“Fifty years ago, if women wanted to gather in a room…well, it had better be about babies or charity work. And the brown women would be in one room over there and the white women would be in another room over here…
From then to now…we’ve all made such an incredible leap.
Think of all of them.
Fifty years ago trying to get out of separate rooms, thirty years ago trying to not serve breakfast or be groped by their bosses, fifteen years ago trying to make clear that they could run a department as well as that guy over there.
All the women, white or black or brown, who woke up like this, who came before me in this town.
Think of them.
Head up, eyes on the target.
Running. Full speed. Gravity be damned.
Toward that thick layer of glass that is the ceiling.
Running, full speed, and crashing.
Crashing into that ceiling and falling back again.
Crashing into it and falling back.
Into it and falling back.
Woman after woman.
Each one running and each one crashing.
And everyone failing.
How many women had to hit that glass before the first crack appeared?
How many cuts did they get, how many bruises? How hard did they have to hit the ceiling? How many women had to hit that glass to ripple it, to send out a thousand hairline fractures?
How many women had to hit that glass before the pressure of their effort caused it to evolve from a thick pane of glass into just a thin sheet of splintered ice?”
This is what Shonda Rhimes had to say in her book “Year of Yes” when she made it onto The Hollywood Reporter’s Power 100 list in 2014. That year, The Hollywood Reporter celebrated women who had broken through the glass ceiling and in doing so, empowered women everywhere to continue pursuing their dreams.
The women we interviewed all follow in the same vein of having had to work twice as hard in order to ensure that they were never asked why they had a seat at the table.
Please tell us your full name and describe your job
I am the Public Relations Manager for Volkswagen South Africa – this falls under the Communications Department. It’s a demanding job but also incredibly exciting, fulfilling and rewarding. Strategic communication is an important aspect of my job. The most important role that I play is to safeguard Volkswagen South Africa’s reputation in the media space. My job is about cars and showcasing these amazing cars that we have in the brand. I am also the liaison between the media (motoring and lifestyle) and Volkswagen South Africa. The General Manager of Communications and I respond to all media queries on Volkswagen’s activities, developments, Motorsport, models etc. The Product PR Team and I are responsible for launching/ introducing all-new Volkswagen models in South Africa to motoring media as well as running, overseeing and administering the Volkswagen South Africa press fleet which is located in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth. I also write media releases on Volkswagen South Africa’s new models introduced to our market as well corporate related activities. I also oversee and run Volkswagen South Africa’s news account on Twitter (@VWSAnews) – this is one way of communicating the company activities in an interesting, relevant and timeous way. All of Volkswagen Product PR activities are run through the Public Relations budget, which I run. We work with quite a few suppliers and I am responsible for maintaining these relations between Volkswagen and the suppliers, essentially supplier management. We are also an important information and strategic communication channel for our parent company located in Wolfsburg, Germany.
Michelle Atagana, but most people call me Mich. I am the Communications and Public Affairs Lead for Google South Africa, sometimes touching Southern Africa.
What do I do? The core of my job is external communications for Google, so press, social, influencers, key opinion formers, and sometimes working with our government relations person to craft messages for our government and so forth. I spend a lot of time working on messaging and documentation around what we do, who we are and why we do what we do and how what we do can help both externally and internally.
I help tell the Google story to people and as a company, why we are useful and demonstrate that usefulness.
I am the head of marketing for Snapt. Snapt is a global networking software provider and we provide leading load balancing services used by the world’s largest businesses to deliver their applications and keep their service running at peak performance.
The Snapt ADC is the ultimate load balancer, web accelerator and web application firewall for Dev Ops. Companies like Target, NASA, MTV and Intel trust Snapt to stay online whilst being secure.
Co-head of Infrastructure Services, at Absa’s Technology Division.
