‘The audacity of dreaming big has worked for me,’ says LexisNexis CEO

Sue de Groot spoke to Videsha Proothveerajh about her journey to the top of the visionary mountain

04 September 2022 - 00:00
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CEO of LexisNexis SA Videsha Proothveerajh.
CEO of LexisNexis SA Videsha Proothveerajh.
Image: Ziphozonke Lushaba

On Wednesday, Videsha Proothveerajh stepped onto a Cape Town stage at the Africa Tech Week Awards ceremony, where she was named leading woman in technology on the continent.

The Woman in Tech award goes to the woman who has shown the most outstanding IT excellence, strategy, vision and innovation in an organisation over the past 18 months.

“This award is on behalf of all women who work in this industry tirelessly to make sure that we create space for others to come after us,” Proothveerajh said in her acceptance speech.

This is not her first win since becoming CEO of legal tech giant LexisNexis SA in 2019. She has also been named the Most Influential Woman in Business and Government for ICT in Africa, picked as a Changemaker in Africa by Forbes and recognised as one of the 50 most inspiring women in SA by the global “Inspiring 50” initiative, as well as one of the “Africa 50” top leaders driving technological change on the continent. 

LexisNexis SA has provided legal, regulatory and business information, analytics and technology to Africa for more than 85 years. When Proothveerajh joined the company, after stints at Microsoft and Intel, she had to establish her authority in a business that had been dominated for decades by traditional (read: white male) managers.

She admits that it was occasionally daunting, but she has never been a shrinking violet. As a child, she says, “I had a voice because my parents said I did. I got into trouble sometimes because of this: I would always question the status quo, always ask ‘Why?’ I still do.”

She also had, and still has, a pervasive curiosity about everything. Her community did not always look kindly upon such girls, she says, but her mother and father encouraged her to stand out and speak out.

“My mom was a force to be reckoned with. She told me, ‘You can be, do or have anything you want. The only things that will ever stop you are the obstacles you create for yourself. You have limitless potential, you come with everything and it’s your journey — you are the only one who can decide how much of that potential to unleash’.

“There was no room for doing badly academically, that was nonnegotiable, but my dad would also say, ‘Life is for living, don’t live an unremarkable life: make your mark on the planet.’”

These attitudes were considered fairly permissive in the close-knit Indian township where Proothveerajh grew up.

Some people in the community complained that it was a waste of money when my mother and father saved to send me to university ... but my parents ignored them

“Some people in the community complained that it was a waste of money when my mother and father saved to send me to university,” says Proothveerajh, “but my parents ignored them.”

After graduating from the University of KwaZulu-Natal with a degree in information systems, Proothveerajh moved to Johannesburg. It was the first time she’d left her home province and again the community was sceptical.

“People said to my mom that this is not how things are done — a young girl moving away on her own will bring shame on the family. My mom told them it was none of their business and she’d deal with whatever happened.”

Proothveerajh arrived in Jozi, stayed with a relative, learnt to drive and immediately began working her way up the business ladder.

“I wasn’t scared of anything,” she says. “I saw everything as an adventure. The audacity of dreaming big has worked for me.”

Another strength she attributes her success to is being a “connector” —  able to find common ground with anyone she meets. “I have had so many male and female mentors, sponsors and coaches along the way; all sorts of people and organisations that took me under their wings and helped me thrive.”

She sees it as her responsibility to do the same for others, particularly women. “I could never give up or go backwards,” she says. “When you get an opportunity, you have a responsibility to make the most of it for those who come after you.”

More than half of the senior executives at LexisNexis SA are now women, but Proothveerajh didn’t set out with a specific gender plan. Her goal was to create a bias-free workplace and champion diversity and inclusion with new initiatives and HR policies. She sees the new management profile as a natural result of her mission to create a more diverse organisation as a whole.

“You need both wings to fly,” she says. “Women have to rise and they have to be given the space to lead, but this also helps to bring out the goodness of male leadership.”

She has changed not only the gender and race diversity of the company but its ideological outlook, although she says there is still much room for improvement.

“I still find myself in many boardrooms where the conversation is just about optimising profit and financial indicators. I want to have more conversations about how we can create companies that are purposeful, that have more consciousness about how we treat our suppliers and our customers, all the stakeholders.

“I feel that there is a need for us to have conversations that lead to a real transformation of the corporate world.”

An extra item on her current curriculum is the “CEO series”, a series of conversations with SA’s top female and male CEOs that will be streamed for the general public. “So we learn from each other and grow,” says Proothveerajh.

“We will also talk about the reality of business. It looks very romantic from the outside — people often say to me, ‘Oh, you’re a CEO, that must be nice!' — and it is really nice, but it’s also very lonely. These connections are to help create a tribe that has the same vision and faces the same challenges, women who have the opportunities and who are willing to go out and change the landscape in their country, so that we create a better tomorrow for everyone.

I feel that there is a need for us to have conversations that lead to a real transformation of the corporate world

“I always say that part of our job as leaders, no matter what space you’re in, is creating an environment where people can learn and then thrive as a result.”

She is also committed to her company’s mission to advance the rule of law in SA and throughout Africa. To this end, LexisNexis has the innovative legal tech to support the justice department’s rollout of digital pilot projects to get SA’s courts and legal services online.

Proothveerajh may be one of the most respected women in Africa and the world, but she scandalised some of the more conservative members of her community by devoting herself to her career. “When I was 28, the grannies would take me aside and say, ‘You’re so old, why don’t you have children yet?'” 

The opposite would happen in the workplace. When she was made the country manager for Intel at the age of 33, she’d sometimes be asked, “How old are you?” by incredulous male leaders of industry.

She has since satisfied the grannies with two children, who she calls “her greatest teachers”.

Her daughter Adithi, 18, “is wise beyond her years. She is limitless and has such a deep knowledge of who she is. This light she carries shines bright for all who need it.”

Her son Aryan, 15, “is gentle but fiercely protective of all that he loves. A brave, kind and curious soul who is always eager to learn new things with the biggest heart you can imagine.”

Proothveerajh, a single mother, says: “They gave me the will to overcome our challenges and not just survive but thrive. They taught me to believe in myself when times were tough, they remind me that I am worthy and I have a right to happiness and unconditional love. They are the impetus behind my manifesting the life I wanted for myself and them.”

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