Image credit: Sivuyile Matsiliza & Judd van Rensberg
Born and raised in the small rural town of Butterworth, South Africa, Linda Ngozwana was brought up in a home that taught her to value the importance of family, faith and education. In 2019, she graduated with a Bachelor of Science Honours degree in Aeronautical Engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg South Africa. While she was busy with her studies, she has had the opportunity to do her internships at Denel Aviation, Aerosud and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). She has now set her sights on scaling the heights of the aviation industry.
She is currently stationed at Philips Africa Headquarters in Johannesburg, where she works as a Customer Support Engineer in Training for Health Systems under the Customer Support Africa Team.
Linda believes in breaking boundaries and is determined to inspire other young black girls to do the same by leading in the promotion of gender equality and access to quality education. She feels strongly about pursuing these ideals firstly in her workspace, but ultimately in her community where she invests time and money inspiring and mentoring young girl children.
To this end, she is a part of Non-Profit Organisations (NPOs) which help expose learners from underdeveloped areas around Africa to careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics (STEAM). She is currently working with Girls Fly Programme in Africa (GFPA) Foundation, which is an information and educational STEAM programme for primary, high school and post-school learners with a focus on girls. The programme includes the use of design thinking, technology, and innovation to shape, empower, enable and support the next generation of changemakers and problem solvers in the aviation and space industry in Africa.
In recognition of her work, Linda was invited to attend the African Youth Networks Movement, an initiative incubated by the Mandela Institute for Development Studies and Graca Machel Trust for its first regional meeting in Southern Africa (Zambia). The event brought together 80 youth network leads in the SADC region, to interrogate the youth unemployment challenges within education, entrepreneurship, peace and security and political participation. For this event, she led a panel discussion in line with the Education Track, where she explored reforming and strengthening Southern Africa’s education systems to current social and technological developments in order to drive development and competition in the global economy.
As a pinnacle of her work thus far, she has been selected to represent the foundation at the United Nations’ Camp 2030 in New York, September 2020. Camp 2030 is UNITE 2030’s first inaugural hackathon-style “innovation lab” for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Each year UNITE 2030 gathers the world’s most dedicated young leaders with a proven track record of working toward the SDGs to innovate, co-create, and problem-solve to develop new disruptive solutions to the world’s biggest challenges. During Camp 2030, she will be focusing on the SDG 4 track (Quality Education) and will be innovating alongside fellow SDG 4 advocates from around the world, and meeting experts and professionals who work in the field on this specific SDG track.
Linda dreams of always being actively involved in the development of the knowledge economy and technological advancements in Africa as investing in a knowledge-based economy is the bedrock of innovation, which feeds into the wealth creation and the development of the continent’s economy.
In this interview with Leading Ladies Africa, Linda talks about her sojourn into the aviation industry, why she’s passionate about girls getting interested in STEM, the stereotypes she had to confront in her field and how she overcame them, plus tips for diversity and inclusion in the workplace for women. Lean in!
Can you briefly describe yourself and what you do?
I am an aeronautical engineer by profession. After completing my studies, I was offered an internship at Philips Africa Headquarters in Johannesburg. At the time of my graduation, the aviation industry in South Africa was experiencing challenges, so I started applying for work across engineering disciplines, which attests to the versatility of my degree. Hence, I accepted the offer from Phillips to be an Engineering Intern in the Health Systems Division. Philips is an internationally recognized tech company with a reputable record of innovation. On a daily basis, I am exposed to technically challenging work in transdisciplinary teams across Africa that sharpen my skills as an engineer.
I work in the Customer Support department under Health Systems, where I utilize my theoretical background and skills to provide the best in class customer service. I play a key role in ensuring long-term customer satisfaction and loyalty, as well in the growth of customer service and sales business, by supporting with preventive maintenance, installation, and repairs on core Philips Health Systems equipment.
Outside of work, I keep in touch with aviation via my devotion to the Girls Fly Program in Africa (GFPA) Foundation. Having completed a strenuous degree in a male-dominated field, I understand the importance of having the support to be able to endure everything that young women go through in these spaces. I am passionate about the GFPA initiative because it supports girls and young women who want to pursue careers in aviation and STEM-related fields.
I now serve as the Marketing and Communications Executive for the foundation, where I run the social media pages, websites, blogs & newsletters. The team is made up of pilots (qualified and in training), scientists, businesswomen, air traffic controllers, airport designers, aircraft mechanics. I have never felt more at home.
