She is only 39 years old, yet Dr Denisha Jairam-Owthar has achieved more in her career than most can dream of. Her resumé takes you through her academic and professional journey. Throughout there are awards of excellence or outstanding achievements popping up: academic colours in matric, a cum laude MBA-degree and best student in technology management, becoming the youngest person to receive a Doctor of Leadership in Unisa’s Graduate School of Business Leadership history, chosen as the most successful and innovative progressor in SARS, director on various boards, mentor to interns and young black woman in the ICT sector, author of many researched and academic papers, best CIO in Public sector in 2020, and the list continues.
Jairam-Owthar will soon exchange a very hot seat as Chief Information Officer at the City of Johannesburg, for another (hot enough) in the ICT building at Stellenbosch University. And, to add another “first” to her resumé, she will be the first-ever women Chief Director: Information Technology Division in the history of SU.
For the past few years she was one of the major drivers behind a dramatic IT transformation at the City of Johannesburg. Under her leadership, IT transformed from a support function to becoming the strategic kingpin of the city. She joined the city at a time when payslips were still being printed for the huge staff component of around 35 000 people.
“I work in a demanding but fantastic space. I believe my current role has moulded me and taught me a lot. It prepared me for what I see as my new role: to enable education through technology at SU. I believe IT is a critical enabler in the transformation of education. I will bring all my learnings along.”
She says we live in times where digital enablement is the only way some organisations can continue. “I feel I am entering SU in a very prime time on its journey. We will have to take this excursion step-by-step, determining our stakeholders’ needs carefully along the way because we are now playing in the space for online learning and teaching and have to provide for digital enablement for research-intensiveness. How will IT enable this? How will we connect a PhD student with an expert any place in the world in real-time?”
Jairam-Owthar says being this young in IT has a lot of advantages. “I have been deliberate about my journey so far and ensured that I keep up to date in the field. I know what is happening in our industry, and I understand how to bring things together for IT. Even more so, to bring that value to the organisation. It needs to be real, it needs to be felt, it needs to be relevant for SU’s needs,” says Jairam-Owthar, who loves the unpredictable. “I can walk into my office, and the day can turn on its head, and I like that. The unpredictable tests you on every facet that makes you who you are.”
For her, the academic space is not a new field. As a mentor for many Masters and PhD students and writing regular research and academic papers, she kept her passion for the academic world alive. Although the decision to come to SU, was not easy, Jairam-Owthar says her heart has always been in education. “This is real heart work: my purpose. I am excited to think about the power digital can bring to education and, with my skills, to bring those forward.”
She started her journey doing administrative work in New York and London as she needed money to pay for her tertiary education. She completed a BCompt Honours degree in Accounting Sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and thereafter, while working, studied further, completing an MBA in Technology Management. After that she completed her DBL studies at Unisa over three years.
Her working career spans from the year 2007 where she started as a Business Intelligence Analyst at the South African Revenue Services. From SARS she moved to Barclays in December 2011 and thereafter joined the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) where she is the ICT Head of Shared Services.
Reading through a 13-page CV leaves you exhausted and in awe, but the moment you start speaking to her, her relaxed, calm, and comfortable conversation style makes you realise that you do not have to understand IT jargon to understand her. She knows what it means and will ensure that the results will speak for themselves.
One cannot help but wonder how she keeps all the balls in the air with enough time to be a mother to her 4-year-old son, Sanchen. “I have a very, very, very supportive husband and mother,” Jairam-Owthar says confidently. Her mum has always encouraged her to realise her ‘inner strength’ and ‘true potential’. Her husband of nine years and “greatest support”, Sudhir Owthar, an electronic engineer, is also in the IT industry at one of South Africa’s most innovative banks. “This makes for fascinating conversations around the dinner table,” she remarks. “It is great to share our knowledge and learn together because this is such a fast-paced industry where you need to be up to speed with all the latest information the world of technology offers.”
Dubbed as a true millennial by some journalists, one thing is for sure: Jairam-Owthar is an achiever. Amongst her many accolades, being voted by the “World Women Leadership Congress” earlier this year as “South Africa’s Women Leader” is for Jairam-Owthar one of her career highlights. “To be acknowledged like this was fantastic. I was delighted to know that I made such a difference in our country. But it does not stop there; I want SU to be the most digitally up-to-date university in the country, on our continent and in the world. I know I will have the support I need, so it is possible. I want other universities to say: ‘Oh my goodness, how did they do that!’.”
And as much as she is looking forward to finding her new home in the Winelands and moving into her office on campus, so too is Prof Stan du Plessis, Chief Operating Officer of SU. “She is a dynamic leader and will be our driving force to take us into a future where words such as SmartCampus and digital learning space will become a reality. I look forward tremendously to working with her and am confident that she will take her team with her on the journey, exposing them to new learnings and mentoring and preparing the young to one day take the lead in the world of IT.”
Jairam-Owthar will take her seat at IT from 1 January 2022.