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A Life Less Ordinary – Lady Colleen Glaeser

Combining business success with work to improve the lot of both people and wildlife in Africa, self-made millionaire Lady Colleen Glaeser is an extraordinary role model.

When Johannesburg-raised Glaeser says she believes “nothing is possible without confidence”, there is more than a hint of substance behind the sloganeering.

Currently the owner of three businesses in South Africa’s telecoms, security and hospitality sectors, she is also the first woman to serve on the board of international directors for Russian software developer AxxonSoft, and was this year named as the company’s global marketing director.

An active supporter of good causes, Glaeser is a brand ambassador for Afrique Diamond – a jewellery company that pledges to use only ethically sourced precious stones. Meanwhile, working with AxxonSoft, she is also taking on the problem of big game poaching by using the company’s groundbreaking Deep Learning security technology.

On top of all that, she finds time to inspire scores of women as a top international motivational speaker. Whatever she throws herself into, she remains irrepressible and filled with positivity.

Glaeser decided to start her own business back in 2000, when she was just 22. Having left school at the age of 16, she’d worked for electronics giants Siemens and Panasonic, only to discover that she was getting paid less than male counterparts. So far, so familiar.

Then Glaeser took matters into her own hands. “I decided ‘that’s not for me’ and set out to start my own company, which was a big risk as a woman. I was told by everyone that it was never going to work, that people weren’t going to buy from me, that I didn’t even have a résumé. But you have to start somewhere. I’m a very positive person and you’re either going to walk my journey with me or you’re gonna fall off the bus.”

The doubters were proved wrong – she founded CG Telecoms and Data and went on to both design and implement some of South Africa’s largest voice and data networks.

Leadership style

Having become the boss at such an early age, Glaeser had to develop her own style of leadership. “I run my business along the lines of, ‘We know what we gotta do, let’s be passionate about what we’re doing and the money will follow.’

She continues: “I see my company as a family – it’s very important to make sure all your staff know you, understand you and know that they’re important to you. I set goals and award little prizes for my staff, and I think my excitement rubs off on them. Every morning I come into the office, I say, ‘Good morning, winners!’

“I have an open-door policy so they can come and see me any time. And I don’t care who it is – if the tea lady feels she has a problem in her world because the teacups are chipped, and she doesn’t want to serve them, I need to take time and say, ‘We’ll definitely get that fixed for you’.”

It was in 2016 that she joined the board of AxxonSoft and her experience of Russia so far has been nothing but positive. She believes it’s “easy to do business with them” and adds Russians are “very family-orientated”. She says: “I don’t speak politics at all, but it’s a beautiful country with the most hospitable people you’ll ever meet – my 10-year-old daughter catches the Moscow underground alone, unsupervised.”

“Our voices are being heard, we’re being taken seriously in the workplace and we are seeing more and more successful women on company boards or as CEOs of impressive companies” 

Her AxxonSoft connection is proving crucial to one of the most important projects of her life to date – taking on poaching of some of Africa’s rarest animals. The collaboration came about after she became the owner of luxury safari lodge Karkloof Safari Villas (about 80km from Durban) and discovered poachers were targeting the rhinos that roamed the game reserve.

She says: “I’ve been in the security and surveillance industry for 25 years, and knew I had to use my expertise to address poaching head-on. The protection of wildlife is very close to my heart, and the destruction poaching has imposed on my country is devastating.”

So, using AxxonSoft’s Deep Learning surveillance technology, a pioneering security system has been set up that can detect the difference between humans and animals, says Glaeser. “With this new technology, as soon as there’s a human breach of the game reserve, our surveillance centre is immediately notified. Cameras identify where the breach has occurred and the anti-poaching unit is dispatched.”

The war against poaching is just one instance, Glaeser argues, where society benefits from the surveillance industry – and she is on a mission to prove that Big Brother isn’t so much watching you as watching out for you.

“I want to make sure every person knows that surveillance is not all doom and gloom – it can offer you a good customer experience: you can monitor your stock and manage customers if there is a queue that’s too long. Have you ever walked into a shop, seen a long queue and walked out? It would be better to have a system that allows supervisors to see this and respond by opening more tills. And if your child goes missing, we can locate them pretty quickly.”

Female role model

Having blazed a trail for South African women in industry, Glaeser says that her generation of female leaders has laid the foundations for their successors. “Our voices are being heard, we’re being taken seriously in the workplace and we are seeing more and more successful women on company boards or as CEOs of impressive companies.

“It’s great for children, too, when they can actually see their mum in such a position – it gives them more confidence. My daughter had no confidence, but now I take her to all my public-speaking events so she can see her mum standing up in front of all these people.”

So what advice does Glaeser have for anyone currently trying to navigate the sometimes rollercoaster ride of being an entrepreneur? “Keep it real, take the risks and remain positive – because you tell your own story.”

More women leading the way: 

Clare Smyth, chef-owner of Core in London.  

Olympic gold medalist, Kate Richardson-Walsh.  

Kathryn Parsons, co-founder and co-CEO of Decoded.