In this issue we profile Zulmira Ferraz, Founder and Managing Director of ElementC, a security technology development company that provides clients with synergetic technologies solutions to streamline processes and secure their sites.
Zulmira grew up in what she describes as a typical Portuguese immigrant family. “We are close-knit, industrious, and proud.” Both she and her sister were raised to be independent, learning how to fix the VHS machine, change tyres, and tinker with tools to keep themselves occupied after school. She feels this imparted in her a sense of self-assurance from an early age.
After graduating from Riebeek College Girls High in Uitenhage and deciding to pursue a BSc in physiology and biochemistry, Zulmira realised that she did not want to spend the rest of her life working in a laboratory. She secured a position in administration and telesales at CTU, where Milestone Systems’ George Psoulis happened also to be a member of the team. When George moved into the physical security industry, Zulmira received an offer to become a software support technician in access control at his new company. That company turned out to be Impro Systems, headed up at the time by John Powell, a stalwart of the security industry. “Even though I knew absolutely nothing about access control and Google was not as smart back then as it is today”, she chuckles.
A year later, Impro Systems was sold to Blick Systems, which then became Stanley Security Solutions, and Zulmira was promoted to systems support, and then to the projects team as a project controller, administering all aspects of installation projects. She was also offered the opportunity to complete her Diploma in Project Management through the University of Stellenbosch Business School, which she accomplished cum laude. Shortly after that, she was awarded the Outstanding Employee award. In fact, she won the award twice during her tenure.
Eventually her former employer, John Powell, founded Powell Tronics, and Zulmira joined the business. Her position required her to don two hats; one as Technical Manager in charge of a nationwide team of support technicians, and the other as Development Team Leader based in Cape Town. As a hands-on leader, Zulmira frequently visited customer sites armed with a screwdriver. She says with a smile, “I am essentially a support technician at heart.”
Then came 2020
South Africa was already a troubled nation by the end of 2019 with its expanded definition of unemployment, which includes ‘discouraged workers’, placing the country’s unemployment rate at 47% (Stats SA, 2020), with some provinces significantly exceeding this figure. Nevertheless, despite the gloomy forecast, Zulmira had often contemplated abandoning the consistency of her steady income, to venture out on her own.
Hence, as South Africa went into lockdown in 2020, Zulmira used the occasion to reflect on her career in depth. Restricted to the Cape Town region, she found it challenging to feel so cut off from her teams, as well as from her family in the Eastern Cape, and she, like many others, struggled with uncertainty regarding the future.
She reflects, “It was difficult to ignore how stressed various industries were, during that period, and to top it off, my company was undergoing significant internal changes. There was simply so much occurring that year.” Hence, the minute the provincial borders re-opened, Zulmira travelled to the Eastern Cape to her family home for a short holiday.
At the family dinner table, she made the decision to start her own enterprise. It had been in the works for some time, but that evening, everything fell into place. “It was 9:35 pm, I was on my second glass of wine, and something clicked,” she says with a wry chuckle. Three days later, she registered a company, and one week later, she resigned.
With the country still in the midst of a global pandemic, ElementC opened for business on November 1, 2020, with the backing of Acorn Black Investments, a woman-owned South African private equity investment firm that enables ElementC to operate as a Level 1 B-BBEE Contributor.
Zulmira was initially hesitant to compete with Powell Tronics and her former team, so ElementC began by providing only high level consulting services. Soon, however, former customers began requesting custom software development. Francois de Wit, an experienced security technologies technician, turned self-taught software developer, joined ElementC to assist in the expansion of its software integration division. Chris Horn joined the team shortly thereafter, bringing with him expertise in both security solution architecture and software development. The company creates what Zulmira refers to as ‘sticky stuff’.
“Clients frequently need to combine the best features of various technologies in the market and also streamline their specific operations, but the latter capability is typically not available with standard functionalities. This is our strength; being able to combine multiple solutions into functional and seamlessly integrated technology solutions that bridge risk and operational gaps across multiple industries and sectors.”
