“To change the status quo, women, especially young women, need to see themselves in the women who are CEOs, CTOs, CIOs and founders.” with Penny Bauder & Ideshini Naidoo

To change the status quo, women, especially young women, need to see themselves in the women who are CEOs, CTOs, CIOs and founders. I hope they look at other women and see what is possible for them. I also encourage women leaders to serve as mentors and sponsors for young women and as a general peer […]

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To change the status quo, women, especially young women, need to see themselves in the women who are CEOs, CTOs, CIOs and founders. I hope they look at other women and see what is possible for them. I also encourage women leaders to serve as mentors and sponsors for young women and as a general peer group supporting each other.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ideshini Naidoo.

Ideshini Naidoo is Chief Technology Officer at Wave where she leads a team of over 70 engineers. She brings a depth of knowledge in technology and information systems within the Fintech space, having led major development efforts at both startups and large banks. Ideshini‘s extensive knowledge in electronic banking with large scale, multi-country, multi-platform implementation experience, comes from leading corporate electronic banking channels across Africa at Barclays Bank. As Chief Information Officer of Rand Merchant Bank’s Corporate Bank she led architecting and building complex corporate banking platforms as well as the wider FirstRand Bank’s (one of Africa’s largest banks), Swift and Settlement systems. She is now focused on paving the path for Wave to change the world of small business financial services, one entrepreneur at a time.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been drawn to science, and mathematics was my favorite subject. My father was very encouraging of it. When I was choosing a degree, I wanted to incorporate the two, which led me to computer science.

Since computer science is a predominantly male dominated industry, my extended family was not excited about my career choice. Fields like teaching, accounting or law were considered more acceptable for females. However, my dad supported and encouraged me to do what I was most interested in but also continually impressed upon me the importance of hard work and not being satisfied with good enough.

Interestingly enough, my brothers became accountants and lawyers — and I’ve forged my path in what I love!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

One day, we were talking about the concept of working groups, when a group of experts come together to achieve specific goals, at Wave. Working groups are the way in which we solve for technology problems that impact the whole of engineering, not just one specific team.

For a working group to be successful, everyone must contribute to ensure it moves forward — meaning you need to bring the group together to solve problems that affect the whole ecosystem. Throughout the discussion, people asked how they would be recognized for their contributions and how the work would be distributed evenly.

That’s when I compared working groups to the community of a village in Africa. I’m South African and grew up hearing the stories about African culture and how villages sustain themselves with such limited resources. If you go to the remote villages, there is a fire burning continually. No one can tell you precisely how it is kept going. Everyone contributes to keep the village functioning and the fire burning, based on their strengths and what the village needs. The work isn’t evenly distributed in terms of hours of work, but everyone contributes what they can knowing that it will lead to the whole community being healthy which benefits everyone. Teams and companies in Africa can often produce incredible results from very little resources based on the willingness of people to bring together and contribute their unique gifts out of a belief that the outcome will lift an entire community.

That was one of the first times I shared experiences borne out of cultural differences from how teams cooperate in Africa. I was happy to find that it was pleasantly received and even improved our working groups workflow!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What stands out about Wave is that it is a strongly purpose-driven company. Our organization model works from the core principle of feeling the burden of the brave entrepreneur, of the small business owner and finding ways to solve their pain points, to empower and give them a to give needs a voice.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

No, I am not satisfied.

While there are many people, both women and men, investing a great deal to change the status quo, progress is slow and the scale of the problem is often daunting. It is for this reason that I often encourage women to pick a specific area that they feel most passionate about and invest the lions’ share of their time into making a difference in that area, alongside others we are also passionate about that specific topic. I learned this hard lesson from spreading myself too thinly, trying to add value to a number of important things, and as a result not being truly effective. In contrast, by concentrating effort in one particular direction much more significant results can be achieved much faster.

To change the status quo, women, especially young women, need to see themselves in the women who are CEOs, CTOs, CIOs and founders. I hope they look at other women and see what is possible for them. I also encourage women leaders to serve as mentors and sponsors for young women and as a general peer group supporting each other.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

One of the biggest challenges I believe women in STEM face is finding their voice to speak up in a room full of people. There are a lot of reasons we hesitate and don’t speak up — the fear of being wrong, or that we’ll be met with resistance, create conflict or be judged for what we’re saying.

When we as women, or people of colour, hold back and hesitate, we hold back diversity of thought and different perspectives. We fight so hard to get a seat at the table and then the seat is not being used — it’s just being warmed up.

