I got to know Henrica from LinkedIn, through a mutual friend called Tatenda Emma Matika. Henrica’s passion for STEM is contagious! I wanted to know more and learn from her. Here is our interview about her STEM journey:
Hi Henrica, we are pleased to have you with us today! It was amazing seeing you at the summit today – I didn’t know you were attending, haha
Hi Winnie, I am excited to be here too, thank you! I was happy to see you post about the summit as well. I should thank you for the wonderful work you do with your blog. I went through the site and could identify with some of the women on there. I felt encouraged, knowing that there were women who had faced similar challenges like me but pushed on until they succeeded.
Wow! Thank you for the kind words. That’s actually another reason I keep doing this – yes there is the aspect of inspiring a younger generation, but also empowering the people who tell their stories. Many times I get this expression of; “wow! Is this all from me?” after posting someone’s story. In a way, it makes my interviewees realise how much they have accomplished in life.
So, who is Henrica?
I am Henrica Ketura Makulu from Zimbabwe. I am currently a Data Analyst for one of Zimbabwe’s biggest technology companies called Cassava Smartech. My job involves using data insights to inform business decisions.
I am also a mentor and trainer. I founded a program where I mentor people who want to get into the same career as me, with a particular interest in young girls. I do this because I feel like there was no guidance for me when I was getting into the data analysis field. So I believe I can be that guidance for someone else who wants to join my field of specialisation.
Please walk us through your STEM journey
My path from childhood was very mixed – I could have gone any direction really. One thing that has stayed with me is the fact that I was born a leader. My mother says that as a child, I would boss around people who were 10 years older than me, haha… So I found myself being head-girl both at junior and high school, even though these were different schools in different cities. I was also involved in a lot of activities; basketball, singing, and many others.
Talking about my academic side, I passed my arts subjects better in O’level. I performed well in subjects like History, Literature, and the like, but because I was a “Tom-boy” at that time, I wanted to join the science class, just to show how tough I am! haha… so, I got A’s in my arts subjects and C’s in my sciences but ended up doing Mathematics, Physics, and Chemistry for my A’level. Looking back, I think it was a very foolish decision because I was honestly not strong in those subjects, haha… I was just challenging myself. As you can guess, I didn’t do well in my final examinations. My highest scored subject was Mathematics.
When it was time for university applications, I applied for Sports Science because of my “Tom-boy” nature and wanted to do sports! However, the university denied me that specific course because I didn’t have A’Level Biology. I was advised to select my second best option and all I had was Mathematics. I just chose it because it was my next best option but it wasn’t really of interest to me then. Through-out my years at university I felt like I was a fluke, so to say! I failed all my Physics courses because the degree had some Mechanical Physics in it. I ended up repeating a full year of my degree due to the difficulty of the degree for me as well as financial constraints – I wasn’t always able to pay my fees on time. A normal 4-year degree took me 5 years to finally graduate. One thing I realised was that every time I went home for holidays and people asked me what course I was doing, answering “Applied Mathematics” always left them wowed. Those moments started making me feel like maybe what I was doing wasn’t a mistake. So it was only after I graduated that my love for Mathematics started.
With the way jobs in Africa are hard to find, I could only find something in administration after graduating. I was filing, with a little bit of data entry in the agricultural sector. My company then used to give out loans to communal farmers, and my job was to keep and update an Excel sheet that had all that information, and keep track of whether they had paid their loan or not. As someone with a Mathematics degree, this job wasn’t challenging enough! That’s when a friend of mine from USA mentioned the word “Data Analysis” during our conversations. I looked up the word on Google and decided to try learning what it was about. This friend had mentioned that it was an upcoming thing, and would be very lucrative. That’s how my journey started; using my simple Excel to create graphs, interpreting results to my supervisors, etc.
This realisation pushed me to try out real Data Analysis jobs. I redid my CV and put myself on recruiting portals. One day after searching for two to three years, I received a call for a Data Scientist job in the leading telecommunications company in Zimbabwe called Econet. I went for the interview but I wasn’t confident. Yes I had my Mathematics degree but no experience apart from my little Excel work. During the interview, I showed passion, was honest about what I didn’t know, and convinced them that I was willing to learn. I went ahead to research about everything I was asked during that interview. I was thankfully invited for a practical interview. I now had a better idea of Data Analysis during my technical examination. We were 5 shortlisted candidates for that interview. All the other people had Masters degrees, I was the only one without, haha…. So I was really not confident! To my surprise, I was called back for the job and my very supportive boss taught me everything I know about Data Analysis from scratch. I have now been 3 years into that role and it’s been amazing!
What else has been challenging to you in life?
I was raised by a single mother, so obviously life wasn’t always easy. She had a job that would pay her something but it was not sufficient. While I was in university, I struggled with funds for just transport and living expenses. I decide to start selling sweets. I would buy them with my little pocket money and sell them to my fellow students.
Another thing is, whenever I hear about gender inequality, I usually tell people that I haven’t faced any gender inequality from men or fellow women anywhere. If I’ve ever faced inequality it came from myself. The biggest challenge I faced at the beginning of my STEM journey was the lack of confidence. I didn’t believe that I could be someone in the STEM field to the extent that even after 5 years into a Mathematics degree, I still believed it was a mistake! Yet looking back, I was already into STEM by the mere fact that I was doing a Mathematics degree. So my biggest hindrance along this STEM journey has been myself and my lack of confidence!