Infrastructure Services is one of the largest technology divisions in our bank and is unique in that it touches every component of our business. Every single person in Absa at some point uses, needs or depends on Infrastructure Services, either for the computer equipment they need to do their work or for the networks, systems and connectivity that help them to do it properly. I compare my role to that of a highway, with a mass of offramps, onramps, intersections and traffic flows: I need to keep everything moving to ensure there is no congestion and to help everyone get to where they need to be as quickly as possible, without incident.
Can you recall the defining moment that put you on your current career path?
SM: There wasn’t a defining moment per se. By June of my Matric year, I was confused as to what to study in university and I had also contemplated a gap year due to this confusion, but in September of that year (through some pressure from my mom) I finally decided on Journalism as my first choice and PR as my second choice. I loved History, Languages and Creative Writing in high school so those two fields appealed to me more than anything else. Funny enough after varsity I thought I would go into hard news, I was jobless for about 6 months after graduating and when the Nelson Mandela University called me saying Volkswagen was looking for young graduates to join the company, I jumped at the opportunity.
MA: This is an interesting story because when I was 19, at the fantastic University of Kwa-Zulu Natal Pietermaritzburg campus (the original campus). I’d finished my degree and I was starting my honours, and I wanted to focus on the relationship between technology and storytelling – how people use technology in terms of media and how media works. I focused a lot on the game The Sims; I was also working on a movie at the time that was a little more macabre. My honours at the time was split into two parts – a media part and a filmmaking part. I started reading a lot of blogs, I was talking about how The Sims was a way of escape and story creation for humans and yet most humans were spending so much time – this was back in the heyday of mIRCS and IRC chatrooms, how the anonymity of mIRCs was creating these sub-journos of people, were creating a whole new life for them.
So my whole thesis was a juxtaposition between The Sims as a video game you played and you get lost in a world you created and you were the only one who made all the decisions, you were in charge, whereas if you go to chatrooms like mIRC it was still a world you were making but you were a contributor to a very big world that a bunch of other anonymous people created. That really got me interested, I mean I’ve always loved technology – I’ve been on the internet since I can remember. That really just got me into storytelling and story creation through technology.
My entire academic career following that – which was my Masters – then honed that more into journalism, because that’s what I was studying to become anyway.
After I graduated my Masters, I started working with Matt on Memeburn and ended up launching Ventureburn – which was kind of my own little piece of the Burn world – which I really was passionate about, just telling more stories and I just knew I was going to be in technology forever and Google just happened to be the most logical step.
I wasn’t going to be a tech journalist forever.
GG: It’s been a really interesting journey. I’ve got just under a decade of experience in content and technical writing and I’ve had a really great journey with US-based B2B and B2C experience. I also have a really huge passion for startups and technology which I’ve documented well over the years. It’s been really really interesting and basically, I’ve spent my time helping tech-based startups scale their marketing and developing and executing on their go-to-market strategies. So in addition to that, I’ve done content writing for Telkom and Apple, and really just brought that together to really just find my home at Snapt.
NW: It was a chance conversation in an executive’s office at UCS Solutions, where I was working as a first-line support consultant to help pay for my law degree. I needed a document signed by one of the Executives by the name of Jane Canny, Jane was the Executive for Service Delivery at the time. While signing the document she asked me what I wanted from my career, which led to a heartfelt conversation and her hiring me as a service delivery manager. That was the start of my career in technology. It takes a special kind of leader to recognise potential in someone and take the time to do something about it. Jane was one of those people.
What kind of difficulties or lucky breaks did you face getting into a male-dominated industry?
SM: I had a very lucky break when it came to working at Volkswagen South Africa. The company went on a recruitment drive for young graduates and because the Nelson Mandela University still had my details, they gave me a call saying Volkswagen is looking for young graduates to join the team at the Uitenhage plant and whether I am interested in this. Obviously, I said yes so that’s where my journey with VW began. So I didn’t apply to get into the industry but I did go through an interview process.
