When she walked into her first engineering class at the university, Elizabeth Nguli realized immediately how lonely and intimidating life can often be for girls who choose to pursue science courses.
She was one of six women in a class of 33 at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT). The joke in certain circles is that JKUAT is a male-dominated school, and Elizabeth agrees.
“I would have those doubts and imposter syndrome all the time,” she recalls.
When imposter syndrome strikes, the individual wonders whether they deserve to be at the station they occupy in life, that they are not as competent as others perceive them to be. It can be crippling and become a barrier to growth but it takes an effort to overcome it.
For Elizabeth, she asked herself whether she had made the right decision and whether she would be in a position to undertake the tough studies. It didn’t help that in the engineering space, there were very few people they could look up to for inspiration and guidance.
But she made it work, got into a job as a junior engineer on the network team at Safaricom in 2010, and has worked her way to her current role as the Digital Engineering Lead at Safaricom.
She was the first senior female leader in IT at Safaricom, she says, and while imposter syndrome would often strike, she overcame the initial challenge of fitting in and did the job.
Elizabeth now oversees a team of 130 developers who are constantly working to come up with innovative solutions for customers.
“I really love the space I am in and it’s something I am passionate about, being in IT, being able to do innovative solutions to solve problems in the market and testing engineering solutions,” she says.
One of her recent achievements was overseeing the development of the new mySafaricom mobile app. She is particularly proud of the fact that it has more advanced features, enables the customer to know much more about their subscriptions and on her side, that it can be easily updated.
Elizabeth sees her biggest contribution being in the development of solutions and digital transformation at IT, automation, developing a curriculum for students to go into a Digital Academy and building solutions using more innovative technologies.
Elizabeth is now one of the stars at Women in Tech, the platform at Safaricom through which women in the technology-led divisions work together to encourage more women to excel in technology-related careers.
She attributes the strength she has acquired along the way and her career growth to the mentorship she has received over the years. She has given back by taking others under her wing and nurturing them.
“Mentorship for me is a very profound and personal endeavor and I really value the relationship I get to have with these mentees. Personally, in my own journey in my career, I have had the privilege of having mentors walking with me and I have derived a lot of value,” she says.
She coordinates the mentorship through a group she created called ‘Girls Inspiring Girls’ with 15 women who are amongst the developers who report to her.
“I thought this was just a perfect opportunity to mentor,” she says.
As a woman in engineering, there is the added pressure of knowing that she cannot afford to fail. That keeps her going.
“It’s a journey I know I’m walking not just for myself but for others. It really helps me to know that every day, there are people looking up to me in many different ways,” she says.
She also knows that talking about her own journey can inspire someone as it challenges the stereotype that men are better than women at Science, Technical, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) courses.
Part of her work goes to being a visible role model and being proof that women can do things better.
“For the space that I get in, I really try to give it my best and I try to make sure I’m leaving a legacy, so that when another woman comes, they’ll be able to get that opportunity because I was there and I did a good job,” she says.
She has developed the approach that when other women see her succeeding, they will believe that they can copy her and meet the expectations.
Part of the challenge for women that has become evident to her is the fact that women find it harder to get into leadership positions as they grow in their careers.
That awareness has made her more deliberate not only in her job but in recruitment.
“When I am recruiting, I really try to encourage a lot of women, especially the ones I am mentoring, to take up opportunities and even going a step further to help them prep for these opportunities,” she says.
The pandemic meant that she was forced to work from home, which means less time wasted in traffic. She reallocated that time to mentorship by taking on more mentees and speaking on forums to motivate others.
For Elizabeth, the beauty of mentorship is in what she also gets from those she is mentoring, whether it is someone looking to grow in their career or seeking a solution out of some predicament. She calls it reverse mentorship.
“Every encounter I have had with these ladies, somehow, I grow. I learn something from them and they also learn something from me and it’s really a win-win situation,” she says.
At the end of every year, Elizabeth likes to look back, to reflect on the things that motivate her, the things she loves doing and what she has learnt.
“This keeps me green and growing,” she says.
Her life philosophy has crystallised around working hard.
“You will not get extraordinary results by just doing enough. You have to go beyond necessary and go to doing just a little more. Certainly, you have to pay the price to get results and to work harder for the goals you want to achieve,” she concludes.