Swimming against the stream inspired her to be an engineer
Hema Vallabh (34) knew three things: she loved maths and science, did not want to be an accountant, and wanted to “swim against the stream”.
So she became an engineer, which features seven times in the top 10 scarce-skills list, making it one of the most sought-after professions in South Africa.
It is a decision the former Lenasia resident who graduated in 2005 has never regretted.
“Growing up in Lenasia outside Joburg, I knew what I didn’t want to do. Everyone with good marks was becoming a chartered accountant or pursuing something in finance. I wanted to swim against the stream,” she says.
“Engineering turned out to be something I fell in love with, although it was really challenging,” admits the co-founder of the NGO Women in Engineering, which aims to encourage girls to pursue a career in the field.
“People were constantly dropping out in the fourth year. I was one of few girls in the class at the University of Cape Town, and one of even fewer people of colour.
“I came from a public school and, although I had six A’s, I was competing with people who had eight A’s and came from private schools.” She says it was “intimidating finding my place”. Vallabh had a bursary from Sasol that paid her fees and provided her with holiday work and mentorship. Straight from her master’s, she was thrown into the thick of things at Sasolburg in the Free State, home to one of only two viable coal-derived oil refineries in the world.
She later worked at Sasol in Germany for two years, but returned because she believed Africa was where she was needed.
“When you work in the developed world, you are maintaining things; in the developing world, you are pioneering. Here, I have the chance to address issues like poverty and the quality of education.” She adds that Africa is developing rapidly and the West and East are cashing in on opportunities where Africans are failing to create their own talent pools.
Vallabh, a chemical engineer who hung up her hard hat in 2013 to work full time promoting her NGO, says while the perception is that engineers are “grease monkeys who turn nuts and bolts and build physical structures”, it’s much more than that.
“An engineering qualification teaches you how to think in a very specific way to address problems in a way that is out of the box. Engineers are also innovators.
“You can decide whether you want to work on site as a technical engineer, where you guide the building of a structure like a bridge. Or you might want to design things like home appliances or new cars. You can work for a consulting firm helping it with the business side of strategic problem-solving.”
Vallabh and a friend started their NGO while still at university in response to perceptions that engineering required brute strength and was only for men. She says the perception has shifted, but not entirely.
“Women in Engineering helps equip women for industry and buffers the transition from studying to working. We have a high school programme that creates awareness of engineering as a career of choice for girls.”
Each year, 60 girls from about 2 000 applicants are accepted for weekend workshops. “We cover everything from personal branding to filling in university applications and show them how to thrive in the industry.”
’ Hema Vallabh