I recently had an opportunity to interview Wiebke Toussaint. Most might know her as the co-founder and previous CEO of EWB-SA, but she is much more than that. What can I call Toussaint, an engineer, a thinker, a creator, an innovator or an adventurista? These terms seem plenty, but are definitely not enough to describe her. She’s an enigma to say the least. Armed with a Mechanical Engineering degree from UCT, a Diplôme de français professionnel Affaires B2 from the Paris Chamber of Commerce, the multilingual (English, Afrikaans, French and German) Toussaint set out to connect people and technology, society and engineering, drawn by the risk, responsibility and complexity of the problems posed by modern society.
Toussaint cofounded EWB-SA in early 2013, whilst she was still a junior engineer at Hatch Goba. Hatch Goba, later nominated her as one of the young African leaders to join the Kumvana Program (leadership development and cultural exchange expertise program). In 2014, she was recognised for her business acumen, by the prestigious Standard Bank Rising Star awards, under the Service: Public and Private sector. She has also worked as a business analyst at an e-commerce company and later as a data scientist in energy research.
Toussaint is driven by her belief that if the new generation of technically skilled people are nurtured correctly, then South Africa and the African continent will flourish; she aptly refers to herself as an African dreamer.
But if you think that Toussaint is all work and no play, then you’re wrong. She is known to be able to balance 8 spoons on her face and continues to practise balancing more spoons, in her attempt to beat the world record. Her three great loves are people, nature and energy.
She strongly feels that “we all have the ability to make time for things that we are passionate about and an eight hour work day actually isn't that much, is not that long. I think there's an hour or two that all of us can give every day to make a difference, to create the future that you want to create, cause that is what gives meaning to life and that is what makes a normal day worth living.”
Clearly she’s a woman who wears many hats and follows her heart. Still, I cannot fully describe her, the closest I can get is that her speciality lies in making things happen, so I guess we better watch the space!
Enjoy the complete interview below in celebration of one of our founding mothers.
1) How did your engineering journey begin?
I started my engineering career at Hatch Goba. I was a first year student of theirs and spent some time working there, first as a piping engineer and later looking at energy efficiency and knowledge management. Since then, I’ve worked as a business analyst in an e-commerce company and am now working as a data scientist at UCT (University of Cape Town).
2) What prompted you to create of EWB-SA?
I co-founded Engineers Without South Africa (EWB-SA), while I was working at Hatch. I felt inspired to start EWB-SA because I believe in the agency of young engineers who want to make a difference in South Africa and no space existed in which we could volunteer our technical skills to make a difference in society. I felt immensely inspired by the number of young people or young engineers that approached me to be involved because they believed in the future of South Africa and wanted to make a difference.
3) What type of work were you involved in during your association EWB-SA?
Over the years my work at EWB-SA has entailed everything, starting from social media to organising events to meeting with student and professional members to building our community, executing projects and engaging sponsors. So whatever the work was, you name it, I did it.
4) What do you feel you have acquired/gained (both for your professional and personal development) through your association with EWB-SA?
What I most enjoyed about working with EWB-SA, was engaging with our community and our members, being part of the journey of young engineers as well as mentoring and I think our Summit [Annual Leadership Summit] to me was always a special event at which I got the opportunity to see the hard work that our students have put into it. EWB-SA has provided me with an awesome opportunity to gain practical business skills and to play and to discover skill sets beyond technical engineering. So I've learnt a lot about engaging with stakeholders, about leading teams, I've learnt a lot about human centred design, about understanding the role of your customer and of your client in the design process which I think are things that aren't typically covered in the engineering curriculum. I've learnt about what it means to build a tribe, about what it means to motivate others.
5) What makes EWB-SA different or rather what makes it stand out compared to other organizations of its type?
And I think what the true value of EWB-SA is that it really provides a microcosm of a space in which we can in which you can try and which you can fail and learn. So the same way in which I've had the opportunity to learn things which I would never have learnt in normal corporate. I know that each project provides an opportunity for our members to learn real life skills, real engineering skills, leadership skills, teamwork, stakeholder management and Human Centered Design in a way that they wouldn't otherwise. What makes EWB-SA different and special is that as a community is that it's okay to fail. It's not only just okay, we encourage trying, we encourage making mistakes and if you continue to try and make mistakes, eventually you'll get it right. It's a given that some of them will work out and others won't. So we want our students to keep trying, to keep making mistakes. Beyond the skill that I’ve gained, EWB-SA has really been a family to me and I've met the most magnificent, marvellous, inspiring individuals through EWB-SA. So it’s being part of a community and coordinating, navigating and inspiring a community that has really added value to my life.
6) How do you maintain a balance between the work at your day job and your work at EWB-SA?
I think we all have the ability to make time for things that we are passionate about and an 8 hour work day actually isn't that much, is not that long. I think there's an hour or two that all of us can give every day to make a difference, to create the future that you want to create cause that is what gives meaning to life and that is what makes a normal day worth living. So I don't think it's actually that difficult to find ways to volunteer, to give back, to contribute, to be part of the community, part of a vision, part of something we believe in. And I think in doing that we enrich our lives a lot.
7) How would you describe your experience as a woman in the engineering space?
I love being a person in engineering and I love being a woman. I know that being a woman in engineering often isn't that easier or maybe rather it becomes progressively harder the further along your career as you progress. However, I think that engineering is a field in which technical competencies count and it's important that whether you're a woman or a man, that you become good at what you do, that you build skill sets that are necessary and that you speak out for what is right and what you believe in. I think that empathy in design and putting people first is something that has been lacking in how we do engineering and I think that those are skills that women are stereotypically more accustomed too and I think that , that is something that we can really contribute to this sector. So I see being a woman in engineering as a massive asset and something that we shouldn't be shy about. I think there's a lot of value to add when we bring different perspectives to an old setting.
8) Are there any interesting projects that you are working on currently or in the near future?
I'm doing my masters in artificial intelligence at the moment and I'm very excited about the opportunities that that the space holds, especially if we connect our traditional engineering sector with the world of data. I'm enjoying not having a specific project for the time being, since I've stepped down from EWB-SA. I'm pretty sure that in due course, not too long, some new projects will emerge. But for now, I'm enjoying just gaining the skills to reposition myself in what I consider to be the future of engineering.
9) What advise would you give to aspiring engineers?
There is so much to discover in the world and so many ways to get involved and view things beyond the pure technical realm. My advice to all young engineers would be to not get stuck and be bogged down in the technical aspects of life only. Branch out, get involved with something, build your networks, learn beyond maths and science- try to understand the fundamentals deeply, but other than that make sure you branch out. Try to understand the people that you designing for. Give of your time, give of your skills, join a community and be entrepreneurial. Think of opportunities and widen your scope of what you consider opportunities. Don't just think jobs, don't just think employment. As engineers we are in a unique position to be value creators. So keep challenging yourself, asking where can you add optimum value, where can you truly make a difference and follow your passion.
Wiebke Toussaint interviewed by Dhruti Dheda