Linda Mayekiso is helping to pave the way for other queer people in corporate South Africa
If climbing the corporate ladder were a person, it would be Linda Mayekiso: until recently, a former senior-level marketing professional in one of Africa’s leading energy and oil companies, Shell, and now a business programme consultant to The Other Foundation.
As if that’s not enough, Linda also founded the Shell LGBTQIA+ Network, to advocate for inclusivity for queer employees, clients and stakeholders across the corporation.
Linda Mayekiso’s business journey breakthrough was his arrival at Shell Africa as direct marketing manager, a prestige position which entailed managing a multi-million dollar budget. Linda was then made the brand communications manager from 2011-2013, and then the payments and loyalty manager (2013-2021).
He believes that as LGBTQIA+ people, we should take the initiative and not wait for others to elevate us. The Shell LGBTQIA+ Business Network is a testament to this.
Linda deeply admires Bonang Mohale, Shell Africa’s former CEO, and reiterates his teachings: “The success of any organisation lies in its ability to create a sustainable inclusive space.”
I had the honour and privilege to chat with Linda Mayekiso which left me feeling uplifted by his dynamism, pizazz and words of wisdom.
Tell us about yourself and your upbringing.
I am a gay-identifying Xhosa man who is a marketing professional. I love my culture and origins [recites his totems] and I believe that you must know your roots so that you know where you are going in the future.
I was born and bred in Umlazi, Durban at King Edward Hospital in the 1970s. I was raised in a beautiful matriarchal home where my grandmother, Dr A.C.T Mayekiso, played a pivotal role in my educational background. My aunts and uncle were fond of me and it was amazing to grow up being loved unconditionally as a child. I was privileged to attend a multiracial primary and high school in a difficult period in South Africa as the 1980s were turbulent with uprisings and political unrest. As much as that was difficult on my psyche, it made me multidimensional because I was exposed to the best of both worlds.
I experienced discrimination because of being gay in the township. I was called ‘Sis Bhuti’ [a derogatory term] but I was loved at home and that did not bother me. I was also discriminated on our commutes to school as black learners were not allowed in modes of transport meant to accommodate “white-only” passengers. I experienced loneliness as a black queer learner but I had company in the form of elder guardians who were caretakers of the schools.
How did you get into the corporate and business world?
Immediately after matriculating, I enrolled for a Bachelor’s Degree in accounting at UKZN. In our second year, our lecturer (Dr. Bonke Dumisa) told me that I am not an accountant, I lean towards a marketer, and that I should change to a Bachelor’s Degree in Commerce where marketing would be my major. I trusted his advice when he said I should go to Unilever for vacation work and not an auditing firm. Little did I know that he was right all along! I enjoyed my time at Unilever and switched courses, although I didn’t tell my parents; as long as I graduated in record time and got my belt.
After graduation, I worked for a while at the institution and found a job in Joburg, and the rest is history, as they say. One interesting fact is that my beloved friend Petunia Sibanyoni pushed me to work for Shell, and I finally agreed to give it a shot at her fourth attempt in ensuring that I applied for the marketing role. The job spec was “how do you make oil brands sexy?” I was sold and hooked.
How do I make sure that no gay professional experiences rejection in corporate like I did?”
Your corporate career is impressive and shows resilience, passion and dedication. What was your approach to making your mark in a corporation like Shell?
My journey has taught me that to be successful in corporate you must use the following formula: 40% accounts for your work/role, another 40% accounts for relationship building in and around the organisation and the final 20% accounts for going the extra mile.
I also had to maintain a healthy relationship with my superiors like my line managers, senior executives and the like. I ensured that I had a sponsor; someone who is above you in management and believes in your abilities and skillset. My sponsor was Nomusa Dlamini and she ensured that my name was spoken in rooms I could not access.
I also took the initiative in volunteering in other departments like the corporate social investment drives such as the graduate programme. That really helped to push my name out there.
