In part 2 of our feature Success in equipment manufacturing, Mining News speaks to Vuyiseka Mkele , CEO of VR Squared Engineering.What is your job title and what does your job entail? As a CEO, my job entails providing and executing strategic direction of the business, business development, compliance, operations and general management of daily activities How did you get to where you are today? Mentorship has played a big role in my growth, networking, consistently watching the market for areas of growth and/or gaps to manipulate. Has this always been something you’ve wanted to do? No, in fact I’m not an engineer. Although I have always known that I wanted to run my own business, I had no clarity at the time of what it would be. I knew that I did not want to be in the so called ‘traditional woman businesses’ and I use this term loosely because that is what or how they are referred to. But the reality is that a business is a business regardless of what it is. Running a business in any sector requires similar skills and planning. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced mining industry in your career so far? To date, I am struggling to access the mining industry. Besides its stringent process in onboarding new suppliers, generally as a woman whether black or white, the industry is not friendly or accessible, as a result, I resolved to looking for agents that are white and male to access the industry. How did you overcome such challenges? In the mining space, I am yet to overcome but in rail I have been able to get some success. It is important to have a level of technical knowledge of your product, be able to articulate the benefits for the customer. In addition, one needs to familiarise themselves with the culture, processes, procedures and regulation of the sector. This I say because in my experience when one goes to the industry with a new product or solution, one must have researched the need for it, the process of testing a new product and importantly that one is confident of the benefits to the customer (these may be financial savings, time, improving efficiency and managing a particular risk) so that you do not provide a solution that is either outdated, not compatible to SA networks or infrastructure or simply not a viable option for the SA market. I also learnt that while there may be preferences for black women owned businesses, one has to definitely know what they are doing, know their product/solution, being black and a woman may open the door to the boardroom but once inside, you better know something. You simply cannot rely on your gender and colour. What motivated you to keep going in difficult times? It gets tough but one develops a thick skin. When you are in it for the long haul, you learn to appreciate the good times and the bad times. Stubbornness is not a bad trait. I also think that when you know that the solution you are providing is necessary, your quality is good and you are constantly upgrading and/or modernising to keep yourself relevant, you sort of create a space for your existence. It does get tough and rough, but one soldiers on.
How are you received by your male counterparts?Initially, I felt ignored, there was a sense of ‘what does she know’. It was almost like one had to prove themselves to be worthy of attention or being listened to. This soon disappeared when people/customers/suppliers interact with you and get to know you on an intellectual level or that you know what your business is about. It goes back to my previous point about ‘you better know something’, comfortably speak about your product/solution at a technical level. There is sometimes an assumption that you are a token for black woman in the business, a face for compliance hence one has to demonstrate a level of competence, understanding of not only the product/solution but of the industry and its operations, regulatory requirements in the sector etc. What is your view on female representation in the mining industry in South Africa currently? My view may not be informed by statistics but by my own experiences and observations. I think that it is still a very closed industry, it is not accessible to me as a black woman. I was once in a mining gathering organised by MEMSA during the Electra Mining Show in 2019 and was disappointed by what was described as wins by the sector in terms of the inclusion of women – these included catering, cleaning by one mining house. I would like to see women in the core and strategic businesses like manufacturing components used by the mines, maintenance, manufacturing of equipment. What do you think needs to change to accommodate more women in the mining industry? It is difficult to say because I do not want women treated differently from male owned businesses, but I am advocating for space to be created, consciously and deliberately. Now, when you talk to the sector, you get told that mining as a high-risk business is comfortable using equipment/products that have been tested and proved over 10, 15 years. There is also lots of monopoly in the space and this makes it difficult for new entrants to the market especially with new products/solutions because of my previous point (experience). I do think that the simpler way to enter the space is association with an already existing business. I am sure there are other solutions to this but for me it is tiring to have this conversation today after so many years since B-BBEE was introduced addressing inclusion of black people and women in the mainstream economy. The industry cannot simply create opportunities for women in certain spaces, it has to dismantle how they have always done business and replace this with a new way, whatever that may be. What advice would you give to a young woman wanting to pursue the same career path as you?
- Be prepared to work almost all the time
- Be prepared to take direction from people that have more experience than you
- Be prepared to be wrong sometimes or make poor decision as long as you bounce back
- Be prepared to be lonely at times
- Find a mentor, find a mentor, find a mentor (I cannot stress that enough)
- Interact with people in same of similar/related industry
- Join impactful industry bodies like MEMSA that are able to influence policy
- Get yourself to the level of understanding every aspect of your business e.g. compliance, operations, sales, HR, finances even though you may have people employed to oversee these areas, as a business owner, you need to have some level of understanding of each of these elements because ultimately the buck stops with you, you are liable should anything go wrong
- Mentor a younger woman – I find joy in this, it helps me to relax, learn, rethink or challenge own beliefs/way of doing things