EP. 19 Success, Survival and Sacrifices – Prof. Mamokgethi Phakeng, First Black Female Vice-Chancellor.

“I’m not interested in people pleasing. I want to do good. When I do good, it’s for me. When I challenge a situation, it’s because I really believe it needs to be challenged.” – Prof. Mamokgethi Phakeng

Mamokgethi Phakeng is Professor of Mathematics Education and Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town. She holds a PhD in Mathematics Education from the University of the Witwatersrand. She has published over 80 reviewed articles and five edited volumes. She is a B1 NRF-rated scientist, which indicates she has considerable international recognition. She has been invited as a speaker and visiting professor at international conferences and universities in many parts of the world. 

She has won several awards for her research and community work, including the Order of Baobab (Silver) bestowed upon her by the President of South Africa in April 2016 and the CEO magazine most influential woman in academia in Africa in 2015. Mamokgethi has served and continues to serve on several notable boards in South Africa and Africa. 

In this episode of Inconversation With, Griselda sits down with the inspirational vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, Prof. Mamokgethi Phakeng, on her journey as the first black female vice-chancellor and her thoughts on leadership.

The Journey to becoming the First Black Female South African to achieve a PhD in Mathematics Education

Mamokgethi was the first South African female to ever earn a PHD in mathematics education, an achievement she charts back to her parents, who were committed to education despite not being educated. Growing up in rural South Africa during Apartheid, Mamokgethi says she opted for maths because it was the one subject where she didn’t need to memorise lots of information unlike biology or history.

Her lightbulb moment came when she realised that she didn’t need to solve the problem in the same way as her teacher had and could instead do things her way. That’s a philosophy that she has stayed true to throughout her career.

Developing a Winning Mindset

Describing herself as someone who likes winning and getting things right, Mamokgethi is authentic and aligned, something she attributes to a key milestone. “When I turned 40, I embraced my freedom. I embraced who I am. I became at peace with who I am. There is no turning back,” she says. “This is who I am. I am beautiful as I am. I can always be a better version of me. But I can’t be someone else. Since I embraced that, it’s given me the freedom to be who I am and not think that I have to tweak myself here or there.”

And if you haven’t yet turned 40, how can you be yourself now in your 20s and 30s and live life fully? “On my computer I have a list of things that I wish someone had told me,” She shares. “On my list of things, I wished someone had told me important things before I was 21, like the importance of building relationships and wearing shorts. Stop thinking you’re too fat! Don’t wait.”

Disregarding the People Pleasing Mindset

People pleasing is a trap many of us fall into but taking back control and living fearlessly is as simple as remembering life is short. “I have realised that it’s a very short time we have on this earth. We have to live it well. I do good because it makes me feel good. When people around me are comfortable, I can be comfortable. I’m not interested in people pleasing. I want to do good. When I do good, it’s for me. When I challenge a situation, it’s because I really believe it needs to be challenged. I don’t play to the gallery.”

The art of leadership is about saying no, but many women are expected to say yes, all the time. So, how do you get the confidence to say no when everyone expects otherwise? The test of leadership is saying no. Bad leaders never say no. They either say no or they keep quiet. Mamokgethi says that as you proceed up the leadership ladder, there are no right or wrong. There are just decisions. “I say no to a lot of things. But I do say yes to a lot… I do what I believe is in the interest of my university.”

Listen to the full episode of Prof. Mamokgethi Phakeng’s career and leadership journey.

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About Griselda Togobo:

She is also a multi-faceted entrepreneur, engineer, and chartered accountant. Her experience as a black woman in the corporate world drives her to help progressive global companies create inclusive workplaces. She works directly with CEOs and business leaders to embed a culture of inclusion at the heart of their talent strategy.  She is a respected and impactful speaker and is known for her high energy and engaging style. Griselda offers a fresh perspective and approach to developing leaders https://www.wearenovi.com/about/griselda-togobo/.

Griselda is passionate about supporting female leaders through the professional women’s network wearenovi.com.

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