Born in Poland, Magda Wierzycka and her family escaped the country during the collapse of its communist regime, spent months in Austrian refugee camps, and eventually immigrated to South Africa, when she was only 12, with limited resources, and little understanding of the local language or culture. Persevering through years of social and political uncertainty, Magda went on from being a product development and investments actuary at Southern Life, launching a venture capital business, to becoming the Founder and Executive Chairman of Sygnia, one of the largest financial services companies in the country.
Magda’s story is a powerful testament to the indomitable spirit that resides within each of us. Her rise from her humble beginnings to the highest echelons of African business, and then her transformation into a trailblazing reformer of business and society, is the stuff that legends are made of. She is also a leading anti-corruption activist, speaking out against exploitation, bribery, and fraud—or as she refers to it, “being on the right side of the equation.” In 2020, Forbes magazine listed her among “Africa's 50 Most Powerful Women.”
In this episode of Intersections, Magda joins us to recount her entrepreneurial journey, fraught with personal sacrifices, unprecedented risks, and surprising twists. She discusses how to manage our internal dialogue and integrate opposing viewpoints to lead change and reform our businesses and society.
The episode “Being a Changemaker and Building a Principled World” offers key insights on:
Hitendra Wadhwa: Greetings and a warm welcome to all of you to Intersections where our aspiration is to help us dissolve boundaries. All kinds of boundaries, those functional disciplinary rule based mindsets we sometimes have about how this part of my life is very different from this part of my life, of this part of the world is very different from this far, etc. so that we can explore our full potential, both as individuals as well as as humanity. Today, I have with us someone who will, through her story, exemplify the power of dissolving that boundary between the pure version of you that seeks to be very grounded in a certain set of values, in a certain sense of wanting to be good and do good in the world. And that part of us that wants to play by the rules and win in this messy dog eat dog kind of world. How do we dissolve that boundary and make sure that in fact, our success is ours, but is also coming from a deeply grounded place within. It is going to be my great pleasure to have us in our midst, Magda Wierzycka.
Magda is a businesswoman. She's a self-made billionaire and also a change maker. Let me tell you just a couple of things about her and then I invite her onto our program. Magda was born in Poland and her family escaped the country during the collapse of the communist regime and then immigrated to South Africa. She has, in South Africa risen then from very humble beginnings to the highest echelons of African business, and worked as a reformer both in business and more broadly in society. She has over 20 years of experience in the asset management business in South Africa and has published widely in the field, so she is a domain expert in the industry as well. She founded Sygnia, which has been a big success story in the fintech space in South Africa, really increasing its share of managed capital and becoming the second largest multi management company in South Africa. She's also been advising a number of storied institutions, including the Actuarial Society of South Africa and the Africa Advisory Board at Harvard University. Forbes called her one of the 50 most powerful women in Africa. She is the richest woman in Africa and that in many regards is small compared to so many aspects of her strength which are not really statistically measurable. On that note, let me also highlight her work in the anti-corruption kind of space. She's been an active speaker against exploitation, bribery and fraud, or, as she likes to call it, I want to be on the right side of the equation. On that note, let me invite you into our midst Magda. So, Magda, welcome. Thank you for joining us today.
Magda Wierzycka: I thank you and thank you for the invitation. Hi, everyone.
Hitendra Wadhwa: I got to know you because you came to Colombia on an invite from one of the leadership centers to give a talk, and I was just blown away. I was just blown away. We all have so much to do, and I was very intrigued by your profile and said, I know this a little early in the day and I got other stuff, but I want to be there because there's something really intriguing that I see and sense in you. And I came there and I'm so grateful because it has led to a series of dialogues. It has led to you coming to my class and it is leading now to this moment as well. So I'm just feeling a great sense of joy and fulfillment in having taken that step. Can you tell us a little bit about memories you have about yourself, just those very early years?
Magda Wierzycka: Absolutely. I grew up in Poland, in a town with truly a tiny family, which was that. That's the town where Germany attacked Poland during World War Two, and I grew up in a communist Poland. So it's a regime where everyone had very little, but everyone had the same. So you lived in the same 60 square meter apartments, typically multi-generational because there wasn't enough accommodation. And then Poland was destroyed after World War Two, so everything had to be rebuilt from scratch. It was built with the help and control of the Soviet Union. Living in a communist state meant that you had a couple of things, you had free education of very, very high quality, you had free healthcare and you had guaranteed employment. And because everyone had the same, you never knew what you didn't have. And because communication from the West was so limited, you never realized that there was a different way of living than the way we were living. But as every regime which pretends to offer its population absolutely everything, the regime sustained themselves through loans and eventually collapsed. And that's really what happened to communism. It ran out of money. But before it ran out of money, it ran off a fall. So literally overnight, food supplies disappeared from stores, and about three million people living in Eastern Europe decided to escape to the West and we were part of that escape.
