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Tshego Gweneth Tlhapi: Changing for success

  • Feb 28 2020

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After working as a chemical engineer for 6 years, Tshego Tlhapi hung up her hard hat and switched her boots for heels as she changed careers. Now in the development finance industry, Tshego is an Investment Officer at the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) of South Africa, and tells us about her truly inspiring journey leading up to her big career change.

The transition to finance from engineering was catapulted by my MBA.  While doing my second year of the three year MBA program offered by USB, I found out about the IDC.  The mandate of the organisation appealed to me as it provided an opportunity for me to contribute towards economic development, particularly for individuals and companies that otherwise would not get funding.  Luckily for me the institution was looking for individuals with a strong engineering background, as a result in my role I sometimes get to visit engineering sites.  It’s a beautiful balance.

Born in Soweto to a nursing sister and a technician, I soon moved to then rural Bophutatswana to be raised by my late maternal grandmother Mmasione Mogotsi.

The time I spent with my grandmother was magical, she really instilled in me a sense of wonder, an appreciation for the arts and drive. When I was four years old, my grandmother was ready to take me to crèche. I had other plans; our house was right next to a primary school, so every day I would see kids clad in black and white or khakhi and black playing on the school grounds. I yearned to be one of them; so I requested to start primary school instead of crèche. After trying to convince me that I needed to start at crèche first, my grandmother arranged with the school to give me a trial run, hoping that I will see for myself that I indeed needed to start at crèche.

So at four years old, off I went to Gobusamang Primary School in khaki and black, absolutely excited, bright-eyed and face shining with Vaseline. Things were going well until one day I went home devastated that all the other kids could write their names on the exercise books, and I couldn’t.  Seeing the enthusiasm I had for learning, my grade 5 educated grandmother and former domestic worker, took twigs off the indigenous Moshabele tree; twig by twig she taught me how to write my name.  And so the precedent was set in my mind, if you want something go for it, the world around you will lift you toward it. With my grandmother’s tutelage, I was top in my class and so the competitive streak in me was nurtured.

Later on my uncle and I moved to Soweto to live with my parents and siblings, my strong and resilient mom Setshego Tlhapi took over the baton.  She has been my biggest cheerleader and motivator, having someone to remind me of what I am capable of has been critical in keeping me motivated.  Coming from a rural area and going to a multiracial school, I couldn’t speak English properly.  If I was not teased for not knowing English, I was teased about my rural background, amongst other things.  My confidence took a knock, I struggled through primary school, however, by the time I hit high school challenged myself and set a goal to always be in the top 10 of the grade. For the most part, I was.

A life changing moment for me in high school was when I was in grade 10, at that point all my subjects were on higher grade because I wanted to go to university, however; I was struggling with maths higher grade.  My maths teacher at the time Mr Khanyile set a test, if you pass the test you remained on higher grade; I failed. The mere thought of my university dreams being shattered had me begging to be allowed to do maths higher grade, I vowed never to fail another test. After him testing my resolve, he agreed, I kept my promise. Ultimately my dream came true when I got accepted to study chemical engineering at UCT.

At the time when I enrolled for the Modular MBA at USB in 2013, I was still in the engineering industry.  I remember the plant manager at the company I worked for commenting that an MBA would do nothing for me, particularly at my age and in the field I was in. The company didn’t fund MBAs at my level nor were they willing to offer study leave. That didn’t deter me – I knew I wanted to do an MBA so I took my savings and sold my property to pay my way through. It has been a fulfilling decision. I must say I am glad he and many others after him, didn’t deter me, the MBA has been beneficial in aiding me to have the career that I have.

 

The switching of industries was not easy; I had a lot of insecurities in my abilities to operate, as an engineer in an organisation that traditionally would hire Chartered Accounts.  The strong leadership component of the USB MBA is something that I refer to on a regular basis and various aspects of it come to my aid at different points in my life. Being able to pin point and label a challenge or weakness has allowed me to hone in on what exactly I need to strengthen. At the IDC my key responsibilities are business and project finance.

The organisation’s finance decisions pivot strongly off of the intense Due Diligence process that as investment officers, we conduct.  We are then responsible for developing financial models, structuring, preparing investment reports and presenting to various investment committees.  In project finance I participate in project development in various stages of the project development cycle (pre-feasibility, bankable and implementation). Soft skills such as negotiation, stakeholder management, conflict resolution, team leading and customer service also come into play. I have worked on transactions that have contributed approx. R4.6 billion to IDC’s investment book. Amongst these are the closing of investments in; the first black owned e-waste refinery, a multi-billion dollar natural gas project in Mozambique and the funding of the use of a new carbon capture, green technology.

One of the things the two matriarchs in my life (my mom and grandmother) instilled in me was an appreciation for my Setswana language and culture. Throughout out my university and working life I have participated in various social projects. This year I am starting a journey of developing social entrepreneurial endeavours that seek to promote the relevance of language and culture in early childhood development and identity.

I am heading back to the class room for an introduction to anthropology, in preparation for pursing an MA in Anthropology. I have also just completed writing a children’s Setswana book which I intend on self-publishing within the year. The book seeks to expose toddlers to reading in Setswana.  It also will have them and their parents engaged in the pertinent topic climate change.

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