Special Feature: Women in Lenovo Programme Injects a Different Dynamic into Business
Charlene Munilall grew up believing she would one day be a doctor. Pressure from society in general and the Indian community in particular convinced her that she should take up a stereotypical role – women should be doctors, nurses or teachers, they said.
However, after three years in medical school and nearly passing out while witnessing a procedure during hospital ward rounds, she quickly realised that medicine wasn’t for her. “I’m not that empathetic. I’m not meant to be a doctor,” she recalls.
After begging for a bursary in accounting and passing her degree cum laude, Munilall, now Sales Operations and Enablement Director at Lenovo Africa, is confidently crafting her own destiny, her end goal being the position of general manager in a fast-paced, male-dominated corporate environment.
And she couldn’t have chosen a better organisation to support those goals and supply her with the skills and experience needed to fill a GM’s man-sized shoes. Charlene is avidly involved in the Women in Lenovo programme, which aims to promote women to active and influential senior positions within the company.
Women in Lenovo was formed from the belief that women bring a different dynamic to the office and boardroom. “For a very long time, IT has been dominated by men. Lenovo has taken a very bold step in saying that women bring a different understanding of, and way of interacting with, customers,” Munilall said. “Women understand the underlying pulse of our customers – we can tap into that very easily and speak to their emotions.”
Women are also very detail orientated, says Charlene. “We take in a lot more and analyse a lot more, which means that we get a lot more out of a discussion or interaction. Women are able to identify the subtle nuances of the customer and that’s important when you’re selling a solution – it doesn’t need to be technical.”
The Women in Lenovo programme has been formalised within the organisation right up to the policy level. A generous maternity policy and flexible working hours and styles give women the freedom they need as mothers.
“That’s what set Lenovo apart for me,” Munilall continued. “It’s comfortable to work here – women get the same support no matter what stage of their lives they’re at.”
The programme also influences the Lenovo internship agenda. Currently in its pioneer year, the internship programme has taken in 50 students from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds, the majority of which are female. In a kind of social experiment, Lenovo is giving the same opportunities to all students to see how they fair in the workplace.
“We want to see their level of progression within the business and gauge what appeals to whom,” Munilall said. “When you’re young, you don’t know much about where your strengths are, so we give students the opportunity to move between departments. One may prefer sales while another would thrive in human resources; we allow them to experiment.”
Munilall added: “We’re taking a chance on them. This is the first year we’re running the internship, so key learnings for us will be how to relate to students from different backgrounds and how to assimilate them into the business.”
Interns come from a broad range of educational backgrounds. Some were granted bursaries, others came from training centres, while some had no formal skills or education, but had the right attitude and determination to succeed.
Once they complete their year-long apprenticeships, which include coaching, mentorship and on-the-job training, students are encouraged to apply for vacancies within Lenovo or at Lenovo partners.
Munilall is no stranger to experimenting and feels like she can relate to the interns who are still finding their feet. After graduating from Durban Westville University, she moved quickly between roles and industries, refusing to settle for anything that made her unhappy or didn’t take her a step closer to her ultimate career goal.
She has held high-level positions at top brands including Unilever, MTN, Standard Bank, ABSA, Nokia and Samsung. She’s not too concerned about what she refers to as a “convoluted” working history, firmly believing that if something isn’t working it’s time to move on.
“You need to find your passion and determine your own way. I’m a corporate animal and I’m picking up all the pieces that fit into becoming a GM,” she said. “All it takes is the right attitude.
“Get out of your comfort zone and don’t be constrained by what society thinks you should do. Find your passion and determine your own way.”