When asked what drove her to become successful, Shirley Zinn replied that she had a vision that she would not be poor for the rest of her life. She did not know how she would escape poverty, but she knew that education would have to be a part of it and that she would have to work exceptionally hard to achieve her goals.
Born and bred on the Cape Flats, Shirley knows what it is like to struggle. Her family was poor and they found it difficult to make ends meet. Education and opportunity were scarce and her parents did not know where the money would come from to send her to university. Shirley, ever determined, had already started applying to different universities and she had also applied for several bursaries. She managed to get into the University of the Western Cape and was the first in her family to get a University degree.
She became a teacher on the Cape Flats where she taught English for four years, and during that time she was also busy completing her honours degree. After completing her honours, she became a lecturer at the University of the Western Cape. During this time, she saw an advert for a scholarship at Harvard in the US and applied for it. She eventually received notice that she was accepted and she completed both her masters and her doctorate at Harvard. Completing these degrees was not as easy as it sounds. Shirley was a wife and a mother and her family had to live off food stamps because money had become scarce. The challenge did not end there. Her big dream was to work for the Western Cape Education Department so after she returned to South Africa, she applied for posts at the department but all her applications were turned down. After 10 years of struggle and hard work, the rejection demoralized her but she did not give up and her determination paid off. This is what the future held in store for Shirley.
Shirley served as a Training Manager at Southern Life, a Director at Department of Public Service and Administration, the Executive of Employment Equity at Computer Configurations Holdings, Middle East and Africa Regional Human Resources Director for Reckitt Benckiser (a global company listed on the London Stock Exchange), a board member for Monash South Africa, a board member of AdVtech, President of the Institute of People Management, Chairperson of the Institute of Bankers South Africa, a board member of the Banking Sector Education and Training Authority, a board member of Bankmed, a Trustee to the Standard Bank Group Retirement Fund, the HR Committee Member of the Board at SAICA (South African Institute of Chartered Accountants), the Group Human Resources Director of Nedbank, the Deputy Global Head of Human Resources at Standard Bank Group, the Chairperson of the Institute of Bankers, and a board member of BANKSETA
She is currently a Non-Exective director of Sygnia Asset Management, an Adjunct Professor at the University of Cape Town, the President of the Harvard University Alumni Association of South Africa, Non-Executive Director of the Boston Consulting Group, a member of the Monash University Advisory Committee, a Professor (extraordinaire) of Human Resources Management at the University of Pretoria, she owns her own company (Shirley Zinn Consulting), and she is the author of the book, Swimming Upstream.
She was awarded the Top Woman in Business and Government and Top Executive in Corporate South Africa by Topco Media in 2008. She also was recognized by the Black Business Quarterly and received the Award for Top Woman in Business and Government and most Visionary Woman in 2008. She also received an award in Mumbai in 2007 for Global HR Leadership. In 2012, Shirley was listed in the Top 30 of the Wonder Women in South Africa by the Wits Business Journal.
She is also a mentor to several women in the financial services industry, a patron to the SAALED (South African Association for Learning and Educational Differences), past Honorary Patron of the Corporate Governance Framework, as well as a patron to the Friends Daycare Centre, for children with disabilities.
When asked what advice she would give people, she replied, “Do not be disappointed for too long. Pick yourself up and find a way to reinvent yourself”. Shirley Zinn was born into poverty, decided that she would not be poor for the rest of her life, and through sheer will power and determination, made it happen.