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Theme: Women in IT
Company: Forge Ahead BMI-T

Title: Sharoda Rapeti - Quietly making an impact

The first thing to strike one when making contact with Sharoda Rapeti is the calm, professional, yet friendly manner of her assistant, traits which are a reflection of Sharoda herself. As Managing Director of Technology for the South African Broadcast Corporation (SABC), Sharoda’s career achievements make a statement for women in technology – one that says knowledge, determination and leadership are qualities that can be found in either gender in the competitive, but male-dominated ICT environment.
On meeting her, one is struck by her petite size and her warmth, a feature that complements, rather than negates her authority.
Sharoda is not only a role-model for women in ICT, but for career women across the industry spectrum. She has experienced diversity and grown through it, continues to strive for balance in her full, demanding life, yet finds time to assist other women to reach their potential.
Her qualifications belie the setbacks she experienced early in her academic career. Financial constraints saw her leaving her studies at Wits University, and starting to work. She was later able to resume her studies and now holds an MBA (cum laude) from the University of Wales, and a Masters Diploma in Electronic Engineering Technology.
Sharoda’s expertise, management style and achievements have been recognised more than once through industry awards, including being named the top black woman in the ICT sector, and the overall winner in the African ICT Achievers competition in 2002. She has also been acknowledged for her outstanding contribution to broadcast engineering. But utterly modest Sharoda insists that these awards are a reflection of team accomplishments, not those of an individual.
As a woman in management, and a male-dominated sector, Sharoda is pragmatic about gender issues.
“Outwardly facing, men and women deal with the same challenges. Budget constraints and complexities around deliverables are not gender-sensitive. This sends the message that we should not be discriminating when a male or female does a job – it also means no special treatment for women,” she says.
This is not to say Sharoda has never come up against gender discrimination. “I am very at home at the SABC – the gender issue is something I became comfortable with long ago. I was appointed as a broadcast technician in KwaZulu-Natal, the first female appointment to this position in the region. Men in technology make it clear that you won’t get special privileges and then they put you to the test.
“I have taken selected lessons out of encounters that were gender-biased. I have always had a robustness about how I do my job, and others soon see that you’ll stick it out. An important tool to overcome gender discrimination at all levels is knowledge. And then, if you expect you must be accepted based on your skills, there still needs to be acceptance of your leadership and output based on competency. This applies to both genders in leadership roles, but especially women as they are in the minority.”
In short, how you conduct yourself makes your gender irrelevant. “Look at the quality of your contribution, your knowledge. Gender discrimination is here and will be for some time. We need to frankly and candidly lift out problems related to gender where they occur and work together to address them constructively.”
Women searching for meaning and recognition in a world suddenly filled with too many choices may ask what character traits have served Sharoda well. “In the last decade, I have learned tolerance and infinite patience,” she says. “I always look to understand the big picture and truly listen to the other person’s point of view. I work hard and focus on goals. The work here (at the SABC) is too deep and too wide, and as a result I need to eliminate chaos. I truly respect those I work with and it shows in the little things, like how you ask for something, to the bigger things like motivating for a huge budget. I have worked hard at developing these traits, and have found that you have to be yourself. You cannot assume a different character in every different environment, and then be able to call on principle-centred management. You need to put the same person forward consistently.”
But what about the eternal question: how does a working mother manage to be effective in all her roles?
