Swim­ming against the stream in­spired her to be an en­gi­neer

CityPress - - News - – S’thembile Cele

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

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