Cheryl Carolus shares her leadership journey

PICTURE CREDIT: Gallo Images/Foto24/Loanna HoffmannPICTURE CREDIT: Gallo Images/Foto24/Loanna Hoffmann

As part of strengthening leadership among women, the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) and Standard Bank Private Banking have launched a series of lectures aimed at empowering rising female leaders.

The HERstory Series of dialogues is a platform for women leaders from various sectors – led by business and government – to share stories of their journeys to success. The idea is for the next generation to learn pivotal lessons from these trailblazers and apply the learnings as they edge closer to their own destinies.

The series, which kicked off last Friday, was opened by Cheryl Carolus, co-founder and executive chairperson of investment and development firm Peotona. She shared her journey from a poverty-stricken childhood in the Cape Flats to becoming one of the country’s most formidable businesswomen.

Carolus spoke of an upbringing that was characterised by anger, despair, fear and poverty. Her family experienced the ravages of substance abuse first-hand, with her father’s alcohol abuse leading to him physically abusing her mother.

Being part of a team taught me that if you don’t pull your weight and don’t do what you are supposed to do, the team will fall apart.

Yet, despite a difficult childhood, Carolus’s parents instilled a sense of responsibility, self-belief and unconditional love in their children — values which characterise her life to this day. She emphasised that she owes her success in politics and business to her upbringing and advised those present to reflect and take important lessons from where they come from.

In Carolus’s words, here are the leadership values she says were cemented early on in her life:

Love and support

We knew that our parents loved us. They made us feel confident in who we were and taught us to aim for the stars. We understood that money was an issue, but that they did the best they could for us. I was blessed to be supported unconditionally and that shaped me into who I am today.

I notice that people who underachieve, hurt, and bully others in the workplace are often people who are not centred in themselves.


We each had chores and an important role to keep the household running. We washed dishes, scrubbed floors and cleaned the entire house. Those were fundamental life lessons. To this day I know that I have to clean up after myself whenever I mess up.

Being part of a team also taught me that if you don’t pull your weight and don’t do what you are supposed to do, the team will fall apart.

Don’t be a victim

I’ve never seen myself as a victim and will never allow someone to treat me like an object. I’m a player, not a passive vessel. Even as a little girl I grew up with a strong sense of self, and no one was going to touch me inappropriately.

Even with misogyny and the constant threat of sexual violence that we live with as women in this country, I refuse to be a victim and that is why I speak up and challenge issues.

When you speak up, do it in ways that empower you and those around you.


My community celebrated success. Whenever there were netball presentations, the whole community would come together to celebrate. At 13 I became active in politics and got to be part of a greater community. I learned about non-racialism and found the most incredible discipline and support. If you were not disciplined in the struggle, people were not going to respect you or appoint you to be a leader.

Find communities that share your values and they will help you strengthen those values. It could be businesswomen’s associations, trade unions or the church. I believe in organisations and teams – it doesn’t have to be formal, but you need realise that you are not an island.


I grew up as an athlete and sport teaches you powerful lessons. We do a lot of work in schools and we run a soccer league for girls and boys. Everyone wants to be in the A-team. But there’s no way you will be in the A-team if your game is not good enough. The only way to achieve that is by training hard.

Sport taught me that discipline and consistent hard work were the most sustainable ways to achieve your goals in life.


I surrounded myself with incredibly powerful women. Helen Joseph, Frances Goitsemang Baard and Sophie de Bruyn were like mothers to me. They believed in me and pushed me to make the my first-ever public speech. They also kept a strict eye on us young people within the women’s movement. I’ve also had remarkable male mentors throughout my life. One of my mentors was Oscar Mpetha, president of the United Democratic Front in the Western Cape. Not once did he make me feel that being a woman was an issue, but he made me understand that as a woman I would often be challenged by other men who were less capable.

I mentor 13 young people and each one of them came up to me and said ‘please mentor me because I see you as a role model’. Speak up and don’t wait for someone to identify you as a mentee.

The HERstory Series dialogues take place every month at the GIBS campus in Johannesburg and are by invitation only. For more information visit and look for the centre for leadership and dialogue.