MA: You know what, I’ve just been really really lucky in my life. I grew up in a family where nothing was impossible. If I really want something, all I have to do is kind of speak it to the universe. I know this sounds a bit kooky and new-agey, but that’s really the truth of my life.
A fun example of this: I said to Stuart Thomas once when we were at Burn, going “Ugh, I really wish I could to go South Korea, it sounds like such a fun place.” I tell you no lies, a month later I got an invitation to attend a conference in South Korea.
This has kind of been the spread of things in my life right, I think “Ooh I really want to do this one day” and the next thing you know, something like that happens. Same with Google, I was thinking “what should my next move be” and three days later I got a call from my predecessor at Google going: “I’m leaving my job, don’t you want to apply for it, I think you’d be great at it.”
So I think I’ve been quite lucky and if I want something I work quite hard to get it.
People usually ask me “Do you put a lot of pressure on yourself to succeed?” and I usually say no but that’s actually a bald-faced lie. I put an intense amount of pressure on myself to achieve my dreams and succeed at everything I do.
I think it’s fair to do that if you want something. If you want something bad enough, go out and get it. Do whatever it takes – legally – to get it.
In terms of lucky breaks, I’ve also met a lot of people who I’ve been nice enough to that they call me when they go “Ooh this is cool, Mich should do it.”
I hope I’ve put out some good behaviour into the world.
In terms of difficulties, I don’t know about difficulties, but I must say one thing that happened to me once in the first few months of Burnmedia. We were having a meeting with an investor. We were an office of about 5 people – we all made tea, we all made coffee, we all helped out where we could.
So I walk into the room and I brought some coffee into the room for Matt and myself and the investor looked at me and said: “ I‘ll take a cup of coffee with two sugars.” Matt was so mortified and was like “This is actually the editor of the site, not the tea lady.”
I’ll never forget that moment because it really reminded me that of course, I’m not the kind of person they assume is running the thing that has to do with technology startups. I’m not the right gender, I’m not the right colour, so of course it’s weird for them to walk into a room in 2011 in Cape Town South Africa and see some black girl who was 24 years old at the time, about running this thing that they want to put some money into.
That for me was kind of the hardest. We laughed about it that day but I’ll never forget it because I always think about it and remember that yes, this is a boys club and you’ve got to try and play at a level that is better than everybody else so no-one ever questions why you’re here.
I stayed up late, I would work double news cycles – I would work the US news cycle for tech and the South African news cycle – I remember the day that Facebook IPOd. I was sitting watching that live stream at two o’clock in the morning and writing that’s tory and publishing it at the same time to be first with it.
GG: It’s been a really incredible experience. As I said I’ve been working in the industry for just under a decade and I’ve worked as a journalist, a content writer and to well within the startup ecosystem and it’s really just about taking risks and working really hard and adding value wherever you can. I think that regardless of your gender, that’s really something that is defining of both a startup and a corporate business experience and really just about the ability to look at the bigger picture and take risks – calculated of course – and just see how everything ties in.
NW: I have been fortunate to work for some exceptional men and women, from whom I learnt a great deal about the kind of leader I did and didn’t want to be. Working for high-achieving women in the technology space gave me a unique insight into what it takes to be tough in a technically demanding, male-dominated industry, but without losing your femininity or the attributes that make women so well suited to this environment. I was also fortunate to hold several senior roles at a relatively young age. Being thrown in the deep end is the fastest way to learn that you are capable of so much more than you think.
Do you feel equal to your peers or are there still challenges? If there is still some inequality: were the tables turned, what would you change to feel more comfortable?
SM: I feel that most of my peers do respect me and treat me accordingly, I am aware that this is not always the case in the company and industry with all people. You cannot force people to respect you but by being professional and aiming to be the best at what I do I believe most people will treat me accordingly. As one of the new PR’s on the block and also being one of the younger ones, you do realise that when it comes to experience within the PR and larger motoring industry there’s still a lot to do and learn. And for me, that’s okay because each and every one of us have to earn our stripes no matter what industry we’re working in.
