FOCUS ON EXCELLENCE | MIW
by Andrew Ngozo
No Margin for Error
Entering into a male-dominated and unfriendly construction field many years ago, Dr Bridgettte Gasa, founder and managing director of The Elilox Group, had no role models to look up to. As one might imagine, it was a steep learning curve for her and one that was wrought with many lessons that were subsequently put to good use. Today, she boasts many firsts and was recently nominated as South Africa’s Most Influential Woman in Business and Government in the Basic Industries Sector for 2013.
At the age of 28, Dr Gasa was entrusted with the role of executive director responsible for infrastructure development, making her the youngest person ever to hold this position. “This was a great responsibility. I had to manage a state infrastructure budget in excess of one billion rand,” she reveals. Shortly thereafter, in 2008, she was recognised as the Leading Woman Scientist in Industry by the Department
of Science and Technology. “My greatest achievement, although it was very low key, was when I completed my PhD in Construction Management and became the first South African woman to do so!” she enthuses.
A Passion for the Girl Child
Dr Gasa believes in empowering her peers, a goal that she is well on her way to achieving. “I have no idea who nominated me for the award,” she says. “But, that aside, I have humbly accepted the honour and have put forward names of other deserving women for similar recognition. In the long term, though, I will continue to support the girl-child initiative. This is a programme for young girls who have chosen a career path in a traditionally male domain,” she explains. Elaborating further, she says that the award is an indication that work being done by The Elilox Group is appreciated by the populace at large. “This spurs me on to encourage our young girls in these fields to be better at what they do and to go beyond by achieving far greater things than those already achieved by some of us.”
Most women who have made it into a male-dominated construction industry, like Dr Gasa has done will share stories of how they fought to dispel the myths and stereotypes that they would never make it. She, however, has a different perspective and methodology with regard to dealing with such issues. “Being true to your craft and leaving no margin for error is the way to go. The construction sector is the only sector I excel in, and experience has taught me one thing: hard work pays off and speaks on your behalf.”
Lessons from the Family
Perseverance and stamina are traits that she learnt early on from her parents, both of them being academics. Her mother and father strived to contribute to society. At the same time, her father persevered by obtaining a PhD when he was well into his 50s. Says Gasa: “He did all that with the sole intent and purpose of breaking the cycle of illiteracy in his family.” She has taken this further by breaking the cycle of illiteracy in her community at large. The Dr E.D. Gasa Scholarship, while recognising the contribution made by both parents to society, does, she says, have a bias towards the scarce skills professions, because it is funded out of her own pocket. “I am looking to create the next generation of world-changers and selfless entrepreneurs who will invest in the future of others. We seek to inspire hope and courage in young girl children from the most impoverished parts of South Africa,” she clarifies.
It is not only from her parents that Dr Gasa has reaped the nuggets of wisdom that she possesses. For one to be as successful as she has become, she hints that there is a secret force behind her business acumen. “My brother Mduduzi, the operations director of the company, has a more entrepreneurial side, and interacting with him on a personal and professional level produces new lessons each time. For example, he has taught me the value of biding my time and gaining traction from my networks without being overbearing.” Even for one as wise as Dr Gasa, she admits that it is always amazing, when these wise nuggets of wisdom are applied, “How many invaluable opportunities are presented to us and how satisfying it is to pursue them and see them to their logical conclusion.”
Knowledge and wisdom do little good if they are not shared with fellow beings, particularly the young women leaders of tomorrow. Today’s young people, she argues, should be taught to stay the course and not to chop and change careers. “I also teach them to be more ambitious, assertive and articulate. Women sit with such invaluable knowledge. However, it is amazing how often I find myself in a boardroom full of men and one other self-effacing woman away in her corner!”
With the values that Dr Gasa holds dear, The Elilox Group is in good hands to be steered to its next wave of successes. She reveals that her vision for The Elilox Group is to expand its service offering into rail engineering and not just limit itself to construction. While she cannot share details of this at present, she has the moral strategy that will achieve this. “As a business leader, it is important to lead with honesty, humility and an ability to acknowledge when you have made a serious omission or have lacked a duty of care. Acknowledge the mistakes, apologise, and then do it better the second time round.”
She concludes by dispelling a myth about a value that is most dear to her, and one which incidentally eludes most people, she says. “We suddenly have a society that is so obsessed with impressions and being perceived as never putting a foot wrong. I am fortunate that I have worked for bosses who have allowed me to learn from my own mistakes. They probably figured: ‘What doesn’t kill a woman, makes her stronger and more truthful,’ and I bet they were right!”