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As a child Khensani dreamed of being an astronaut but now she is flying high in banking space

As a young girl from a rural village in Eswatini, she wanted to boldly go “where no man has gone before”. But Captain Kirk and his merry men ensured that women must wait their turn in space – in reality and on the television screens. Khensani loves reading. Her favourite teacher gave free rein to her vivid imagination. She wanted to become an astronaut. While her desire did not materialise, she has excelled in her chosen space in the marketing world.

Today, Khensani, the 2023 Scopen Top Most Admired Marketer in South Africa, still has an expansive imagination. But she is focused on doing good as the charismatic and much-loved leader as Nedbank Group Executive for Marketing and Corporate Affairs.

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It’s been an incredible journey for the young girl born in the rural area of Fonteyn in the country formerly known as Swaziland. She never dreamed that all that she had achieved would be possible.

But she told delegates at the International Advertising Association conference in Malaysia from 6 to 8 March, where she spoke on the future being female, that her grandmother and mum believed in her. “And that’s why the past, the present, and the future are female. Believe it.”

Previously, Khensani marketed and promoted skin care products, a famous liquor brand, and a mobile operator. The financial world, however, has taken her career into orbit, with countless industry awards, making her one of the country’s most powerful women in marketing.

As the marketing executive and a Nedbank Group executive leadership member, she ensures the cohesive and consistent alignment between marketing messaging, brand positioning, and business objectives across the group while providing strategic input into various Nedbank structures, committees, and partnerships.

Khensani joined Nedbank in September 2017 as Executive Head of Group Marketing before being promoted to her current role and the Nedbank Group Exco in May 2018. Her 20-year marketing career has afforded her invaluable experience in several leading South African and multinational organisations.

After starting as an assistant brand manager at Unilever, she rose to eventually head up the Skin Category for Unilever in Africa, the Middle East, and Turkey. Before joining Nedbank, various leadership and executive roles followed this in Diageo, South African Breweries and Vodacom.

Khensani has a BCom from the University of the Witwatersrand, an MBA from GIBS and an Advanced Management Program from Harvard Business School, where she was nominated as representative for that cohort. She is a member of Effie Awards South Africa and the Loeries boards, a Jury President for the Bookmarks Awards, and a sought-after public speaker.

Khensani as a child

She has amassed several accolades in recognition of her contribution to the industry, including top honours as winner of the Loeries 2021 “Marketing Leadership & Innovation” award and the “Marketing Industry Leader of the Year” award by AdFocus, as well as the 2022 “Most Admired Marketer in South Africa” award by Marklives.com. She was among the three most admired marketing professionals rated by marketers and agency professionals in the Agency Scope 2023/2024.

Khensani recently shared memories of her favourite teacher in conversation.

What was their name? Mrs Brenton-Smith

Please share the name of the school attended and year/s. Malkerns Valley Primary in eSwatini 1984 to 1990

How did your favourite teacher endear themself to you? She encouraged my love for reading. She would allow me to spend more time in the library than I was allowed to and even skip some extra murals because I was engrossed in a book and couldn’t put it down.

What subject/s did he/she teach you? She was my grade 1 teacher, so she taught me everything except the second language I was studying, French.

Did you look forward to their subject? I looked forward to class. It was a place where my imagination was allowed to wander and flourish.

What did you like about your teacher? She allowed us as kids to lean into what we wanted whilst ensuring we achieved what was required to pass the grade.

What was your favourite subject at school? Overall, across primary and high school, English and history were taught. I loved English because, in literature, we had to read books…that seemed like an easy pass for me. History is essential because, to move forward, we must learn from the many stories of our past. They give us context and allow us to see the present in that context. Also, learning history builds up a repository of knowledge that allows one to engage in many topics.

Has this influenced your choice of career? Maybe a little bit. Indeed, brands have roots and histories that we must respect. So, as much as we can reposition brands, we must never forget where that brand comes from and build from that past to ensure that whilst we look forward…we look forward rooted in the past.

What was the one phrase from any teacher that stuck with you or inspired you? Don’t give up on what you enjoy, she would say – even if other people want you to do different things, I’m happy you know what you love doing and always keep at it.

Have you kept in touch with your favourite teacher? Unfortunately, she passed on. I returned to primary school as part of my #40before40 journey. I planned 4o things to do before I turned 40, and one of them was to return to St Michael’s. It was surreal standing in front of that grade 1 class and reflecting on the fact that it underlined a big part of who I was.

Why are teachers so important to society? Phew… a big question. In summary, they give kids the opportunities and possibilities for “A Better Life.” I know that without the education I received, I wouldn’t be where I am.

Finally, what advice do you have for learners today? For a seed to grow, it has to land on fertile ground. Your attitude is the most important thing, no matter how good the teacher is. I realised that education was MY road to success, so really, during my schooling, even as I sometimes didn’t agree with my teachers, I used that as an opportunity to have a good debate where I could come of it more knowledgeable. I loved school because I was clear that school was going to be the road to my success.

One final question: did you imagine ending up where you are today while at school, and why is it important to believe in one’s dreams? I thought I’d be an astronaut. At no point did Mrs. Brenton Smith say that’s not possible for a young black girl from the Southern tip of Africa. So, whilst I never became an astronaut, she encouraged me to lean into my dreams. – Inside Education

Edwin Naidu 
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