Tlalane Ntuli on authentic business leadership and the founding of disrupting digital insurance startup Yalu

Join me and game changing Tlalane Ntuli as we explore the deeply held values and entrepreneurial authenticity which led to her and her partner founding, Yalu, a rising digital credit life insurance company in South Africa.

 

Tlalane Ntuli is the Co-Founder and COO of Yalu, an innovative digital credit life insurance company that is being hailed as a disruptor in South Africa’s financial services industry. Ms. Ntuli, regarded as a pioneer for black women in the credit life insurance sector, is a seasoned professional who has served as a General Manager of Brand and Marketing at Glenrand MIB, Senior Marketing Manager at Old Mutual’s Mass Foundation Cluster and Head of Growth: Sales and Marketing, on the FNB Life Executive Committee and Brand Manager at Liberty Life. Ms. Ntuli is the holder of a degree in Human Resource Management and a PGD in Marketing Management both from the University of Cape Town. She has also attended various executive management programmes with the UCT Graduate School of Business, the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) and Henley Business School. Yalu is one of only 3 credit life insurance companies in South Africa. Yalu is a shortened version of the Zulu term, ‘isiyalu’ meaning ‘the source of a river’. Ms. Ntuli is a mother of two, wife, daughter and a sister to 3 siblings.

Authenticity is a key driver in the type of business leadership that transforms economic sectors for the good of all stakeholders. The story of the founding of Yalu is deeply rooted in the values and authentic desire for the consumers of credit life insurance products to be empowered in ways they never have before. This is the type of business leadership that South Africa, Africa, and indeed the rest of the world, need to bring about balanced economic development. The elegant Manor House Bistro at the Fairlawns Boutique Hotel and Spa was the venue for an inspiring and deeply humbling conversation.

You mentioned during the shoot that being a top executive in the corporate world made you feel like you had to constantly strike this balance between providing for your children but also pursuing your passion. What was it about being in the corporate world that made you feel that you were sacrificing something or making uncomfortable tradeoff’s?

In hindsight I think it was more about me than it was about corporate. I am very in tune with who and what I am, and my value system is critical to me, it gives me substance, it keeps my feet on the ground, it anchors me. So, what I often found myself dealing more with was the need to remain true to who I am and the need to grow, so on top of being a grounded person, I am also a very ambitious person. It was never enough for me to just say, I’m going to remain in a management position because I get my money and I don’t have to deal with these issues that relate to my value system. While I needed to strike that balance, I also needed to keep growing and that’s where these two worlds started to collide in a sense.

On the one hand, I was finding that the more I wanted to grow in corporate, the more misaligned I was becoming with my core values and therefore the choice became about, do I remain misaligned, for the sake of providing for my family, or do I follow my passion and look for something that is authentically me? So that became a difficult choice because the opportunities don’t always present themselves at a convenient time. What also made things difficult was the need to say what people wanted to hear versus what is correct; that’s not who I am, and it totally went against my beliefs. I value being in an authentic, honest environment despite how challenging that may be. The other thing is just the reality of what it meant to push profit versus customer value. You don’t deal with those issues at a junior level but the more senior you become, the more you realize that your values may be talking to customer value and creating value for the customer for what they are paying versus organizational profit and at the same time, what the organization is pushing for is the numbers. So, it became a really big war within me and that was manifesting in a lot of different ways, both in the office and at home. I was genuinely unhappy and to make matters worse, I suffer from chronic depression which started in my formative years, and during this time of internal conflict, it was actually at its worst because I realized that I was doing things and making decisions that did not resonate with me.

I suppose in terms of somebody who is consciously aware of their physical or mental challenges, I’ve always had to be extra careful around the decisions I make and the environments I find myself in because, unlike someone who’s got blood pressure for example, my illness is mainly impacted by the environment I find myself in. So, I’m always conscious of creating the right environment that is not going to create instability for me. I lived with this very deep sense of sadness that I could never quite articulate to people. Then the other thing was the example that I wanted to set for my children, and, I’m the kind of mother who’s a career woman therefore I’m not always going to be present and able to guide them firsthand. I wanted them to have something that they would look at that would define who their mother is for them and making decisions that gelled with the person that I am. I found that the deeper into corporate I got, and the more senior I became, I was turning into someone I would never be able to define for my children and proudly say, this is what Mom has achieved and all the sacrifices I made being away from you were because of this. And if I’m going to spend three-quarters of my time being away from my children, it had better be for something that is worthwhile, it had better be for something that they can look at proudly and be in awe. And I found that the longer I stayed in some of these environments, the less I was ever going to be able to say that to them.

