The Data
Revolution

Building the Workforce of the Future

"There cannot be equity in society without equity in data collection, curation, and decisions."

Women in Big Data Founders
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Let’s get to know… Naomi Molefe, WiBD South Africa Chapter Director and a Member of Global Exec Committee.

Women in Big Data (WiBD) recently sat down with Naomi Molefe to get to know her and to introduce this amazing person to the community.

WiBD: Who is Naomi Molefe?

A young woman based in Johannesburg South Africa who has a keen interest in how the youth of SA is empowered in taking the country forward and making sure that we remain competitive in business and other economic activities we choose to undertake. I do this by working within the talent landscape and helping shape place in the world by bringing visibility to our collective efforts and being an advocate for women in Tech/Big data.

WiBD: Tell us about your career journey.

My career journey started off very ambitious – my goal was to be a research psychologist once I completed my undergraduate studies. At the time we were told that is where the money was for students who chose to major in Psychology. Fortunately, right after completing my undergrad, whilst pursuing my post grad studies, I got the opportunity to work on a Epidemiological Research project that was a collaborative effort between our university and Johns Hopkins University. We were trained in Baltimore, USA in effective data collection methods and data analysis.

That led me to apply these capabilities in non-profit/non-governmental and private sector work, where I worked largely as a business researcher and talent headhunter for C-suite. Over the years, I got to augment my humanities studies with a Business Masters degree, which has opened up opportunities in service management design, applied research and business process optimization competencies, as these require one to question, re-engineer and provide human-centered solutions.

WiBD: Do you have advice to give to others who are thinking about their career choices?

My advice is to plan out your career, because this provides one with a north-star focus—but don’t be married to the plan working out exactly how you’ve planned it, because you don’t know what you don’t know. One has to take an emergent-strategy approach that helps build resilience, adaptability and self-awareness. I think mostly when we speak of career planning, we rarely focus on how our self-awareness changes over time and the impact it has in our decision making and the choices we make. Always make room for the development of your self-awareness.

WiBD: Can you tell us why you have been supportive of women and help to elevate them?

The work we do at WiBDSA is quite personal to me because my great-grandmother was a smart woman, who was well respected and recognised as a leader in the community she lived in. But because of the time she was living, women weren’t allowed to be a lot of things, much less be smart. Similarly, my grand-mother worked as domestic worker—a cleaner and nanny for wealthy white families in the apartheid era. But she also was very firm in her stance against what women,  particularly black women, had access to, how they were allowed to live their lives and own their self-actualisation.

Like Maya Angleou says, “My ancestors were fighters, something I inherited.” I see my role as a community builder as an important one: to uphold and carry forward what has been set before me and what will come after me; I am merely creating meaning for the generation I am in. The women of my generation have a lot to be grateful for that was fought for them to have—without being apologetic about it.

WiBD: How did you learn about Women in Big Data and what has been your engagement with the organization?

I came across a post and article on LinkedIn that was written by one of the chapter directors in Germany. At the time, she wrote a piece on an event that they had just hosted, and I had just moved back to Johannesburg from Dublin, Ireland. I found the post and article interesting—so much so that I immediately sent a connection request, and we spent that afternoon messaging back and forth about the community and its goals for championing the success and inclusion of women in big data. Her name is Nahia Orduna. By the end of that day, she had given me homework to find other ladies I could work with to start the community in SA.

Ever since then, it has been phenomenal being part of the Global leadership team. The volunteer format of how we work does get challenging, but it’s a great leadership development opportunity. I get to work with people from diverse backgrounds, career-wise and culturally, which is awesome, whilst driving impact in my country, as well as the global spaces I get to be part of.

WiBD: What are unique challenges for Women in South Africa and how could WiBD help to overcome them as much as possible?

Access to affordable, fast internet connectivity is the biggest one. We saw this during the Covid pandemic, where we had to move all of our engagements to the virtual web. We saw a drop in attendance at our capability building workshops, caused by general zoom fatigue.

