing my personal life goals had changed. At 18, I wanted to be the CEO of a company, but in my thirties, I recognized that money and status were overrated. I wanted to give back to my community and help others find happiness in their careers, so I founded Think Growth Consulting, a business coaching practice. I coach people in career and leadership development. I also consult businesses to recruit and develop their employees through replicating successful behaviors and habits in their environment using a software system that optimizes efficiencies. I also facilitate team building sessions that create awareness about the habits and behaviors of the team, thereby increasing team productivity.
How did you decide that you needed a mentor?
I underestimated how difficult it would be to start a business from scratch. Women entrepreneurs know how to work hard…but this was different. People found it difficult to make the connection between my accounting background and coaching. When you start your own business, there’s no one to talk to, no one to bounce off ideas. Going at it alone, I no longer had work colleagues. My family didn’t understand what I was doing—they thought I’d be an accountant for the rest of my life, and my friends were busy with their own careers. I applied to be part of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women’s mentoring program because it seemed like a good step toward getting the support I needed.
How has your mentoring relationship with Amy been helpful in developing your business?
Especially in the beginning, maintaining perseverance and confidence is difficult, so having a mentor is critical. Whenever you doubt yourself and your decisions, a mentor listens and supports you. Amy asked me very personal questions and wasn’t judgmental. She helped me reflect and highlighted the value of self-discovery, a lesson that I have applied in my own business. As a way to support others, I now do a lot of transitional coaching, working with junior and middle managers who can’t find support in their own organizations to grow and develop. There is a huge value in the self-discovery process and developing self-awareness. It’s extremely empowering.
Was there anything about the relationship with Amy that you did not expect?
I was surprised to learn how many similarities we had, especially in our backgrounds and education. Sometimes we joke that we are the same person in two different places! I can identify with Amy working at a large company like Bank of America and climbing the career ladder. We also share similar interests, such as keeping a balanced lifestyle. We encourage each other to exercise regularly and make sure we are eating the right foods.
How often do you speak with Amy?
In the beginning, we spoke two hours on the phone every two weeks, but now she understands my business and we speak monthly. We prefer telephone but we have also shared photos to get to know each other better. The entire online community of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women has been so helpful to me—they provide a platform of support that enables me to connect with other women entrepreneurs who are going through the same experiences. The community shares business tips, details on legal documents and contracts, and more. And I share my own expertise and insight, as I have benefited tremendously from the program.