That’s a huge disconnect to live with, how did you cope with it before making your move?

The gravity of living with that disconnect is huge and it’s something that you can’t really explain to people in words because it’s such a deeply seated, personal thing and sometimes, the type of personalities you get in corporate are people that are okay not dealing with the deeper issues within themselves, they’re okay with, I get great money, I get shares, I get a title so I’m good. Also, you do get people whose values are actually aligned to what organizations or corporates do, so I found myself yearning for role models or for mentors that I could relate to, who could understand my context as a black female in corporate but could also relate to me from a values system perspective, and I struggled to find those people.

I struggled to find people that said, ja, I get you, I understand what you’re saying, and that started to ring alarm bells for me quite early on. I remember having a boss who became a very good friend of mine later on and she would always say to me, what you must realize is, the person you bring here is not the person you take home, but the thing is, that’s a personal choice that she made. I, on the other hand, realized that that’s not who I wanted to be. I want you to experience Tlalane in the same way, regardless of where you experience her, because I’m the same person. I shouldn’t have to hold back on certain issues about myself because I’m trying to fit into an environment that doesn’t accommodate those issues.

So, in my quest of trying to find someone that could relate to me and just not getting what I was looking for, made me realize that it either did not exist or I was maybe never going to find it if it did exist because there were so many people to get through. I also had to make a decision around whether I would stay in corporate and continue to try and find somebody who could potentially help me navigate this world or, walk out and say, I’m going to go and create something that will allow me to be who I am, where I won’t feel judged, where my values are respected and aligned and where I can be authentically me. That’s the decision I made, and it was a difficult decision. It was a very challenging decision because, from a financial perspective, by the time you get to that senior level, you’re making good money, there are bigger promises of bonuses, there are bigger promises of shares. So, you have a good view of what life can become and then the decision of having to leave it all into a world of the unknown can be one that’s very emotionally draining.

So, what I’m sensing from all of this is that your deeply held core values truly go beyond talk; what influenced you so significantly? 

I grew up in Lesotho and one of the things that was held in great esteem in that environment was not so much how much money you had; it was always about the family that you came from and that held a lot of weight. So, we grew up being taught to do things that would make our families proud, to do things that would never bring my Mom or my Dad or my siblings into disrepute in any way, shape, or form. It’s not to say that there was no room to make mistakes. I think that any society that does not allow mistakes is a society that is removed from reality; so, although there was room to make mistakes, it was about learning from those mistakes and growing. Both my parents were relatively senior civil servants, and they’d done well for themselves. They really worked hard, and they had four girls, which was not cheap for them, and despite their determination and perseverance of exceeding in the workplace, they continued to be very values driven and they consistently instilled those values in us. They were very passionate about teaching us the difference between right and wrong and always insisting on us doing the right thing. There’s one particular incident that I never forget; I was at a social event sitting outside with the ladies who had been doing the catering and all the guests were sitting inside. Somebody who knew me, and my family, saw me sitting with these ladies and walked up to me and asked me why I was sitting out there when I had to be inside. I thought that was very strange because that’s not how we were raised. Despite the class thing being something that was very real in our community, I’d never actually experienced it prior to this event and it made me extremely uncomfortable. When I got home, I told my Dad about it and how it had saddened me because I felt that the implication was that my companions were not good enough for me to sit with.  My Dad very profoundly said to me that day that, you must never ever think that you are better than anybody, you must treat everybody with the respect that you would want to be treated with and you must always strive to be the best of you no matter who you are with. That stuck with me and it made me realize how being authentic to ones’ values, and oneself, is far more important than what people think.

So that’s why my journey through various corporates became so difficult, because yes, people thinking I’m an executive at such and such a company seems great and that’s all that people think and perceive. But, at the end of the day, being authentically me meant going against what people thought, exactly as my Dad had taught me to, so I think this need to hold on to my values system comes from how I was raised. But also, as a daughter you will always want to make your parents proud, whether they are still living or deceased. My Dad has since passed on but there’s still this need in me to ensure that he would be proud of the decisions that I have made and continue to make if he were still alive. So, I think that’s why I hold it all so dear to me.

So, there you are, personal values misaligned with organizational values, and then you decide to strike out on your own…was it about seeing a gap in the market or, was it about, I’m leaving even though I don’t know what’s on the other side?