Our talent market requires those who are interested in working in tech to come from highly technical backgrounds. We have not yet matured to the phase where we can take advantage of the diverse skill-sets that are available in the market. We have tried to solve this through our partnership with the AI Business School, which offers our community certified technical training in AI and related fields. This encourages women to take up these courses in order to be attractive enough for the market to hire them. On the other hand, we leverage our soft-skills-focused training engagement to help women be more confident and affirmative in the skills they acquire as they take up roles in tech. Most of the roles are still very male-dominant, which can be a repellent itself because women have to prove themselves over and over again, which requires resilience.

WiBD: How does big data play a role in your career?

One has to recognise how the labour market they work in informs which skills one develops overtime, and ultimately the career one gets to have. As a country, we are on a journey (as with much of the world) to solve for inclusion, skills development that is fit for purposes for our needs, and the economic rewards that come with solving problems that are meaningful. In the people space, data drives investment decisions in allocating capital, people as innovators, and the channels that provide access to the talent pools that are out there. The work I do helps to inform the strategic people’s decisions.

People data is still very unstructured because it was not collected with the questions that need to be answered in mind. This makes problem solving using data during this phase of the journey very interesting and layered—not to mention the ethical implications of applying data to problems where we have not yet gathered sufficient data.

WiBD: What factors cause the digital divide in South Africa and what initiatives can WiBD embark on to foster digital inclusion?

There are historical, micro-level, and macro-level factors that affect us today and exacerbate the problems that need to be solved whilst answering the call for digital inclusion. It’s like the chicken-egg conversation; what gets solved first versus later? At the root of the answer is how we think about access and designing solutions that help us address the access issue for the youth, for women, for people of different abilities and sexual orientations.

WiBD: Why should more women take an interest in Big Data careers?

Being the other half of the population means we cannot continue to behave like (OR allow ourselves to be treated like) we don’t have a vested interest in how the world solves for the future. Data is the oil that runs global economies; how it’s generated/collected, managed, analysed, and communicated matters. What matters most is **who** gets to do all of this, because this is where invention and innovations enters the conversation. Women are part of the conversation and we bring a wealth of skills, capabilities and knowledge to this table—we should not count ourselves out.

WiBD: What motivates you?

Knowing that the future is what we make it. One can re-write their story in a way to affirms their familial history but also takes it forward for the next generation to run with it. There’s power in having this self-belief—that’s my north star. Knowing that I represent something that started way back when my great-grandmother was the village doula.

WiBD: What bothers you?

People who create spaces that worsen the experiences of those who have already gone through the worst. At some level I recognise that bias does play a role, and the intention may not have been to create such spaces, that it might have been an undesired outcome. However, on another level, I understand that from an evolutionary perspective, humans can be driven by self-interest.

WiBD: Any fun facts about you?

I LOVE to hike, but not hike as in mountaineering. More of a leisure walk in places that are not inhabited by humans. There’s a sense of one-ness you get when you’re out and about in nature. Close to this is spending time with my family and extended family; I’m a family-oriented person, so getaways with the family, and events that allow us to bond and learn from each other are what I consider “fun.” I also have developed a keen interest in pole dancing,

I read it might be classified as an Olympic sport soon, LOL. But it’s an interesting challenge seeing how far I can push my body to contour.

WiBD: Any Quotes or inspirations that you live by?
I listen to a lot of hip-hop music—a factor of wanting to be like my big brother growing up and resonating with the experiences that the creators of the music articulate. Most of the quotes I live by are hip-hop lyrics and poets.

“I will not let anyone scare me out of my full potential.” – Nicki Minaj

“My advice is just don’t be too nice….Just set the price so and live your life” – JayZ

“Everyone that doubted me is asking for forgiveness, if you ain’t been part of it, at least you got to witness” – Drake

“Don’t settle for less. Even a genius asks questions. Be grateful for blessings. Don’t ever change. Keep your essence.” – Tupac 

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