Just Tell Me It’s Hard – Michelle Rutendo Sibongile Maphosa

 

Michelle and I connected through LinkedIn, after I landed on a post from Tea in 60, a community driven platform for Zimbabwean women and girls in/interested in STEM. Here is our interview about her STEM journey:

How are you doing today, Michelle?
I am fine, Winnie. I hope you too.

Thank you for joining us. What is your full name?
Thank you for inviting me. My name is Michelle Rutendo Sibongile Maphosa

What is your current occupation?
Wow! Where to start! I am a Civil Engineer by profession, but what I do currently is a little complicated, haha. I do a number of things;

First, I am a Co-founder and the Business Lead for Tea in 60 – a social enterprise aimed at directly increasing the number of women in STEM through virtual mentorship sessions, facilitating peer networking and support, as well as digital tools upskilling to better equip women for the workplace. This is specifically with and for Zimbabwean women and girls, because one is able to identify and relate better with those who have the Zimbabwean experience in terms of education and work systems. Tea in 60 also has a business platform, where women can sell their STEM related services or products. This is still under development but I am excited about the future.

Second, I am also an educator; I teach computer applications in civil engineering at the Carpe Diem School of Engineering.

Third, I work for an infrastructure development company that has operations in most parts of Southern Africa. We develop projects from concept, package them and raise funding. We also do engineering design, procurement and construction for the same.

I also keep bees and fish; I find that really cool. I enjoy agriculture, especially tech in agriculture. Two things that are really close to me are; food security and education for Zimbabwe and Africa as a whole.

So yes, those things are very special to me and I spend a considerable amount of time in the mentioned spaces.

Please walk us through your life journey
I am (not) the last born in a family of 5 children and 2 amazing parents. I have a twin brother, his name is Michael, and we are both civil engineers – which is weird or not, haha. Outside of that we are quite different, people say twins are supposed to do the same things. They say he’s quiet – I don’t, haha – and find me “un-quiet”. I have 3 deputy parents in the form of my loving older sisters. Anyways, I was born in Harare, grew up in Gweru and currently live in Bulawayo. Through family holidays, school and work I have travelled extensively across the country.

My career journey has been pretty interesting; I have always chosen typically male dominated fields. Not necessarily because they were male dominated, but because I was told they were hard. I wanted to find out what that “hard” was about, haha. I’m always curious! For example, in form 1, I chose woodwork as a practical because I already knew how to sew, so fashion wasn’t interesting for me. Agriculture too wasn’t interesting because my dad would make us go to the garden, so there was nothing really fascinating about that. But I knew nothing about woodwork; like nothing to do with a piece of wood. So I decided to do woodwork, I was the only girl remaining by the time we got to form 2, and I excelled in it.

In Form 3 I chose Additional Mathematics as a practical subject, because I was told it was hard- it wasn’t. I was obviously a science student, by form 2 I had finished reading all my sisters’ O’level literature and A’ level history books-nothing to pursue there. I’d consistently get 100% in Accounts- nothing there either. I had done Biology, but I found the very long words with no syllables quite uninspiring. I instead found Physics more interesting because it kept me curious about the many why’s in it. Plus, there were many experiments that you could do in Physics. I again went for it the same way I went for civil engineering; I was told it’s hard. So, that’s the way to get me to do something – just tell me it’s hard. I actually think this is why my career path is a little different from many other people my age. We grow up hearing people telling us to stay in our jobs, get experience and get better at that. This is not a bad thing, but for me, the inquisitive nature always pushes me to look for what is so hard about that hard thing that others are able to do.

Since graduating, I have worked for the government, non-government organisations, development financial institutions, private equity companies and contractors too.

What have been some of your biggest inspirations in life?
I love to fix problems! I know this sounds a lot like cliché but I am genuinely curious about things that don’t work. For example, instead of taking my iPhone to get fixed, I bought a set of screwdrivers – the special ones that are compatible with iPhones. I had that ordered from China so that I could open my phone and fix it myself. As a woman in STEM, growing up in Zimbabwe where few women publicly talk about their involvement in STEM, I want to get to the bottom of that. What best ways can we use to solve this problem? That’s how Tea in 60 was birthed. We tried to figure out what exactly makes women drop out of STEM, and we built a platform to address that. Why is Zimbabwe importing food, with all its land and suitable climate? This is why I’m in agriculture. So these are some of the things that inspire me.

What are some of your prestigious achievements in life?
I wrote a children’s book on civil engineering; it’s available on Amazon. That also came out of my experience; someone who chose a degree in civil engineering without having the slightest idea about what civil engineers do, haha. So I wrote the book for someone in primary school to know who a civil engineer is. It’s basically about a young girl called Sibo (me), who goes around different civil engineering sites finding out different things about the work done. It is very interesting for curious children. I would encourage any parent to get it from Amazon. We are expanding the series to have more versions of Sibo; can be Sibo the chemical engineer, Sibo the computer scientist,….different versions of STEM careers, simplified enough to be understood by our children. It was on purpose to have the main character – Sibo – as a girl. We are aiming at having more girls feeling confident about belonging in the STEM world. The book also has names in vernacular, places, locations and processes that are specific to Africa. All these are things a young African girl can relate to when they think about STEM. This is another thing we focus on at Tea in 60; we are able to get the word out from a very young age. We get girls accustomed to saying things like, I want to be a civil engineer, a computer scientist, an actuary. This helps in a way that by the time they reach high school, they are able to be part of these mentorship programs with purpose. As part of this project, we are incorporating animation and virtual reality as part of the rollout program.

My final year project won the National Engineering Students’ Award competition at my university.

Oh! I also won a laptop from a competition about how ICT benefits women. I have also won several non-academic prizes along the way whose specifics I might have forgotten at the moment, haha….

What if your favourite quote?
Be who you needed when you were younger” ~ Ayesha Siddiqi. My thought process is always about what I needed as a young girl, and what I can do now to change that for another person. For example, now I know I needed a mentor, someone to teach me certain skills. So I try my best to be that person for someone else. I know we talk about soft skills which are very necessary in this world but also, as a person in STEM, you need to be very good with your hard skills. These are things lacking in our institutions of learning, unfortunately. Even when you enter the corporate world, we lack that good transition from school to industry. We also see women drop off the career path to maybe have families or other reasons. It’s hard to get back into the field but harder if you are a woman in STEM because of the constant change in things like technology which drive the STEM field. We look at all these issues at Tea in 60 and develop solutions to help our women stay in STEM.

What is your last piece of encouragement for a young girl in STEM?
Every time I see a young girl, I just feel so excited and hopeful. There is so much waiting for you! My main word of encouragement should be; why not? You will find all types of influence from all spheres of life. Your family, schoolmates, societal culture, religion even. You just have to be focused and remember that girls are not going to get the same support as boys, especially when it comes to STEM. I remember there was this time I was in a mtshova (car ride sharing) with a female counterpart I knew from high school. She asked what I was doing at university and I said, “civil engineering”. She exclaimed in disbelief wondering why I would choose to do such a hard manly course! This has happened several times but my constant response is, why not?

Thank you for the wonderful time, Michelle. You are such a warm person, my God! I am happy for all the good work you are doing in Zimbabwe. Please keep going.

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