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ITWeb TV: Gwabeni rises from lab assistant to Assupol CIO

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 26 Apr 2024
Keneilwe Gwabeni, who was recently appointed CIO of Assupol, shares her story about how she started her career in IT, an industry notoriously known to be male-dominated. #itwebtv #assupol #cio

It took hard work for Keneilwe Gwabeni, chief information officer (CIO) of insurance firm Assupol, to reach the upper level in the world of ICT − an industry notoriously known to be male-dominated.

Gwabeni, recently appointed as CIO of Assupol, shared how she started her career in IT, during an interview with ITWeb TV.

Before joining Assupol, she was CIO of Telkom Business, and was also previously head of department at the Financial Services Board and head of IT integration at Standard Bank.

Gwabeni is a seasoned IT executive with 24 years’ experience in the field, with 16 of these years in senior roles.

“When I got into IT, it was by chance. I am from a rural village with no electricity. Therefore, I had never touched a computer before, but my interest in computers grew.

“On my first day in class, we walked into a computer lab and there were these rows of computers and my classmates were already playing games on these computers, and that knocked my confidence because, psychologically, I told myself that I am less than them, I know less than them, they are better than me.”

However, the experience inspired her to work hard and she made it her mission to catch up with her classmates.

Seizing the day

“When I finished studying, it took a while before I got a job, and during that time, instead of sitting, I went to the computer studies head of department at Peninsula Technikon − now it’s Cape Peninsula University of Technology − and asked for a volunteer job.”

She was offered a job as a computer laboratory assistant. “I had to take the initiative to be in the industry.

“After three months, an opportunity at the institution became available for a full-time computer technician, and I went for an interview with a whole lot of other people and I was the successful candidate because I took that initial initiative.

“I presented myself better in the interview because I understood the process at the institution, as well as the technology. If I did not do that volunteer work, I don’t think I would have been the successful candidate.

“I worked for the institution for about two years before I went to the real corporate South Africa in the Western Cape.”

Keneilwe Gwabeni, CIO of insurance provider Assupol. (Photograph by Lesley Moyo)
Keneilwe Gwabeni, CIO of insurance provider Assupol. (Photograph by Lesley Moyo)

She then joined Eskom as a business support officer, doing applications support. “It was tough then because it has always been a male-dominated environment, and I moved around different organisations.

“However, throughout that growth, there were times where in meetings, people would not even ask me for my opinion; they did not even care what I had to say. I had one colleague who looked at me and said ‘you are an affirmative action candidate so you don’t have to do much’ without understanding my CV that I am a qualified IT person.

“There were times when I had to crawl under the desks to do technician work to show that I bring value. It had to come from me to show that I bring value.

“Some of my classmates decided to do business analysis, which is seen as less technical and complex. It was through hard work and going over and above my roles and responsibilities to show my value.

“I then climbed up the career ladder and got into management positions and that’s when I learnt about taking advantage of platforms to share my experiences…to ensure the young girl who wants to get into the STEM field is inspired to see that it’s doable.”

Although there are more women moving into leadership positions, she says challenges remain. “There are gaps in salaries between females and males in the industry, so there is still a lot that needs to be done.”

Digital transformer

She notes Assupol is implementing its digital initiatives to drive the business forward. “We are looking at improving the level of service that we are giving to our customers. That’s the whole point of improving our business from manual or analogue-based operations to a digital business.

“When our customers engage or interact with us, it must be flexible, convenient and they must be able to do that from anywhere.

“A lot of our customers are in the rural villages and small towns, and they are still required to walk long distances to catch a taxi or a bus to submit a claim in town. Part of the digital transformation is aimed at making it easy for our customers to access our products and services.”

The digital initiatives are also targeted at Assupol staff. “We want to make it easy for a sales agent to go out there and sell policies faster because it is directly linked to their families and livelihoods.

“We also want to ensure our customers are able to submit their claims on multiple digital channels that are flexible and convenient. When customers submit a claim, it means they are in a difficult time so we have to make the process very easy for them.”

Gwabeni points out that the insurer is also investing in technologies such as robotic process automation, to automate its process to ensure claims are paid timeously.