Another challenge I’ve faced is the lack of opportunities that exists in Africa. When I look at someone else with a Mathematics degree in the United States, for example, they have tutors and companies that go to these schools to offer internship opportunities. Like I said, I worked for 5 years, filing! This is someone with a Mathematics degree doing filing work! It’s all because I had no opportunities and career guidance. Also, I wish someone had told me that the Excel sheet I was working with was a good start to something bigger, it would have motivated me more. It was a form of me applying my Mathematics experience.
What inspires you amidst all the challenges you have faced in life?
First of all, I am a believer in God. So, my faith is a strong source of inspiration to me. I believe I wouldn’t have made it to where I am today without the help of the Creator of heaven and earth.
Secondly, I have always known that I don’t want to be average. So I put my whole heart into something, no matter how small the task might be. Every time I feel small in my career or anything, the dislike of being average pushes me to do better because I feel like I am not like everyone else, I want to go above and beyond.
I also want to be among people who inspire others. Recently I have had a lot of young people reaching out to me with questions about my career. They tell me about how they were confused but reading my story has inspired them and they would like to know how they can start making things better in their own lives. That alone inspires me and gives me hope. Inspiring someone doesn’t take much, it’s usually through you sharing your story but its impact goes a long way.
Tell us about your prestigious recognitions and awards
- I was recognised as one of Africa’s leading women in data analytics by TECHBUILD.AFRICA (2021)
- I was profiled in “profiles in data” series by DATA SCIENCE ZIMBABWE(2021)
- I founded a STEM mentorship program known as HM Digital (2020)
- I was selected to work directly with and be mentored by former Econet Wireless C.O.O who is now Assistant Secretary General for the UN, Mr Fayaz King
- I was also selected to be trained by former United States Vice President Al Gore on climate action in the United States (2019)
- I served as Vice curator of the Global Shapers Community – an initiative of the World Economic Forum (2019)
- I also served as the only African mentor in the Climate Reality Leadership Corps in Minnesota USA (2019)
- Tedx Speaker (2019)
- Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) fellow (2017)
In 2019, I had never been out of Africa, and given my background, I would never dream of stepping outside my continent! But all these recognitions have shown me how different God’s purpose in your life can be. The only time I had tried acquiring an American visa, it was denied on the basis that I was a young, unmarried, never-traveled African. How sure were they that I wasn’t going to stay in the country illegally! That’s actually another problem we face in Africa. No one wants to give you a chance if you have never been given a chance – it’s crazy!
What do you enjoy doing outside work?
I love singing, I actually have a song on YouTube. Whoever said a STEM person is not artistic lied – I am a Mathematician but I love singing.
I am also a sporty person. I used to play league basketball but have phased that out because of time constraints. Currently I run and do other fitness stuff.
I am an extrovert and a social butterfly. Most of my out-of-work activities involve people and travelling. Just yesterday I got back from an outdoor trip.
What is your favourite quote?
I have 3, I hope I am I allowed to say all of them;
1. “Success is the sum of small efforts repeated over time” ~ Robert Collier. I love this quote because when people see you successful they only admire the tip of the iceberg. They don’t see the background of you putting in time and effort. Secondly, this quote helps me every time there is an insurmountable challenge ahead of me. I keep remembering that every big thing I have done has been a process of splitting it into small parts that are doable. It helps me to take things one step at a time when I am overwhelmed.
2. “Knowledge is the only thing that grows when you give it away” ~ Peter Schwartz. This I have seen in my journey of data analysis. The more I explain to people, the more of an expert I become. Yet some people withhold knowledge assuming that once they let it out, people will overtake them.
3. “Stories are just data with a soul” ~ Chris Coate. I love data story telling, which is like telling someone a story that is based on facts.
What word of advice would you give a young girl who is struggling to fit into the STEM field?
I would tell this young girl to seek for someone who has gone down a similar path before. It’s not possible to go through a STEM journey alone. Look for someone, whether physically or virtually, just follow them and see what they talk about, read about their journey, learn what got them to where they are. That way you have a template for where you want to go.
Be someone who excels no matter how small the task is. The little jobs I did before my current role were approached in the best way possible. I became this reliable person who delivers. I started with those small things and did them very well.
Please volunteer where you can because it grows you and gives you experience. You can walk into your first interview saying you have zero corporate experience, however, over the past year, you have managed to do this and that by volunteering in such and such a community. It’s better than having an empty resume.
Thank you very much, Henrica! You are such an inspiration. Please keep doing what you do. Thank you once again.
Hi Henrica; this is so powerful and inspiring. Tell more about the mentor ship program. I have two young kids 6 and 9. Their strengths are in stem subjects and the younger one has so much passion in Doing research and easily builds legos toys etc… i really want them be around inspiring people and doing practical stuff. Like my daughter who’s also passionate about the arts and goes to music school and to a dance school; are there also extra activities like stem club for kids…
Hi Lucia. Thank you so much for your feedback! The mentorship program is called HM Digital : https://www.linkedin.com/company/hm-digital/
As of now it’s for university students and working individuals who are pursuing data careers. However there is a huge need for clubs for kids to catch them young! Here are some young African start-ups teaching kids to code for example: https://disrupt-africa.com/2020/02/27/meet-the-african-tech-startups-teaching-kids-to-code/
All the best and I hope you find a space where your kids can begin to harness their passion and skills!