World Changers: From law to tech business leader

How a young woman’s passion for uplifting others took her from lawyer to tech business leader

At the beginning of February, we launched a new blog feature called World Changers. Each month we’ll be featuring an amazing business or individual which embodies the Pursuit of Purpose that sits at the heart of MacroAdventure. 

Our world changer for March is Tamaryn Tesselaar. Tamaryn, who lives in Cape Town, has recently been appointed as Vice-President/General Manager at the South African office of US-based Delta Energy and Communications. Delta was formed to help utilities realize the benefits of big data so as to better serve their communities.

 Tamaryn with Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Tamaryn with Archbishop Desmond Tutu

It is an energy company with a difference – it is focused not just on power, but on empowerment.

Three aspects of Tamaryn’s story are particularly inspiring:

•    Firstly, in assuming her role with Delta, she has made a significant career leap from her background in law – a brave move given the time and energy required to build a successful legal career.
•    Secondly, Tamaryn has chosen to enter a field in which women are traditionally underrepresented, which presents its own set of unique challenges.
•    Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Tamaryn’s decision to join Delta was motivated largely by the potential this role held to empower local communities across South Africa – it was her own personal pursuit of purpose which compelled her to make this leap.

Jo was able to grab a few moments with Tamaryn to speak to her about her brave career change, tackling stereotypes and what leadership means to her. 

Tamaryn, in a few lines, describe your new role?
I’ve just been tasked with opening Delta’s Cape Town office, and will be responsible for supporting all of the local client projects, as well as promoting Delta’s smart grid solutions to South African electric, gas and water utilities. In addition, with my legal background, I will form the company’s legal entity in South Africa and support the office’s general management needs, including office activities, strategies, and resources.

You didn’t start out in technology  – how did you make the transition from law to the role you currently hold?
Aged 6, I made the decision that I wanted to be a lawyer, and had my whole career mapped out in my mind.  But careers rarely go as planned! I would never have pictured myself working in business, especially in technology. During the latter part of 2015, I started the process of transitioning from law, where my background had been in legislative drafting, consulting to provincial and local spheres of government and local economic development.  

I firmly believe that I didn’t choose technology, it chose me.

I’m passionate about substantive local economic development, and empowering women, and the realisation that technology has the ability to change lives and give women the means to empower themselves made me realise that a move to Delta was the perfect fit. 

We’re seeing increasing amounts of research about the value of early intervention in terms of shaping girls’ career choices. How did your school experience influence you?                                                                   Receiving a scholarship to an excellent school was life-changing for me. It fostered in me an insatiable thirst for learning, and emphasised the power of women and our ability to succeed in any industry. I had the privilege of being taught to always strive for autonomy and to value the immense benefits that women bring to every field. It gave me the confidence to know that I can achieve anything – and I have drawn on this repeatedly as I have faced new, challenging situations in my career.

I really believe that the will to empower oneself is inextricably linked to one’s self esteem.

Parents in particular need to validate their daughters’ self-esteem as it can deliver immeasurable benefits to them as they build their careers.

Have you benefited from mentorship in your career? 
I’ve been lucky enough to have been mentored by a number of amazing women. When I was 21 and fresh out of law school, I had an incredible woman as my principal whilst completely my articles of clerkship before being admitted as an attorney.  Every time I doubted myself or had to litigate against imposing (often male) attorneys, she always built up my self-esteem. She taught me a very important lesson - when people of any gender seek to intimidate you, it means they are usually threatened by you. It is simply a projection of their own insecurities. We are women, we care, we often take things personally and want everyone to like us. But, as intimidated as we may sometimes feel, we have to stand up to bullying, in any form.  

What would your advice be to young women who want to enter traditionally male-dominated fields, but are reluctant to because of the stereotypes attached to them?
Fake it till you make it! Find what you love, pursue it with determination, and everything else will fall into place. Have the courage to seize opportunities when they cross your path – they may not present themselves again.  

Don’t let a fear of failure stop you from pursuing your passion.

The launch of Delta in South Africa is incredibly exciting. Tell us what drew you to work with them on the ambitious launch of their South African operations?
I strongly believe that one has to be the change one wishes to see. I have always been aware that the vast majority of South African women have not been blessed with the kind of opportunities I have been able to benefit from – like excellent schooling.  My awareness of how my school experience set me on a completely different trajectory to most South African children became very apparent when I started volunteering as a tutor at an underprivileged school. I saw the impact that a lack of opportunity had on the prospects of the children I worked with, who were the same age as me. It made me realise that success has so little to do with talent, and so much to do with opportunity.

I can’t change the past, but I can certainly use the platform I have to empower young people, especially those working in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). The potential Delta’s work offers for local economic empowerment compelled me to take this opportunity. It presented a unique chance for me to give back, and make a real and lasting impact on the lives of South Africans.

How is Delta’s approach different?
Delta is not only an incredibly exciting company to work for because it cares about revitalizing the utilities space, but also because it has a core focus on corporate social responsibility. That combination was incredibly important to me. 

What does leadership mean to you? 
Being a leader is not about having power. It’s about responsibility. As a young woman in an executive position in a male-dominated industry I have an obligation to lead by example, and to help inspire the next generation of female leaders. I want them to know that they can achieve anything. 

Tamaryn, thank you for your inspiring words and good luck with your exciting new role!