So overnight, together with my brother, sister, grandmother, we crossed the border and ended up in a refugee camp in Austria. And then from there, my parents and medical doctors signed contracts with South African Army and the medical services, and we ended up and said Africa studied in South Africa, became an actuary and then joined the asset management industry via a startup and ended up setting up seven different asset management companies in the process. And I think the part of the roots that you're referring to is that Poland traveled the country in many ways and remains so today if you look at the politics. But one thing that defines Poland over the past 700 years or so is it's very deep rooted anti-Semitism. And so people who do live in Poland hide the fact that they Jewish. Just to give you some statistics, before World War Two, there were three and a half million Jews living in Poland. After the Wall Street had returned, 50000 survived, given a couple of pogroms that happened after World War Two, which are not well publicized where Jews were again expelled. Out of Poland, only 50000 remained. And then over the years, even those people emigrated, and today there are seven thousand five hundred Jews living openly in Poland. So being Jewish was nothing that anyone would broadcast. So when I was 13 and we arrived in South Africa, my father called us together and told us he's got this great family secret he needs to reveal. And it obviously was quite a thing for him to say. But he basically told us that he was Jewish, which made us have Jewish, and I can't say that resonated with anything because I'd never really been exposed to the concept of Judaism before. But when I got to university, I started researching, digging into my family history, discovered that my entire family died in the Holocaust, in concentration camps, which was quite a thing and it explained quite a lot of things in my background. So I never questioned the fact that apart from the fact that my grandparents, who obviously were part of this 250000 people that survived. There was nobody else. There were no ants, uncles or cousins and it's only later on in life that you reflect back, can you go, OK? I now understand some of the issues that clearly I didn't understand as a child.
Hitendra Wadhwa: Thank you for sharing. It gives me goosebumps every time I hear it, because that is, on the one hand, so much challenge and adversity. I mean, your one story is encapsulated some of the struggles so many groups of people have faced in the course of their history like immigration, the fall of the certain world order and then this Jewish Holocaust experience that your family had to go through. It's on one hand, a very heavy hearted story. But on the other hand, I also see an incredible capacity to rebound and to rebuild. In your story, which I'm sure started as much with your grandparents and then your parents as it ultimately then got inherited by you. And that's heroic and that's beautiful. And when I see everything that is going on in the world today and how people are getting shaken up and beaten up by the manner in which the pandemic is upending their lives, I mean, let's put it in perspective, guys, let's put in perspective just see that in the context of what you've just said, my exhibit all the things that you have to go through.
Magda Wierzycka: Well, let me just add a couple of data points and not necessarily kind of get that they are related. But when we landed up in South Africa, we knew nothing about Africa. But we arrived there to the full blast of the apartheid regime. So we thought we escaped communism. We ended up in apartheid and then had to live through the years of basically, well, an attempted equalizing the society, which was easy to do in terms of political transfer of power. Obviously, the economic transfer of wealth has not happened. And South Africa continues to be one of those countries where the inequality is highest and development all around you and poverty around you.
So I lived through that transition, yet another transition of power, yet another unsustainable regime which eventually ran out of money. It's not as if the National Party in South Africa, which governed and and implemented apartheid, suddenly came to a realisation that morally this is not correct. They basically ran out of money. The rest placed them under sanctions and they ran out of money. But if you actually think that regimes ended or that the rise of fascism is not there. I'll quote another data point to you, and it comes from last night. So I arrived back from New York in London yesterday, so I was quite jetlagged. I switched on the news to see Boris Johnson, prime minister of the UK, talk at the party conference. And what did he say? What he said was that obviously the UK saddened me by suffering from the shortage of low paid workers.
Hitendra Wadhwa: Right?
Magda Wierzycka: But this is what he said about Brexit. He said we all must suffer because we all voted in 2016 to get rid of immigrants from the UK, and we don't want them back. Immigrants in the UK mostly consisted of Polish people. There were half a million Polish people, pre-Brexit, who lived and worked in the UK. Occupying all those positions, they are gone. So if you think that suddenly xenophobia is there in developed markets, all you have to do is probably find it on YouTube. Listen to Boris Johnson last night and tell me how one of the leaders of the free world has a platform and the freedom to say we got rid of immigrants and we don't want them back.
Hitendra Wadhwa: Well, folks, if you're joining us a little bit late or even if you've been here with us all through, you're seeing the force of Magda. You're seeing that she doesn't mince words, but she has powerful ideas, and she's offering them to us as a way to provoke our own thinking. Thank you so much for doing that again. Well, I'm going to come back to your commentary on the state of society and your role as a change maker in a few minutes. So let's kind of just wrap up a little bit more on your personal journey and then we'll transition into that so you immigrate under very difficult conditions to South Africa. South Africa itself is in a state of great ferment. You watched the collapse of another regime in South Africa, the apartheid regime. In the meanwhile, you are getting educated, you're starting down the path of professional life. And I know what you've talked about. How many different asset management companies were you a part of? But let me start with what you said at the very inception point, so you graduate from your studies and then what's like, what's the first job that you got?
Magda Wierzycka: Well, the first job was actually not of my choosing because we arrived in Africa with three suitcases and my parents literally had $500 with them. When I finished high school, which was fortunate for free public schooling, there wasn't enough money for me to go to university. So I had to find a degree where I could get a bursary and insurance companies were offering full bursaries for something called actuarial science, about which I had no idea. And to be perfectly honest, I'm not quite sure what it is today, but my marks were good enough to get a fully paid bursary. But in exchange, when I finished my studies, I had to go and work for the insurance company that paid for my university. So my first job was working literally in the engine room of a life insurance company developing savings products and life insurance products. But I looked quickly to my left and looked to my right. I realized that the people around me were a hell of a lot brighter than I was mathematically and otherwise. And also that the work was empowering, and so I went on a hunt for something that would look more interesting. And I discovered the investment division of Southern Life and managed to wrangle my way into a transfer to the investment division.
