By Rorisang Rathebe
Sonja Saunderson began her tenure as the EPPF’s Chief Investment Officer (CIO) on 1 November 2022. She smiles when she explains that the first few days at the Fund have introduced her to an intimate yet bustling culture. “The EPPF is such a professionally run fund. It is revered and respected in the industry, so I’m excited to be a part of that,” she says.
Leaving Momentum, where she worked for 22 years, was not an easy decision. In the modern working world, staying at a company for two decades isn’t particularly common. In Sonja’s case, it is indicative of her values. “When you’re surrounded by the right people, and when your work positively impacts the lives of others, staying for 22 years comes naturally,” she says.
Her work was rewarding and meaningful in that it became an extension of her passion for people. Regardless, life is full of opportunities to learn and grow. Despite her already impressive and extensive career history, Sonja continues to seek out ways to be impactful and leave a strong legacy. She is motivated by two simple words: What’s next? This time around, the Eskom Pension and Provident Fund was the answer.
Alongside her passion to create an impact through her work, Sonja’s move to the Fund was inspired by the desire to expand her own experience in the pensions space. “I always ask myself, ‘Are you doing the best that you can and are you making a real impact?’” she shares. Even after more than two decades in investment, Sonja’s drive to learn can be compared to one who just started their career.
When she began hers, however, the intention was not necessarily to land up in the investment space. She had always excelled at mathematics and statistics, which led her to study Actuarial Science at the North-West University. As a young student, Sonja also studied geology and strongly believed her career would remain in that area. She recalls her fascination with the subject, where exams entailed studying the composition of unique rocks. It was only when the university offered her an Actuarial Statistics lecturing role that she was introduced to professionals in the investment space. In this capacity, she jointly developed the university’s actuarial training programme. Thus, her talents and dedication sparked an unexpected interest.
Throughout her career, Sonja has been a lecturer, Quantitative Analyst, Head of Research and Development, Deputy CIO and CIO. Having been responsible for leadership, investment advice, risk management, product development, strategic planning and a host of other investment functions, there is no doubt about her suitability as the EPPF’s CIO. In her new role, she is responsible for driving the strategic agenda that seeks to deliver investment returns for EPPF members amongst key focus areas.
After decades of fine-tuning her craft, Sonja can’t help but be humbled by her achievements. Over the years, she’s picked up lessons that continue to guide her relationships in the workplace along with her work ethic. Sonja has built an investment philosophy that revolves around what the member wants. This is yet another demonstration of her ‘people passion’. “It has always been important for me to understand what people need, want and expect, both as members and colleagues,” she explains. Above and beyond caring about people, Sonja’s the key career lessons are:
- Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
- Stay willing to learn and grow
- Stay grounded and humble.
With these ‘navigation tools’, her leadership style has blossomed into what she calls “honest, authentic and loyal”. Earlier in her career, there was a pressure was on to always “always have the answers”. She explains that this kind of pressure is often a result of insecurity in the workplace. The more mature and comfortable you become, the more you realise that you can’t possibly know everything, and that’s why you need others. “This pressure is not necessary and you don’t have to be the person that knows it all,” she says. “Once you come to this realisation, you get comfortable with the idea of surrounding yourself with the people who balance out your weaknesses”.
When she isn’t wearing her work hat, Sonja is still relationship focussed. With a demanding job and the volatile, unpredictable nature of the investment industry, it’s important to be able to retreat to those you love. Community is an integral part of all facets of life, so her work doesn’t come at the expense of her personal relationships. “We all need to be able to switch off sometimes, and for me, that involves community and doing the things that love. Spending time in nature, cooking wholesome meals and reading as a form of relaxation – these are some of the ways I recharge,” she shares.
The EPPF team is delighted to welcome such a balance, headstrong and experienced Chief Investment Officer on board. We wish Sonja fulfilment and success as she navigates her role at the Fund.