In spite of robust pro-women legislation, many areas of South Africa still experience the continuation of an unequal, gender-insensitive social fabric that discriminates against women. In response to this injustice, Koo Govender, a firm believer in empowering women, CEO of the award-winning brand experience agency VWV, has and continues to work tirelessly to right this inequality in every way she can. Her most recent enterprise, the Phakama Women’s Academy, though only two years in the making, has captured the hearts and minds of those who have been exposed to its special brand of upliftment.

With this as the backdrop, it’s no surprise that Govender has been awarded the Women’s Empowerment Award in the 2015 Investing in the Future & Drivers of Change awards; an honour conferred on her by the Mail & Guardian and Southern Africa Trust.

A new category introduced in 2015, the Women’s Empowerment Award recognises corporate social investment (CSI) projects that work to improve women’s daily lives and to guarantee the economic, social and political empowerment of women. The Phakama leadership initiative was up against hundreds of entries; all deserving projects from around the country and worthy contenders. In the end though, a respected panel of independent judges concurred that Phakama – which means ‘to rise’ in the Zulu, Xhosa and Nguni languages – trumped the competition. The project scored well for many reasons but the combination of empowerment and mentorship in one initiative gave Phakama extra credibility and the winning edge; as did the fact that it’s being driven by a woman – the first ever female CEO at VWV.

Govender, who was unaware that her team had even entered her initiative, says that she is humbled to have been honoured in this manner, and even more gratified that the good coming out of Phakama has been recognised, adding: “I have mentored young women in my personal capacity for as long as I can remember and developing women to become better versions of themselves is something I am passionate about. Phakama is a dream come true; a formalised version of my vision to help transform this country through the upliftment of its women.”

An annual celebration of good corporate citizenship, the awards are aimed at promoting much-needed investment in fields that include science, mathematics, engineering and technology (Stem) skills, youth development, job creation, anti-poverty and development work that improves the lives of South Africans. The Phakama Women’s Academy meets many of these requirements. Geared towards knowledge transfer – it has at its crux, empowerment of young women and is fast-tracking much needed workplace skills for soon to be communication and marketing graduates.

“We teach soft life-skills that are not covered in text books or on campus. Our modules address topics that will help propel our students into leadership positions, including presentation skills, developing your personal brand, CV development, interviewing skills, stress and time management, and personal finance. Each module is intended to help build skills and confidence.”

Second and third-year students from leading academic institutions are handpicked for each course. To qualify they must have marks that meet or exceed a 70% average, submit a written application and meet the transformation criteria VWV has determined for the academy. Those who make the short list are put through a rigorous interview screening process, certifying that only the most passionate are accepted into the academy. “As much as this is an upliftment programme, we want candidates who are prepared to go the distance. We pave the way for their success, but need their passion and commitment to seal the deal,” says Govender.

Another offering fundamental to the success of VWV’s programme is mentorships – a perspective the judges of the competition found most impressive. Each student is mentored one-on-one by an expert in their field. Having had first-hand industry experience the mentors provide both career guidance and invaluable insight into the dynamics of the workplace. “Ultimately we would like to see these women not only having the confidence and ability to land the job but keep it. We believe in building others and it is in building others that the leaders of today birth the successful leaders of tomorrow,” adds Govender.

A further unique feature of the programme is its “pay it forward” philosophy. “Our students are expected to share what they learn on the course with other women striving to achieve and go beyond their current station,” explains Govender. “I believe we should all practise philanthropy – personally and as corporates. We need to be the change we want to see. Phakama is a programme that’s bigger than all the individuals involved; an initiative that’s sustainable. It’s our hope that we can replicate the Phakama model by involving other corporate partners who can impact other industries in an equally positive manner,” says Govender.