She believes that If you put in the time and effort, the rewards will follow.
Unathi Thosago, Adcorp Group’s CTO, grew up in Gqeberha [formerly Port Elizabeth]. She was accepted to Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University after matric, but was unsure about what she wanted to study. She attended a course pitch at the university to learn more about her options and naturally gravitated towards the sciences, eventually completing a BSc in computer science and Honours in geographic information systems.
Final year students advised Unathi not to take that path, because it had a high failure rate. “If you tell me I can’t do it, you’re actually pushing me in that direction,” she says.
Before joining Adcorp, Unathi worked for Rand Mutual Assurance and, as a 128-year-old organisation, the company decided to diversify and move into the funeral cover space. As solution development manager, Unathi led the team that developed that funeral solution.
“It was a very fulfilling project, because it is very rare to come across a legacy company that is actually brave enough to diversify after so many years,” she says. “It was an experience that taught me a lot and brought me great joy – the project was such a success that I was even named the manager of the year.”
She then went on to join Adcorp as the group’s first-ever CTO, one of three women who sit on its Exco. “We are currently working on a project called ‘Skyhawk’ that I am quite excited about. It is a Workday and Salesforce platform. We will be the first company to introduce Workday Finance into the African continent and this will go live towards the end of the year,” she says.
She does, however, point out that being the first company to introduce this system to the continent is a good thing. “It’s not about the tools, but about what they can do for you in the end, and what this system can provide that others cannot. As a result, it must bring value, but it must also create value around it, which gives us a competitive advantage,” she explains.
Women in tech
In terms of the role that women play in technology and the challenges they face, Unathi has concluded that these challenges begin to emerge as early as tertiary level.
“I think the signs begin to show in the third or final year of university: where you started with a full room of eager computer science students with an equal balance of male and female students in the first year. Then, in the second year, the numbers start to fall, and by the third year (specialisation), you realise that female students account for only 10 percent of the classroom.
“However, as a woman, this teaches you resilience. What often happens is that women in tech tend to take the business analyst or test analyst route. Only a handful want to be programmers or work in deep technology, which is why you must be resilient and know exactly what you're getting into,” she says.
Unathi says even when women get into the working environment, leadership needs to play an important role. “I have been very lucky, because I had a manager who supported me and advised me not to try to act like a man, because there are certain values that I bring to the table as a woman that my male counterpart might not. The best lesson I have learned is to be authentic. If you become your authentic self, it actually takes you much further in life and garners more respect,” she notes.
You’d be hard pressed to find a female CTO, she says, emphasising that IT is a very difficult field for women to enter. “As such, serving as CTO has to be my biggest career highlight to date,” Unathi says. “It also positions me as someone who can inspire my other colleagues in the organisation, because they could find themselves in the same situation one day.”
Project Girls for Girls South Africa
Unathi is also passionate about mentoring, especially mentoring young girls. As a result, she decided to take part in the Project Girls for Girls South Africa programme, a Harvard University initiative. “This programme aims to emphasise the fact that women need each other's support in order to break the ‘queen bee syndrome’,” she says, “and let go of the notion that if one woman has made it, no other woman should.
“To play my part in this initiative, I got involved with the University of Pretoria and Athlone Girls High School while I was completing my MBA with GIBS. It does take up a lot of time, but it is quite fulfilling to see some of the success stories that come out of it,” she says.
“For example, one girl started planting vegetables in her school residence and once those vegetables grew, she went on to give them out to the less fortunate: a great display of being the change you would like to see in the world.”
Unathi believes that, in addition to what you can teach these girls, you will gain some personal insights from the experience. “It teaches you how to be a better public speaker and mentor, as well as where your weaknesses are. You come into this programme thinking you're going to be the mentor, and you end up being mentored yourself,” she says.
Unathi would like to encourage young women to try their hardest to exercise patience and resilience. She stresses that success does not happen overnight. “In life, it can feel like you’re putting in so much effort and getting so little in return. But if you persevere as a woman in this industry, those rewards will come naturally.
“People are often rewarded in public for what they do in private: no one sees the long hours you put in, and by the time you are recognised, so much blood, sweat, and tears have gone into it.
“If you put in the time and effort,” she concludes, “you will eventually get to where you want to be.”