“Balance,” says Sharoda. “Working towards a perfect balance is a constant focus. I’ve had lots of hardship in my life. Before 30 I had to find myself, and deal with what life gave me. I found that introspection happened because of my own life experiences, which helped me, gave me strength and perhaps made me the way I am.”
“During certain stages I put family first,” explains Sharoda. “My focus and priorities change, and the challenge is in knowing what to focus on when; by looking at all the possible consequences. You lose value when you go too fast, because then you can’t measure rewards. You also need to do things for the right reasons.”
Sharoda certainly seems to be finding balance. “I have four lives: in my role at the SABC; as deputy chairperson of the Council for Built Environment; as vice-president of the Engineering Council of SA; and my family life.”
“In a typical day I am up by 5am, pack lunch for my two children (Shahil,18 and Zia, 10). I drive my son to university and go to work. I am usually home between 6 and 8 pm and supervise my daughter’s homework. Then I switch off, cook and make roti, and eat with the family. I then catch up on work between about 10 and 11pm. Much of the weekend is spent in the kitchen.”
Certain behaviours are fundamental. “I always prepare for meetings, and take pride in producing reports and motivations and preparing feedback and I have meetings based on all three. At work I adhere to a strict schedule as determined by the pending basket, and I depend on others to do what they must do. I like to employ a project-based approach at home too, which helps plan ahead and avoid last-minute frenzy. I am very thankful for my good health,” she adds.
Despite the varied demands on Sharoda’s time and energy, she is very tuned in to her environment and the people around her, and allows herself time to reflect. For example, she recently decided to teach her daughter how to crochet and in the process realised that many similar skills are no longer passed on from parents to children, and that perhaps the associated benefits of this type of learning are being lost in this hi-tech world.
While the empathy and understanding are always present in her working environment, Sharoda is also firm, but consistently so, constantly justifying a principled style of management and clearly communicating why certain behaviours are not desirable.
As a role-model for women in business, Sharoda often reaches out to assist others. “Women must extend a helping hand to each other, downwards and sideways in the hierarchy. I observe my female colleagues, giving feedback and reassurance. Everyone needs a sounding board to unashamedly put yourself forward to.” On a broader scale, Sharoda has launched a training programme for engineering students. She is was also involved in Technology for Women in Business, advising and encouraging schoolgirls and adult women about using technology to improve their lives. As part of her responsibilities as the reigning overall winner of African ICT Achievers, she will be donating computers to two worthy schools. In typical Sharoda style, she has taken her obligations a step further, and is personally securing the involvement of companies to sponsor a total package – not just the computers – so that the donations include training and software as well. Her aim is to ensure that the donations can be used optimally and that schoolchildren and the community can use their leisure time productively.
Sharoda is happy when, through her efforts, others are happy. “It makes me unhappy when people don’t value the opportunities given to them. I don’t like a sense of entitlement.”
As for her definition of success, she speaks for her department saying, “I believe we have achieved success when others say we are successful.” And this has, indeed, been said. The SABC used to record an average of 160 faults on air per month, and since Sharoda’s appointment, the number has come down to 30. She has also successfully motivated a budget for digitising the SABC, which will see news have its first digital server-based production, and the transformation of the whole production process which will spur growth and development.
By all standards then, Sharoda is a success, having quietly yet convincingly won the support, respect and admiration of her organisation, the ICT industry and her colleagues. ENDS

