Izelle le Roux-Owen embodies UJ's slogan – "The Future. Reimagined." With a BA Corporate Communication degree and Postgraduate Diploma in Information Sciences, both from UJ's heritage institution RAU, she has propelled herself into the exciting world of venture capitalists.
As a founding member of a private equity firm Phatisa, she is effecting change on the African content through, among others, food security and affordable housing initiatives. We caught up with Izelle, to find out how she navigated her journey from graduate to becoming the Director of Corporate Communications, Investor Relations, Marketing, Branding, and Advertising at Phatisa.
Can you give us a brief background on your environment growing up?
I was born in Namibia and moved to Pretoria with my family at the age of five. I can vividly remember believing we were literally the last house in the neighbourhood to get a TV. I am sure we weren't, but Heidi and Maya the Bee were a big deal – the stuff playground discussions were made of.
Both my parents had modest backgrounds and worked very hard to afford us the opportunities they never had. As teenagers, we knew from the get-go that university was non-negotiable and that if were planning to fail any subject, the Post Office was looking to recruit.
Are there any fond memories of studying at UJ?
There are so many, that it's difficult to choose, but there is one that stands out because it still makes me smile.
Irene was one of the girls in my corridor at Skoonveld. Gifted, funny and sweet – wrote the most beautiful poetry – but every now and then lost complete connection with reality.
As a first-year student studying BA, her classes were scheduled quite early in the mornings. On this particular autumn day, she overslept. Realising this, she flew out of bed, grabbed her little pencil case and folder and started running, determined not to miss one single class of her academic career… only to wake up properly a good 300 metres past Amper Daar's front door, still in her colourful flannel pyjamas, windswept hair and bunny slippers.
But there was very little that could get Irene down. She held her head high, turned on her heels and, with one hundred percent confidence, took the long walk back to Skoonveld, past all the seniors lining up for breakfast at the canteen. I think we all secretly admired her – the mere thought of all those eyes trained on you would make any first-year want to shrivel up and die, but Irene was made of special stuff.
What motivated you to study Corporate Communications and then move on to Information Science?
Communications instantly attracted my attention; it was only being read at three national universities at the time, and a relatively new academic course. I majored in psychology and communications and, after my graduation, decided not to carry on with an honours degree. Instead, I opted to rather try yet another brand-new postgraduate diploma, led by Prof van Brakel, in Information Science. And, as it turned out, data management became more important than any of us could ever begin to fathom back in 1992.
Can you describe a typical day in your life?
There is no such thing as a typical day if you're heading up investor relations and corporate communications at a private equity firm. From crisis communication to branding/marketing, to public relations, to internal communications, to research, to digital communication and back, it is an ever-spinning wheel.
The secret is to be able multi-task when you need to and delegate what you have to, always have a plan B and C, learn early on to prioritise, keep a cool head and deliver the best you possibly can in the time available.
What inspires you?
I am a learner by heart and my thirst for knowledge is what drives me. I am also inspired by the vibrancy and inherent hope that dwells in Africa, the strength and tenacity of South Africans, and the unpredictable perfection of Nature.
You have been afforded the opportunity to travel across Africa, how has this changed your perspective on life, if at all?
I have travelled extensively across Africa and around the world and I often feel very lucky and truly blessed. What I have learned is that we all want the same things: peace, equality, opportunity, prosperity and respect. I've also learned that people are by nature good, that the grass is not always greener on the other side, and that an open mind and friendly smile can get you very far.
Can you tell us about the accomplishments that you regard as the most significant in your career?
This is a difficult one, but I can honestly tell you that I never in a million years thought that my qualifications at UJ would set me on a career path that would navigate me to being a founding member of a private equity firm focused on food security and affordable housing, with more than US$ 246 million under management. I still have to pinch myself sometimes.
You have accomplished a lot already, what is next for you?
I hope to spend more time with my husband and the Phatisa charitable foundation. It is where our hearts lie and it is what I would love to focus my energies on for the future.
Who are your role models, and why?
I think the people closest to me had the biggest influence on my life and helped to shaped/are shaping me into the best version I can be of myself.
My father, for the strong work ethic he taught me, my mother, for teaching me that giving is much better than receiving, and my husband who taught me to never stop asking questions.
What would you say are the most important skills/personal attributes in achieving success?
The traits that matter most are talent, professionalism, enthusiasm and a good sense of humour.
What role has education played in your own life and how can it influence someone's life?
It rooted me academically and gave me the confidence to venture out into the world and challenge my abilities even further. The education I received was not the final word on what I would end up learning over the course of the next couple of decades – it provided a strong foundation and taught me to think critically, absorb new knowledge and understand that nothing is static and education is a lifelong journey.
How has your degree complemented your personal achievements?
Without this degree, I would not have had the same professional opportunities I have had. In turn, these professional achievements have led to me being able to get involved in things, like The Phatisa Foundation, that are dear to me on a personal level. There will always be a link.
What is your advice for other UJ Alumni?
We cannot take tertiary education in South Africa for granted; that UJ will be there for generations to come. We need to pool resources to uphold standards and quality by all means possible.
Our qualifications and careers are intrinsically bound to its reputation and it is in our best interests as professionals that the university remains in the top 10 universities in South Africa, ranked 63rd in BRICS and 601-650 in the world. UJ is now one of the largest South African universities with around 49,500 students enrolled in nine faculties, including 2,300 international students. Internationally ranked in four subjects, once again achieving a top 100 position for development studies.
Higher education in South Africa is at a tipping point. In its time of need, we have a remarkable opportunity to reshape and reinvent these institutions that are directly linked to our economic prosperity and the hopes and dreams of millions.
Get involved, make a contribution.
What is the best piece of advice that you have been given?
Put in the extra time, go the extra mile and bring your notebook to meetings.