From boardrooms, to farms, factory floors and tech incubators, BBC World News Presenter, Lerato Mbele-Roberts is always on the move, discovering innovators, change-makers, disruptors, ”movers and shakers” leading businesses in the continent. In her feature, she lets us in on how she has stayed consistent in her career and developed herself into the woman she is today.
Meet Lerato Mbele-Roberts
Strangers describe me as serious and focused. Colleagues describe me as meticulous but very playful, sometimes stubborn. My friends describe me as funny and sensitive. I see myself as a hard worker, who enjoys fresh challenges. I love to laugh, and like it when work is fun. I don’t manage stress or conflict very well, I’d rather bunker away and let other people douse the fires. However, when confronted with a serious problem, I face it head on. I define serious problems as issues of ethics & justice. I will never shy away from standing my ground or speaking truth in that event. Academically, I pursued Political Science, Economics and Development Studies at university, but geared my training towards my passions for African affairs. I eventually became a broadcaster and now work for BBC World TV – as part of the team for global business news. Apparently, I write well, winning a few essay competitions when I was younger and that talent has cone back to “haunt” me, as I was recently asked by a publisher to think about writing a book. It’s still a thought – but one I may act on soon.
Growing Up and Life-Defining Experiences
I was born and raised in South Africa at a very difficult moment in our history. So, I experienced the last 17yrs of the racist system known as Apartheid but became a woman in a free democratic country. My personal experiences straddle what I’d term the lines of light and darkness in our country. That really informed my chosen field. The injustice and indignity of Apartheid made me say: I will never be shaped by the bigotry of others. So using the media to give a voice to and show the faces of the people of Africa almost became a cause for me. Fortunately, we were raised by fairly liberal and open-minded parents who didn’t limit our outlook on life nor discourage our dreams.
My mother thought it was beautiful that I “lived in my head” and governed by my thoughts. My father however, urged me to take more practical steps that could turn my dreams into reality. The important thing is that my family never uttered the words “impossible” or “not worthy” or “ a girl can only do this” and that’s very important for women living in patriarchal societies like South Africa and many others on the continent.
Setting out into the Corporate World
I started working at age 21 and along the way took a brief study break to complete my Masters at SOAS University of London. I also tried my hands at working outside the media for a couple of years, but found my way back to the media. My life’s work has really been in newsrooms and in the field. Whilst the BBC is a corporation with strict financial protocols and journalistic standards, the actual editorial aspect of our work is creative and dynamic. So we don’t have rigid reporting lines where a boss is breathing down your neck daily. Our editors/bosses trust us to do our work professionally, with empathy and with colorful creativity. A workday never feels routine or mundane.
I present a few TV shows, but our mainstay is “Talking Business Africa”. However, you’ll occasionally see me on “In Business Africa” special documentaries and sometimes news analysis. I work with a great team of video editors: Taurai Maduna and Jessica David Preyser. The person who coordinates everything is Nobuhle Simelane our producer, whilst our team leader is Robb Stevenson who gives us loads of editorial guidance. We read up on issues that are prevalent on the continent, identify the companies or people who are game changers, research their business models, craft storylines that link these business to society and then finally travel across the continent to film with them. Once done, we piece it all together frame-by-frame constantly trying to use fresh techniques in video editing. Then it goes to air on BBC World.
CNBC taught me a lot about understanding how the world of business works and how decisions taken in boardrooms affect the economy at large. So that was a good foundation. However, it’s at the BBC where I really came into my own and found a solid footing. The BBC believes in journalists getting first hand experience, being in the field and speaking to ordinary people. The organization’s tag line “Live the Story” means precisely that: live & feel the authentic experiences of communities on the ground.
In addition, the BBC has a wide presence in leading global markets and it has a network of more than 160 reporters in Africa across language services, which means that we can go anywhere in the world and have a team or equipment to work with. That’s a huge advantage when you want to break news stories or access locations that are geographically hard to reach. It also means that locals welcome you when you’re in town, because the organization’s presence is visible. BBC was named the most trusted media brand by Brand Leadership Africa and that has really opened doors for us on “Talking Business Africa”.
Challenges that comes with the job is the constant travel and sometimes long hours. That really presents difficulties in family relationships, especially if you have a partner who does not understand your work. This is not a regular 9-5 job and there are many birthday parties you will miss because of assignments. That’s emotionally challenging. Physically, it’s hard to move across the Sub-Saharan Africa, despite what the AU has promised with visa free travel. In reality, it does not exist and the digital infrastructure to make it easier to get visas is lagging. Only a few countries have good facilitation systems. Waiting for visas, filming permits, media accreditation, reducing taxes on filming equipment at customs are all things that make planning a trip very hard.
Viewers sometimes complain that we tend to focus on a handful of countries regularly – South Africa, Ghana, Rwanda, Kenya, Zambia or Ivory Coast – that’s mainly because it’s easier to travel to these countries and their governments don’t throw many hurdles our way as a reporting team. However, filming in Angola, Uganda, Senegal and Ethiopia proved to be so enjoyable, but first we had to go through long processes to get the necessary approvals to enter the country. It’s worth it, to press on…
Best and Worst Career Decision So Far
Honestly, I’ve learnt to turn lemons into lemonade and I can’t talk of a worst decision. I briefly left TV to try radio, it wasn’t a sensible decision after all but within a year of making that decision, I retraced my steps and returned to television. However, I used the skills of writing and reading learnt in radio to enhance my TV work. It’s made me a much better broadcaster. Also, joining CNBC at the height of my news anchoring career at SABC News seemed like a car crash at first, but in the end, the business news genre turned out to be the differentiator that made me stand out. The transition from hard news to economic news was hard, but once I got the hang of it, the world literally opened up for me – from Lagos, to Washington and Tokyo. Frankly, there hasn’t been a worst experience only a learning experience.