Theme: Women in IT
Publication: African ICT Achievers 2002

Title: Daughters of Africa

The ICT industry might have been dominated by men for the past 20 years, but this doesn’t mean that women entering the industry are short of female role-models.
“Sons and Daughters” asks two prominent female ICT personalities what challenges they have faced in their respective roles, and which developments they would like to see in the coming year as ICT takes shape on the continent.

Where the challenge is, you’ll find her
We had a hard time locating Jyoti Desai, who headed for Nigeria 13 months ago to apply her can-do attitude to MTN’s operations there. After a number of calls that illustrated just how valuable mobile technology is when communicating with Nigeria (land-line connections seem few and far between) we managed to speak to her between meetings, on a public holiday.
Jyoti first entered the ICT realm while at Standard Bank, where she was involved in re-engineering projects. She then joined Telkom in an account management capacity for the Information Systems operations. Her aim was to bridge the gap between IS and business to improve delivery to customers. Jyoti was later appointed to an executive position in IT and was able to implement her plans for delivering more efficient IT services, addressing convergence, bundling business services and preparing for competition. Her work at Telkom done, Jyoti accepted the offer from MTN…and so began her adventure in mobile, in Africa. “At that stage I was open to a new challenge and the opportunity posed by MTN Nigeria – to be part of setting up an infrastructure from ground zero - was tremendous,” she explains.
Jyoti sees herself as part of Nigeria’s ICT development for the foreseeable future. “We face very tough conditions here. Unlike South Africa, we have a constant battle against the environment. Other challenges include unstable networks and congestion, which affect service delivery.” There are also legislative and economic disablers. “In Nigeria, the economy has been stunted due to slow development in legislation. Even so, telecoms opportunities right now are numerous. Corruption is a real challenge, but we have found that we can still engage in ethical practice within this framework. We just need to be very vigilant to ensure we do not become victims of corruption.”
As a woman in ICT Jyoti has found that moving up the ladder was tough. “Women always have to work harder to come across in a credible way and prove that you can do the job. I have found that with a clear direction and objective to guide me, nothing deters me. I have always been a tough person and have been able to build and maintain good relationships, which enable effective delivery.”
Jyoti observes that in Nigeria, there is a higher prevalence of women in the industry than in SA so her gender is of no consequence. “Now I face different challenges, such as building a service culture.
“There are many opportunities opening up for women in African countries. It all depends on the country’s cultural evolution, but there is a general acceptance that gender equality is important.”
How does Jyoti see South Africa’s role on the continent? “Economically, South Africa is ahead of many countries in terms of teledensity and the ability to provide advanced services, for example. The continent needs a lot of support. South African companies are entering the continent, bringing in their own skills and support services. What they should be focusing on is skills development in the countries they enter. They need to leave behind a skills set that supports the development so that the companies become Nigerian, or Ugandan, or Tanzanian at the end of the day.”
Asked where she sees the growth opportunities in Africa in the coming year, Jyoti responds, “There is enormous potential in telecoms, as a result of network roll-out and granting of licenses. There is massive opportunity in the application space and in equipment supply, as all these operations need to be supported. And Internet banking is now becoming real in Africa.”
“What is needed are enabling government policies that allow the industry to grow, and encourage the transfer of skills to develop capacity and grow the economy.”
Jyoti is enjoying being part of the high ICT growth stage in Nigeria, and despite working six-and-a-half day weeks, is full of energy to face the challenges at hand. She and other ex-pats manage to spend one afternoon on a weekend relaxing, taking turns to host lunch. Then it’s back to work because, “there is still so much to be done”.

An enabler with development at heart

Dipua Mvelase’s career in ICT is not a long one. When she was appointed to the helm of the Universal Services Agency (USA) her strength was her background in development, with ICT as a tool rather than a focus area.
Dipua sees the role of the USA as driving the process of development, and finding solutions specific to a community. Bearing in mind that where areas are underdeveloped in terms of ICT infrastructure, they are sure to lack other basic services and utilities as well, it is not possible to take a one-size-fits-all approach to development. “We cannot apply urban solutions to rural needs,” she says.
The role of the USA is intricately woven into the emerging ICT landscape in South Africa, and Dipua is in a position to reflect on the industry’s successes over the past few years. “We have seen wins on three levels. Firstly, the policy level, where we now have policies that are enabling and create a framework for the direction we’re moving in. Secondly, we have regulations in place to help us realize policy ideals and objectives. We are also seeing the impact that operators are making in extending services, thus ensuring that end-users don’t just have an infrastructure, but are also able to use it.”
“In the last five years we have moved forward in a big way. Until recently, we have had two South Africas with quite a distance between them. We are now closing the gap. In doing so we are not just relying on international experience, but we have created a new knowledge and new processes and frameworks specific to our country’s needs. This applies at the policy, regulatory and delivery levels.”
As for a “wish list” for the coming year, Dipua believes that we need to reach consensus on the framework for ICT in a converged environment. “At a delivery level we want a universal service and access map in South Africa, so we all know where we are, where we are going, and how we’re going to get there. I’d like to see all the resources pulling together and being channeled in a particular direction, with an appreciation for the different contributions we all have to make.
Dipua enjoys being part of such a challenging industry, claiming that she has learned more in the past few years than ever before in her life. “ICT cannot be ignored as a sector, and you don’t even need to be an active participant in ICT to appreciate its impact. So many of our country’s development solutions lie within ICT.”
As a woman in this industry, Dipua has certainly seen gender bias. “We have to be very, very good. It’s not assumed that you know what you’re doing and society always contests your ability to deliver. There are initiatives to make the environment less hostile and a lot of women are making headway. Men are starting to see the reality: that we’re here to stay. We are more prepared for the challenge now than ever before, but we do need to work twice as hard. Being black and a woman doesn’t make it any easier.”
But this shouldn’t put women off. Dipua’s message to women in ICT is, “Go for it. The sector isn’t going anywhere if women aren’t part of it. The creativity and innovation required for growth lies primarily within women. Our advantage is that we are not fascinated by the ‘toy’, but by its relevance to answering to a need.” ENDS.