For chartered accountant and Saica 35-under-35 finalist Mariam Cassim, success is about more than financial gain – it is about adding value to communities and people’s lives.

At the relatively young age of 32, Johannesburg chartered accountant Mariam Cassim is the CEO of a successful business unit, a company executive, a member of various boards, a wife as well as a mother of a two-year-old boy. Recently the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (Saica) also named her as a finalist in the 35-under-35 most outstanding young chartered accountants in South Africa.

For the first time this year, Saica has handpicked the top CAs in the country, recognising not only their exceptional career achievements but also their active involvement in the community and giving back to the less fortunate. The award specifically honours the way in which the CA’s goals and visions are not only furthering their lives and careers but also changing the world around them for the better.

“I was astounded to be picked as a finalist but also very humbled by it,” says Cassim. “It is always nice to get external recognition on one’s achievements from an independent, unbiased source.”

She is currently the CEO of Thebe Connect, the telecommunications arm of Thebe Investment Corporation, which she joined in April 2008 to form part of the internal corporate finance team, honing her skills in BEE transaction structuring through various merger and acquisition transaction deals. She created an initiative that resulted in R150m of new value for the company by unlocking existing synergies and improving post-merger integration with over 30 investee companies.

Cassim came to Thebe after completing her articles at KPMG. She says that her main attraction to Thebe was the fact that the company was not exclusively driven by profit. “The largest shareholder of Thebe is a community trust, which means that every day in the office is spent contributing to the betterment of society which is one of my key personal values.”

One example of these activities, was a recent initiative with 50 spaza shops in Soweto, in which local shop owners were shown the benefits of group buying power and the power of operating together instead of alone.

She has always been extremely aware of the importance of giving back to the community. “I was raised in a family which was very active in the community. My excellent grades at school were only celebrated to the extent that I acknowledged my obligation to use my ability to make a broader contribution to the less fortunate someday” she says.

With this, came the lesson that excellence should be pursued and that you needed to apply yourself to the fullest of your ability. But while they encouraged ambition and perseverance, her parents taught her that the end goal should not only be about the self, but also about others. Excellence needed to be channelled, they believed.

This is why Cassim has always taught and tutored maths and accounting to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. She started doing this while still at school and took a break only recently when she began the time-consuming studies for her Masters in Business Administration (MBA) at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business. (UCT GSB).

Education and learning are very strong forces in her life. Not only a proponent of better education for the less fortunate, she also continuously strives to learn more and improve on her own skills. “I firmly believe that the road to success is always under construction. For me, learning is continuously improving, never reaching a stage where we stop learning.”

“The MBA has been a phenomenal life-changing experience for me in terms of learning. I have developed exponentially. It has allowed me to change the course of my thinking, to better understand who I am as a person and also to see the organisation as whole, understanding all aspects of the entire ecosystem.”  The MBA has also taught her the paramount importance of leadership and culture within an organisation and the impact that this has on performance and how intangible concepts can be translated into tangible value.

As a child, Cassim dreamed of becoming an air hostess. “Where I came from, air travel was a luxury which only the wealthy could afford and air hostesses always looked professional and glamorous when fulfilling their duties. I believed that being an airhostess would give me the opportunity to experience being in an aeroplane which fuelled my ambitions and dreams as a young girl from a humble background.”

These days she flies around the world for business all the time, so in part, perhaps her childhood dream has come true. The work suits her personality. As a self-admitted perfectionist attentive to detail and prone to working hard, she finds herself at home in the world of finance and commerce, especially pertaining to mergers and acquisitions and managing relationships.

And while she certainly has achieved much already in her young career, Cassim feels much more can still be done. “I still believe that I have not attained success in establishing a strong enough link between my personal values and beliefs and my daily activities, particularly professionally.” She intends to focus on creating integrative business models which benefit business as well as society.

She concludes on a more spiritual note, “I have learnt that what matters more than having the goods is to be good and to do good; that unfortunately does not come with any professional designation; poverty of spirit afflicts even the wealthiest in pocket.”


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