Standard Bank’s Bessy Mahopo has journeyed through finance, insurance and back to finance

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Bessy puts organisational culture above everything and found it back where her career journey started.

Bessy Mahopo, the CIO for CIB transformation programmes at Standard Bank, describes herself as an introvert of note. She says she refuels in solitude – it allows her to gather her thoughts and be in tune with oneself.

“The nature of the job does require you to interact and socialise, which I love, but because it’s not core to my nature, I do on occasion find it draining, and need that time alone,” she explains. “That often happens over the weekends, where I find my equilibrium.”

Bessy is a proud township and Pretoria girl, through and through. She grew up in Mabopane, north of Pretoria, and is the third of four siblings – all girls.

Today, Bessy is married and a parent herself, who plays different roles, the top three demanding ones being a mother, a wife and spending time with her parents and siblings. She also tries to squeeze in some exercise (mostly running or gym).

“Township life was great,” she explains. “However, the only disadvantage I’d point out is the lack of exposure to what’s out there. And, when you were good at subjects like mathematics like I was, you’re often pushed towards a certain route, such as medicine, and that became the initial plan.”

Bessy applied to study medicine while in matric. Towards the end of her matric year, her father took her to visit Wits medical school, and they were sent off to Johannesburg General Hospital (now Charlotte Maxeke Hospital). She was excited and eager to be immersed in this medical world that she would be a part of one day, but as they went deeper into the hospital, Bessy caught sight of a corpse, and that sight alone was enough to scare her medical ambitions right out of her – she was hysterical and couldn’t find the exit fast enough.

Enter IT, Bessy’s second option: she ultimately decided to take the computer sciences route at the University of Pretoria. “It was challenging at first, but I quickly started to fall in love with it,” she says. “The nature of the course was challenging and required a lot of problem-solving, which was something at the time I didn’t realise resonated with me, being as young as I was. It was as if to say, ‘Okay, Bessy likes solving complex problems.’

“That stuck with me, and as it stands, I get bored quite easily with mundane tasks. Once I’ve solved one complex problem, I find pleasure in seeing valuable results, then I want to move on to the next challenging one. I’d describe it as competing with myself,” she adds.

She cut her teeth as a developer through Absa’s graduate programme, working on mainframe, as a young and ambitious black woman who stood out like a sore thumb in what was at the time – and arguably still is – a male-dominated industry. Bessy was the youngest person on the team, but like a boss, as she puts it, she didn’t let that deter her.

It’s the smell of the place

Bessy excelled at her job, but something was still missing. For her, despite how challenging and engaging the job is, there’s something about the culture of any place (or smell of the place) she works in that really stands out to Bessy – if it doesn’t gel with her, she’d rather move on.

Coincidentally, Microsoft was also running a graduate programme, and this time it was an opportunity for Bessy to work on the ‘cool stuff’, the technology. “I felt a bit less out of place there: people had computer sciences degrees like I did, but people were learned and the degree alone didn’t distinguish you that much, so I decided to study some more, and went back to Tuks to do my BSc (Hons) degree in computer science,” she explains.

Through a Microsoft partner, Bessy was presented with the opportunity to work for Standard Bank. This is where her IT career really started, she says: in IT security. “The most fascinating thing about IT security is that it is so broad – for everything you secure, you also need to understand how it works in order for you to apply adequate controls, which requires a lot of reading up and research on my part,” Bessy explains.

Two big events happened in Bessy’s life during that time: she had her daughter and went on maternity leave, and Standard Bank was undergoing a huge IT operating model change in that period. But when she returned from maternity leave, a lot had changed: she had a new boss and it was a culture shock.

“I left for the insurance sector and two years later, Standard Bank came knocking at my door. They explained that things had now settled, there were bigger opportunities, and they wanted me to return. I just needed to name my price,” she says.

This time, Bessy’s son was born, she went on maternity leave, and yet again Standard Bank was undergoing another operating model change, and the landscape had changed again on her return. During this time, she also completed her MSc degree in computer science.

To receive is to give

Unsettled with the changes, Bessy decided to explore other opportunities in the automotive and finance industry. During this time, she met her mentors, two exceptional leaders in the corporate world, who she appreciated for their unique leadership styles and approaches to problem-solving.

“I hold these two individuals in very high regard. They are both great leaders,” she notes. “They believed in me more than I believed in myself, and became my sponsors and ensured that I had the right opportunities and platforms that elevated my exposure to key decision-makers. They’re tough as nails, but of high integrity and humble.”

Unselfishly, Bessy is also paying it forward, having realised the value her two mentors brought into her life. “I have informally started mentoring one individual who I met about 17 years ago. She was in matric and confused about her choice of studies after matric,” she says. “Despite those hardships, I am happy to say she is now a qualified CA, paving the way forward for others, and I believe that my purpose is to always be a blessing to others.”

Paying it forward keeps Bessy grounded, but she looks within and to a higher power for inner inspiration. “I am spiritually grounded, and I am also an introvert. As such, I am self-motivated. However, what inspires me is my God-given purpose, and seeing myself live in my purpose is enough inspiration for me. In the corporate space, my ambition is to leave a signature in how we solve complex technology engineering problems, while delivering great business value,” she concludes.

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