How AB InBev Africa People VP Bridget Makhura makes chemistry in corporate

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Bridget shares her story of resilience, inclusion, and how she is redefining HR at AB InBev Africa.

Bridget Makhura, the vice president of people at AB InBev Africa, embarked on her professional journey with a strong foundation in the field of chemistry. Armed with a passion for research, she pursued her education up to master’s level, fully immersed in the world of scientific exploration.

However, as she delved deeper into the research field, a realisation dawned upon her: this wasn’t the research path she had envisioned. “I realised that the industry has more focus towards product development and improving existing products. This was not the ground-breaking research I had envisioned, and it left me feeling disenchanted,” Bridget reflects.

Seeking fulfilment beyond the lab

Bridget went on to work for two other companies before eventually finding her way to South African Breweries (SAB) “Contrary to popular belief, my journey with SAB did not begin in the human resources department. Instead, I started off in logistics as an operations trainee,” she recounts. Her journey took an unexpected turn as she stepped into the world of logistics, far from her scientific background.

She started her journey in logistics as a trainee with one of her initial tasks involving verifying gate sheets for goods movement in and out of a depot, a humbling experience that challenged her preconceptions about her abilities. At this point, she was a young woman armed with a master’s degree in chemistry, excelling in a field completely different from her education. It was a stark reminder that success doesn’t always follow a linear path.

“In the warehouse, everyone else was involved in truck and forklift driving, and I realised that I needed to find my niche and understand the importance of attention to detail,” she emphasises. The rigorous ‘three-points check’ process in logistics, involving two security checks and meticulous verification of inventory, taught her the significance of precision and accuracy in this field.

A diverse journey

During her tenure in logistics, Bridget took on various roles, transitioning from distribution to warehousing and logistics manager. She even became one of the first few female inventory manager in the warehouse, breaking down barriers in a traditionally male-dominated environment. Her willingness to explore different aspects allowed her to gain insights into various areas of the business, from the shop floor to the boardroom. Her philosophy of maintaining a strong connection with people was essential in her multifaceted journey.

"I have transitioned between various fields in my career. More recently , I spent nine years in the commercial sector, starting as a trainee and eventually becoming a district manager," she states. Breaking new ground as a female district manager, Bridget faced the pressure of surpassing expectations in a field dominated by men for many years. Her relentless determination to not just meet, but exceed those expectations, defined her success.

Navigating uncharted waters

After her impressive stint as a district manager in the Inland Region, Bridget was promoted to the position of country director at Eswatini Beverages, coinciding with the challenges brought by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Leading the business from end to end and being accountable to the board was a different ball game altogether. However, her focus in Eswatini was not merely on business operations, but on impacting the lives of many individuals during the uncertain times of the pandemic.

“I understood the importance of instilling confidence in my employees, who were unsure about the future. Despite the uncertainties, I strived to create a sense of stability and reassurance within the organisation,” she explains. Bridget’s leadership during this crisis exemplified her ability to provide guidance and support when her team needed it most.

Redefining HR and advocating for diversity

Bridget’s journey was not just about scaling the heights of corporate leadership, but about challenging preconceived notions. Her transition into the role of vice president of people at AB InBev Africa was unconventional, to say the least. “In my mind, I believed that one had to be a specialised HR professional with extensive industry knowledge and experience within the HR field,” she acknowledges.

However, a conversation with a global leader challenged her perspective, leading to a redefined role for HR within the company. Bridget’s background in business, her experiences across departments, and her deep understanding of the company’s intricacies made her an ideal candidate for the role.

“I had the ability to connect with individuals at all levels, from the shop floor to the boardroom, and truly understand their needs,” Bridget emphasises. This revelation sparked a shift in her thinking, as she realised the potential for HR to be a strategic and enabling function, contributing to the overall success of the organisation.

Paving the way for diversity and inclusion

Being a trailblazer comes with immense pressure and expectations. Bridget acknowledges that the weight of these expectations can be overwhelming, but it’s also a source of motivation. She recognises the importance of diversity and inclusion not being the responsibility of one person, but of a community.

Bridget emphasises the power of a cohort, a group of individuals who enter the scene together, to support and uplift each other, thereby lessening the burden of pressure. “By creating a community, we can foster a sense of belonging and critical mass needed, ensuring that no one feels lonely throughout the corporate ladder climb,” she says.

She also believes that to combat corporate loneliness, having an outlet and someone outside of the corporate world to provide support is crucial. Bridget suggests therapy as a valuable tool for personal development and coping with various challenges, including the complexities of corporate life.

“I believe that self-reflection and having a nurturing space are essential when dealing with corporate loneliness. Therapy allows me to explore my thoughts without fear of judgement, enabling me to navigate this journey more effectively,” she explains.

Prioritising wellness and open-mindedness

Bridget and her team are actively working on revamping the wellness programme within their organisation, with a focus on introducing a therapist within the plant environment. This initiative aims to provide a comfortable space for employees to engage in discussions that might not typically reach a therapist. It reflects the growing trend of promoting wellness in the workplace, recognising the importance of employees using available resources.

The issue of mental health stigma is also a priority for Bridget. She acknowledges that in some cultures, mental health discussions are not as normalised as they should be. Breaking down this stigma and promoting mental wellness is an essential part of her vision.

“We need to break the stigma around mental illness and nurture ourselves, making sure that we are human and not just in crisis,” she emphasises.

In her current role she continues to advocate for a more inclusive and open-minded workplace, striving to create a positive impact on individuals and communities alike.

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