Monalisa Sibongile Zwambila is the Founder and CEO of Riverbed a leading independent South African full-service agency borne out of her vision to build a black female owned best of breed organisation. The Riverbed provides integrated communications services to a host of blue chip and global clients and has played a pivotal role in the launch of some of South Africa’s big brands.

With a solid track record of spanning 20 years, prior to starting Riverbed in 2007, Monalisa was the Managing Director of The Communications Firm. At Riverbed, Monalisa is responsible for driving the company’s business strategy and has positioned the agency to take advantage of the ever-changing business environment underpinned by what clients want and what consumers demand. Monalisa is passionate about doing great things for good and recently set up the Greater Good Company, with a view of making a positive impact on society by leveraging the power of big brands.

To date, Monalisa has received several industry accolades that include Gauteng Business Woman of the Year 2017 and more recently, 2018 Industry Leader of the year voted for by her peers on MarkLives, with the same platform recognising Riverbed as the most diverse agency for 2019.  She is also a called upon industry speaker and judge for the Adfocus and the Prism Awards. 

Please tell us a little more about yourself and your journey thus far.

I’ve always been an entrepreneur by nature, and my entrepreneurial spirit is one that has guided me through various failed businesses to ultimately building and growing Riverbed to being the largest female owned independent creative agency in South Africa.

I’ve had a checkered past where I followed various passions over the years, including my deep love for music. On the other end of the spectrum I studied accounting! These two careers that seemed at odds at the time, have been instrumental in providing me with the tools I needed to build my business. That said, what has always remained consistent has been my level of discipline, hard work, tenacity and belief in anything that I’ve undertaken. I believe it’s those tenets that have enabled my current level of success, (still lots to be done) – and more importantly, what will serve as a guide as I traverse the next stage of my life. 

Please tell us a little more about how your company came about.

I have always wanted to run my own business, it’s been a childhood dream come true, and so my current journey comes as no surprise. Having owned 3 previously failed companies, there were many lessons learned, which provided a much stronger foundation for Riverbed. Starting the company came at a crossroad moment in my career 13 years ago, when I received an offer to take on a senior role in the financial services sector or start my own business (again). I took the risk and haven’t looked back since!

Should you be busy with any interesting initiatives, please tell us a little more about it.Xtraordinary Woman of the Month - Monalisa Sibongile Zwambila

The advent of the coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating impact on the world and more so in South Africa where it has exacerbated already existing challenges of poverty, Gender Based Violence and a depressed economy. We’re all going through uncertain and challenging times, and as most organisations grapple with their new normal, I believe that solutions will come from understanding that our success as business and indeed the country, is intrinsically linked to how we show up with support in difficult times.

Against this backdrop, Riverbed has started an initiative that we’re calling Ad Crashers. Through Ad Crashers, we aim to give small businesses a chance to ‘crash’ the big brand party by giving them access to big advertising, big business solutions and big media exposure for free. To date, we’ve managed to bring Vodacom, Kaya fm, Provantage Media Group and JC Deceaux on board who are all providing free media inventory for the small businesses that we select to create free advertising.

We’ve created a website where small businesses can enter the competition and Riverbed has committed to creating 10 integrated advertising campaigns for small businesses. The value of the initiative including media is close to R10m worth of free media for these small businesses. 

What is it that you are passionate about?

I’m passionate about giving back. I’ve reached a stage in my life where I understand that to whom much is given, much is expected. And not to say that I have reached the pinnacle of my success, but I do believe that I am able to contribute and empower in many ways and do so through a variety of platforms.

I am truly passionate about women. I believe we are the most beautiful and amazing people whose rightful place as captains of industry has been inhibited due to societal patriarchal norms that we continue to challenge every time we show up in unexpected places. Work to dismantle the status quo is ongoing, and I want to do what I can to be part of this change. I haven’t completely figured out what that looks like, but what I do know for sure, is that I’m considered when I hire women into my company and put them in senior positions. I realise the importance of having more black female leaders in business – especially one like advertising, that continues to be led and dominated by white men. 

Who or What has been the biggest influence in your life and why?

I’ve never really focused on a particular individual but I’m privileged to have had entrepreneurial parents who during a time when black people were marginalized and oppressed, were that voice of change, and were activists who supported the struggle and still managed to be business leaders in their own right. I’ve realised in hindsight that my mother has had the greatest effect on me. She had this ability to lead with kindness and influence those around her through encouragement, foresight and humility which are extremely powerful tools to drive change.

What is your personal “motto”?

Hard work, unbending resolve, belief, kindness, generosity, humility

What advice would you give a woman wanting to follow her dreams?

Most of us are playing multiple and complex roles of being a wife and a mother, an aunt, a colleague or a friend – and over and above that, many of us are single moms still trying to build a career and follow our dreams.. All of this compounded ten-fold by the challenging environment in which we exist. Chasing our dreams, as you can imagine, is difficult at best. The truth is that it will be nearly impossible to deliver on big and audacious goals and as such, the pursuit thereof requires fanatical focus. The kind of focus that will unfortunately disrupt the state of equilibrium we, as women, focus so much on preserving.

My advice, therefore, is to start by renegotiating your time and your role in the things that hold you back and yes, even motherhood. Secondly, be clear about what the dream or goal is and be single-minded about its realization. It is also important to ensure that dreams are brought down to earth, they are difficult to manage when looking up at them! They need to be interrogated, researched and planned to ensure that the gap between dream and reality is implementable.

Who or what is your inspiration and why?

I’m always inspired by the underdog. People that have managed despite their circumstances. These heroes are people that are amongst us and as such we do not need to look far for inspiration. They might not be making headline news but are easy enough to find.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Figure out what you want to do sooner rather than later, and stick to it…

Your favourite daily affirmation (if you have one)? 

The world is plotting to do you good!

Your favourite quote:

The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark. ~Michelangelo

Which book are you reading now (if any)?

I’m finishing my MBA and am working on my thesis right now.

Which book can you read over and over again?

Jim Collins – Good to Great

What are your top 3 business tips?

The companies that have grown during the pandemic have done two things successfully. Innovation through technology and built strong balance sheets with large cash reserves that have allowed them to withstand the pressures of the global pandemic. These two things have enabled growth.  Top tips therefore, are the following:

  • Manage your cash always.
  • Be more focused on your bottom line than your topline.
  • Innovate.

What would you say is your secret to success?

No secret at all.. It’s been hard work!

One piece of (general) advice that you’d like to share:

Know thyself… It will help build the confidence you need when the world around you begs to differ.

Is there anything that Xtraordinary Women can do to assist you on your journey?

Any support in getting word to the right marketing managers for big brands about Riverbed!

Contact Information:
Twitter: @riverbedagency | @monalisa_zwam
LinkedIn: Riverbed | Monalisa Sibongile Zwambila
Instagram: @theriverbedagency
YouTube: The Riverbed Agency