There is nothing new about women leading major global technology organisations. From Ginni Rometty at IBM to Safra Catz at Oracle, female CEOs are no longer a rarity. In South Africa, women head up the regional offices of multinational tech companies like SAP, Intel, VMware, UiPath and, soon, Microsoft.
However, there is a vast gap when it comes to men and women lower down the ranks. It is nowhere more obvious than at international and local technology conferences and expos, where male delegates outnumber women by between 10 and 20 to one.
It was no different on the show floor at last week’s Cisco Live conference in Barcelona, where the global networking giant unveiled the next generation of technologies that will connect enterprises and their customers. But there was one dramatic difference: many of the key speakers and role players at the event were women.
Karen Walker, Cisco senior vice president and chief marketing officer, and Wendy Mars, Cisco senior vice president for Europe, Middle East, Africa and Russia, took centre stage. But it was a South African who all but stole the show with her inspiring story.
During the main opening keynote address of the conference, the face of Ntombozuko “Soso” Motloung flashed up on screen as an example of Cisco transforming people’s lives through technology. With the title of chief solutions engineer, Soso heads up Cisco’s networking academy in South Africa, focused on building a community of instructors who will in turn help train the next generation of aspirant technology workers.
For someone in her early 30s, her achievement is impressive in its own right. But when one discovers her background, it is nothing short of astonishing.
“The village where I grew up, you can’t find on Google maps,” she said in an interview during Cisco Live. “There was no electricity, no running water. It came into the town when I was almost finished with high school. Until then, we had to go to rivers to fetch water. We used fire to boil water and cook everything.
“The house was a shack, with a bit of mud on the inside. You would really be scared of any extreme weather conditions and when it was raining it was wet inside the entire house, so you literally had to find a dry spot to sleep. It was a communal house, everyone slept in one room. You really envied the kids who lived in brick houses.”
For many, these circumstances alone would have been enough to crush ambitions for a better live. For Soso, it was the spur.
“Those conditions were the reason why I pushed myself harder in everything I did. It seemed the only hope of us getting out of those conditions. It was pretty much unconscious: usually people started school at 7; I started at 5. During my school career, everything I was doing was to the max, with no resources. We didn’t even have TV or radio.
“It was about you pushing yourself to the limit to get to be better, to get the marks that could get you a scholarship. I could tell no one was going to fund my education from home; my parents were unemployed and living off a government grant. You either get mediocre results and stay at home, or get exceptional results and get a scholarship.”
Even then, career prospects seemed limited to the kinds of jobs that were visible to children.
“The only careers we were exposed to were nurses and teachers, which were known as the normal careers, especially for a young girl growing up there.”
Click here to read about how Soso’s life changed by seeking out technology.