One of the major contributors to my growth in the organisation was that its core values like honesty, respect, diversity, and inclusion aligned with mine. I felt comfortable to learn and be free.
What has been your experience in navigating your queerness in your business life and career? Were there glass ceilings you had to face?
I remember being told by my general manager that I do not belong at Shell because I am femme presenting, vocal and gay. He said that I should go work at an advertising firm and that I won’t make it past the role I was at. I simmered at what he said, and I remember telling myself that I won’t water down who I am to be accepted. I had to break that glass ceiling and I was promoted several times. I had 13 good years at Shell. What was meant to shame me, my queerness, I had to harness it to become my strength. I am unique because I am gay.
In retrospect, that moment of defeat turned into triumph and inspired me to think about the future. I had to ask myself questions like: “How do I make sure that no gay professional experiences rejection in corporate like I did?” “How do I make a change?” And that is the genesis of the Shell LGBTQIA+ Network.
I remember that I had to pitch the idea to the then-chairperson, Bonang Mohale, thinking that he would interrogate me – but it turned out to be a hit, although there was some reluctance about the initiative in other parts of the organisation. I am proud to say that Shell Africa led the way for other corporates to be inclusive of LGBTQIA+ stakeholders based on the network we established.
I also had to create seats at the table for other queer professionals at Shell by using my privilege and that is what leadership is about: selflessness. You also have to give up your seat at the table so that others can shine.
Have you always been out at work?
I was always openly gay from an early age so I cannot relate to what being in the closet means. It has been proven that 30% of productivity is guaranteed when you are being yourself at work, and there is a 70% retention rate as a result.
“You have to bring your authentic queer self to the boardroom, do not hide any parts of yourself at the parking lot.”
What advice would you give to queer professionals who are not yet open about who they are in the corporate world, and are fearful of being out?
First and foremost, being out is an individual’s journey – not everyone has to come out – but I advise queer people in business to be confident. You have to bring your authentic queer self to the boardroom, do not hide any parts of yourself at the parking lot. Being confident compels you to embrace your full queerness. Your queerness is your superpower.
You are currently the business programme consultant with the Other Foundation, how is that going?
It’s going great. One of the major reasons I work at the Other Foundation is that I want to give back my expertise to serve the LGBTQIA+ community, business people and organisations. My grandmother taught me this mantra: “The us is more important than the I.”
What are your future plans? What are you busy with?
I am taking a break from corporate, but I am busy with a white paper study that is based on how public and private business sectors can invest in the Pink Rand. We are also working on the LGBTQIA+ Roundtable with the Other Foundation by engaging with corporates locally and across Africa on how to be queer-inclusive with researched guidelines.
I am also working on another study I call “A Case For Change” which frames businesses into three major categories: Nothing, Something and Sustainability. The ‘Nothing’ category includes corporates that are blind to LGBTQIA+ urgency and do not invest in or support initiatives associated with queer people. The ‘Something’ category ranks businesses that support Pride Month, Coming Out Day and LGBTQIA+ initiatives. Then there is the ‘Sustainability’ category where organisations with queer business people in their supply chain and senior-level representation of LGBTQIA+ professionals are ranked.
What can corporate SA do to elevate LGBTQIA+ talent and markets?
I would advise corporate SA to mirror the society in which it operates by being inclusive of LGBTQIA+ people, especially workers, suppliers, executive representation and sustainability. 72% of allies are more likely to accept job offers at organisations where queer workers and execs are visible because there is equality, understanding and diversity. I also urge the private and public sectors to be active in investing in the Pink Rand because it was worth over R57 billion in 2019. That fact is a conversation starter and we need CEOs to react like this when we pitch to them: “How can we invest?”
This article was made possible with the support of the Other Foundation and is part of a series addressing LGBTIQ+ Economic Empowerment in South Africa and the region. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the Other Foundation. www.theotherfoundation.org.