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By Dawn Kissi '21, Knight-Bagehot Fellow
During a recent Columbia Business School event co-sponsored by the Bernstein Center and the Chazen Institute, students received an inside glimpse into the life of one of the most prominent businesswomen in South Africa, Magda Wierzycka. Wierzycka spoke candidly about business ethics, authenticity, and how the COVID-19 pandemic turned her world upside down. As she explained it in simple terms, “We are living through something that is probably a once-in-a-lifetime event for us. The world will never be the same.”
But, Wierzycka’s world has never been typical—her path is one of an immigrant, a woman in a too-often male dominated arena, and a crusader for what is right. Born in Communist Poland, she and her two siblings were raised in a no-frills lifestyle—bank accounts and financial services were not common. In 1982, communism collapsed and Wierzycka and her family found a new home in the racially segregated country of South Africa by way of an Austrian refugee camp.
At the age of 12, Wierzycka found herself in a new country, unable to understand the language and with little knowledge about its politics. “You learn to be self-sufficient,” she told the audience. “You become an adult very quickly.”
Wierzycka went on to succeed in school and eventually launched a venture capital business, honing her marketing, business development, and people management skills on the job. This experience gave Wierzycka the confidence to lead and she eventually worked her way to CEO of Sygnia, growing the company to the second-largest multi-management company in South Africa. “I often tell young people to get as much experience as you can in your 20s and 30s . . . learn to speak with confidence and learn to communicate.” This, she said, is the key to advancing in the workforce and making an impact in the boardroom.
Today, Wierzycka is a leading anti-corruption activist in South Africa, speaking out against exploitation, bribery, and fraud—or as she refers to it, being on the right side of the equation. Wierzycka has proven herself as an entrepreneur and risk-taker who operates as an ethical leader in both her personal and professional life. Throughout her journey, her guiding light has been to do the right thing, no matter the stakes.
As an aspiring leader in business journalism, I found Wierzycka’s anecdotes and drive to implement change awe inspiring and humbling. She persevered through an upbringing shrouded in political uncertainty and setbacks, only to succeed in industries often unwelcoming to women, resistant to change, and sometimes fraught with corruption.
With an image of Andy Warhol's Lenin behind her, Wierzycka spoke candidly and with a level of confidence and cadence that enveloped and captured the attention of CBS students. It quickly became evident to me that a leader who has the power to inspire change and promote ethical behavior must speak transparently from the heart, and with a sureness that attracts others to understand and trust in her leadership. Being on the right side of the equation requires an internal dialogue and the patience for long-term payoff. “There must be more to life than just money . . . You must be able to look at yourself in the mirror,” she said. “I do believe the wheel turns and you reap the rewards of that.”
Looking ahead, Wierzycka is eager for the next few decades to unfold. She recognizes that we still have to get through the challenges of the pandemic but said she can see through to the other side. “I’m excited about a lot of things in the future. I’m excited about disruption, innovation, and technology making things we couldn’t imagine possible, possible.” Wise words from a woman who has had her fair share of challenges to conquer.