Thoughts on The Inclusion of Women in Leadership Positions Within the Corporate Sector
I don’t work in a conventional corporate setting, however I sit on the board of Africa’s best ranked university and I work in a multinational organization. What I’ve observed is that the corporate structure was devised by men – because historically they are the people with equity and collateral. However, it’s changing and more women are coming into senior executive and editorial roles. What that has done is change corporate culture and create workspaces that have greater empathy filtering through. For instance, Mary Wilkinson is our commissioning editor (i.eThe Big Boss) and when imagining what new shows will look like, she is very consultative. She asked me where I found myself in my personal journey, how much more work could I take on and most importantly, what kind of work I wanted to do. After a few frank exchanges, she allocated a budget towards my pursuits and she gave me the wings to fly. She herself is surrounded by female leaders with our director for BBC World Service News being a woman too.
The team that manages marketing and distribution for Africa is also female led. Our audience love the new content coming out of the BBC, it must have something to do with the presence of more women helping to chart the course of the organization. However, it’s important to stress that without men respecting the talent of women in these leadership roles, it would be harder to achieve these goals. Therefore, men are important partners in this story. All my major job opportunities were given to me by male bosses, I wouldn’t be far without these gentlemen opening the doors for me. The role male leaders play matter, because when they become enablers of women’s growth, it shifts the needle.
Thoughts on Harassment in the Work-Place
I always used to wear my “game face” to work, therefore few men tried their luck. However, I remember an incident where a man openly harassed me in an elevator. I was hysterical with rage. I’m glad I was too, he looked shocked whereas I was frightened and upset. What I didn’t do is report him. I should have so that there were consequences. Screaming at him and causing a scene was a very empowering thing for me to do at the time. It embarrassed him, it turned my perceived weakness into strength and it shamed the rest of the onlookers too. Thankfully, nowadays, there are reporting channels. I’d advise young women to use them and never suffer in silence. However, at the moment you experience harassment act like a buffalo – “stomp your feet and kick up the dust” – don’t freeze! Say NO, and say it loudly.
Key Career Lessons
- Hard work pays & definitely brings other rewards.
- A pleasant attitude helps to create a better team morale and openness
- Speak your truth in performance appraisals and ask for what you want. You may not always get it, but your superiors will bear you in mind for future promotions.
On Friendships and Sisterhood
Friendships are key… in joy and sorrow. The value is felt most in sorrow. When you feel like the world is closing in on you, your girlfriends step in and make the sun shine. I know that for sure. Also, when you surround yourself with ambitious peers, it makes you want to improve your own prospects. Women will show you how to better your skills and may introduce you to coaches who can help you get there. So women are not competitors, they are a squad.
What if You Were President for a Year…
My observation is that the people who effect the greatest changes in society are not the politicians. So I’d opt not to run for president. Think Dangote and the number of jobs he’s created through the industries he’s invested in. Think of the start-ups in renewable energy or the social enterprises in education or healthcare. Look at the innovation that big banks are coming up with and the talent they attract from the pool of university graduates. Better still, notice how fintech has helped female traders bank their earnings easily. I would like to be part of this kind of empire-building, doing the things that shape lives and move us all into a better world.
What counts as fun for Lerato Mbele…
The girly stuff – such as beautiful travel experiences like a glamorous safari. I enjoy art circuit movies or attending plays and opera at the theater. I enjoy champagne brunches with my girlfriends. I love having my feet massaged, so I make any excuse for a pedicure. Lastly, going for a good run always puts me in a good mood.
I hope people see how much potential lies in Africa and amongst Africans. I hope my work, (in whatever form my career takes) helps to bring people to that realization.
About Lerato Mbele-Roberts
Lerato Mbele is presenter on BBC World News television, with speciality in the coverage of business and economics. She is the face of “Talking Business Africa” – a television programme that leads the conversation about business leadership, company strategy and innovations that have enabled companies to thrive on the African continent.
Until recently, she was the presenter of “Africa Business Report” and is an occasional presenter on the weekly BBC “In Business Africa”.
Lerato Mbele joined BBC World News in June 2012 and has been with the global news organisation ever since.
Prior to that, she was a Senior Business Anchor at CNBC Africa and was the prime time news anchor at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC).
Throughout her media career, she has interviewed notable international figures, including the IMF’s Christine Lagarde; Dr. Jim Kim the former World Bank President; the late UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan; the US Secretary of State John Kerry; various Heads of State and prominent personalities such as Bill Gates, Aliko Dangote, Mo Ibrahim, Joseph Stiglitz. Even musicians such as Bob Geldof, Akon and William have all been featured on her television shows.
In early 2016, Lerato was nominated in the media category of the inaugural New African Women Awards. Previously, she was named on the Oprah O Magazine Power List of 21 African women “rocking the world”. In 2014, Lerato Mbele was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in Geneva, Switzerland.
She is a regular speaker at international conferences that focus mainly on economics and investments in Africa. She has moderated plenaries and hosted television debates, at World Bank and IMF Annual Meetings, African Development Bank, the United Nations, Nigerian Economic Summit and various international platforms.
Academically, Lerato Mbele is a Chevening Scholar who holds an Msc degree in Development Studies from The School of Oriental and African Studies, at the University of London.
She completed her undergraduate and Honours degrees from the Universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch respectively.
She was recently appointed as a member of the council (the board of directors) at the University of Cape Town.