In a way, it was a combination of the two. The year before I decided to leave corporate, I’d done an Executive Development program at Henley Business School for the financial services sector. I would sit in on conversations with very senior executives and realize how misaligned we all were in one way or another yet many of us were so willing to keep going despite this misalignment. That was the first time I started to come to terms with this misalignment that was so deep within me because I could never really name why I was so upset; that program allowed me to start saying, okay, so, this is why. There was a lot of self-discovery in that process and I remember that we were all asked to speak about our experience during a session in East Africa and I stood up and said something which was not even planned. I said to the group, how dare we come here as South Africans and think we’re better than the locals, they work so hard, they get up in the morning just like we do, they do the same daily commutes and show up for work, they give everything, just like we do. Yet we come to their countries with this chip on our shoulder like we’re better than them when in fact there’s so much that we can learn from them. But because we have this thing about being South African and being an economy that thrives versus other African economies, we never come into environments openminded and willing to learn; we always go in thinking, what can we impart, what knowledge can I leave them with and never what knowledge can I walk away with. And that moment was when I realized that I was done with corporate; at that point I was speaking more from the heart and people were shocked and taking deep breaths, but they also started to clap.

I’d become friends with two colleagues within the Exco, one was a CFO and the other one was a COO and the three of us were the only black people on this Exco and I was the only female among them. The Executive team had 12 members in total so we three gravitated towards each other. Most times in these scenarios there is a lot of complaining about the status quo and that’s such a depleting thing because we get used to it. But one day I said, guys, I’m tired of this complaining because it actually drags me down and I can’t afford, even health wise, to be in an environment that drags me down. We can’t keep complaining, we need to do something. The gentleman who’s now my partner at Yalu then shared some of his thoughts on credit life insurance and some of the ideas he’d been bouncing around inside his head and some of the legislative developments in this area. Essentially, the legislative changes were around allowing clients to switch between providers and there were also clauses on capping premiums. He saw an opportunity in that we could then establish an entity that would provide a real alternative for consumers and educate them about credit life insurance in a meaningful way. So those conversations eventually led to the establishment of Yalu.

I always say to people, if you are in an industry or environment where there are legislative changes and developments, do yourself a favour and study those legislative changes thoroughly because in there lies opportunity. By the time I left corporate, I knew where I was going; the idea was firmed up, the business was already registered, and a lot of work had already gone into building the business case. Even though at the time there was still some ground to be covered, it was clear by the time I left that there was a lot of potential in what we wanted to do and that it was actually the right thing for me, both in terms of my own personal journey and also in terms of the shift it would bring in an industry that is very ripe for disruption but also very resistant to it. There’s no doubt opposition, even anger, to what we are doing because what people with vested interests see is a player that is potentially going to take away a portion of their profits and that will always be met with resistance.

So, we find ourselves having to embark on this journey that those who disrupt industries and sectors have to embark on and we can’t quite predict what will happen. The same amount of rigour being spent on making processes as difficult as possible for customers to switch from their existing credit life insurance to a Yalu credit life insurance product is interesting to us because we think that providers should rather be spending more resources on, firstly, fixing their products so that they are actually providing consumers with value and secondly, just doing what the consumer is asking for but instead, a lot of time and effort is being spent finding reasons why they’re not going to allow consumers to switch providers. It’s been an incredibly humbling journey thus far because you become public enemy number one in some quarters and there’ll be few people that will want to stand by you when you are in that position.

You are now in a space where your authentic self can flourish, and the internal conflicts or misalignments have quieted down, but what sorts of interior life adjustments have you had to deal with in the transition?

The one consistent feeling I’ve had from the moment I walked out of my job is anxiety and I’ve often seen and heard quotes that say things along the lines of, even the richest businesspeople in the world still wake up with anxiety. My biggest challenge has been one of trying to deal with the anxiety such that it doesn’t take over my ability to do what I need to do. There’ve certainly been ups and downs, and moments of absolute exhilaration and huge achievement and moments of phenomenal failure and hurt beyond what one can and should experience in relation to their work. It has been a journey of incredible growth, both in terms of my technical strength in running a business but also, at a personal level, I feel like I have become a lot wiser. My partner and I both resigned around the same time from corporate and we did not have a funder. We had our business case and we’d had initial meetings with potential funders but there was nothing definite at all. We knew that we needed money otherwise it was never going to get off the ground. Marketing something like this is exceptionally expensive and having to register with various statutory bodies also requires a lot of money so we knew that we couldn’t make it work if we didn’t secure funding.

