When Lwando Ngwane started her degree as a mine engineer, it was because, like so many 18-year olds, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life.
Her dad was in mining and she’d grown up in mining towns. She knew she was good at maths and physics, but she didn’t enjoy accounting and she didn’t want to go into civil or electrical engineering. When she saw a brochure about mining engineering at Wits University everything seemed to click into place. She even managed to secure a bursary from Anglo American.
Three years later, Lwando was completely re-evaluating her decisions. Her work at thermal coal sites in Witbank had made one thing very clear to her: She did not want to spend the next 20 years at mine sites. She wanted to be in Johannesburg working in a corporate environment. The problem was, how was she going to do it?
“18 is far too early to make long-term decisions and yet that’s what we have to do when we choose what we’re studying. Even if I’d researched mining engineering, I wouldn’t have known what it was truly like until I was there, doing the work, and at that stage it’s often too late, unless you’re willing to make a change to follow your dreams.”
There was an added complication, however. Four-year bursaries must be paid back, and Lwando had a job waiting for her at Anglo American. Until, in a huge stroke of luck, she didn’t.
“Many people never realise that they could be doing something different. They end up stuck in jobs they don’t love and that don’t fulfill them. I was lucky enough to realise that mining engineering wasn’t what I wanted to do, but I couldn’t see how I was going to get out of my bursary,” she says.
“And then commodity prices took a huge dip. The mining houses were under huge pressure and they couldn’t employ every student who had received a bursary and so they told us we could start looking for other jobs, if we so chose. I could walk away once my degree was done. It was an incredible feeling of freedom.”
Of course, freedom doesn’t mean Lwando automatically knew what her next move was. At 22 she had better insights into what she wanted from life, but no clear path had presented itself. Which is where luck once again played its hand.
Finding a new path
One of Lwando’s classmates applied for a position at a small boutique investment firm that was looking to diversify into mining industry. “Their primary focus was retailers and industrial-sector businesses and so they had no analysts who specialised in mining. It’s usually finance and chartered accountant degrees that are the first hires for investment firms, but they took a chance on my classmate.”
It was a chance that would end up paying big dividends for Lwando’s own career. “He was such a good analyst that they asked if he knew anyone else who would be interested in joining the firm and he thought of me,” she explains. “He knew I wanted to be in the corporate space and that I was looking for a job.”
And the rest, as they say, was history. Today, Lwando is passionate about her role as an equity analyst and she continues to learn valuable lessons that are shaping her life.
Lwando’s top lessons in defining your career (and your life):
Never be too proud to follow rivers or you will never find the sea. “This is my mantra and it basically means that there is nothing wrong with humble beginnings. My story was not easy. I had to struggle to land a bursary, attain my degree, and then find a job. On the way I became a call centre agent, even though I had a BSc Engineering. But I knew what I wanted, and that I could wait for it. Always take the humble stance – it will lead you to bigger things in life.”
Be true to yourself. “I grew up in the limelight. I did well academically, at sports, and I was in our church choir. The result was that I was always under scrutiny and I allowed the opinions of others to shape the decisions I made. It took a long time for me to realise that by listening so much to others, I wasn’t truly understanding myself and what I want. This shift has been incredibly important, both on a personal level, which allows me to feel more fulfilled and complete, and on a professional level.”
No experiences are ever a waste. “I didn’t want to work in mining engineering, but my experience and degree has made me an excellent equity analyst. You never know where your knowledge and experience will lead you.”
Trust that it will all work out in the end. “Stay true to yourself, trust your gut and do what you love. Don’t hold on to a job or anything else in your life out of fear. We can’t always see the road ahead, but if we treat every experience as a way to learn and grow, we will find our path. It’s only in hindsight that you can connect the dots. Wisdom comes from experiences and taking a chance based on hard-won insights and knowledge.”