The interesting thing about that investment division was that it was a failure of an asset management company and they were looking for something different that they could do, and they stumbled across this concept of passive asset management, which even then was the beginnings of passive asset management in the US. So Vanguard was still very small and irrelevant, but they looked around and I was the only person with any kind of mathematical or statistical degree. And so the management decided to send me to the US to learn about passive asset management and then to come back and start managing the fund. So at the age of, I think, 23 or 24, I was managing my first product in South Africa, which was the first fund in Africa. But again, I believe that in your 20s, you need to experiment and learn as much as you can. You should not be focusing. I mean, I was just preaching to my son, who is at Columbia doing his master's. So literally a week ago, I was telling him that your 20s are about experimentation and learning, earning money should not be on your agenda.
I very quickly moved on to another company. I kind of managed to, by coincidence, be seated next to the CEO of that company. And I really wanted to work for the company. So at the end of that dinner, I managed to convince him that it was his idea to offer me a job. So he did. He didn't know what to do with me, so he gave me my first entrepreneurial project. And it was a consulting company consulting two very large retirement funds, private retirement funds, investment strategies. And because I was such an expert, they told me that they don't currently consult on investments and that they’re consulting on the design of some kind of employee benefit schemes. So kind of 401k plans, but not on the actual investment strategy.
So he told me to set up that division, which I then did, and I started marketing to clients and actually built it into something meaningful. But then for a year and a half and then while I was doing that, I was approached by an assured asset management startup, which was kind of six guys who had walked out of a larger asset management company. They set up the business and they knew how to manage money. They didn't know how to run a business. I have no idea why they thought I knew how to run a business. But, they approached me and they said, “Come join us, we'll manage the money. You do everything else”. And I was always up for a challenge. The only catch was that I had to cut my salary to a third of what I was earning previously in exchange for a promise of a profit. If the business was successful, I decided to take the risk, and that was really the start of my journey because I did end up doing absolutely everything else, from finance to legal to marketing business development. I did the slides. I dealt with regulators. I did all the client servicing. So the salary was negligible but the education was worthwhile.
Hitendra Wadhwa: Wonderful. Let's maybe take a pause there for a moment because you just shed so much and we'll keep the story going from there in just a minute. But I want to tease out a few different, I think, lessons that all of us can take. You mentioned one about the power of experimentation, especially in your 20s, to discover the process of doing things and then reflecting on what you're resonating with. I also heard you talk about how you look left, look right and felt these people were smarter than you in this domain. But that didn't discourage you. It didn't make you feel like you’re not going to be as successful. It makes you just feel like I need to spread my wings and look elsewhere and see the bigger picture than what they're able to see here. So that's a really powerful lesson.
I also heard you talk about how you were then sent to the US because you had some mathematical acumen, which was going to be helpful for setting up that passive investing fund. And so this actuarial thing that you did because it was there, the scholarship opportunity came from and all of that suddenly became a good thing for you. But on the other hand, it was good to have that as a strength in you. I sometimes think of a life that has been like that. I think that over the course of our lives we get more clarification about a purpose, especially if the heart is pure and deeply committed to going on some kind of hero's journey, some kind of positive journey. Steve Jobs would have said that he suddenly realized I thought that was a dead end. I thought that was like a useless part of my life experience based on where I am today. But now I'm finding that it was that skill or that experience of that individual which is actually really helping me in this present moment. Life is more intelligent than we are about putting certain things in the jigsaw puzzle, it's only much later that we see the whole big picture.
I'm seeing a little bit of that in your story, which is very beautiful. I'm seeing you also talk about the confidence you had in the leader, in a particular individual and you said, I want to work for him. I heard you say that. So there's some lessons about betting on people, not just betting on things like, I want to work on this kind of problem with that going on industry. I had a situation like that in my own case as well that I bet on somebody. And I realize the power of just working with the right kinds of people. But I also heard you talk about people betting on you and the power of having them put more confidence in you and more responsibility to you than maybe your resume might have justified how you rose to that occasion.
Magda Wierzycka: Well, I think about a couple of things. When I qualified as an actuary, I think I was the second or third woman to qualify. And that gave me an incredible amount of credibility when I was in my 20s. So you often do a kind of talk to actuarial students who often get asked, is it worthwhile? It's such a heavy cost to study at university. And I basically say to people, it's invaluable because what you do at university is your golden key to the future. And it's not necessarily what you will end up doing. What you should end up doing is something that you love and you're passionate about. But the education that you get, that is really the key to that at all. And as much as I always advocate my sons studying what they want, I have made sure that as part of the degrees they throw in, it calls home economics, calls on finance and calls on politics so that they understand the broader world.
I've also gotten a commitment from them that they give me a year of their life in their twenties to do an MBA so that they can manage their business office. And incidentally, one is studying computer science and the other one is hoping to be an actor doing his degree. But still, I want to make sure that they have the business skills too. And no, I wasn't the brightest person in my day. It's a course that does attract mathematical statistical geniuses. But why should that be a hindrance in life? You can only be successful if your work is your hobby. And if you are passionate about what you do and you love what you do, because why the hell would you go to work for eight hours and nine hours a day and be unhappy? You should get up in the morning and can't wait to get to work and start your day, not kind of leave for your weekends, which so many people do.
