Title and Organization:
Heather Joan Sonn is a leading South African business woman, big-thinker, and change-maker, currently based in Cape Town, SA. Born into a prominent family of public servants and educators who fought tirelessly against the Apartheid regime in the pursuit of equality and justice for all South Africans, her father Franklin Sonn, as an educationist and teachers’ union leader, made a significant contribution to the struggle for liberation in South Africa, and later to South Africa’s peaceful transition to democracy.
Heather, galvanised by these ethics, and her fire lit in the pursuit of truth, studied journalism as her first interest, and was accepted on a scholarship to a university in the United States, Smith College, where she obtained a BA degree with a major in Political Science. While she was completing her first degree, her father was appointed as Ambassador to the United States of America and her parents relocated to Washington DC to fulfil their duties there.
After graduating from Smith College, Heather joined her parents in Washington DC after being accepted at Georgetown University, where she obtained a Master of Science degree in International Affairs. Her field of study was driven by her desire to see how the world truly worked, and to develop her perspective of the African continent and her country’s place in it and in the world, along with the drive to make her contribution to a thriving and inclusive post-apartheid economy and vibrant socio-political climate in her home country.
Heather started her professional career as an investment banking analyst in New York at Merrill Lynch, focused on globally-branded consumer goods and leveraged buy-out transactions. After her return to South Africa in 1999, eager to get stuck in to the challenges that South African big businesses were facing in the new South Africa and apply her experience gained in the US, Heather joined Sanlam Investment Management, as a Management Information Analyst, reporting directly to the group Chief Investment Officer on all aspects relating to the operational activities of running a large team, and the associated complex processes. She was instrumental in the formulation of policies and practices pertaining to empowerment and transformation in the organisation and in relation to its clients.
This continued through her tenure as Business Development Executive there, where she went on to develop and implement the Black Economic Empowerment strategy for Sanlam Investment Management. Moving on from Sanlam after achieving her goals there, Heather took up a Chief Executive Officer role at Legae Securities, the first black-owned and run stockbroking firm to be registered with the JSE. She simultaneously became an executive committee member of Legae’s major shareholder, WIPHOLD/WIPCapital, a women-empowerment investment firm with over 200,000 mostly women beneficiaries served through trusts and NGO’s.
Legae was recognised as the Top Unlisted Company in South Africa by the BusinessMap Organisation, and Heather was highly acclaimed by industry organisations during that time. She went on to be voted as one of the Top SA Business Women in an editorial list compiled by Mail & Guardian in 2005 for her work during this time, where she actively participated in the acquisitions of equity stakes in South Africa’s largest insurance company Old Mutual, leading short term insurer Mutual & Federal, one of the top 4 South African banks, Nedbank, and Distell, SA and Africa’s largest beverage producer and marketing company.
Heather decided that further development in her business experience on an international level would be beneficial, and she took up a Senior Executive role at Barclays Bank in London during 2008 and 2009, where she reported to the global head of retail and commercial banking, and gained vast experience in a multitude of strategic projects and operations of a successful global company.
Heather became a fellow of the African Leadership Initiative in 2006, the local chapter of the Aspen Global Leadership Network, an organisation based on the principles of values-based leadership, moving leaders from success to significance, and from thought to action. She was selected to become a global Moderator for The Aspen Institute in 2007, leading conversations on topics like ‘Leading in an Era of Globalisation’, ‘Pursuing the Good Life’, and in annual sessions designed to bring the network together to focus on the challenges of our time where she remains an active participant.
Returning to South Africa after her time with Barclays in 2009, and with a desire to understand the socio-economic experiences and challenges of ordinary South Africans, she co-founded an organic farm with the intention of creating community engagement, as well as employment and locally-sourced food opportunities.
After setting up this venture, Heather was persuaded to take on the role of CEO of The Citizens Movement, an NPO formulated to promote active citizenship in South Africa. She took on key responsibilities in approaches to education, health and youth challenges. During this time, Heather engaged with key political, business and civil society stakeholders to establish national objective programmes to create alignment with various sectors, and achieve strategic cooperation across these platforms.
In 2013 she co-founded Gamiro Holdings, an investment holding company with a focus on renewable energy, financial services, and property development sectors, where she was instrumental in her on-going role as Director in the origination and structuring of deals to further the development of these important sectors.
In 2017 Heather was appointed the Chairperson of Steinhoff International Holdings NV, a position she held from December 2017 until June 2020, during a period of intense instability in the group after the dramatic resignation of the CEO and Chair. During her tenure there, the group implemented a complicated restructuring process and stand-still arrangement with its creditors. In addition, the group completed a complex forensic investigation, and re-stated and published two sets of annual financial statements for the company, essentially guiding the group through a potentially calamitous outcome.
Moving on to the next phase of her professional career and life, Heather is now focused on strategic business development in various sectors of the South African economy, as well as the greater continent, with a special interest in technology, while implementing the principles, ethics, and wealth of experience she has gained throughout her career thus far. She has identified that we are living in an era of great expansion, with a stretching of our imagination and sense of what’s possible, by the now tangible possibility of inter-planetary existence as a near-future reality.
She currently chairs the Renewable Energy Masterplan process for South Africa, to deliver an implementable plan against a vision for South Africa’s energy future for 2030 and 2050. She is also a board member of Reinsurance Group of America in South Africa and GreenCape, an NPO established to support and promote the green economy in South Africa.
Heather’s passion for solving some of our biggest challenges locally and on the continent endures, and she has long since recognised technological advancement as one of the most useful tools in addressing these challenges today. Armed with the vision of an inclusive and thriving economy, she is working at bringing these factors together to continue to make a difference in our country, on our continent, and in the world.
She is a Fellow of the second class of the Africa Leadership Initiative-South Africa and an Aspen Global Leadership Network moderator.