A tough upbringing and hard work have propelled the Uyandiswa CEO to greater heights and her desire to empower others is her driving force.
Amanda Dambuza, the CEO of Uyandiswa Project Management Services, has earned respect as an outstanding businesswoman who left a flourishing corporate career to be at the coalface of job creation.
City Press sat down with the project management executive at her offices in Johannesburg and discovered how her journey to the boardroom was truly “baked in pain” – the title of her recently released autobiography.
Born in Eskhawini eSikhawini, a town in King Cetshwayo District Municipality in northern KwaZulu-Natal, Dambuza’s mother and two elder siblings moved to Mount Ayliff in the Eastern Cape when she was only a year old.
In the Eastern Cape, she and her siblings stayed with relatives while her mother, a nurse, went to work in Johannesburg.
“I grew up with the understanding that I was an orphan because that is what I was made to feel [like],” she says, adding that growing up she was physically and sexually abused by two uncles.
“In an environment like that there’s no one to protect you. The rejection by my father and the abandonment by my mother became weapons against me,” she says.
So at just age 13, she and her siblings ran away from the Eastern Cape to join their mother who lived in a shack in Kliptown, Soweto.
Her turbulent life continued and, after a brief stay in Lesotho where she was sent to live with relatives, she returned to South Africa.
She matriculated at Spectrum Girls High in Johannesburg and was accepted at Wits University to study for a Bachelor of Social Sciences degree.
Life on campus was not easy. Dambuza earned money from casual jobs to cover her living expenses while the National Student Financial Aid Scheme covered most of the academic costs.
“Initially, I wanted to be a public relations officer because I admired radio legend Putco Mafani so much. In spite of the many challenges [I faced] I did well at school because I have always known that if I wanted to be invited to the table I needed a degree.
“I was sure that if I got to the table I would represent myself well,” she says, tearing up.
Having excelled in her undergraduate studies, Dambuza was automatically accepted into the honours programme but she was eager to get into the workplace.
“Black tax was calling and I felt that I needed to work sooner,” she says.
Armed with a degree, her first formal job was as a call centre agent at one of the country’s major pension fund managers.
Her time answering phones was short-lived; it lasted only three months.
“I left without a plan but a friend asked me to join his project management company as an administrator. That’s how my career in project management started.
“I just grabbed the opportunity with both hands and went to all the workshops and training courses and learnt everything there was to learn. That became my springboard,” she says of her career that started at Xpert Project Management Training, a major consulting firm in the sector.
Through the company, she was exposed to working with some of the biggest corporates and was eventually head-hunted by FNB where she spent the next three years climbing the management ladder.
As her experience grew, Dambuza joined the American International Group as a project manager where she was exposed to international standards.
“My ability to build relationships across colour lines, gender and classes has probably been what has seen me succeed in my career,” she says.
Her diversity and strength can be seen in her appointments – from IQ Business where she handled mining clients to Nedbank’s home loans division, Standard Bank’s Corporate and Investment Banking division and finally Absa Capital – her last corporate employer.
“After I left Absa in 2014 I started running Uyandiswa. It was time I opened my own shop and focused on it. Plus I always wanted to play a direct role in creating jobs,” she says.
Throughout her career Dambuza also had a handful of businesses, a failed partnership and a failed franchise business.
“I have had many businesses, from selling flower arrangements to a salon and others. I am good at spotting market gaps. The only business that failed was the franchise because it was my first step into big business and it came with very costly lessons.”
At Uyandiswa, which provides services to some of the biggest corporates in the country, she employs 90 people and has incubated several professional businesses at the company’s Bryanston offices as part of her mentorship programme.
“I figured I am already paying a lot of money for the rental so I told some of the businesses I mentor to move in to occupy the space and they can have direct access to me instead of making appointments because I get a lot of requests to mentor,” she says.
As a business lesson, Dambuza says she learnt early on that revenue, no matter how much it is, is a long way from wealth.
“The top line does not mean you’re rich. First it’s not even your money, it belongs to the company and you have to make provision for reinvestment and expansion.
“In the six years of Uyandiswa I have only taken dividends once because I have been reinvesting.
“I started this business with only R80 000 but now it’s generating nine figures. You have to know how to make the money go a long way,” she says.
Dambuza says the business and its good professional reputation and excellence have opened other doors for her.
She currently sits on the boards of some listed companies as well as several private companies.
She says one of the biggest mistakes entrepreneurs who approach her make is thinking that an idea is a business even though they want the prospective investor to take all the financial risk while they still keep their (entrepreneurs) day jobs.
“My upbringing taught me to be self sufficient. I have always sought to have multiple incomes because I never wanted anyone to decide my destiny. I never wanted a job to trap me because I need the money.
“I have always fiercely defended my independence,” Dambuza says.
When not traversing corporate boardrooms, the wife and mother of three also gives leadership development training sessions and loves spending time cooking, gardening and travelling.
Having gone from a call centre to owning her own empire, Dambuza says she has come full circle in her career and is very content with her contribution to building a better corporate South Africa.