Hitendra Wadhwa: Yeah, I love that thought. I remember as I was growing up, I'd come across this basic notion that you work hard, you strive to excel, you achieve some level of success. And then at some point you retire and then you supposedly play golf and look back and just give you a sense of pride about what it is that you've done and then I went to Florence and I came back really inspired. So I want to read more about Michelangelo and the Renaissance period. And so I read this beautiful book. I don't know if you've come across it. It's called the Agony and the Ecstasy. It's by biographer Paul Irving Stone, and he wrote it almost like a novel on Michelangelo, but with all that research about his life, so making it as real as possible. But one thing I discovered there is that this man he outlived like so many popes during his time, and he ended up living a really rich and long life. I think he was like 89 or so and he never stopped working. He never stopped working because his work was for him. His life was a joy. It was his passion. And it just completely resonated with me. And then I realized that is the ideal life for me, it is this one, and I can see how you're exemplifying that so, so beautifully. That's so powerful. And I love the prescription, the guidance you're seeking to give your two sons as well that, get exposed to multiple things right now and broaden your perspectives. I've been wanting to kind of convince my daughter at some point you can consider an MBA as well because I do think that among all the graduate disciplines, a business degree is quite multifaceted in all the different fields you encounter. She's passionate about law, so she wants to go to law school. But maybe I'll invite her to spend some time with you and you can convince her.
Magda Wierzycka: Absolutely, you need life skills. That's the basic message.
Hitendra Wadhwa: Yeah. So I mean, who has been like the most influential source for you and helping you stay grounded and get guidance beyond the formal curriculum or whatever training and education you received? Where has your guidance come from? Has it been a book? Has it been some individuals? What would you say has been your greatest guide?
Magda Wierzycka: Well, okay, that's kind of a terrible question to ask me because I’m a woman in the financial services industry. And I'm quite sure everyone will relate because the world hasn't changed, really. You don't have a lot of role models. There's no banking for women in financial services. It's not as if there were venture capitalists giving me money or being willing to bank me and my ideas. There are also no networks, female networks in the financial services industry. So men have networks, they bond to the golf or over drinks. Women don't do any of that. And part of the reason is that most women realize that there are a limited number of slots for women in the executive tier of a company, a financial services company or a legal company, for that matter, an auditing company, private equity group. It's all the same. And consequently, they don't mentor other women. Quite the opposite. So to be perfectly honest, in terms of my career, I never had a mentor. I have never looked up to anyone. I have always done what I felt was right.
Now I'll tell you why I have not looked up to people very early on in my career. In that first start up, the actual true owner of that business, a centralized profit, shares different ownership of shares. So I didn't own any shares in that business. And so, the owner of that business, who has made a few billion. I was sitting next to on the plane, and he said something very wise, which has stayed with me for the rest of my life. I mean, I was whatever, twenty five, twenty six. And he said to me, irrespective of how rich you are, I think there will always be someone who is wealthier than you. So if you put yourself as a benchmark of wealth as an example, fame as an example, power as an example, you need to realize that there will always be someone who has more money, who has more power, who is more successful than what you are. And if so, if you stop looking to that as validation of who you are, you are going to fail. It's a very sad life to look for validation outside of yourself. So I never have. I've always said I will self validate. I need to be happy with who I am as a person. I kind of do believe that life consists of these scales. There are things you've done right in your life and things you've done wrong. But when you look at yourself in the mirror because no one is without faults for goodness sake, everyone will just think everyone does things they regret. But when you look at yourself in the mirror every morning I firmly believe that when you look at those scales, the number of things you've done that're right should outweigh the number of things that you've done wrong. And that's the way I live my life. I look at myself in the mirror every day and I say, OK, where am I in the balance of life and prove that that scale is tipped towards having done the right things? Then I'm satisfied and so validated. I don't need external validation.
Hitendra Wadhwa: Yeah, yeah. Again, just a very powerful set of lessons right there. Very powerful. My God. I'm tempted. With your permission to have us actually skip over this monumental step where you start your own organization and take it to a place of heady success because I want to make sure we have enough time to talk about what actually happens next. And so let's go into that first if you're OK with it and then it will come back to that piece as well. There's a question you have from Rasa who's asking about how he loves authenticity and wonders about what you're doing to help ordinary South Africans improve their lives. I'm sure that's a question for you and your mind, too. Like, what's your larger legacy and impact? So in the spirit of helping answer that question, can you talk about sort of like moving away from just the success you were striving for to put yourself in a solid place in life, to succeed as a businesswoman to a larger role that you want to play in the world? How did that get sparked and what were some of the early triggers?
Magda Wierzycka: Yeah. So, OK, let me give you a number of things. One is I do believe in giving people a chance. So unusual for a financial services company employing people who have served in jail, which is unusual, as you can imagine, but that really isn't the story. After emerging out of the apartheid regime, African National Congress took over. Like many of these political movements, they don't easily make a transition from being a political movement to a political party. The African National Congress has been hugely unsuccessful in making that transition, Nelson Mandela notwithstanding. Africa is economically in a much worse place now than it has ever been before. Many reasons for it, but in the last 10 years in particular, up until two years ago, for 10 years, it was said that Africa had a very, very corrupt president, Old Jacob Zuma, and he happened to collude with three brothers, Gupta brothers, who were associated with crime families in India. They emigrated andr came to Africa. I think the whole thing was staged.
Zuma assumed power through any illegitimate readings and dealings with ANC, became president of the country and started looting the country. But before you judge emerging markets, let me just explain how the looting took place. So the looting took place via bribery by huge government contracts and the parties who paid the bribes for securing those contracts. Just before you look at emerging markets like McKinsey, Bain, KPMG, Deloitte say so, its various international multinational companies that have come into an emerging market and plundered it despite the poverty around them, despite what they saw and clearly so, they plundered an emerging market with collaboration. I've built up my own company. I wasn't beholden to anyone, no one handed me. I spent as much as I did in 2015. I own the vast majority of the shares, so I had this complete freedom. I wasn't an employee so I had the complete freedom to speak out. And so I started speaking out against the corruption and the looting and everything that was happening around us, which made me kind of a very lone voice. I expected that Africa would do the same because we will see exactly the same thing. The infrastructure collapsed, the economic collapse of the country, the increasing unemployment and increasing poverty. And then in 2017, when things were really, really bad and heading into an even worse direction because Zuma was up for re-election in December 2017 and this was April, May 2017, I was approached by a whistleblower and the whistleblower came into possession of a whole hoard of of information, basically emails, a trove of emails that came from the compound in which the Gupta brothers lived. And it was 500000 emails which documented everything that they did with Zuma, with various presidents, with KPMG and McKinsey. So it was a record of five years of corruption.
