Only 11% of the civil engineers in South Africa are women. Of those, three-quarters leave the profession early on, due to stigma.
Of that 11%, only a small portion of are black women, such as Lusanda Tyebileyo (32) and Lerato Kotane (30), who are defying the odds as symbols of change.
Tyebileyo and Kotane, the directors of civil construction firm Tisang Group, have not only proven that women can thrive in the male-dominated environment, but are also proof that nothing is impossible.
Tyebileyo recalls a time when one of her lecturers told them that the prospects of them graduating were very dim.
“In my first year of engineering, a lecturer told the class: ‘Only one in two of you will graduate,’” says Tyebileyo.
Growing up in a male-dominated household with four brothers and her father, Tyebileyo learned early on to stand on her own two feet. “My thinking has always been ‘I can do what boys can do’, so the fact that engineering is a male-dominated profession didn’t daunt me. My father encouraged me and my mum knew I was as stubborn as he was!”
After finishing high school, she pursued a career in engineering. During her studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, she met Kotane.
Before settling on engineering, Kotane considered a career in fashion design or architecture.
“The fact that I had such good grades in maths and science led my parents to question my initial career choice,” says Kotane. “Till this day, I am grateful for their guidance. I would not trade these past 10 years for anything. Nothing excites me more than contributing towards transformation and being counted among the female engineers who can make an impact.”
But her journey was not as rosy as she might have anticipated. Kotane says she had to work 10 times harder than her male counterparts to progress, but even though things were tough, she remained determined to succeed. .
“My impetus for going into business was being the best performer and top achiever at my previous job,” says Tyebileyo. “I wanted to build a legacy and not short-change myself.”
Kotane adds: “I always knew that I was not going to chase the corporate ladder, like many of my peers. I had always wanted to start something of my own. Shaping my own career path in business was more meaningful and fulfilling than working for someone else.”
This drive and ambition birthed Tisang Group, which Tyebileyo and Kotane established two years ago.
Guts and glory
Their first year of business was tough, to say the least. “We were very naïve. We understood engineering and the construction sector quite well. But working in corporate is very different from running your own business,” says Tyebileyo.
Their efforts to win government contracts were fruitless. “There’s a perception that if you are a woman and black, then the road is clear and that you will get to your destination quicker. But it doesn’t work that way,” she says.
If they were going to be successful, they had to think out of the box. One of the things that they did was to align their business around three strategic themes: industry specialisation, market focus and sustainable partnerships.
“The net effect of our strategy was a growing order book, successful partnerships and enhanced reputation. We gained credibility in the process with our partnerships, including a listed company,” Tyebileyo says.
Kotane emphasises the importance of entrepreneurial support structure. “We have also aligned ourselves with seasoned female mentors and entrepreneurs, who have experience in the industry,” she says.
Perseverance was also key. After a lot of hard work and resolute determination in the face of rejection, Tisang Group landed several projects within the power and renewable energy space.
Despite their growing success, the entrepreneurs admit that they need to continue to improve their financial management.
It is for this reason that Kotane and Tyebikyo approached the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants.
One of their low moments since establishing the business was losing a contract when a third party failed to deliver.
“We owned up to the mistake and regained the client. I came across many contractors in my previous employment who covered things up. I didn’t appreciate that as the client and I knew the implications,” says Tyebileyo.