Career women – success stories… Antonia Oakes

Celebrating successful women for all their hard work and effort creates a pathway and steppingstone for aspiring women who seek guidance, motivation, and inspiration.

Gauteng Women in Insurance (GWII) recently chatted to Antonia Oakes, Retail Executive for Customer Experience at Old Mutual Insure, about her journey and career in the financial services industry and her advice for other women in the industry.

A Q&A session

Q. Tell us a little about yourself and your career in insurance. Maybe a bit of a background on where you were born, where you grew up, your academic background… leading to your entry into the industry.

A. I grew up in a little village on the South Coast of KwaZulu Natal called Ifafa Beach, a small coastal resort town. I went to a rural primary school. I had the privilege of going to primary school with my MD… believe it or not, after many years our paths crossed when he became my MD. Then, I went to high school and also had the privilege of attending high school with Devi Sankaree Govender, our award-winning Carte Blanche investigative journalist… how awesome is that?

After primary and high school, I wanted to be a number of things… besides being what the parents those days would have wanted us to be, for example, doctors, nurses, teachers or policemen. I wanted to be a radiographer, but my family could not afford to send me to varsity.

That is my story… a little bit of an impoverished background, but one that I embrace thoroughly, because it really molded my character and formed the traits and the woman that I am. And I thank my grassroots for that!

Ifafa Beach is a little community, and it is a village that grows a child… its not only the parents. That’s really the person I grew up to be… to give back to communities. I am also a produce of the apartheid era (with a European/Portuguese coloured mother) – in the 70s they could not marry, unless they eloped. Again, this adds value to my character and who I am… that’s why I love people and the rainbow nation of South Africa, because of my diversity. I speak Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, and of course, Portuguese. So, I love the culture of people… but it is where I came from. For me, my background and upbringing are important, because it forms the picture of who I am… mixed race and a rainbow nation all in one.

In terms of my academic background, I have a Master’s in Business Leadership through ABSA, which was done through the University of Cape Town (UCT), and I also got my insurance qualifications though the Insurance Institute of South Africa (IISA).

I always wanted to be in the financial services sector, so the steppingstone of my career in the industry was Standard Bank Insurance Brokers, where I learned everything I needed to know in terms of policy admin, underwriting etc. Through this, I also met the most amazing people who mentored me and literally shaped my career… molding my future for me.

Insurance has always been my first love, but then I moved onto banks. I then pursued my second passion, which is a combination of both – customer experience! And last year, after many years of pursuing a career in customer experience, I was recognized and acknowledge as one of six CX leaders in the world… I was very proud! I was recognized globally as a CX practitioner representing South Africa, across 24 countries. It was a very sobering and humbling moment for me.

I have three adorable kids… an almost 27-year-old daughter who is engaged, no grandchildren as yet, a 22-year-old daughter who is studying somatology… she’s the diva of the family, and a son, who is turning 7.

Q. Tell us something about yourself which not a lot of people know about…

A. There’s nothing really that nobody knows. Maybe, the one thing is that I’m so daring. I have been since I was a little girl, that growing up, we used to polish the floors with Cobra… that was the known way. But because I was so close to our helper and domestic, I used to help her polish the floors with cow dung. Cow dung, believe it or not, only done in rondavels, gives you a fresh air-conditioned rondavel. LOL….

Q. What motto do you live by?

A. I live by two mottos… the one is an African proverb “if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together”. This proverb resonates to my community upbringing and my passion of giving back, helping people to progress. The other one is, “be comfortable in your own skin, as there’s only one version of you, everyone else is taken”. So, I will show up as Antonia, be it at work or at home… because that is who I am. There is no other version of me.

Q. Name one defining moment in your career or personal life which changed the world for you and why? Perhaps a brief success story.

A. Being fortunate enough to progress fast in my career, I always landed up in roles where I would be the only non-white female in boardrooms, and I would find myself in boardrooms where challenging and sometimes confrontational conversations would be had.

Diversity, equity, and gender equality is very close to my heart, and for me, standing up for what is right was a defining moment in my life. Now, it is not that bad because the world has evolved, and people understand that we need to embrace diversity and equality.

Things like supporting and mentoring women in the workplace on how to deal with these underlying/challenging gender inequality issues has always been important in my life. I didn’t just wake up and say I’m going to fight this fight… no, its because these things have happened to me.