Confidence and expertise pave the way
We chat a little about her experiences as a woman in the security sector and Zulmira tells me that she has not personally encountered negativity. She counts herself fortunate to have been involved with teams of supportive and respectful male colleagues who have considered her their equal yet have also acknowledged her gender in the most positive manner. She cites an example from her Powell Tronics days, “Contractors respected me in my role as one of them, yet they still never left me on a site in the late evenings as a woman on my own. I loved that balance.”
When she works on projects that include people who may not yet know who she is, she has found that male colleagues can sometimes be hesitant to fully acknowledge her role initially. However, this technical dynamo soon gains respect with her confidence and obvious expertise in her field.
Zulmira does not underestimate the fact that she is a woman operating in a predominately male oriented industry, but she feels that she can hold her own by respecting the roles regardless of gender, and by ensuring that her knowledge and skill speak for themselves. She also feels that the dynamics for women in the industry have significantly improved in the past several years, which she finds encouraging.
Zulmira loves the camaraderie that the security sector provides. “Our industry is very small and you’ll inevitably run into someone you know. We may all find ourselves competing in the boardroom, but we can easily socialise outside of it,” she says.
She is also continually enthused about the fact that security technologies keep evolving. “Just when you think you’re on top of it, there is more to learn.”
Passion and integrity
Zulmira feels that her strengths in the industry are her practical understanding of security technologies together with her understanding of the custom software that can be added to those. “Many software houses do not understand security access control, and many security houses do not understand software. Essentially, ElementC forms an important bridge.”
She points out that the industry is now more IT driven than it was in the past, and that IT is streamlining and automating access and egress continually. She has learned to pay attention to what clients want and discern their real needs. “In the security industry, it is essential to manage client expectations, to not oversell, and to promptly address any issues that arise.”
Zulmira’s passion for her clients is palpable, and she takes great pride in her ability to translate client visions into a workable solutions. Also, integrity cannot be compromised. “This is a small industry where word travels quickly, and some service providers are still struggling to sustain steady business. Integrity is everything to us.”
Zulmira has come across several dynamic women working within the security sector and she specifically mentions Leonie Mangold, Business Development Manager at G4S Secure Solutions, and Sandy Hill, Group Sales Director at Vizual Multi Service Group. She enthuses that both women are exceptional at what they do, and go above and beyond to meet the requirements of their customers in their own unique ways. She also makes mention of the many, many ladies working in back offices of security companies throughout the country.
“In this industry, everybody knows the superstars in sales or the technical divisions, but few know the ladies making it all happen, behind the scenes.”
Maddie Humphris, a member of the security management team for the C. Steinweg Group (an ElementC client), is another one of these remarkable women. The group provides storage, handling, forwarding, and other logistics services in strategic locations around the globe, including Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, where Maddie is based. “That lovely lady has the patience of a saint,” says Zulmira. “She manages the access control system on site and deals with truck drivers and workers at a container depot all day, and the men really respect her. She is authoritative, but with the friendliest attitude, and never pushy or abrasive.”
In closing, I ask Zulmira how she would motivate more women to pursue careers in the security industry. Her reply is insightful. “I would encourage security service providers to train their own guards for technical careers. I believe that many exceptional individuals, particularly security officers, are sometimes overlooked. They are typically tech-savvy, competent, and inquisitive. A hand up is all that is required for many. I frequently recommend to security officers that they request job shadowing opportunities within the technical division. Officers, including female officers, are intrigued by what I do onsite. They are always interested in my background and how I attained my current position.
“Technology is a field with so much potential. There is considerable scope.”
For more information contact:
• Leonie Mangold, firstname.lastname@example.org
• Sandy Hill, email@example.com
Lesley-Anne Kleyn is a consultant working across a range of sectors, assisting clients to build their businesses into profitable, impactful and enduring entities. With many clients in the security services sector too, she is a member of the board of ASIS International, heading up Women in Security. To join the conversation, contact her on
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