MA: I feel that there’s inequality constantly and unfortunately, I say this is unfortunate because I have such a thick skin to inequality right now that I almost don’t notice it anymore and that is a bad thing because you’ve stopped noticing inequality it means you’ve resigned yourself to lose to it and I don’t want to ever resign myself to lose to it.
I think there’s a ton of inequality still in the tech space and most of it is not intentional. Most of it just assumed and legacy. No-one is purposely going out there to treat women or people of colour badly when it comes to technology. It’s learned behaviour. I mean anyone that’s doing it on purpose right now is just an idiot and begging for a smacking, but I think that there’s still a lot of challenges to go through.
I would love to really hear people tell honest stories about gender pay gaps, race pay gaps. I really want to honestly have the conversation about why when I go to Cape Town for a tech event, 60 – 70% of the room is a bunch of white guys. I want to understand why Cape Town tech entrepreneurs feel that they can’t actually survive in Cape Town and they’re moving up to Johannesburg to build their businesses. So I think there’s still a heck of a lot to be done in terms of working around inequalities and these challenges.
When you think about technology, it’s about as much as we perpetuate as we receive.
I was thinking about that story about that Kulula flight and that lady making the comment about the pilot being black, and I was thinking to myself: “How many people sit on a plane and when the pilot speaks, when it’s a woman they get all ugh it’s a woman flying this plane, or when it’s a black person they get all, gosh it’s a black person flying this plane but if the white man is flying the plane there’s kind of a sense of quiet confidence they have.”
It made me think about that and I wish I could actually do an anonymous survey to get people to answer this question honestly because I bet you what she voiced, people were thinking.
People think about. It’s a horrible a world that we live in where we have all these assumed prejudices about capabilities and people’s abilities about what they can and cannot do. It’s a constant revolving door where we have to mentally remind ourselves that that’s a terrible thing to think and we shouldn’t think it. And I think that’s where the challenges from a tech point of view still lie, we keep thinking these things and not remembering that the only reason these groups of people are not predominant in these spaces is because they weren’t allowed to previously, so now they’re trying to get into it, they’re learning.
Right now we have first and second generations of black South Africans learning computer science, they weren’t able to learn it before, they’re learning it for the first time.
So it was my take as another generation to really see the tech space filled with black people, but actually, it shouldn’t. All these black graduates should be able to get into that field right now, also why don’t we have enough women engineers? Because previously women weren’t encouraged to study engineering and when they were, they got into a class where there was one girl versus 90 guys. Can you imagine the pressure and the intimidation of what that means? Where you have to work twice as hard to get half as much, so I think a lot of it is more challenges and assumptions than it is innate separation.
GG: I think it’s really just about moving forward. So I think we’re in a really great space, especially in South Africa, and there are some really exciting movements on the horizon, with everyone. And I think it’s just about seizing the opportunity, working together for the bigger picture and really just putting South Africa on the map in terms of leading technology companies and really just getting the word out there.
That’s a great change that I’d love to see and I think we’re working nicely together towards that.
NW: It would be naïve and presumptuous to presume equality in any corporate space. But do I feel or inferior, or that I am less valued? Definitely not, mainly thanks to the fact that we have a CIO who is committed to building the role of women within technology through collaboration and respect.
As you get further up the corporate ladder you tend to lose the women who want to have families and need to take time out in order to do this. When I became a mother I was worried about missing opportunities and having to “reset” my career as a result, and sadly, this detracted from the joy of having a new family and child. This could be fundamentally changed if more companies made a deliberate effort to create working environments that were accommodating to mothers, such as having dedicated rooms for breastfeeding moms, flexible working hours and technology that makes it easier for people to connect and collaborate from any location.
I also believe that as women grow in their careers they should always have their hands out to pull someone else up and create space for other women to grow too. This is something I am passionate about and will always make time for.