The reason why I am so comfortable in my own skin is because I believe if a company or an organisation has asked you to represent them, or if they place you in a position, they are telling you they rely on you, trust you and that you are adequately skilled. If you put me there, I’m going to have a voice and my voice must be heard.

Along the years, other women have identified that this is my strength. They have approached me to help them, mentor and coach them, and represent them in instances where they have been inappropriately addressed or spoken to.

This harnessed strength has been the defining moment for me, and I have managed to help a lot of females overcome these types of challenges.

Q. What are your plans for the future?

A. My future plans, looking at a career change, where my voice will be heard more, and where I can add more value, maybe in a sales environment. I like to challenge myself. My personal plan is to continue to study. I want to write a book. By the age of 50, I would like to get it published… the book will be based on my entire life journey… everything ANTONIA, the likes and dislikes, the good and bad… EVERYTHING. I also love travelling, I have travelled a lot, but I still want to travel more. I also want to continue to make a meaningful impact in communities and doing good for others where I can.

Q. Give us a short brief of your success story. What would you say is a success story?

A. For me, as a little girl growing up, I would always ask God why he would put me on this earth to live such an impoverished life when my friends, growing up, didn’t have to go and find part time jobs to buy a pair of sneakers… where I had to do that. I grew up with my grandparents and they literally looked after me.

I always knew that I was someone special and that I had royalty in me. I asked God that my kids must never experience what I experienced or that my future must never be like my past.

So, for me, my success is not about luxuries but about progressing my career quite fast in a such a short time.

Once I joined the corporate world, in the financial services industry, I moved from a data capturer in 2001 to a retail executive in 2021 for customer experience and responsible business… this, in not in a bragging tone, but it is because of the hard work and planning, the people that mentored me etc. It’s been trying and difficult for me to move up the ranks. Now, its about giving back, paying it forward and pulling other females up.

My success is knowing I can leave a legacy for my kids and knowing I have tried to change lives.

Q. What are your five ingredients for success?

A. For me the five ingredients are resilience, tenacity, strength, patience and humility. They say networks are your net wealth, I firmly agree. I can think of a few people that I can say thank you to, specifically two people that really propelled my life. I have always asked them what I can do to repay them, and they have said pay it forward… pull at least five people up every year.

Q. Complete the sentence, “I wish women would just…

A. I wish women would just embrace each other. I wish women would just give other women opportunities, I wish they would be more sharing and encouraging… its not a competition. Let’s just identify other women that want to be pulled up and let’s help them do it. There are enough opportunities for all of us.

Q. What advice do you have for other women entering the industry?

A. Be open minded to learn and unlearn. Come in with a clean slate because the insurance industry is an amazing industry. Insurance is not something which is included in our school curriculum… grab the opportunity if you can and learn if you can. Get a mentor if you can, someone who will teach you the nuts and bolts of the field you wish to progress in.

Q. Do you think GWII is a significant platform in the industry and what role will it play in the future?

A. Definitely. We must continue to have a woman forum, and GWII is a much-needed body because of the legacy that is there in insurance, which was previously male dominated… we need to change it. We need to support our female youth in educating them on the career opportunities which lie in the short-term insurance industry… providing value and support, ensuring that we transform the industry.

Q. August was Women’s Month. Is there any message you want to share with women?

A. Embrace who you are. Really grab the opportunities as they come along. Be true, honest, and authentic to yourself. When you do things, do it with sincerity and the purest of reasons. There is sustainability in this.

Q. Fresh out of university, how can women identify mentors?

A. There’s this thing called chemistry. Through the mentorship programmes I’ve been involved in, you are taken through this quick dating type exercise to identify who you would want as a mentor, and you automatically connect and identify the mentor you want. It’s a mutual chemistry that you feel in the very first conversation or meeting date. It happens because you’ve observed or seen this person conduct and carry themselves or follow through on promises… you will feel that connection. Emotional connection, similar traits, humanocracy is what will draw you to them.

Q. Lastly, do you have any final words you wish to share with other women?

A. As a woman that has worked her way up the ranks in the industry, I would like to encourage other young females to keep on keeping on. Wake up each morning with a burning desire within you to give it your all… you might fail and fall but remember that does not define your destiny. You need to get up and keep moving.

Lastly, remember to wear a smile on your face because you are beautiful.