“Choice not chance will determine your destiny”, LLA speaks to Multifaceted Woman, Business Leader and Philanthropist, Dr Lulu Gwagwa.
Hi, it’s lovely to meet you, Can you introduce us to Dr Lulu Gwagwa?
I was born in Kromhoek village in Umzimkulu, KZN to a close-knit large family that valued education and community development. That has defined a lot of who I have become and still becoming.
Two decades ago you founded the Mhakazi Trust to empower the young people of Umzimkulu, some of whom have even graduated from tertiary institutions, what drove this vision?
From the extended family, to my village and a whole range of men and women who have crossed my path, I know I would not have been where I am had it not been for the support of others. My late father, in particular, believed in the principle of paying it forward. That is why supporting others to reach their dreams seems to come so naturally to me.
Following your Girls Lunch which holds four times every year, why do you think it’s important to engage young African women on issues facing women in modern society?
I focus on the 21-35 year old young women. I find that there are number of support programmes for the girl child and for high school girls. Then there are programmes that support women in middle and senior management. There is a gap in the 21-35 group who are really going through a number of firsts – first job; first serious relationship; setting up first home / apartment; etc. Also, there are many opportunities opening up for women even in fields that were predominately for men. But these environments are still not conducive for women to thrive in. Having been a woman town planner in the eighties, I know what it feels like to be an “outsider”. So, I want to make it easier for these young women. I want them to have that cushion that some of us did not have in the workplace. Also, as an ambitious career woman, I want these young women to know that it is okay to be ambitious and to dream big and aim high. I want dispel the pressure of achieving a life-work balance myth.
Would you say faith influences your passion for spatial equity?
I wouldn’t really say its faith. It’s a simple issue of having been borne in a rural village with no social and economic infrastructure. Having been later exposed to what it means to have water, electricity, public transport, health facilities and good schools, I came to realise that where you are borne (spatially) can influence really your life chances. A girl born in rural KZN does not have the same life chances as a girl born in Sandton. It’s just as simple as that. It’s only a lucky few that manage to break through that spatial disadvantage. I happen to have been one of those lucky ones. Surely, we can’t leave the future of a whole community to luck!
Overtime you have made several contributions while in advisory positions, development management positions and also policy formulation. Do you consider yourself a thought leader?
Yes, I do consider myself a thought leader, but not in the traditional sense of the word. This has evolved and taken different shapes in different phases of my career. But right now, I am playing that role in boards that I serve on. This for me means occupying management’s blind spot, therefore illuminating their own thinking. As indicated earlier, mentoring and coaching young women for me is about helping them clarify their own thinking about how to shape and achieve their dreams. I consider tall of this as thought leadership.
How do you define success and what does success mean to you?
Success is about meeting YOUR OWN goals, whatever they might be.
What are the challenges you have faced on your journey and how have you handled them?
In my career, it has been being taken seriously as an African woman who looks younger than her real age. I consistently develop myself. I mobilise support for myself and I am always clear about what I am capable and not capable to do.
In your career, people management is definitely a thing and you have had encounters with different people from different countries, ethnicities and backgrounds. How have you been able to handle people? What principle would you say has helped you the most so far in dealing with people?
As a manager I have always relied on fairness and transparency. I also support people’s development.
Do you think a woman can have it all?
Absolutely, but not at the same time. Initially I tried to achieve “balance”, but then I realised very quickly that it’s simple not achievable. I was and am still a mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend, business women, home manager, student, photographer, traveler, and more. In order to complete my PhD, I had to take an unpaid leave, leave my husband and children,
Can you tell us about some women that are mentor figures/major influences to you?
My paternal grandmother was the biggest influence in my life. She lost her husband at young age. Against all odds, she left the village and went to seek work in Durban. This was a courageous move that was unheard off those days. But she stuck to her dream of educating her children. That courageous decision of a young widowed woman, changed the course of our family completely. Here I am today, with a PhD because of the power of a courageous visionary woman. When we were growing up, she bought Christmas dresses for all 13 of us. But she started saving in January, and bought those dresses throughout the year. Come the 24th December, she arrived home in the afternoon from Durban with that famous suitcase!
What core principles and values would you say has kept you going in life?
Family is everything, and in whatever I do I have to protect that family name. That is why integrity is so important to me.
Are there instances in your career that you made decisions and now with hindsight, you wish you could have done them differently?
At some point (probably 25 years ago) I registered part time for Economics with Unisa. I knew then that it was an important additional skill to have, but I did not see it through. I still regret. I think Sociology 1 and Economics 1 should be compulsory at university regardless of the degree one is pursuing – at least I did sociology1.
What has influenced your thinking the most?
Growing up as an African girl in a South African rural area in the 60s and 70s.
Kindly give a few words to young girls/women out there aspiring to be in your field?
Choice not chance will determine your destiny. That choice must include: willingness to start from the bottom and master the basics; constant personal development; surrounding yourself with people who will inspire and support you; integrity; integrity; and integrity.
The Leading Ladies Africa Series is a weekly interview series which 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.
It is an off-shoot of Leading Ladies Africa, a non-profit that promotes women empowerment and gender inclusion for women of African descent.
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.