So I pay the whistleblower for his protection, which is what he wanted. I came into possession of this drive, which made it a little bit of a dangerous position to have. Obviously, I had legal advice at the time. I was advised that for everyone’s protection, I had to democratise the data. I travelled to London, met with the lawyers who published the Panama Papers. They weren't interested. They said it's too much work. I tried WikiLeaks just to discover that it's a very unstable platform. I literally got to the point where I stood outside of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and I thought, I'll take this drive and actually show it through the window at Julian Assange. But eventually I ended up locking myself in a hotel room in London for seven days reading every single email, 500000 of them and classifying them into storylines, according to who was corrupt. I then made fresh documents of the most relevant emails and distributed them to everyone inside Africa in any position of power ministers, heads of trade unions, heads of political parties, literally everybody. And it took two weeks before all of that hit the press, and suddenly South Africa became aware of just how bad the corruption has been.
So before that, there were whispers, always whispers. But suddenly there was proof, I suppose, to whispers. So that's how my activist journey started. Since then, I've stopped. I tried to stay completely apolitical. So what I've done is I've tackled real corruption, people stealing money from the state, from pension funds. But I've tried to stay very apolitical in all of this so that's where I am now. But having said that, I'm not a big fan of the woke movement. I'll tell you why. I don't believe in looking at the past. I believe that you should pull your energy into the future and make a positive change in the future. You can't change the past. I mean, you can tear down statues. But if you just take that emotional energy and put it into the future and make the world a better place, isn't that a better way of spending your time than wasting it on history? Learn from history. Absolutely. Do not ignore history. But oh my goodness, really, this is where we're going to be. We've got climate change. We've got poverty, we've got unemployment. We've got a pandemic. We are going to be spending our time putting down statues. Who cares? So in terms of said Africa, I've decided that enough of focusing on the negatives and fighting corruption.
There isn't a single venture capital fund in said Africa, and yet we are sitting with over 50 percent unemployment. So I am starting in January, so it's in the process of launching a venture capital fund that already has commitments, not insignificant commitments from institutional investors. It's going to be the largest venture capital fund in Africa. And I'm going to focus on job creation instead of rigor in funding startups, in funding entrepreneurs, in retaining those skills in the country because so many people are emigrating because of lack of opportunity. So I want to focus on creating those opportunities. The venture capital industry has never been particularly good at startup stages,it's not a hugely profitable endeavor. When you look at the fees that you generate relative to asset management relative to private equity, do your research and venture capital, by the way, and you will discover that it's not what it seems. But in terms of said Africa, I want to now focus on making a positive contribution towards positivity as opposed to constantly fighting crooks who fight back. So that's really where I am at the moment.
Hitendra Wadhwa: Well, that's a very powerful rip off of Magda. I mean, let me ask you in this quest to shake up a little bit the complacency and complicity of a system that has become so corrupt and waking up everyone from the multinationals to the local politicians to help clean up some of this. I'm sure you've encountered all kinds of barriers, hurdles, resistance and risks. And I'm curious, ? Do you regret doing any of this based on, like what ramifications did it impose on you at all? I mean, do you have some regrets at peace? I mean, is there like for somebody who was drawn to doing similar things and having the courage to do it, but you clearly just happened naturally? Is there any question that you want to give them about what cost this comes up?
Magda Wierzycka: I mean, so the cost obviously has been personal safety in South Africa. When I did what I did, I mean, it's naive. I was followed by state security. Get on my phone to attempt to. My kids were followed. I have bodyguards to this day and my kids had bodyguards until they moved to study in the US. So certainly, what, what I did and continue to do, and speaking out didn't come without its dangers. And that continues to eventually being persuaded to write a book and a moment of madness, I agree. And it's going to be published next year. And again, if any public appearances are any book signings, I will have a major security team around me. So that costs. But when you present it with a decision like I was and not a lot of people get presented with extreme decisions. That was kind of an edge of reason. You have a choice. I mean, you can decide to do the right thing or the wrong thing. So I could have helped the whistleblower or not. When I decided to help the whistleblower and I have helped many since, by the way, that was the decision I made. I didn't quite know what was on the drive. I'm not in a huge amount of detail until I looked at all the emails. The real decision that I made right at the beginning was to help someone who was in fear for their life. That was a fundamental decision. They die at that point to consider all the consequences that will stem from it. I knew vaguely what some of the drives were, and I knew that publishing the data would have a wonderful song.