I even briefly entertained the thought of a Plan B when some of these realities sank in. I was completely exposed, with no backup plan and no security whatsoever and no funder. In that time there was a lot of fear and anxiety and even a sense of disappointment in myself because it felt like I had made a rash and uneducated decision. It felt like I should have sat and waited for us to at least have secured guaranteed funding. As a Christian though, I had faith and that was the only thing that kept me going and I held on to it with everything that I have and to every single promise that the Bible makes. And that is what kept me going every day. Both my business partner and I are Christian, and it was something that we used to encourage each other. What was great was, when I was in the pits, he was the person saying, you know what, we’re going to get through this and vice-versa. We climbed out of that when we got a letter from the Public Investment Corporation confirming, after a very long, detailed process, that they were willing to fund us and in full. That, for us, was the first real moment of exhilaration and the first sense of relief and I remember saying to him, I feel like I haven’t breathed, and I feel like I can finally breathe. It was just good timing because, by that time, I was starting to get into this space of absolute sadness and depression and I needed to have something that would get me out of it.

We’d decided very early on that we wanted to set this up as a very formal organization so him and I are both employees of Yalu. We are not owners and how we differentiate ourselves is that we are the Founders of the business and that is the only difference between me and anybody else who works for Yalu other than our different responsibilities. This has grounded us in terms of creating structure and staying true to that structure. Before we’d secured the funding and leased office space, we’d also decided that it was important for us to have something that would motivate us to get up in the morning and show up even if there was nothing in the pot and the funding hadn’t materialized. We need to cultivate the discipline to get up and go to work daily. So, we did all we could to source some temporary loans to actually secure that office space and it helped to have had a few people who believed in us so deeply and so fundamentally that even in those moments when we felt like we were not going to continue, it was those people who encouraged us to keep going. I remember a close friend helping us out with an interest-free loan and saying with so much conviction, “I just want you to stay on this journey”; so, it’s those kinds of people that kept us going. We also at that time had 3 other people who’d joined Yalu as staff and initially were not even getting a salary. In those moments when it was tempting to give up, one would think, but how dare I give up when I’ve got people who believe so much in this vision and have risked everything to join this company. It was also about our children, our families and all those individuals who had overextended themselves while we were waiting for the funding guarantee.

The battles change, but the war doesn’t stop, you just find yourself fighting different battles as you grow into this business. So, in those initial stages, the battle was about just staying afloat, having enough to pay for rent, having enough to buy paper, having enough to pay for the phone and so on. From that our battle was about attracting the right people and trying to convince people coming from big corporates to join a startup that doesn’t have any form of security in their eyes. The landscape has since shifted and now our biggest battle involves ensuring that the process of switching for consumers actually happens. We’re chipping away at that very slowly but very consistently and it’s something that we don’t ever walk away from. It’s something that we talk about every single day and that’s the discipline we’ve needed to have throughout the journey on some of those issues we’ve had to tackle. We are persistent about our approach, we have strategies and we engage in consistent dialogues. There’s also now the challenge of scaling and the question is, at what point do you scale, because you don’t want to scale too early but at the same time, you don’t want to take too long to scale; so it’s a fine balance that we’re now having to figure out.

To wrap up, who have you had to become in this process of pursuing such a massive dream?

One of my biggest prayers to God was to keep me humble and grounded and to never feel like any of what has happened around Yalu is because of me but to always feel like I was a vessel in a much greater story that God is trying to tell. That is something that was difficult and continues to be difficult because sometimes you do want to own the accolades, you want to pat yourself on the back and say, you know what, I’m good. But I think that if I become that person, I will very quickly lose sight of the big journey ahead of me and what needs to be done. By nature, I am a very introverted person and since the Yalu journey started, there’s simply no space for that. I’ve had to go in and have conversations with people that wouldn’t even look me in the eye or have no interest in what I have to say or having lots of doors being shut in my face and do things totally out of my comfort zone. It is all incredibly humbling particularly when you come from an environment where praise was par for the course in meeting rooms, your coffee was always ready, your computer was brought to you and you’d kind of earned your stripes. In this new scenario, you’ve got to roll with the punches. It’s been hard to sit with that discomfort and face rejection, but I’ve had a great support system in my husband, family and siblings. It’s about leaving a legacy for our children, teaching them that it can be done, it should be done and that good does indeed prevail. We live in a world where they see so few examples of where good prevails that we have to create those examples for ourselves.

Photography by Makgomo Mushwana – Sali Sali Photography