Vumatel HR executive FIfi Sali striving to be an HR superhero

Fifi approaches her role with conviction and a sense of purpose – and a strong sense of empathy.

Vumatel HR Executive Fifi Sali chose a career in HR after hearing an HR executive from Coca-Cola speak passionately about the profession at a career fair on campus.

“She spoke about the role as if HR leaders were superheroes responsible for keeping their businesses ticking all the while touching employees’ lives directly,” she says.

Since then, Fifi has approached her role with conviction and a sense of purpose that most people only discover later in their careers. She remembers vividly that, whenever she was charged with retrenching people – whether it was due to the economic climate or because the business was changing its operating model – she would go the extra mile to ensure that it was the absolute last resort.

“Many businesses say they are retrenching as the last resort, but I’ve learned that, even though they believe that to be the case, there’s often an alternative option that is yet to be considered. In one instance, I sat with my team, and we worked through all the possible scenarios, engaging with our partners and suppliers to find vacancies for our people. Over time we were able to mitigate the loss of jobs from 160 to 60,” says Fifi, adding that she takes Section 189A processes personally because “when you retrench someone, you are not only destabilising their life but also the lives of the 10 or more people they support.”

Empath tendencies
While she wouldn’t describe herself as an empath, Fifi exhibits some of the traits. She is highly aware of the emotions of those around her, sometimes to the point of feeling those emotions herself. When she turned 40, Fifi decided to take a sabbatical to create a non-profit organisation, Dakalo Ya Pfunzo Foundation, which was dedicated to helping underprivileged children.

Says Fifi: “It really hurts me to see children going hungry. And at that point, the volunteer work I was doing at my church felt so meaningful that I decided to do it full time. The NPO was founded because there was such a huge need for what we were doing. Within months we were helping 400 kids, giving them a place to eat and do their homework. That was the one thing I’ve done in my life that stands out as being the most fulfilling.”

Remote working boosted Vumatel
Vumatel was a startup when Fifi joined. Having spent most of her career working in the banking sector – Wesbank, Standard Bank and ABSA Capital – it was somewhat of a culture shock. She had to adjust from an environment where extensive policies and systems were already in place to one that had next to none.

“Entrepreneurs think very differently and do not want to be limited by red tape so my role, in the beginning, was quite challenging because the business was set in its ways. On the positive side, I realised early on that the people are extremely passionate about the work they’re doing so there was already an amazing culture here. The Vuma brand was shifting from a start-up to a more mature company, but we didn’t want to lose its core character and culture in the process, as this has been key to the success of the business.”

The company has grown exponentially since Fifi joined. Last year, Vumatel and SA Digital Villages merged after the transfer of SADV’s wholesale fibre network assets to Vumatel. The two companies now operate and trade as a single entity, Vumatel, which is now the largest fibre network operator in South Africa.

The fact that organisations have had to accelerate their transition to remote working has been good for Vumatel. Vumatel has built a credible reputation of being able to execute with incredible speed.

“We really stepped up as a business, our core value system is centred around an internal belief that says because we can, we must and throughout this period we have made sure that we support our employees and their loved ones in every way possible,” concludes Fifi.