There have been times in the past, when I’ve spoken up and been told, “how did you come up with that? It’s so innovative.” To me, it was not innovative, it’s just how I see the world. I just happen to see the world differently and that’s the power diversity to the table and how it improves thinking.

To help address this hesitation, it’s not only incumbent upon people of minorities to have the courage to speak up, but on all of us to foster a group dynamic that provides the psychological safety to make it easier for diverse members of the group to speak up. In such a group people are not only encouraged to speak but also to seek understanding by asking questions respectfully and curiously to build greater understanding and grow in shared perspectives. Everyone can contribute to unlocking the true power of diversity.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

What is a “Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

The number one lesson I’ve learned from my experience is to always use the lens of empathy and compassion.

Early on in my career, shortly after South Africa became a democracy and racial integration was still very young, it was illegal to discriminate, but it didn’t stop people from doing so.

I was working in a lab at the time and a senior engineer saw me and said he didn’t want to work in a lab where there was a woman present. I knew he said that, not because I am a woman, but because I am a person of color. My boss immediately apologized for his behaviour and assured me he would address the issue. I politely declined because when this kind of feedback comes from your superior, your title, salary and performance reviews can be on the line, so you will likely stop the behavior that could put these things at risk. However, simply changing one’s behaviour to stop such public outbursts does not create a change of heart or belief system.

Instead, I chose to work with this man for quite a while. I worked hard and treated him with respect even though it wasn’t easy. I learnt a great deal from him and through my treating him with respect despite his harsh behaviour he soon started to see past his own prejudices to recognize me, not just a person of colour, but also as someone of value who he could respect and learn from. This approach of responding to his discrimination and prejedice with compassion and empathy instead of giving in to anger and the desire to lash out ultimately helped change his perception and outlook about people of colour.

This has since become the basis of my leadership style. Empathy and compassion can often be mistaken for being soft or weak but in reality it takes a lot more strength and courage to respond to your persecutors with kindness or to give hard feedback to someone who needs to hear the truth so that they can grow. You have to be willing to do this knowing they may feel hurt and perhaps even dislike you. As a leader, holding back important feedback people need in order for them to grow means choosing to spare their feelings but hurt their lives.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Form connections and be a network of support for each other. That’s what is going to get us through the phase we’re in now where the industry doesn’t look the way we want it to. We can be the difference and change we want to see by using the connections we have to be women supporting women.

As you form connections, find mentors and people you can work with, look up to and who can provide support and guidance. If you do not see someone who can be a mentor, try to be the mentor yourself and provide those connections for other women.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

The first step is to build a strong leadership team that can work beside you to effectively lead the larger group. Build a team that will share the same values and work towards a common purpose. And once again I encourage other female leaders to have honest, hard conversations with the compassion and strength needed to keep the person on the other side’s dignity intact. These conversations are intended to help and to challenge people to continually grow into better versions of themselves. Leading this way sets the tone and environment for your leadership team and ultimately your entire team to engage with each other in this manner.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Myfather was instrumental at the beginning of my career. He supported me when I decided I wanted to go into engineering, a male dominated field, and defended my choice to the community and my family.

He was quite progressive in his thinking and his response when someone questioned my decision. He was straight forward — “it’s what she wants to do, it’s what she’s good at, so she’s going to do it. I will not get in her way or let anyone else get in her way.”

I’m also grateful for the many unique and incredible experiences I had growing up in South Africa and learning from communities and families that have so little and how filled with gratitude such communities can be and what amazing things they can accomplish with the little they have. I believe this led to many of my own successes turning my lack of resources into a catalyst for innovation.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Itry to bring compassion to everything I do. I also do my best to encourage every woman I encounter who is interested in STEM or engineering to be visible, find a mentor and get connected. I also put a great deal of time and energy into using my own visibility and experience to speak at events and other forums, both public and private, to encourage both men and women to lead with empathy and compassion and to be a strong advocate for other women supporting women.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Iwould want to inspire a network effect of women supporting women. If each of us adopted a pay-it-forward approach to helping each other we could create the momentum necessary for the change we all want to see. By investing the time and energy necessary to form connections we will deepen our understanding of each other needs’ and aspirations and grow in our ability to unlock opportunities and see those aspirations fulfilled. This network effect also drives inclusivity as it seeks to touch and uplift all women. It will also mean a rise in visibility and bring to light what’s possible when women truly and deeply support each other. The more visible women are in STEM and other fields, shaping and defining our chosen industries, the more we can help inspire other women to follow their passions and find success.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

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