First among equals

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Alex Sudheim

20 Oct 2021 Clock 5 min

There is a tradition among football clubs to ‘retire the number’ of an illustrious player when they call time on their career. This gesture of highest respect is a rare one reserved for the greats, effectively saying ‘no one will ever eclipse them’. When Brazilian legend Pelé played his final professional match for New York Cosmos in 1977, the club retired his iconic number 10 jersey.

If Voys South Africa was a soccer team, Athini Kenke would surely have worn the jersey with the number 1 on it. For not only was she the very first colleague of the fledgling start-up in 2014 but, in the words of colleague Natalie Pardenwachter, ‘she lived and breathed our philosophy’. Athini’s departure from Voys, like that of Pelé from football, leaves a gap that is nigh impossible to fill.

Underscoring Natalie’s sentiment is Voys SA founder and CEO Sebastiaan van Dorssen. In his moving address at Athini’s recent farewell celebrations, Sebastiaan noted that ‘Athini has embodied our values, imparted them to others and in doing so instilled them in the organisation. Athini has been the cultural co-founder of Voys.’

‘Imparting’ and ‘instilling’ clearly come naturally to Athini: all her colleagues at Voys, without exception, draw attention to these invaluable qualities. ‘Athini makes deep connections with each individual she encounters, leaving a trace of light wherever she goes. She left an imprint on me that will never fade,’ says Roxzanne Mentoor. Mélody Deunier-Lisene speaks of Athini as ‘the most patient, kind and generous person I know; she makes an indelible impression upon you.’

However Mélody is also quick to point out that Athini is also ‘very focused, very motivated and very on the ball. She might come across as a big softie but she’s tough as nails. She won’t back down when she’s convinced she’s right and will push you for your own good.’

In a progressive, purpose-driven and self-managed organisation such as Voys, values are the foundation upon which the business is built. It is therefore imperative that the colleagues that comprise the organisation don’t merely pay lip service to these values but truly live them. Known as ‘The TAO of Voys’, these values are Togetherness, Authenticity and Ownership, which, in a nutshell, means we all hold ourselves and each other accountable to our promises.

To Athini, living these values came as second nature. Or, as Natalie puts it, ‘she most definitely walked the talk’. ‘It’s one thing to say you’re empathetic,’ continues Natalie, ‘but another thing entirely to be genuinely in tune with others, to really see where they’re coming from and feel their frustration as if it was your own. How she spoke in person, over the phone or in email…
it was always with the utmost kindness, compassion and professionalism.’

The explicit purpose of Voys SA is to establish a new standard of excellence in customer service in South Africa. This is more easily said than done, especially in the telecom sector where many in the country have become inured to woeful service and are quick to vent their spleen at whoever happens to be at the other end of the line. 

However, if that person was Athini, the customer would soon be purring with delight. For, as her colleague Sakhe Ntshwanti points out, ‘even in the midst of crisis, Athini always kept a level head. Her calm, supportive demeanour made her the voice of sanity.’ Aside from her demeanour, Athini’s voice itself, with its honeyed, mellifluous tones, has the power to soothe the most savage beast. Or, as Roxzanne puts it: ‘Her voice was like a lullaby to distraught clients seeking solutions.’

Athini first met Sebastiaan in the Netherlands in 2012, a serendipitous intersection in both of their lives. Athini was then a representative of Igniting Ambitions, a Dutch initiative founded by Hielke Hekman which provides underprivileged students from South Africa with internships at Dutch companies. Sebastiaan was then running a plastics wholesale business in an industrial area north of Amsterdam, ‘a country and region,’ he says, ‘not particularly known for its warm embrace.’

At that point in time Sebastiaan was in the process of pondering the next phase of his entrepreneurial journey. This took the form of his establishment in Cape Town of Voys, South Africa’s pioneering VoIP provider. He had fallen in love with the city during a kiteboarding vacation and while doing research on South African wine producers for his Masters thesis at the Rijksuniversiteit in Groningen.

Sebastiaan had immediately been struck by how ‘brave, worldly, calm, and authentic’ this ‘young lady from Langa’ had been and, once back in Cape Town, he made it one of his first orders of business to entice Athini into joining the company as its very first employee. The initial two and a half years in the life of Voys SA were both ‘exciting and painstakingly slow’ with Sebastiaan and Athini a two-(wo)man band doing everything from website design, marketing, PR, sales and support to invoicing and debt collection.

Fast-forward to the present day and Voys has successfully navigated the treacherous waters faced by all start-ups. It is now an established force in the business telephony market with thousands of delighted South Africans using Freedom, its award-winning cloud-based PBX platform. 

This is in so small part due to the instrumental role played by Athini in those crucial formative years. Now that Voys is (almost!) all grown up, Athini has set her sights on new horizons. Or, to be precise, she has newly reset her sights on an old horizon: Athini is moving back into the non-profit education space where the kind of dedication and devotion she delivers is in short supply.

A chance encounter in Holland in 2012 led Athini to becoming one of the cornerstones of South Africa’s pioneering VoIP provider, helping to build it into the strapping young company it is today. Since raising and nurturing delicate saplings to become strong, sturdy trees is clearly Athini’s forté, she is moving back into education space where her talents are sorely needed.

Athini, we thank you profusely for the years of unstinting service and passionate commitment and wish you only the most tremendous success and fulfilment in your future endeavours.