Women leaders are essential to the fabric of our society. And even though the pandemic may have accelerated digital innovation, it magnified gender inequalities, specifically with regards to women’s rights. As well as shouldering more of the childcare and housework while working from home, most of our frontline health and care workers are women.
But equality isn’t just a buzzword. There’s growing evidence that women in power make smarter decisions that have a real impact on society – exactly the kind of South African leaders we need in a crisis.
One of our key values at Salesforce is equality. And our Women in Leadership series celebrates three incredible women leaders. Hanli Prinsloo is the founder and CEO of I AM WATER, the nonprofit working to protect our oceans and educate the world about life beneath the waves. She’s also a world champion freediver, a fundraiser, mentor, and Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum.
Hanli is passionate about connecting people with nature and finding a way to live in harmony with our environment — which is crucial if we want to avoid future pandemics. But the wilderness can also teach us valuable lessons to help us lead and succeed in the workplace. Nature is both powerful and nurturing – and those are exactly the qualities that make women in leadership so effective.
As a young girl, Hanli dreamed of being a mermaid. In the full session, she explains that we are very much creatures of water. Our bodies are not so different from other marine mammals when we look at biology. When she tried scuba diving, being weighed down by bulky and noisy equipment felt wrong, and that’s when she discovered freediving.
Hanli trained herself to hold her breath for up to six minutes and acclimatised her body to the ocean’s depths. This allowed her to experience the peace and tranquillity of nature and feel a profound connection to her own being. In other words, by finding her niche, she’s as close to being a mermaid as a person can be.
Competing as a freediver took Hanli all over the world, and that’s where the idea for I AM WATER was born.
“Coming back to South Africa, I was devastated to see how few South Africans have access to the ocean. We have 2,000 km of coastline but most people can’t swim.”
“Many Black South Africans have a deep fear of the beach because they were previously ‘whites only.’ This was a great tragedy that we’re still overcoming.”
In fact, as adults, many of us have learned to fear things we’ve not yet experienced. We become experts in our field and stick to it. But dismantling fear can be as simple as trying something, experiencing it first hand, and overcoming it.
Hanli herself is no stranger to fear. She describes plunging into the depths of a Norwegian fjord and finding herself in total darkness when she switched her torch on at 60 metres. “I thought, ‘I’ve gone blind,’” she said.
Hanli, overcome with concerns of whether or not she’d be able to explore, see the beauty of the ocean, and interact with animals anymore, eventually thought of her cousin’s guide dog. Realising she could adapt to face the challenge, she swam to the surface. When she broke into daylight, she was told her team had simply forgotten to put batteries in her torch.
“In that moment I realised the most dangerous thing I’d ever encountered in the ocean was myself. The most dangerous thing is what’s going on inside your head.”
This certainly rings true for other women involved in leadership roles. Our poll revealed that 58% think their greatest challenge is a lack of confidence in their own ability.
What sets Hanli and other women leaders in South Africa apart is the realisation that we can choose whether to believe our own negative thoughts.
“Women tend to limit themselves because we think we have to be perfect before we even try. Don’t believe those limiting thoughts – we’ve not gone blind. There is still a surface up there.”
And failure doesn’t mean you should stop trying. The most successful leaders in South Africa turn their failures into learnings. What’s more important is how you handle it – share your successes with your team, but accept responsibility when things go wrong. That’s true leadership.
Building confidence can take time, but having a strong sense of purpose is a powerful motivator. What gets Hanli out of bed in the morning is a burning desire to create more opportunities for the people of South Africa and to protect nature.
“When it comes to purpose it’s about seeing what role I can play in creating opportunities for others and in safeguarding the ocean. Social mobility and nature go hand in hand – there’s no justice if there isn’t environmental justice,” she explained.
Women leaders are often more inclusive, nurturing, and purpose-driven — you don’t have to be hard to be strong. Hanli likens women strength to the power of water, it’s fluid and soft, but undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with. When it’s guided by a strong current, water will only flow in one direction.
“Understand what you love doing, what you are good at, and how you can serve,” she said.
“When we’re true to ourselves in what we love and what brings us joy we can start uplifting others. Leaders are the people doing things, not just talking about them.”
As the world recovers from the effects of the pandemic, now is not the time to be complacent. Studies show that women leaders handled COVID-19 better than countries run by men, and yet more than half of us still lack confidence in our own ability.
More women leaders in South Africa could be exactly what the country needs, and if Hanli Prinsloo has taught us anything, it’s not to unclip our safety lines before we’ve broken the surface of our own potential.
Learn more about our path to gender equality and how you can take action.