What kind of impact do you wish to make on South Africa through your work?
SM: I work for a revolutionary vehicle brand and I say that not only because of our incredible vehicles and services, technological advancements and powerful brand but because of the positive impact we make on transformation, investment in the economy of the Eastern Cape and South Africa and the concerted effort in ploughing back into communities. I want to continue to tell the remarkable story that is Volkswagen especially in South Africa and now there are even greater opportunities to build the brand with the South African heart in the Sub Saharan countries where Volkswagen is expanding into. Volkswagen South Africa has a great story to tell. The South Africa motoring industry contributes about 7% to our country’s GDP so this a crucial industry for South Africa. In motoring, there are various career fields one can explore like engineering, logistics, transport, PR & Communications, finance, marketing, legal, IT, HR etc so I hope, by continuing to communicate Volkswagen’s products and developments that more people, especially young people, will choose careers in the motoring industry.
I don’t come from a particularly wealthy background, my mother sacrificed a lot for me and I also had to work incredibly hard for everything I have so on a personal front, I hope to encourage people that no matter who you are, how old you are, what your background is, you can be anything you want to be through passion, perseverance, research and A LOT of hard work. Whether you want to go into motoring, aviation, science, medicine, technology etc, anything is possible.
MA: I hope that I can inspire a lot of people to work really hard for what they want and just go get regardless of what people say or what they do.
I hope that I can encourage young boys and girls to say that when I grow up I want to go work for Google because Mich did it and Fortune who’s our government relations person did it or Zanele who’s one of our analysts did it, or Yolanda who’s our new policy analysts did it. I want to work for a company like Google because all these young black South Africans work for Google and all these women work for Google.
So I hope that people can be inspired by that but more importantly, I hope that I can help Google help Africans and I can help tell the story of what we do that can help Africans.
There are two things, like being part of our digital skills program that can help you get digital skills to be able to apply for that job that you may not have had the skill for because it was all digital or tech-based and you didn’t have that training.
Or if you’re an entrepreneur who’s just starting out and you need a little guidance, you can be part of our launchpad program that gives you access to everything Google has to offer including mentors and investors and money to help you build that business.
I’m hoping that in some small way the work I do can bring all these people to the amazingness of things that Google has to offer and in that way, if I can touch one person, if one person can come to me on my deathbed and say Mich because of you or because of that one thing you tweeted or said, my life has changed for the better and I am now a freaking millionaire or I am now impacting the world then I will be incredibly happy.
GG: Snapt is an incredibly exciting and innovative company, and I know that a lot of those are buzzwords but we really really are. We’re the only ADC vendor in South Africa and on the continent. And we have a really, really exciting niche space.
In terms of the biggest players, the top five are all based in the United States and we’re aggressively looking into that market and really just the impact we’d love to have is showcasing that you can be an exciting, nimble, flexible company based in South Africa but have a product offering that rivals and is equal to some of the best in the world and really just perform on a global scale. The impact of that has already been in no small part to our client list, to build that up into a really exciting ecosystem and platform to really just showcase what South African companies can do.
We have a huge focus on any business that has mission critical software or services, that ranges from banking to e-commerce, to health care to data centres. Anytime you need high availability or redundancy we ensure that your company is always online, always secure and always performing quickly.
NW: I live by the credo ‘To whom much is given, much is expected’. As the product of a domestic worker, I firmly believe that it doesn’t matter how you start, but how you finish, and this is why I want to help give young people the audacity to hope, and the determination not to give up on their dreams. Through coaching and mentoring, and well as through the work I do in my community, I want to help keep young girls interested in school and inspire them to pursue careers in technology and engineering. Ultimately, I would like to see a lot more women and young, intelligent African professionals taking up senior roles in industry. In five years’ time, I don’t want to see them struggling with the same issues that they are now.
Is there anything you would do differently if you went back in time – to Grade 12 – with all the knowledge of the world you have now?
