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Paseka Khosa, a Laidlaw Scholar at Saïd Business School, on overcoming financial hardship and advocating for unwavering belief in oneself.
My name is Paseka Khosa-Chavalala. I was born and bred in the small town of Giyani in Limpopo, South Africa. I am a consultant in the Strategy & Management Consulting industry. My academic background is in Mining Engineering (BSc Hons Eng) and Business Administration (Postgraduate Diploma in Business Admin - PDBA). I was employed as an explosives engineering graduate in the mining industry in my early years of working.
When I decided to study Mining Engineering, many people expressed that the career isn’t for women, especially women of my stature (short, thin and “tiny”). My response was: “If people like me never get into these spaces, then they will remain spaces not meant for us; it is up to us to change this narrative”. This experience taught me that circumstances do not have to limit my dreams, no matter how “improbable” they may seem, that I should try my best and embrace the results. For this reason, I decided to apply to do the MBA at Oxford with the Laidlaw Foundation Scholarship.
My top 5 strengths, according to Gallup’s strengthsfinder, are: competition, achiever, strategic, activator and woo. Over time, I’ve learnt how to harness my strengths to bring out the best in me. I see myself as an advocate for unwavering belief in oneself. Hence, while it is unusual for a woman with my background to dream about studying outside the country because of financial limitations, I have even bigger dreams to one day become an executive and sit on boards of companies that drive the economy. I hope that this opportunity will open doors and enable me to continue challenging the status quo.
What is the biggest life challenge you overcame, and what did you learn from it?
The biggest life challenge I have ever had to overcome is financial hardship which was most strenuous in my academic experience. My father was the sole breadwinner before his passing 4 months after I was born. My mother was left to fend and raise 4 children, 2 of which were in their prime teen years, a 10-year-old and myself: the 4-months-old infant.
My mother worked very hard to give us all the best opportunities she could access and took my siblings and me to the best schools. That was until she eventually lost her job when I was only 7 years old and couldn’t get another one because she was apparently too old for the market she was qualified for. While things were already tough for our family, this made the situation worse.
I knew that I always had to work extra hard to attract opportunities to build a strong career in any area of my interest. I also knew that education would be my best bet for rising above poverty and helping improve my home situation. I started receiving financial sponsorship from my high school. This enabled me to stay in one of the best schools in our hometown, and I am forever grateful for this as it gave me a firm foundation. When I went to university, the need to excel and outperform became toxic to my mental health. Therefore, it negatively affected my academic performance, which, in a daisy chain effect, made my ability to fund my college studies even harder.
I learnt from this experience that while hard work is critical in achieving one's goals and vision, it is also essential to take care of one’s mental health. That fear is a good motivator but can also work to your detriment. I learnt that I need to always believe in myself even in seasons of “failure” and not tie my worth to achievements because I am much more than just a tickbox. I’ve also learnt that opportunities are there - people and institutions are always willing to help those who have shown effort and taken steps towards helping themselves.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
“There will always be someone who can’t see your worth...don’t let it be you."
This is why I am a self-proclaimed advocate for unwavering belief in oneself. If you believe in yourself, it begins to appear in how you show up, handle yourself and in the outcomes you produce. Sooner or later, everyone else will catch on.
What is the worst piece of advice you have ever been given?
"No one owes you anything. No one is coming to save you...figure it all out for yourself before asking for help."
This has been drilled hard into me my entire life and has thus become very difficult to unlearn. The consequence of this is I let myself drown before I can shout for help when I could’ve had someone else who has figured out a way forward helping me. Humans are not meant to be independent. We are interdependent beings and should never feel like we have to figure out life on our own.
Top 3 tips that will help someone become a better leader
- Be your authentic self. Authenticity is what makes great leaders, especially in a world where things are constantly changing. Someone else’s leadership style might not always work, but your authenticity may help you navigate through everything successfully.
- Be empathetic. You are not a leader unless you are leading a group of people. Empathy makes truly human leadership styles, which make those you lead feeling understood, appreciated, cared for and wanting to do their best as a response.
- Show competence in whatever space that you lead. This does not mean having answers to everything. It means showing that you are capable of inspiring confidence in yourself and those whom you lead. It is easier to ask for help and admit where you fall short if you have some degree of knowledge and understanding.
Which leaders in the world inspire you the most and why?
I am surrounded by so many great leaders in my personal and professional space, so it is hard to list out names. However, because I recently read her book, I would say Nolitha Fakude stands out.
In her book, she details her experience as a young professional and all the challenges she was met with as a black woman in corporate who also became a mother while pursuing her dreams. Her story is relatable and gives me hope that the challenges are a necessary part of the journey to greatness. Nolitha is currently the Chairperson of Anglo American’s management board - the largest mining company in South Africa. She is the representation that women need to see in high places. She is shattering glass ceilings.
What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?
The Laidlaw Scholarship is a crazy dream come true. I remember shortly after applying to the Oxford Saïd Business School MBA, an overwhelming feeling of discouragement filled me when I realised that there is no way on earth I would be able to fund this. It was like I had just experienced an adrenalin high that subsided when reality kicked in.
So, I told one of my friends how my highly ambitious self tricked me into believing that this was possible, and we both laughed about it. My hope was restored when I saw that the Laidlaw Foundation launched this scholarship for potential female MBA applicants. I knew that this was a sign that I needed to see this through. I read the description of the type of person the Foundation was looking for, and I saw myself.
Being one of the first recipients of this scholarship is such an honor and a huge endorsement of my potential as a future leader - a reminder that I am capable of everything I wish to become. To me, the Laidlaw Scholarship is a reminder that miracles do happen for those who believe and put action into their dreams.
Briefly describe a scene from the future you are striving to create.
When I was being interviewed 4 years ago to join the company I work for now, I was asked: “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” and my answer was “I see myself as a powerful woman. By powerful, I mean that I would've built a brand for myself as someone who is reliable, makes an impact and leaves a mark in everything that she does. I want to be renowned for being really good at what I do no matter what that is, to be the “go-to” person in my area of expertise."
It's been almost 5 years, and this vision has manifested in many little and different ways. The vision has also evolved and transformed as I’ve grown, but it remains the same. Only now, I would add that I see myself as a champion and advocate for women empowerment living a more equitable world.
📺 Currently binging: The Bold Type - a series about powerful women making waves in the magazine/beauty industry. I relate to all 3 main characters, but Kat Edison stands out for me as she makes serious career boss moves. I aspire to that.
🎵 My quarantine anthem: Good and Loved by Travis Greene feat Steffany Gretzinger
📚 My top book recommendation: I enjoy reading for entertainment rather than education, so my favorite book isn’t a self-help book, but a novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called Americanah
🎧 Podcast obsession: Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Conversations
🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: Marrying my best friend and making it into Oxford’s MBA program with the Laidlaw Scholarship and other sponsorships
Paseka is a Laidlaw Scholar at Oxford University's Saïd Business School. The Laidlaw Women's Business Education Scholarship aims to help build a pipeline of future women leaders through access to best-in-class education, resources and global networks by providing full and half scholarships to women who would not otherwise be in a position to reap the benefits of attending an outstanding school.
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