The drive would have political consequences, legal consequences that it can change the narrative in the country significantly. So, it wasn't just about saving human life or helping someone. But I firmly believe that given the poverty around me and seeing what was happening inside Africa, the right decision was to take control and do something about it. And that really was the true decision. Did I then consider the consequences? Clearly not. Would I have changed anything? Even if I had foreseen all the things that were going to happen? Absolutely not. I would have done exactly what I have done. Look, I never regret the decisions I make. I acknowledge that I have made some wrong decisions and I reversed course. But at a point in time when I make a decision, once I take responsibility for the decisions I make. And truly,I don't regret them. But I'm also the first person to say this is a wrong decision. That's how I run. My companies take bold decisions. If they are wrong, just be the first one to admit so. If that's your best guess, in this case, was it not a mistake to do what I did to open up a can of worms? Obviously, the can of worms, as it turns out, was much greater than what was in those emails. And there are a number of commissions of inquiry into state corruption inside Africa right now. I've had to testify to one of the commissions, but no, I think it was the right decision for the country. I think it had an impact on the fact that by December of that year, Zuma was not reelected as president of the ANC and hence president of the country Cyril Ramaphosa came in. I think that the release of those emails, the knowledge available, people didn't know that it was me. I think state security is suspect. No one knew who did it. So I only came to light and it was never supposed to come to light. To be honest, I had legal representation. It came to light, not by me. It came to light via the whistleblower and his lawyer, who decided to talk about it. It is the lawyer whom I paint, by the way, for confidentiality, which he didn't. He didn't comply. So my role was never supposed to be in the public domain. But I do believe that, look, state security wouldn't have followed me around if they didn't suspect that I play the role, but no regrets whatsoever in any decisions I have ever made.
Hitendra Wadhwa: This is already in the way you've responded to this question, taking us in the direction of the last phase of our conversation today that I wanted to open up for you to reflect and share on which is your your leadership journey, your philosophy and principles of leadership and your practice of leadership. And one thing you've just talked about here is this notion of standing by your decisions. Being clear about the choices you take on. And then as more information gets revealed in the future, going back in reversing course on those that you feel you need to, but this is not one of them. This is one that you feel at peace with, even though the cost, they're very powerful. So let's do that. If you don't mind, let's open the aperture again to certainly your reform activities, but also your business building activities. And I've been struck in some of our more informal conversations about. Yeah, some of these very, I think, learned lessons that all of us can take from the way you handle some of these very defining moments that a leader has to face. I mean, there was a conversation. I still very concrete remember that I was having with you the other day when you were here in New York and you, you talked about how like, you're very comfortable that the idea of speech making just on the fly, just being invited to kind of just make a speech to an audience, then you don't need any preparation. Where do you get that kind of comfort and mastery over the words and ideas that you're expressing?
Magda Wierzycka: I was at Columbia Business School doing a lecture that last week, but the week before which lasted for me, talking freely for about an hour and a half and now there were no notes and no, there was no prep whatsoever. I mean, I'm a firm believer in this concept of 10000 hours. If you put in 10000 hours, you'll become an expert in your field. I started doing public presentations in the context of business development when I was 25 or 26 years old working in the startup companies building up that investment consulting division and then working for the startup nation. And so I was exposed to this concept of public speaking very early on. But I also realized that the practice has been immense. I've got many hours of speaking in public on a variety of different topics and being questioned because when you present yourself to a board of trustees with a very large pool of money, they tend to be smart. People will ask smart questions and you have to have the answers to those questions. I'm also an avid reader. I'm incredibly interested in the intersection of economics and politics. That's kind of the passion, endless appetite for politics and economics, because I just find it absolutely fascinating how the two coexist together and how those two forces shape the world. And you have seen all of this in the pandemic now.
That is incredibly powerful understanding to have, particularly when you speak in public, it gives you the ability to answer almost any questions at you and then the bit where you don't have to prep, I guess when you start speaking from the heart and when you speak and you're not going to do this at the age of 25 you need some years of experience behind your belt. But once you kind of have views and opinions which are your own not shaped by, I mean, they are shaped by events, but you arrive at the point in life where you have your own opinions and your own beliefs and your own truth, then it's very easy to talk about it. You're not making it up. You haven't picked it up. It's not plagiarized. It's not copied. It's innovation, not imitation. And then it really becomes very, very easy to talk about because you talk about yourself, you talk about what's in your head. And I'm such a believer in the ability to speak in public that when my kids had two sons, when they were about 10 years old, I sent them both to an acting school not for them to become actors, but for them to acquire the confidence to speak publicly. And when they went into high school, they became part of public speaking, debating society. They competed in South Africa and internationally. And that's actually what got the two of them wanting to Columbia the other one into University of Pennsylvania. Before that edge, everyone has good marks. You need an edge. Public speaking must be an edge.
Hitendra Wadhwa: Yeah, beautiful. That's beautiful. You're reminding me of the story, which is like one of my favorite stories. And perhaps you've heard of it.In 1931, Gandhi went to South Africa to England to participate in a roundtable conference that the British government was holding that Indian leaders to talk about the future of India. This was about six years before India actually got its independence. And so after his speech one of the journalists came over to his private secretary and he said, how did Mr Gandhi do it? Because he spoke so long and so eloquently, so persuasively, and so inspiringly. And he didn't use any piece of paper. There were no notes on anything. And his secretary looks at the gentleman, and he says, Look, he says, in your case and in my case, we think one thing, we feel another, we say a third and we do a fourth, and that's why we need paper. He said in the case of Gandhi, it's all the same thing. What he thinks, what he feels, what he is, what he does is always the same thing, so he doesn't need any paper. Yeah. You were talking about that. It's your truth. It's something you worked out. You resolved it. Your thoughts and your speech become the same. It's such a beautiful testament to the power of living authentically, but the fact that it also requires some inner work to get yourself in that stage right. And that's what I think you're seeing in your 20s. Make sure you're doing that work to get yourself ready.