I believe that the loss of interest amongst young girls in the STEM subjects and courses can be partially curtailed by simply exposing girls to other women who are in the STEM field. It is necessary to demystify STEM subjects and demonstrate the expanded view of the world that STEM offers.
Image credit: Sivuyile Matsiliza & Judd van Rensberg
How did you start out your career and how long have you been in the corporate world?
From childhood, I have always been fascinated with how things are made from car assembly lines to major civil engineering projects. This cultivated an early interest in using technology and innovation as tools to solve problems. Throughout high school, I excelled in Mathematics and Science, which opened up doors to studying technical fields. After attending a job shadowing assignment at a Volkswagen workshop in East London, I was convinced that engineering was the right fit for me. What swayed my final choice towards aeronautical engineering was the realization of how few women there were in engineering in general and aviation in particular.
During my tenure at university, we were required to spend a period of 6 – 8 weeks per annum pursuing internship work. So, I accumulated work experience through internship programmes at aviation companies such as Denel Aviation, CSIR and Aerosud. When I graduated in March 2019, I understood that this was only the first step in the pursuit of my dreams as an innovator, world-changer and technical problem solver. I officially started working in August 2019 at Phillips.
What stereotypes have you had to confront as a woman in engineering?
Excluding the most obvious one: black women can be engineers. The world likes to put people in boxes. Those who seek to prescribe to me what an engineer should be, claim that as an engineer, I cannot be a model, a world traveller, a social change activist and a proponent of popular culture. These self-proclaimed shapers of public discourse like to dictate how my life is supposed to be, how I should be dressed and what I should be involved in. But, at the end of the day, we are all different and that is what makes each and every person more special.
One of my mentors once told me that I was more than just an Aeronautical engineer. This made me realize that, as a person, I am made up of different facets and these are part of me for a reason. I had to acknowledge these other parts of myself by partaking in activities that celebrated them and gave them prominence. I did this because they make me feel alive, fulfilled and kept me sane.
This allowed me to live the best version of myself. In addition, I feel that living out my truth is how I challenge the stereotypes with which we are judged. There is only one of me and that is my power.
What are your interests outside of engineering?
Apart from engineering, I am also a model and have been in various magazines for beauty features. I have done some campaigns for clothing boutiques as well. Being in the creative space, I have also gained an interest in creating art with photography.
I also love travelling (to date, my country count is 24). Personally, travelling has been the most liberating and fulfilling experience I have ever had in my life (confirms my inquisitive mind). I have made friends from all over the world with which I have had the craziest experiences. I have exposed to other cultures thus learnt to change my perception about certain things. Most importantly, I have learnt so much about myself. What kind of traveller I am? How do I respond when I am placed in a certain situation? How do I act in front of new people? A difficult roommate, if the tour bus leaves me behind, can I even bargain at a market? I also learnt and experienced how people live in other countries. Being exposed to new technologies, infrastructure, and different modes of transport (the ease or the lack of). And the more I travel, the more I want to see more of the world. I feel as if there is so much to see and I absolutely cannot wait to experience it all. It is so addictive. Continuously living on the edge; rushing to get to the next place, sleeping at 3:00 am when you have to be up for breakfast at 6 am.
“I haven’t been everywhere but it’s on my list,” is probably the quote that best describes me right now. When I was boarding my flight in Greece to come home, I was already planning where I was going to go next. An unending cycle, but all so rewarding.
Image credit: Sivuyile Matsiliza & Judd van Rensberg
Tips for diversity and inclusion in the workplace (esp. for women)?
This is an overall issue that needs to be addressed from the roots. It starts with how women are perceived, not only in the workplace but in society at large. Gender bias gets introduced into society from childhood where work at home is delineated along gender lines. Boys play with guns and work with cars, while girls play with dolls and do housework centred around preparing them to be mothers and primary caregivers rather than captains of industry.
We need to change this system by teaching all children that boys and girls can do whatever they set their minds to do. A girl can be a mechanic and a boy can be a chef. This must be followed up by removing any barriers to desired career paths for both boys and girls.
In the corporate world, we need companies to invest in fostering a company culture where every voice is heard and appreciated. We need to create companies where there are no illegitimate voices based on gender, race, colour and any other divisive measures that are used to discriminate. This can be done through strengthening policies to remove discrimination as well as ongoing monitoring of human capital processes such as recruitment, onboarding, training and employee retention. Lastly, we need to continue advocating for equal pay for equal work of equal value.
