I managed to get a quick interview with Vanessa Naicker, a rather elusive trailblazer, who’s extremely difficult to get hold of, so you can imagine my excitement when I eventually did. It was well worth the wait and if you ever wanted to see what happens when ambitious business acumen meets innovative engineering then look no further than Vanessa Naicker.
Naicker describes herself as somewhat of a veteran having successfully been part of the mining industry for more than 19 years, hence gems of experience and wisdom flowed easily from her throughout the interview.
After achieving a Metallurgical Engineering degree from WITS, the fresh graduate began her journey at Sasol, Secunda. There weren’t that many female engineers in South Africa in the early 90’s, let alone black female engineers and moving to Secunda was a real eye opener in terms of harsh realities facing a person of colour living in South Africa at the time. However, the petrochemical industry was booming with growth at the same time and so provided her with many opportunities. She later joined the industrial giant, Anglo American and took her first step into the mining industry, where she was exposed to numerous geographies, mining across commodities and various technical, operational and business opportunities.
Coming from a struggle background, growing up in a poor marginalised community and being a student activist from an early age, has shaped her passion for empowering young people. This led to her involvement in EWB-SA and she firmly believes that the future of South Africa lies in the hands of its youth. Coupling her technical expertise with her commercial acumen was a given when she became a non – executive director of the organisation, where she provides fiduciary support to the EWB-SA CEO and team as well as advisory support on a spectrum of topics.
In her professional capacity, she is working on attracting and retaining young people in the mining industry, an industry that has been relatively slack in mentoring and managing young professionals in recent years.
Naicker describes her experience as a woman in the engineering space as ‘jumping into the deep end and swimming hard' and feels that her versatility and adaptability as a professional could be attributed to this determined, firm attitude.
Her valuable advice to aspiring engineers, “Often engineers feel that they need to be bound by their discipline, but understand that we are living in a messy yet connected world and being good at collaborating and integrating ideas is what is required going forward” and also always be true to yourself.
Naicker is surely a force to be reckoned with as a confident woman who can play in that special space where business and engineering meet and is thus a perfect feature for the upcoming August Women’s Month.
Read the rest of this inspiring and very informative interview below.
1) Describe your engineering journey.
I’ve been in the industry for a long while. I might even have earned the title of veteran I started off my engineering journey by earning a BSc Engineering Metallurgy degree from the University of Witwatersrand (WITS) in the early 90’s and later acquired a Masters in Engineering as well. Keen to get some practical know how early on, I started my working life as a young Metallurgical Engineer with Sasol in 1994. Back in the 90’s there weren’t many female black engineers in the industry, let alone any living in Secunda, and that in itself created some interesting challenges and harsh experiences of the realities of a black person living in South Africa in the 1990’s. That said these early days of engineering in the petrochemical industry were an amazing growth opportunity and having some really great mentors who provided me broad technical exposure shaped my passion for the discipline, grew my technical expertise and built my confidence. But being a Jozi girl I was keen to get back to the big city to be close to family and friends. So 3½ years later when I was offered a rather unique opportunity to lead materials engineering for another industry giant, Anglo American, I made the move. Making the move to the mining industry was scary and enthralling at the same time but the scope of my work exposed me to mining across commodities and geographies across the world. I have remained with the mining industry for the past 19 years taking on various technical, operational and business related roles and gaining expertise across global operations and corporate functions. More recently my work has been in systems engineering, identifying how value flows through processes and working with teams to optimize our processes for performance turnarounds and substantial improvements to bottom line earnings. Whilst I have had only 2 employers in my long career to date, I have over the years taken on a variety of rich and diverse high profile roles which have been at the forefront of change and innovation.
2) What prompted you to volunteer at EWB-SA?
I am passionate about young people and helping them to be the best. I truly believe that the course of South Africa’s future lies in the hands of our young people. I also know that South Africa is a land with many challenges which are opportunities if you connect the heart with the mind. In addition, given that my career has been rather non-conventional has benefited me in that I have expert knowledge in a broad span of engineering topics that includes material science, mechanical failure investigations, asset management, project studies, coal conversion technologies, industrial engineering, etc. Coupled to this I have strong operational and commercial acumen. Coupling my technical know-how to the benefit of our people and making a real difference to the communities we live in is important to me. Thus it was a no brainer when I was approached by EWB-SA to take on the role of non-executive director.
3) Describe what your work at EWB-SA entails.
Together with the other directors on the EWB-SA board, I provide fiduciary support to the EWB-SA CEO and team. We meet a few times a year and I provide advisory support on a range of topics that may involve technical, legal, fund raising, policy, marketing, etc.
4) What sparked your interest in community development?
I have always been deeply involved in community related issues, both in my personal and professional capacity. I grew up in a poor, marginalised community and was a student activist from an early age. Coming from a struggle background has shaped how I interact and engage on community development matters both locally and globally.
5) How have you been able to utilize your skills as an engineer to assist/ empower communities?
In addition to being on the Board of EWB-SA I also hold a directorship on the Anglo American-sefa fund, which is a partnership fund between the Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa and Anglo American, providing high level strategic, governance and technical leadership for small scale mining companies. This has me interacting with various community entrepreneurs to advance their business interests.
6) What do you feel you have acquired/gained (both for your professional and personal development) through your association with EWB-SA?
I am always humbled and excited with each engagement I have with EWB-SA. Being in the same space with young people who are so enthused and actively involved in changing lives and making a difference to our world urges me to contribute even more.
7) How do you maintain a balance between the work at your day job and your work at EWB-SA?
This is currently proving to be really hard. I have a very demanding career that sees me travel lots. This does come in the way of family and broader outside the workplace commitments. Time management is thus really important to achieve any balance between all of my commitments so I run a very detailed and forward looking schedule to allow me to stay connected and contributing.
8) How would you describe your experience as a woman in the engineering space?
This is often a hot topic. Like many women in the industry I have had my highs and lows. That said I have never shied away from putting up my hand for a challenge, and persisting till I get a break. I have enjoyed jumping into the deep end and swimming hard. Perhaps this is because I’m a woman and often have had to work much harder just to prove to my fellow colleagues that I not only can do the job very well but I can excel at it. Over the years I have had the comment that I’m more versatile and adaptable than most professionals, whether this is because of being a female or a personal trait I’m not sure.
9) Are there any interesting projects that you are working on currently or in the near future?
In more recent years the mining industry has not been great at managing, mentoring and providing career paths for young professionals. I want to re-energise this, particularly in light of the fact that the world of work is changing and more and more people are not looking for long tenure in organisations but rather challenging and relevant work that is socially conscious. Attracting and retaining young people into the mining industry is an area I’m keen to contribute to in the near term.
10) What advise would you give to aspiring engineers?
Know that your early career years shapes the direction you take later on so seek some good mentors who will help you to navigate challenging times and open doors to new opportunities. Often engineers feel that they need to be bound by their discipline, but understand that we are living in a messy yet connected world and being good at collaborating and integrating ideas is what is required going forward. As such stay connected by building and nurturing your networks and make sure they are broad enough so that you can leverage diversity of thought. The world is your oyster. Be true to yourself.
Vanessa Naicker interviewed by Dhruti Dheda