Magda Wierzycka: Absolutely. I mean, your 20s, absolutely critical. And I see so many people focusing on the wrong thing. The most powerful insight that I ever wrote, but actually, that has had the most meaning in my life. And probably the only thing I remember from university was this kind of one of those courses on management of human resources. And the main topic was an overarching midterm. We had to write an essay on, does money motivate and this is pre-internet days, by the way, guys. No googling of anything. Sitting in dusty libraries and reading books. And I did a lot of research because this essay basically dictated whether you passed and I ended up winning the class prize. But that's not the point. The point was that the ultimate conclusion was even at that stage of my life that money is validation of lesser money as an enabler. It certainly enables you to do things. But if you judge yourself solely by money at the end of your life, at the end of your career, that's a very sad validation of your existence. And some of the saddest people I know are very wealthy investment bankers who have earned a lot of money. And all they can talk about is the money, David, because there's nothing else that they've done in their lives. Scott, which makes them feel very boring companions to alienate everybody around them. Free means they don't have any true friendships, and it's truly a sad existence. I mean, how many pairs of shoes can you? Can you think of how many sports cars can you aspire to for God's sake? Things aren't drivable, so that is no validation. And so many people in their twenties, instead of focusing on growth or inquiring about skills on things that actually set them up for life are focused on what is my buddy earning? I need to earn the same.
I remember him saying just because it's a really funny story. Quick one, I employed a young actuary, incredibly bright, good-looking, bright. He had his future ahead of him, and arrived at Sygnia within a week. He's in my office, walks in. He says to me, Magda, what are you going to do to ensure that I make 100 million? How will you ensure or enable me to make $10 million? Because my peers are at about that level and I feel that I'm being behind and I looked at him and I said Trevor, I've got one suggestion for you, rob a bank. And that was that you must've seen so many. No validation, in such a quest for money. Oh God, truly, truly sad existence.
Hitendra Wadhwa: Yeah. Wow, yeah. What a great story. What a great story. I hope that's in your book.
Magda Wierzycka: Yeah, I need to remember that and check with the publishers.
Hitendra Wadhwa: You're just a library of just so many amazing stories, amazing stories. I want to maybe end on a personal note and two injuries. First, just talk about your partnership with your husband. He happens to be a business partner at Sygnia as well. And he’s also obviously a life partner. And you made some bold decisions with the turns and twists that you have taken over the course of your career. How have those conversations been between you and your husband, as do these ways in which you want to extend your role in society into something that could have an impact on the whole family and all of that? I mean just be curious if you're able to lend some insight into that court, of course, that couples at times have to make individuals in relationships have to make and perhaps a lesson that we can take from the man.
Magda Wierzycka: I've been married for 25 years in a very happy marriage, and my husband is a very stabilizing influence on me. So often when I get asked, what does it take for a woman to be successful in business? I always say it's the decision that you take in terms of the type of person you're going to marry. So you've got to marry someone who is going to be supportive of you through and through who is going to help, who is not going to compete with you, who takes pride in their own achievements, who has the self-confidence to be married to to a successful or powerful woman and is not threatened by that. So it takes a really strong person and it doesn't mean it takes an aggressive person. It actually just takes someone who is centered, who is self-confident, who knows who they are and in terms of a marriage.
I think very early on, we recognized it because we also ended up working together. So we spent an enormous amount of time together but we had our own interests and we gave the space to pursue those interests. So my husband's weird interest is bird watching and collecting birds. He's currently in Alaska, freezing to death. The people who are avid bird watchers collect life lists of birds they have seen, and I think he's ranked 250 something in the world. And that takes time. I mean, I have to be honest, I never consult him in the decisions I make. He's always been supportive of every decision I have made. He's never stood in the way of any decision, despite the fact that obviously some of those decisions have had an impact on both of us. But he's been fully supportive of any decision that I have made. He's had to live with the consequences of some of those decisions, but I don't think he would have it any other way. Now, as I always say to him, look, you could have married a woman who would have and I make no judgment in terms of women who choose to stay at home and bring up children. I think it's a key function and very important. It's what's right for people that are different things that are right for different women. But I said, you could have married a woman who wanted to stay at home, who wanted to bring up children, who would ensure that you lived a really comfortable life, I feel, should I? And instead of you sitting there with an ironing board owning your own shirts, you could have married someone who would coach instead of you having to cook for me. And you would have a very stable life or you chose to marry someone like me where there’s drama. We just go from one drama to it. Clearly, he stayed for twenty five years, so he must enjoy the drama.
Hitendra Wadhwa: As Andrea says, it's inspiring and insightful in so many ways. This is so special for you to give us a little bit of a window into the personal dynamics there as well. And folks, my husband, Simon, is an institution unto himself. Such an incredible force of nature and we hope to have him in the future in the sections as well. Really a wonderful, wonderful spirit. Not you. I asked you what your role might have at some point. And so let's end with this last question. You mentioned how if you are really in some ways, it has been more of an inner kind of call that you have responded to, that it has come more from within. And I really value and respect that. In fact, as I think I've shared with you, I have just gotten my own book manuscript done and it's in the hands of the publishers as well. So the timing is right. I've been laboring over it for two years, but I have a chapter in my book, which is always annoying, and it's about where do we draw our insights and inspiration and learning about human nature of the universe, life and what it's meant for from is it from faith or is it from science? Is it from experience? And I arrive at the conclusion that ultimately, whichever of these sources you use, you have to filter it.
