Isabel Rao always wanted to be in the movie business. After completing a BA in psychology and languages, she began her career in the entertainment industry by working at the SABC’s Foreign Service. Five years down the line she spotted an ad for a secretarial position with the general manager of Ster-Kinekor’s Gauteng region.
“It was the only job available in the organisation and even though I was over-qualified, I wanted to get my foot in the door.” She got the job, and her boss turned out to be a great mentor. Six months later, Rao was appointed regional marketing assistant.
Her work caught the attention of national marketing and she was offered a position at head office. The CEO at that time had a reputation for being hard to work with. “I went to see him and told him I would not accept the job if he was not comfortable with me because I did not want to be unhappy,” she says.
“We immediately had a rapport, so I accepted the position.” Ster-Kinekor then went through a restructuring phase and the business was divided into distribution and exhibition, or films and cinemas. Rao became marketing executive on the films side, the first woman in the organisation to be appointed to such a senior position.
“The appointment came as a surprise, and I knew there would be politics. But it gave me the opportunity to influence organisational policies and the industry in general.” In 2000 Rao became the CEO of Ster-Kinekor Distribution, bringing 20 years of film expertise to the position.
She is one of only a handful of women worldwide to be involved in this arena. She attributes her success largely to her passion for the product. “I cannot remember a time when I did not love stories,” she says. “Films are the visual depiction of stories, which makes them even more exciting.”
Her second love is travel. “My job enables me to indulge interests I have had from childhood. If you hold onto your ambitions, you end up realising them at some point.”
Rao says she has an innate ability to retain film information because she has a desire to. “The more passion you have for what you do, the easier it is to learn about it. That is why I have found it easy to market films.” So is the film industry as romantic as people believe?
From her perspective, Rao says it’s important to separate emotions from business. “Films are about dreams. People believe in the romance, and they do not want to know what goes on behind the scenes. As consumers, that is their right.”
But there is a harsh business reality too. Rao says the local film industry in particular needs to understand that creativity alone does not deliver what people want to see. “When you work in film, your job is to deliver the romance, not to be romantic.”
Rao says she surrounds herself with excellent people, because a leader is only as good as their team. “I strive to have the best possible people in places where their strengths lie, and I empower them to make decisions. As a hands-on person, I had to learn to offer guidance without jumping in.
I know how I wanted to be treated when I was in marketing, so that’s how I deal with our executives now. It’s also important to keep in touch. People really are the most difficult factor in an organisation, and even the great ones need recognition, feedback, and assistance.”