SM: Not a single thing. I am not a person who tends to look longingly at the past, I do my best every single day on everything I work on so as to avoid the trap of focussing on the past. I had to go through everything I did, in the manner that I did, in order to be the individual and professional that I am today.
MA: Invest in Intel for crying out loud.
I’m a big realist and I know that unfortunately time travel isn’t real, which is a damn shame and I really wish that Steven Hawking had invented it before he died.
I used to write these letters to my future self on my blog, most of it is apologising for the things I’m about to do and some of it is asking if… paid out. I think that if I were talking to my younger self, if anything I would hope that I would be saying to her “You know what, things are shitty, you didn’t have that much knowledge, you probably should’ve paid a bit more attention at school but well done on believing in yourself. Well done on keeping your dreams valid and well done on being silly and realising that life is for the living.”
I don’t have any right to give advice to my younger self because, to be honest, I think that 16-year-old Mich probably made smarter decisions than 32-year-old Mich, I’m not going to lie. So maybe she can give me some advice on how to do this grownup thing.
GG: Always go out there, do what you can, try your best and don’t be afraid to take a calculated risk and don’t be afraid to stand up for what you believe in.
Really just enjoy learning, enjoying growing and if you’ve got a positive attitude and always learning mindset, I think it will set you up for anything in any industry or path of life that you’ll be in.
NW: I only started realising what I was capable of much later than I should have. If I could go back, I would stop comparing myself to others and trust that I was destined for greatness. With more confidence, I think I would have made much bolder moves and worked harder to achieve more, sooner. But I would also have congratulated myself more, and not been so hard on myself.
What’s your next career step or, if there isn’t one you can tell us right now, what’s the one trend in your industry that’s going to change how you do business?
SM: I was recently appointed to my role as PR Manager, it has just been over a year, so I am at a point in my career where I am continuing to learn about the fascinating motor industry, cementing relationships with industry stakeholders, introducing new and exciting ways of doing things (tha
t is the millennial in me speaking) and constantly innovating and keeping up with technological and new trends in the motoring industry. The one thing I am committed and passionate about is learning and improving myself, so I am going back to school next year to pursue a PR and Communications degree.
MA: I’m honestly just trying to make it through this week. I’ve been out of the country for a month.
Machine learning is a big thing and AI is a big thing, but I’m really interested to see how we consume content going forward. I’ve been tracking content consumption since I was 19 years old. Video is a big part of content consumption, we all want to go hands free, we don’t want to type we want to go hands-free, we don’t want to type anymore we’re using voice now so the rise of the assistants, voice search, all of that stuff, we don’t want to read things anymore so we’re watching. Why would I want to read the recipe when I can go to YouTube and watch the video on how to do it.
Tablets are taking the place of cookbooks in the kitchen – we’ve known this for a while – tablets have been in your kitchen for a while but before they were there to open up recipes and for you to read through the recipe, now people are just sitting on cooking channels on YouTube and cooking along with them.
The AI stuff and how we build businesses and how we build products with machine learning is definitely the future and Google has always said that it’s an AI company now but personally for me, I’m really interested in the consumer and how they interact with stuff. For brands who want to get their consumers attention, give them those pithy videos because they don’t want to read anymore, they just want to watch and be told what it is.
GG: I think just as a whole, the rapid rate of technology and what we’re seeing from IoT to 5G to really just big trends that are going to transform ecosystems and the way we do business, even just fibre coming to South Africa and really just having strong offerings there in terms of business capabilities, it’s going to be a really interesting time, but essentially the groundbreaking tech that’s going to allow more inclusivity as well as just faster, bigger and more exciting ways of doing business are really where we’re looking to.
NW: All companies are becoming technology-driven businesses, where value and competitive edge comes not from their traditional products and services, but from how they use digital innovations to add value to those. This is true not only in financial services, but across all industries, and it requires every single leader to think completely differently about how they service their customers, run their businesses, and manage and grow their talent.