Sehliselo Ndlovu – “Make your work become a recognisable brand: what you do in your field should have your clear and consistent mark of quality; your own brand. When you create a memorable experience in the minds of those you interact with, a long-lasting impact is made that can open new doors and opportunities.”
International Women in Mining Profile: Sehliselo Ndlovu
Sehliselo (Selo) Ndlovu holds a PhD in Minerals Engineering from Imperial College, London, UK. She joined the Engineering faculty at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, in 2004 and currently holds the DST/NRF SARChI chair in Hydrometallurgy and Sustainable Development. She has trained over 30 PhD and MSc students in hydrometallurgy, has published over 50 scientific journal papers, co-authored books, and contributed a few chapters to books in the field of extractive metallurgy. She works with local mining companies and other research institutions to tackle issues of metal recovery from complex lean ores and secondary metal sources. She has also established strong collaborative relationships with local and international universities in Europe and America. Selo is a Fellow and was the first female black President of the Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (SAIMM). She is also a founding member and chairperson for the Committee for Diversity and Inclusion in the Minerals Industry that focuses on issues of diversity (gender, ethnicity, religion, and other diversifying factors) for professionals in the mining sector. By Kathy Sole
How did mining come to you? How did you choose mining as a career?
My field of specialisation is hydrometallurgy, which is branch of extractive metallurgy within the broader area of Metallurgical Engineering. As a student, I was drawn to mathematics, physics, and chemistry, especially inorganic chemistry. I wanted to be in a career where these subjects could be integrated and applied with tangible benefits. In my last year of high school, I attended a career fair where I had my first exposure to the application of physics and chemistry in Metallurgical Engineering. When I saw how the chemical and physical characteristics of metals can be manipulated to extract metals from ores and move from a solid rock to a solid metal… I was hooked.
Please describe your current role.
I am a Distinguished Professor of Metallurgical Engineering in the School of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. I also hold the South Africa Department of Science and Technology (DST)- and National Research Foundation (NRF)-funded research chair in Hydrometallurgy and Sustainable Development at the university. My role is to teach both at undergraduate and postgraduate level, and undertake and manage research activities in the field of hydrometallurgy. I currently lead a research group with 15 PhD and MSc students. I do a lot of research with local and international universities (Europe, Africa, and America) in areas involving gold, platinum-group metals, and rare-earth metals. I also work with local mining companies in South Africa to solve problems within their plants and optimise some of their processes.
Have you/do you encounter much discrimination in the workplace or in recruitment processes?
I work at a University as a Professor in Metallurgical Engineering. As such, I have never really been a direct victim of discrimination, although I have witnessed some that has been undertaken in very subtle ways.
Have you had mentors or sponsors that helped you on the way?
I have never had a formal mentor. However, at various stages of my life and career, I have had a number of people who have helped guide, direct, and shape my career into the success that it is today. I believe in having a good mentor: they can expand your personal network, push you to do more with your strengths, help you work on your weaknesses, and further discover and exploit some of your hidden talents. However, I believe it should not be a forced issue – it should be a relationship that is mutually beneficial to both of you, where there is great respect and understanding of each other’s needs and roles.
What are you passionate about in your work?
My passion lies in education; if not at a university, I would have likely still ended up in another scientific education entity. I love passing knowledge to young people and I am very passionate about teaching and doing research in hydrometallurgy. I love that, as a lecturer, I can design a course that can benefit the students and the industry. As a researcher, I have more leeway in choosing areas that interest me: that is not the case when you work for a company. But ultimately, I love seeing students’ minds being opened and benefitting from what they have learned. When I think about the number of students that have passed through my hands, some of them are in the metallurgical industry; some are not, but for me that is powerful because you are building capacity not just for the metallurgical industry, but for other areas in the economy. Instead of just managing a section in a company, I am contributing by providing the people that are going to work in and ultimately manage the mining industry. You can only get this whole package in academia.
What would you love to do next?