If you could have a lunch date with one woman you admire – who would that be and what would you ask her?
It would definitely be Professor Neri Oxman. She is an American–Israeli architect, designer and professor at the MIT Media Lab, where she leads the Mediated Matter research group. Dr Oxman is the founder of a discipline she calls “Material Ecology,” which marries the technological advances of computational design, synthetic biology and digital fabrication (otherwise known as 3-D printing) to produce compostable structures, glass objects that vary their optical and structural properties, and garments made from a single piece of silk fabric.
Her team can do crazy things with moss, mushrooms and apple pectin. They are outliers even for the Media Lab, a playground of cutting-edge technology with a social conscience. The team conducts research at the intersection of computational design, digital fabrication, materials science and synthetic biology, and applies that knowledge to design across disciplines, media and scales—from the microscale to the building scale. Oxman’s goal is to augment the relationship between built, natural, and biological environments by employing design principles inspired and engineered by Nature and implementing them in the invention of novel design technologies. Areas of application include architectural design, product design, fashion design, as well as the design of new technologies for digital fabrication and construction.
Dr Oxman is the epitome of what I see myself as in the future. If I had lunch with her, I would ask her to create irremovable contact lenses that would allow me to have 20/20 vision so I could use them to be a fighter jet pilot.
What’s your take on cliques or “you can’t sit with us groups” at work? How does one navigate such?
I think coming from boarding school and my experiences from travelling, I am not really intimated by these types of groups. Additionally, I think learning to be own person has helped me.
A mini 101 course on how to become an aeronautical engineer?
- Do a lot of research about the profession, career opportunities in the field to determine where your interests lie.
- Keep inspired – attend air shows, job shadowing, watch Youtube videos about the history of aviation, prominent women in the history of aviation, how aircraft are built, the history of airlines, future technologies in aviation etc.
- Most importantly, be willing to work hard!!! Aeronautical Engineering is arguably one of the hardest degrees (in my very biased opinion). It takes a lot of hard work, discipline perseverance to complete (but it can be done, I am proof of this).
- Be very good at Maths and Physical Science.
When you’re creatively stuck, you…?
Usually, I do some colouring in. It helps me stay calm and sort of re-calibrate my thoughts. I find that if I also watch something that inspires, like behind the scenes video of Beyoncé making a concert, it motivates me to go back to the drawing board. Also, editing pictures on Lightroom also helps me get me creative juices up and running.
Image credit: Sivuyile Matsiliza & Judd van Rensberg
What’s your take on mentorship? Important or Nah?
Mentorship is very important; I cannot even describe how much my mentors have helped me navigate my way throughout varsity and starting out my career in the corporate world. People who already have some experience in what I am doing have a better overview of the situation and can use their experience to guide me. It is said that the height of wisdom is the ability to learn not only from your own mistakes but from those of others. Mentors also help you realize the qualities that you did not know you had and help you hone these for your benefit.
They also support you emotionally, while at the same time, challenge you. They have been very essential in my growth and development as a person. While it is important to find a mentor, I learnt from a Ted X by Stacey Flowers that every human being needs to have five roles in their life:
A Mentor: To point you in the right direction, to develop one’s capability.
A Coach: To take you out of your comfort zone so you can maximize your potential.
A Friend: To hear out your dreams and deepest desires.
A Peer: To keep you focused on the task at hand.
A Cheerleader: To believe in you when you struggle to believe in yourself.
Additionally, I would add a Mentee: someone whom you are mentoring in order to ‘pay it forward’.
Lastly, it is important that your mentor gets to know you intimately as a person so that all the decisions she or he helps you to make are aligned with your best interest and with who you want to become.
Three strategies you’ve used that other career women should implement?
- Be extremely good at what you do that no one can doubt your competence. You do not have to trumpet your own achievements, rather let the body of work speak for itself.
- Don’t be afraid to fail, rather be afraid of not trying.
- Live the best version of myself.
The Leading Ladies Africa weekly Career Conversation series focuses on women of African descent, showcases their experiences across all socio-economic sectors, highlights their personal and professional achievements and offers useful advice on how to make life more satisfying for women.
Do you know any woman of African descent doing phenomenal things? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we just might feature her.