You have to be approaching it with a healthy amount of skepticism and questioning from your side because otherwise you get into blind faith, blind faith, into science, blind faith, into somebody and whatever it might be. And so ultimately, it does come down to needing to listen to your own inner voice. And you're a beautiful example of somebody who has shown in life, both in terms of success and business success in your personal relationship, and then ultimately also into social reform all the way from those formerly incarcerated that you're hiring and the venture capital work that you're doing and the push that you're making for all its anti-corruption drives. So let me ask you this. At least in my research, I find that it's very important that when we are wanting to listen to that inner voice, we create the space for it. We invest something for our own selves beyond the outer world. If you're able to keep it strong, keep it alive. Keep it really clear. What practice do you have in your life that allows you to invest in yourself and nurture and strengthen that voice within?
Magda Wierzycka: Yeah, so I think it's important to, as you said, kind of make time in your daily life to kind of maybe self-reflect, maybe to just go into your head space and not kind of be there physically. And what I'm going to say next might sound strange, but many people meditate, that's the most common way of doing it. I do my own form of meditation. Basically, I get up early in the morning every morning and I run. I run for two hours. And if I can run in the street, I explore cities and have explored cities by virtue of just running everywhere. If not, then I run on a treadmill. I run every single day for two hours. It gives me a few things. If I'm running in the streets observing the city, it gives me the time to think if I'm running on a treadmill, I might watch documentaries which just kind of enriches my self-awareness. And they might be anything on history and documentaries and politics documentaries on current affairs. There is a great documentary series . It's an ongoing thing made by Frontline, which is available free on and they produce monumental documentaries on current affairs on a range of topics. So that's when I kind of disengage from the normal world, and that's my space. Yes, it does involve my feet moving, which is good that you can kind of combine exercise with kind of inner space. But if you actually think that running releases the most endorphins of any exercise, that's really what energizes me for the day, but also gives me the headspace to be somewhere else and not on the planet.
Hitendra Wadhwa: OK, so we're going to start to wrap up. But folks, I want to share a personal story with you about Magda. I met you the other day and you were highlighting how you had an early morning meeting. And because of that, it's not that you skipped your two hour meditative running. You just woke up earlier. I think if I recall you said that you woke up at 4:30 to make sure you'd accomplish this in time for that breakfast meeting, I'm assuming that you had. Yeah, that is a kind of discipline we are talking about here. The quiet discipline behind someone who's, yeah, just so incredibly grounded and so incredibly successful in a mastery and outer mpact. Bringing those two words together that you're you're truly as Valerie's saying, giving us thoughtful insights, vision and courage. I let the last word here be yours. Yeah. What's your, if there's one wish you have for all of us who are your audience who are listening to you, you're getting inspiration from you. What is it?
Magda Wierzycka: So I think it talks about a lot of experiences that I have had and a lot of things that I have seen. But the one wish I would have for literally everyone is that this planet and we are facing and the human race for that matter, is facing a multitude of massive issues like climate change, inequality and poverty. Unemployment caused by technology, becomes a massive, massive problem. And the only way that we can ensure our survival and the survival of our children and grandchildren is to stop focusing on different religions, different skin colors, different genders, different political views and to come together literally together and start debating the issues that matter and not the issues that don't end and take it back to my communist roots. Everyone was equal. Everyone is equal. People are born with different skills and different talents. That's fine. But in my life, everyone is equal. Everyone's opinion matters. There is no such thing as we don't want immigrants that shouldn't even feature.
We need to talk about the fact that we are collectively living on this planet together, coexisting. We should do so peacefully. And we should work together on solving. I'm not relying on politicians, by the way, that kind of togetherness must start at a point. And again, you can't really talk about yourself as an adult at the age of whatever, under the age of 15. But that kind of togetherness must start happening at university levels. This is where it's also incumbent on university students to start coming together across the world and uniting forces and uniting forces against existing structures against existing dialogues, seeing each other as equal. Recognizing the broader problems in tech. And helping those less fortunate because there are a lot of people who do not have the good fortune of being able to go to university. So how do you solve that problem being in the privileged position that you're in? So if, if there's one wish, it would be that everyone comes together, stops focusing on completely irrelevant things, completely irrelevant funds and start focusing on ensuring that we survive. That's what matters. And that really is kind of one big wish. It was probably unrealistic, but we can dream.
Hitendra Wadhwa: Why not? Why not? Why not dream big? Well, you left us with a beautiful dream you've left us with. It is also just the shock of an inspired call to action to border energy isn't the right place in the place where we get all unified behind the beautiful and common cause rather than really fighting over our differences. I love that. I love that. So thank you so much, Magda. I always walk out from my conversations with you are just incredibly uplifted, incredibly uplifted bullets by just the aspirations you have for the world. But just like who you are. You're a living scripture, living truth. And I love that. So thank you for all you're doing. Most important, you are just in your own life and also investing the heart in the time to speak to audiences like ours. To bring this message out and bring your own life experience is ours. We,I'm sure I say we because I know it's just not me. But many in the audience are looking forward to your book and getting more into your story, even through that. So take care. Thank you. I look forward to staying in touch and very, very grateful to have you here today.
Magda Wierzycka: Thank you. Thanks. Bye, everyone.
Hitendra Wadhwa: Folks, thank you for the opportunity to have us get knocked down midst, and it's incredible. There's always new stories. We mean there's all these new insights. Every time I spend time with a person, I mean, I'm just thinking today, I didn't even spend time with her to ask about the journey of a woman in business in the world of finance. She mentioned it a couple of times, but there's much more that we could dig in just to that as well. And perhaps in another future occasion, we will. There are just so many dimensions to this incredible force. Incredible force. Thank you for supporting us. Share this with the people that you care for in your careers and lives and spread the word and so that we can get more of these Intersections conversations out in the right hands and the right is the right. What's right? All the best to you, and we will see you soon.