Besides growing research to not focus only on problems in South Africa, but also in the Southern African region and collaborating with other regional universities in such cases, I also want to introduce digital industry technology into hydrometallurgical research. There is currently a lot of interest in approaches for information extraction, highlighted through a group of tools for knowledge extraction and representation (Machine Learning and Data Mining). The younger generation, who are the future of the mining industry, have a great interest in such approaches: they were born in the era of machines and they understand and can apply the systems well. This is what they want to work with in the future and, as such, we also have to start looking at positioning our research in those directions.
What is one thing you wish you’d been told when you were starting out that you know now?
Believe in your abilities, you are not an imposter, you have what it takes, you are not just good enough—you are brilliant! It’s only when I met someone at a conference who told me how he had so wanted to meet me for a long time; I asked why and he indicated that their company had recruited a lot of students that had passed through my hands and that they were all brilliant in the field of hydrometallurgy. That is when I realised what a big contribution I had made and what a lot of powerful knowledge I have in me.
Do you sit on a board? If not, would you like to?
No, I don’t. I would love the opportunity to do so.
What is your opinion in the women on boards’ debate? Are you pro quotas or against them?
I believe that women play a prominent role at board level. They come with a different perspective and offer a balance to a team: it does not matter whether it’s in mining, economics, or finance. The more diverse a team, the more perspectives, the broader and more challenging the conversations, and the better the decisions that are finally taken. Notably, research has shown that companies that have more women at board and senior management level tend to perform much better than those without. Gender diversity is, therefore, good for the sector at any level. However, that said, I am against quota systems. I believe that instead of going for the quota systems, women should be given the right support, opportunity, and a welcoming and respectful environment so that they can grow into those high-level positions. In most cases, women are never given a similar platform as men and this is what often causes this lack of gender representativeness at board level.
Do you believe women in mining groups can help to change the image of the industry and make the sector more attractive to women?
My belief is that it is the women in leadership roles who can make the changes. They are the ones who can ensure that we grow more women into higher positions. It is those women at the top who can propose structures, culture, and an environment that will accommodate and retain women in the mining sector. We also need role models who can inspire confidence and provide a degree of affirmation. We need women in mining who can promote the fact that women can be successful in the field, and further help women realise that mining is still a sunrise industry and that there are many opportunities to be had. During my time as the president of SAIMM, I successfully motivated for the establishment of a committee on Diversity and Inclusion in the Mineral Industry. The committee is made up of both men and women, young and experienced, who are passionate about seeing change in terms of diversity and inclusion in the minerals sector. The role of the committee is to provide a platform, through SAIMM activities, to raise awareness on issues of diversity (gender, ethnicity, religion, and other diversifying factors) and inclusion in the workplace for professionals in the sector. I believe we need to raise awareness and make mining attractive to women in whatever modes are available and feasible.
Any advice to young women starting out in their careers?
Make your work become a recognisable brand: what you do in your field should have your clear and consistent mark of quality; your own brand. Let it stand out so that you become known for what you do and how you do it. When you create a memorable experience in the minds of those you interact with, a long-lasting impact is made that can open new doors and opportunities. Furthermore, never allow challenges and obstacles to demotivate you. There are no obstacles, but rather new directions that offer alternative opportunities. Learn to overcome failure and always work around challenges: just because a door appears closed, it does not mean that it is locked – it will open with the right push.
How do you manage your work/life balance?
I avoid taking work home and always ensure that I have time to myself during the weekend. My doctor encourages balance: spiritual, physical, and mental balance. So I take part in physical activities and also participate in church activities. You have to look after yourself so that you can be able to look after others. My family and I also do local getaways in South Africa during school holidays and we also try to have at least one international holiday a year. We love visiting islands and ancient sites. All these help with your work/life balance.
Have you any hobbies or pastimes you would like to tell us about?
Yes, I do. I love road running. I don’t do marathons, however – just short distances (10–15 km). Running for me is therapeutic. Running helps to clear my mind and to reflect and work through issues weighing on my mind. I find that, as academics, we are always on the run, always busy; we never get to sit still and reflect on our plans and the impact of our work. When you run, you reflect and make plans and even set aside targets. I also read a lot: anything on paper I read. Reading is a form of escape for me…to escape from all the noise and issues of city life and pretend I am somewhere else! At home, I enjoy baking and have also recently taken up gardening.
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