Of cars and kids

'By the time my daughter is grown, I hope she will not have to experience the stigma of either race or gender, that she'll be able just to be the person she wants to be."

Unathi Bhe-Kanda is one of the trailblazers who will make sure this wish comes true for her little girl – and for all the other little girls who might otherwise be confined to traditional roles.

At the age of 30, she has made waves in a couple of male-dominated industries, has started her own business and has made a success of it.  Stay at home and bake cupcakes? Perish the thought! This natural-born entrepreneur would wilt if she was limited to traditional female roles.

Uncommon interests
Bhe-Kanda grew up in East London, matriculated at Clarendon High School for Girls and hit the Witwatersrand Technikon at a time when all sorts of doors were swinging wide open in a country fresh out of apartheid.  But even as recently as 1999, it was not so common to find a young woman choosing electrical engineering as her field of study.

By 2003, she was junior engineer in the field of mining and metallurgy, working far from her hometown in Rustenburg. She subsequently moved into mass measuring systems, working for a Randburg-based company.

 "I was programming mass measuring weigh scales for road and rail," she explains.  Her job took her to the far-flung places where her clients had their depots, but she laughs at the idea that she was seeing South Africa: "Most of these sites are in really remote, industrial areas outside of town."

Bhe-Kanda was a rather unusual sight in this milieu. "I know I made people uncomfortable – they didn't know how to interact with you – especially when I had to train older male operators."

But she was used to being the odd one out, the fish out of water, she says.

"In primary school, I was the only black child in my class. I've never really been in a comfort zone – when I was studying, the majority of my classmates were male."

This history prepared her well for a career of making herself at home in places where testosterone is the hormone du jour.

Girls in cars
Soon, Bhe-Kanda joined the automotive industry as a proposals engineer in robotics.

"Industrial robots are commonly used in work areas that either compromise human safety, or where strict levels of accuracy and consistency are needed," she says. "In some production environments, there's a huge resistance to industrial robots. Workers don't like them because they think they're being replaced, so you do encounter some hostility; it's not unknown for workers to sabotage the system," she says. But she handled it well. "I've always been very comfortable working with people. I find it helps to try and understand the reasons behind their reactions; if you find the root cause, it's easier to solve."

Bhe-Kanda then moved on to work as a bid manager in industry solutions, focusing on freight and passenger rail operations.

As bid manager she had to oversee projects from receipt of the request to tendering to delivery, and had to make sure that all the terms of the agreement were met. She handled huge jobs, ranging from R12-million to a national signalling project that was worth no less than R1-billion.

By 2008, she felt ready to start her own company, Blackwine SA, offering marketing solutions and project management services to clients in the public and private sector.

All of these experiences were great preparation for what was to come next, a giant leap into the automotive industry, with the help of the Ford Incubation Programme. "I saw the incubation programme advertised in a government tender bulletin in September 2010. The automotive industry has always interested me, but has been characterised by a high barrier to entry, particularly for black women.

"I saw the programme as an opportunity to enter the industry with the backing of significant industry players in the form of Ford, the Tier 1 supplier and the Automotive Industry Development Centre (AIDC)," she says.

Going into a joint venture with an existing Tier 1 supplier dissolved many barriers and by June 2011 the new company was on its way; it was fully operational by the last quarter of the year.

"I have a team of 32 people involved in the HVAC air handling unit assembly process, logistics and quality." HVAC, she explains for those not in the know, stands for heating, ventilation and air-conditioning; her company is making you comfortable in your car.

"We will supply Ford with 80 000 units this year. We operate on a strict just-in-time basis: we have ten minutes to deliver a unit, from the minute we get the broadcast (as the order is known) to the minute the unit is fitted on the vehicle."

Bhe-Kanda's staff work in two shifts, so the plant runs for 18 hours a day, with the rest of the time devoted to line maintenance and housekeeping.  She's now focused on being TS16949-certified within three months, and then expanding her product line and diversifying.

Misfit makes good
This industry is a good fit for her personally, she says.

"I've always had a huge interest in engineering and in how things work. I also find a male-dominated industry very appealing. I always was a bit of a misfit, I like challenges and I handle them well. It gets addictive; when you get too comfortable at work, it feels like you're not doing enough!"

She says that it's been important to find a balance that allows her to be both boss and woman. "Men tend to be insecure with a woman as boss. You can't be autocratic; it helps to understand each person and get their buy-in. It's a different kind of management style."

Not that it's been easy for her, she acknowledges. "As a male, everything in this field caters for you, but a female faces challenges that can make you lose track of what you're trying to achieve. They don't make it easy for you; this is still very much a 'man's job'.

"Ideally, women in engineering should have mentors. I only found one late in my career, someone I could go to who would put things in perspective for me."

Bhe-Kanda has also had tremendous support from her family, her parents and siblings as well as her husband, who is in telecoms. "He's an exceptional entrepreneur and incredibly wise, so I can rely on him for advice."

Her parents have provided both support and inspiration as role models.

"When my father took me out of the Bantu education system, he was working as a clerk.  He made such sacrifices to pay my fees. I have profound respect for him and for my mother, who was just 20 when she had me, and afterwards went back to school to become a teacher.Her late grandmother's guidance and her parents' example have been inspirations.

And she has certainly shown that being a woman is no obstacle to making headway in a man's world – even at a particularly feminine time.

"When I look back at some of the projects I worked on while I was pregnant with either of my two children, I'm almost shocked. It shows that in life there are no limits and you're capable of so much more than you may think you are!"

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