In 2019, Dzene Makhwade-Seboni became the first Motswana and female to hold the position of CEO at Mascom Wireless, Botswana’s leading digital communications company. A combination of ambition and desire for change prompted Dzene to raise her hand for the job.

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Although the title of ‘first woman’ is not something she dwells on or thought about before applying for the role, Dzene is glad the recognition is there. “It can inspire other Botswana people, especially women, to view this achievement and say, ‘Wow, this emboldens me to reach out.’”

A graduate of Harvard University with a BA in Economics, as well as a Master’s in Business Administration from the Graduate School of Business at the University of Cape Town, Dzene is a natural leader. Throughout her career, she has felt at ease in leadership roles. “I have always viewed and carried myself as a leader,” she confirms.

Before Mascom, Dzene had worked for several other blue-chip organisations in banking and fast-moving consumer goods. Her career choices have provided challenges, guidance and development, ultimately preparing her for the CEO role.

“Seeing myself in a leadership position in telecoms was not a surprise, but more a natural evolution.” She joined Mascom Wireless in 2006 as the Chief Marketing Officer and was appointed to Chief Operations Officer in 2016.

“My story is linked to the Mascom story. Mascom is an authentic Botswana company with a rich history that is firmly rooted in making a positive difference in the lives of Batswana.”

“I have always viewed and carried myself as a leader.”

This role also provided a challenge – an element Dzene enjoys. “The telecommunications space provided an opportunity to be in a fast-changing, dynamic sector that’s at the core of the digital ecosystem within Botswana,” she says, reflecting on why she entered a new industry. Dzene’s prior experience as Mascom’s Chief Marketing Officer meant that she was involved in a range of strategic properties and sponsorships.

“I had the advantage of pioneering key projects along the way, which led to an intimate knowledge of the brand.”

When she came on board, the seasoned professional already knew which steps needed to be taken for the Mascom brand to maintain its presence as an industry leader. “The sector is characterised by rapid change. I feel honoured to have the privilege of leading an organisation of highly motivated people who are meeting that change,” she notes.

“I wish to maintain the focus of bringing innovation and relevance to the market and continue to retain Mascom’s critical position.”

Part of ensuring such success is warranting change. Dzene is ceaselessly looking at methods to improve the business. “Two things come to mind,” she comments. The first is for the industry to work in unison. Telecommunications is a competitive field, and Dzene feels more can be achieved on the digital front if there is a stronger and more connected relationship.

“The responsibility and the change would be good for the industry because then we can all work towards common goals and targets for our nation.

“The other change would be to embrace gender diversity and inclusion at all levels – especially within non-traditional roles. The top leadership team at Mascom is already 60% female,” she states proudly.

“Mascom has not only a female CEO but also a female Chief Information Officer, which offers a varied representation of women in leadership. I would love to see others in the industry follow suit.”

For Dzene, motivation comes from making a positive difference. “Sometimes you do not know that something you are doing is a life-altering experience for somebody else. And when they make you aware of how a decision makes a positive difference in their life, it’s fantastic,” she enthuses.

An example is the Mascom Kitsong Centres initiative. Through a partnership between Mascom and rural communities, to date the program has 110 youth-run shops offering ICT services to their community to bridge the digital divide and provide livelihoods to young entrepreneurs.

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Mascom, which presently has a client base of over 1.5 million subscribers, provides the most extensive coverage in Botswana, with its network reaching over 95% of the population. Speaking of Mascom’s advances over the years, she points to its first foray in the FinTech space with the launch of MyZaka Mascom Money.

The mobile money service allows subscribers to send money anywhere in Botswana using their mobiles. She was also responsible for Mascom’s commercial launch of high-speed 3G to the market. “Digital is so central to the lives of consumers. The launch of mobile data was revolutionary,” she says.

Mascom’s priority is to consolidate and build on the business’ leadership position. “The business is a leading digital service provider. The aim to be a provider of choice is what drives us. If we were not the provider of choice, then there is a risk of not meeting the needs and expectations of our consumers,” Dzene adds.

This year and beyond, Mascom’s focus is solely on high-quality experiences, both externally and internally. Those experiences come through customers interacting with the Mascom team, its digital channels, products and services.

While the business will continue to concentrate and invest heavily in new technologies and solutions, it also aims to continue strengthening the internal part – by investing in people.

With one part of Dzene’s life engulfed by the business, the other is for her family. “Total balance is never going to be possible to achieve all the time,” she shares. “There’ll be times when one area of life takes a bigger chunk of my time and energy.”

She says it’s about appreciating and acknowledging that complete balance will not be possible all the time. “As a corporate woman and a mother, it is incredibly important that I have the right mechanisms in place. I need to ensure that while I’m leaning in and occupied on the corporate front, my family’s needs are looked after. And that they understand what I’m doing.

“As a corporate woman and a mother, it is incredibly important that I have the right mechanisms in place. I need to ensure that while I’m leaning in and occupied on the corporate front, my family’s needs are looked after.”

“I have a supportive husband and a strong network of assistance that ensures I’m able to achieve some semblance of not dropping the ball,” Dzene explains. “When it comes to adopting a healthy lifestyle of eating well and getting exercise, it’s something I’m hopeful that one day I will achieve. It remains a work in progress. I’m not quite there, but I recognise its importance. It’s just not that easy.”

Dzene doesn’t have many role models. Instead, there are people she notices and takes note of for doing extraordinary things. One is former PepsiCo CEO, Indra Nooyi. Dzene admires her leadership style: leading with head, heart and hand. “It truly resonates,” she says.

“There are women out there I look at in awe. I look at their approach and listen to what they are saying, but not necessarily to model myself entirely after them. I look at how they approach different things.”

The CEO’s attributes, however, were learned and inherited from someone dear – her late mother, affectionately called Cookie. Dzene describes Cookie as an “embodiment of maternal warmth, combined with grit, determination and mental strength”.

Finally, the most crucial lesson Dzene learned and practised throughout her career – one she is continuously trying to instil in her children – is to be outspoken. “Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes,” she stresses. “Don’t be fearful because how else are you going to be heard?”

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