Andrea Bohmert first came from Aachen, Germany, to Johannesburg to work as an intern in 1994, a move made permanent when she was later offered a job by Siemens. Bohmert now runs Hasso Plattner Ventures Africa, which provides a global gateway for established technology entrepreneurs. She lives in Somerset West, a 40-minute drive from Cape Town, with her husband Roger, himself a serial entrepreneur, and their two children, Kristin, eight, and Eric, nine.
Boldness and being in the right place at the right time have shaped Andrea Bohmert’s career in South Africa. In 1994, the German-born businesswoman got her first big break – an internship at Johannesburg’s South African-German Chamber of Commerce – when her predecessor left, afraid of potential violence around the nation’s first democratic elections. The fears proved unfounded and the three-month placement provided Bohmert with just the international experience for which German employers were looking.
Years later, a similar mixture of daring and timing saw her send an unsolicited e-mail to Professor Hasso Plattner, one of the co-founders of software manufacturer SAP, to put his money into South African technology start-ups. “The speed at which his team responded to an e-mail proposing a South Africa fund validated my instinct that there was international interest in South African technology – knocking on South African doors trying to raise money for a venture capital fund backing local South African entrepreneurs had been a tiring and disillusioning exercise,” she says. Days after meeting with the chief executive of Hasso Plattner Ventures in Germany, she received a text message which was the beginning of what is now a €29m venture capital fund.
“The lack of South Africans possessing both game-changing ideas and practical business skills surprised me,” Bohmert says. “I’ve seen some terrific new technology but there is less understanding here of the complexities that arise when building a global business.
“South Africa is a complex market with 11 indigenous languages, a mixture of first-world and third-world consumers, and distinct regional cultures. People in Johannesburg tend to operate at a fast pace, maintain an open mind about new people and products, and are grappling with how to manage being the gateway to the rest of Africa. By contrast, Cape Townians take time to make decisions, value their work-life balance and prefer to capitalise on their historical links to Europe. I have found that Cape Town is the more creative and entrepreneurial of the two cities.”
Mentoring is a huge part of Bohmert’s job. “If I, with the help of the fund and the team behind it, can help create a few success stories that inspire more people to pursue an entrepreneurial career path I will deem my time in South Africa well spent.”
She argues that the country needs more people like Mark Shuttleworth, Africa’s first astronaut and founder of the Ubuntu open-source software project, to inspire young people to study maths and science, and to fuel investors’ appetites to finance start-ups.
Living in South Africa has had its challenging moments. Crime, experienced first-hand, contributed to Bohmert’s decision to leave Johannesburg. Sexism, she says, has made her think – if only fleetingly – about leaving South Africa. The memory of having to ask her husband to vouch for her financial acumen when she applied for a credit card particularly annoys her.
“How can a bank in a country with progressive legislation around gender equality require a 27-year-old woman with a good job and a masters degree in business economics to supply a male guarantor?”
Breaking into her adopted country’s tightly knit personal networks took more time than she had anticipated. She and her husband, a South African born to German parents, purchased a home in the town of Somerset West before they realised its nickname was “Little Germany”. They are not really involved in the local German community, which consists largely of retirees from Namibia and Germans who have purchased second homes in the Cape. Watching German products appear on the shelves of their local shops every October and disappear every April when the “swallows” – as they are known – return to Germany amuses them, but it doesn’t make them nostalgic for “home”. Yet they probably will move away one day.
“Our challenge is that we’re not really sure where we want to live after South Africa,” she says. “We need to evaluate our options before the kids start high school. Most things in life boil down to personal networks – great jobs, profitable business opportunities, extraordinary homes. We need to figure out where we’d like to settle next so that we can begin to establish those life-changing relationships.”
In the meantime, Bohmert enjoys the excellent lifestyle Somerset West offers. She and her husband love to be on the beach, whether walking their dog or watching their children doing life-saver training. They also take pleasure from their garden, pool and outdoor entertainment space at home. They moved to Somerset West after renting homes in the beach communities Camp’s Bay and Llandudno because property prices there had skyrocketed. Although real estate prices have climbed since they moved to Somerset West, they believe it still offers relatively good value.
Bohmert rates highly the schools in the area. Her children attend a nearby private school called Somerset House. Located on an old wine estate with fabulous playgrounds, a music department and a well-equipped sports programme, her children’s school is the antithesis of her own primary school, she observes. Attending her 26th high-school reunion in her German hometown brought home the stark contrast between how she and her children have grown up, and made her reassess her aspirations for her children’s education. “Those in my class attending the Kreisgymnasium Heinsberg that were ‘struggling’ at school are now the ones with the more interesting and ‘successful’ jobs.
“Maybe being very good at school makes you afraid of leaving your comfort zone and reluctant to innovate,” she says.