Irene Charnley South Africa CEO, Smile Telecoms
The chief executive of Smile Telecoms is a born organiser. With a trade-union background, Charnley started in the world of business with the creation of the National Empowerment Consortium (NEC), a body aimed at empowering those who apartheid excluded from the commanding heights of the economy. The NEC then bought a 35% share of Johnnic Holdings – where Charnley was executive director – which in turn took a controlling stake in what became South Africa’s leading telecoms company, MTN, helping to drive its listing on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. And this commitment to sharing wealth has been constant. While at Johnnic, which is now called Times Media Group, she championed the Ikageng scheme, which turned 32,000 previously excluded South Africans into shareholders in Johnnic. And in 2002, Charnley led a R4bn ($296m) management and staff buy in to MTN. While commercial director of MTN, Charnley spearheaded the group’s expansion through Africa and beyond, anchoring the company’s reputation as the continent’s biggest telecoms player. The entry into Iran, however, did not come without controversy. MTN was accused by rival Turkcell of stealing its licence, something denied by MTN and Charnley. A brief spell as the unpaid chair of the South African Broadcasting Corporation in 2009 – where she uncovered scandal after scandal – displayed her continued interest in public service. But it was not politics that Charnley pursued after stepping down as executive director at MTN in 2007. Instead, telecoms remains Charnley’s core passion: as chief executive of Smile Telecoms, Charnley has continued to push for expansion. Smile now claims one of the largest 4G networks in Africa, operating in Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania and soon in the Democratic Republic of Congo.