Legal specialist Jenita Suknunun has carved out a unique niche for herself, rising to success in her field, but doing so on her own terms.
The Head of Legal at Netstar is the leader of a women-only department at the vehicle-recovery and fleet-management organisation. She has earned her stripes over the 13 years she’s been with the company, and today she has the respect of colleagues, customers and suppliers alike.
As a trail-blazing woman in a field that remains male-dominated, she has faced challenges during her career. However, she has remained centred and aware of her personal values, managing to rise to a leadership role, without compromising her principles
As the head of the legal department, she is responsible for the legal, governance and risk functions. She deals with compliance, risk management, contracts, litigation, policy submissions, tenders and other documentation, as well as the drafting of major agreements for the telematics giant.
“The legal and regulatory environment changes over time,” Jenita points out. “That’s what I enjoy about the law – it is an organic, living discipline. It evolves over time, and it never stagnates, and I can say the same for the Netstar business, which makes my work an absolute pleasure.”
But besides the core practice of corporate law, much of what she does is about interacting with people, which calls for sophisticated levels of emotional intelligence.
“It’s about building good working relationships,” says Jenita. “In business, all stakeholders need to be comfortable with each other, so that we can deliver the quality of work that we expect from ourselves and from each other.”
These good working relationships are built on integrity and respect, she says – respect for those you work with, and respect for yourself.
During the pandemic and now, as the country emerges from the COVID-19 lockdown, Jenita’s working day has been a whirlwind of navigating new laws and regulations. But she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I like to be challenged and get great satisfaction from being able to deliver to the highest possible standards in a highly pressurised environment,” she says. “It’s also been so inspiring to work with so many great South Africans helping each other through the lockdown.”
Jenita grew up in Chatsworth, Durban, in KZN. She was one of three children, with her mother a homemaker and her father working as a teacher.
“To an extent, I’m from a traditional Indian family,” she says. “My parents provided for us the best that they could, but the main thing they impressed on us was the importance of an education. That was non-negotiable.”
She says that while she sometimes wished for more opportunities growing up, she now appreciates that she was able to succeed, largely because of her parents.
“Today, my siblings and I have so much more than my parents did at our age,” she says. “And I really appreciate the sacrifices they made for us.”
Jenita describes her mum as her greatest role model.
“She’s always encouraged us, taken care of us, and always nurtured us,” says Jenita. “My mum set a shining example of what a woman should be. My dad was the provider who inspired us to be our best, and we’re blessed to still have them around.”
“Jenita says her greatest learning has been that she can live her personal values, while also achieving her goals as a professional.”
“You don’t have to compromise yourself to achieve success,” she says. “I can express my culture, as well as my own personality and values in my working life, and I have the right to do that.”
While Jenita is highly conscious of her right to express her own values, she has also had to earn respect in her career.
“I’m fortunate to work with open-minded teams but have like most women come across men who are stereotypical in their attitudes towards women” she says. “Respect is earned and by being dedicated to my field and by conducting myself with integrity, I have gained the respect of others. People recognize that I add value to our organization, and I am proud of that.”
She advises young women looking to enter the legal field to identify what aspect of law they are most passionate about.
“Start steering yourself towards that niche early on in your studies,” she says. “That might mean doing vacation work with an organisation, or working at the law clinic on campus. You could also volunteer at women’s or children’s forums. Start building relationships, because your career path is set quite early on.”
Once a woman’s career is up and running, Jenita advises that they remember their worth at all times and to also try and give back to society in whatever way they can.
“Ultimately, it comes down to respecting yourself as a woman, and as a person,” she says. “If you love what you do, and you know who you are, that makes you a better person – and a more effective professional.”
See the article online in Cover Magazine here.