Women in Energy Story Telling: Swimming with Sharks

Of late, I get asked ‘why does an apparently normal, psychologically stable, logical human being willingly go diving in a place that has the highest concentration of great white sharks in the world?’ Yes, why indeed. The answer to this question holds a key to why I have achieved what I have on a personal and professional level and why I am choosing to share my story with you.

As I watched a few two meter sharks swim towards the heaving boat anchored off the coast of South Africa, I held onto the railing as the dive master gave instructions or something. I saw his mouth move, but did not hear the words, instead my brain was focused on the sharks and thinking that if I did not hold on, I was lunch. It was at that point I asked myself, ‘why are you doing this?’ I collected myself, reined in that sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach called ‘terror’, scrambled down the stairs and somehow tugged and squeezed into a wetsuit and was of the first to get into the cage and then lowered into the swirling green sea. The sharks circled. My brain froze. I eventually calmed down to enjoy the beauty of these amazing creatures and the serenity of the ocean. My fear returned when the sharks suddenly swam away and I thought, what can possibly scare the killers of the ocean – a bigger shark off course. A shark about five meters long appeared from the green depths of the ocean and circled us opening its mouth enough for me to realise that I could fit into its mouth and body. Strangely I was not as fearful as I was on the boat. My fear arose from a combination of watching the film ‘Jaws’ at a tender age, media, my imagination and my fear of the unknown.

A realisation hit as the boat sped back to shore to avoid being caught in the fast approaching storm. I survived the shark dive yes, but I realised that I am fortunate to have parents who reinforced to me at an early age that I should never be afraid of fear itself and being afraid to fail. The reason why I dived with sharks, why I am a chief executive in a masculine dominated field of energy and utility regulation is because I am not afraid to fail. I realised that being afraid to fail is one the things that prevents women from realising their potential.

My fears, your fears, our fears are grounded on a perception that we have to be right. I don’t. You don’t. We don’t. I make mistakes. I own my mistakes, learn from them and move on. I use my failures, my mistakes to challenge myself to step out of my comfort zone (shark diving), to take risks (bungy jumping), to challenge my mind and my perceptions and to take a chance on me (applying for jobs). So if you, reader, wherever you are in the world, have ever had that sickening feeling where fear holds your insides in a vice like grip, or you have ever told yourself or been told by others, that you can’t or should not do something because of your gender, your age, your colour, your cultural background or just because you can’t: take a chance on you. Dealing with challenges in life can be hindered by fears. Don’t be afraid to realise your potential and take a chance on yourself. Why not? What is the worst that can happen? No is a word that only has power over our self-esteem when we choose to give it power.

One of the biggest challenges I faced when I started in the energy sector, was being underestimated because I am a woman. I had to recognise that those internal voices telling me in so many ways that I was an outsider, new and a woman were voices which were not mine and that these voices were holding me back. I worked hard to consciously recognise that the negativity that comes with the opinions of others were the only shackles holding me back, those external voices, I internalised. My shackles were not my gender, not my sex, not my melanin levels, not my age, but me letting the voices of others become the shackles which stopped me realising my potential. I made a choice. I chose to realise my potential. I chose to face my fears and take a chance on me.

Being born in apartheid South Africa in a time of racial, social and gender inequality, my story could easily have been one of hatred of the other or victimhood. But I was born to parents who believed in the potential of each and every human being. It is my parents and maternal grandmother who are the cornerstones of why I am the way I am and why I believe in sharing my story, which is anyone’s story. It is a story about having the courage to believe in yourself and having the conviction to be true to yourself and your principles.

Above all else, I was taught to believe in myself, that I am capable of achieving my dreams if I worked hard, received formal education and learnt through the experience of others. I was told and believe that I am worthy. I was taught and believe that a girl, a woman with education has the power to shape her own life.

A life-long project I have and am working on involves education of women. Education is not just in books, the internet, but can be gleaned from stories and experiences of others. From a young age, I would always help girls in my grade who were behind at school and so it was natural for me to set up when I was at university a free tutorial programme for high school students who came from disadvantaged backgrounds. The challenges involved balancing my time with my university schedule, financial resources, self-motivation and motivation others to join the programme – I struggled to keep up with demand and needed help. The first real challenge I faced was to accept that needing help is not a sign of failure.

Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but of strength and recognising the necessity of putting the programme’s needs and benefits (the students) ahead of my ego. I did. I am proud that the programme is still operational. This programme has helped so many students and tutors in so many ways. The WIE mentoring programme to me is a normal thing to be involved in. I also see the programme as a way in which we can facilitate changes in organisational cultures to not only keep women in paid employment and help talented women advance in their chosen careers, but also to provide a safe environment for women to air their fears and come to a realisation that we all share the same fears, a shared humanity, we can be stronger together, find hope and learn how to be part of the solution and not a problem. Cultural change occurs in organisations through a number of ways, but a key is normalising the enforcement by leaders of organisation of merit-based practices of organisations. Collectively and individually, we need to diminish the power of stereotyping of women and senior managers recruiting from within: within organisations, within gender groups, within cultural groups, within age groups. This is what I want to change – stereotyping of women and this is the reason I am part of the WIE programme which at its simplest to me is about including not excluding people. I want to normalise talent, intelligence and skills in recruitment and advancement choices. Gender, age, colour, cultural background etc., should never matter. That is what I strive for every day.

And, so back to sharks of all kinds. I rarely tell people that I am a lawyer (lawyers some would say are species of shark) and a chief executive because when I do, I see the colour drain from their faces as they are either in astonishment or so afraid, they are in a state of terrified silence and they make a quick exit. Whilst I could describe what I do as diving with sharks, I am more apt to describe what I do as running crèche for adults which tends not to have the effect of draining people of their colour. I chose to dive with sharks in Shark Alley not because I am psychologically unbalanced and have a death wish, but because I chose to face my fear – fear itself. I also choose to view myself as a successful, strong woman of colour grounded in ethics, surrounded by strong, supportive men and women who have given me what I think the WIE can give you: access to experiences, access to seeing the potential of your life and your abilities and an ability to pursue your dreams. WIE is also about telling stories, so that you can get strength and succour from a community of men and woman who believe in you and your potential.

The first thing to know about me is that I am real and I am human. I was born in South Africa in the wrong hospital (hospitals were segregated) to parents who challenged the Apartheid system. I have been going against the grain ever since. I have lived my life learning from others and doing what makes my soul sing. I have taken chances, changed degrees, changed countries, changed industries and changed my perception of myself.

After university I worked for a judge, dabbled in litigation and ran as far away as I could from asking people for images of injuries to their nether regions. I entered the world of financial services, ate bbq field rat, snake 5 ways, and a ‘special’ pizza and took an amble down the Tatai River. Later I entered the world of utility regulation.

I never set out to be the Chief General Counsel or Chief Executive. I set out to enjoy my life, learn a lot and give back to the society that gave me so much. I do not believe in box ticking and see every setback as an opportunity to refine what I want to do and where I want be. Life is about learning – I will only stop learning the moment my mitochondria stops. I love to have a bit of fun every day, am comfortable in my own skin, sing loudly and badly and strive to be the consummate professional. I have a deep respect for the world and my fellow regulators.