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Raquel Sorota: Discovering new opportunities through TechnoGirl Programme

UNICEF South Africa/2019
© UNICEF South Africa/2019

Sandton, 17 May 2019 - With an infectious smile and a warm confidence, Raquel Sorota embodies the success of the TechnoGirl programme. Meeting her in the plush new offices of Discovery (a large South African medical insurance company) amidst the Sandton skyline, Raquel recounts how the programme helped lead her to where she is today.

A Risk Engineer at Discovery, elegantly-attired Raquel studied Industrial Engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg – a life path that she attributes to the TechnoGirl programme. “I wanted to look like this and not in unflattering safety boots” she laughs.

Born in 1994, the year of South Africa’s first democratic elections, Raquel is the third of four girls and grew up in the township of Tembisa in Johannesburg. Both her parents moved to South Africa from Mozambique before she was born.

“I grew up in a township with not many opportunities” explains Raquel as she recounts the hard work of her parents to put her and her siblings through school. Her mother still runs a tuck shop and her father still works as an auto-electrician repairing cars in the area. This helped spark her interest in engineering as his workshop was next to her primary school so she would often help out there.mA conscientious learner, Raquel was Head Girl at Shukumani Primary School and, later on, at Zitikeni High School (both in Tembisa) and she matriculated at the top of her class

Raquel’s story begins in 2009 when she was in Grade 10 and she was nominated by her teachers to be part of a new initiative called the TechnoGirl Programme which, with initial funding support from UNICEF, focused on providing learning and corporate mentoring opportunities for economically-disadvantaged girl learners in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in order to redress the under-representation of girls and women in these fields.

“I never say no to opportunities” explains Raquel as she eagerly joined the programme. The first step was a workshop brought together girls from different schools with the focus on how to conduct oneself in a work setting as well as guidelines on being professional in all senses.

When asked if she found any of this intimidating, Raquel responds that she “was not daunted as I was taught to be assertive and confident and to question.” With the workshop completed, the girls were placed at different companies by the TechnoGirl Trust, the implementing partner of the programme, and Raquel was based at Bateman Engineering where she would spend her school holidays throughout Grade 10.

Raquel describes watching her female engineer mentor at work as a “lightbulb moment” as she was now able to visualize herself in this largely male dominated field of work. By the end of her work experience, she decided firmly that she would be an engineer and not a doctor as was her initial plan. Recounting the mentoring experience, Raquel speaks fondly of the patience and kindness of the mentors with her and the other learners. She acknowledges the role that the TechnoGirl Trust, with support from UNICEF, played in getting companies to agree to this in the first place.

She goes on to explain that for many girls growing up from under-resourced communities, exposure to the world of work when you a relatively young 15-year old is not common and for many it remain a dream until they get their first employment in their mid-20s. “Getting first-hand experience from a female mentor is an excellent opportunity for young girls not only to learn but also to dispel the myths and stereotypes that certain jobs are meant for males only,” Raquel says.

“I am a proud TechnoGirl Alumnus”, she enthuses, “who is dedicated to paving the way forward for many other young girls , I am passionate about inspiring young girls and making them believe that the world is their oyster , all they have to do is believe that they can be anything that they want to be, as long as they are willing to work hard, smart and capitalize on their opportunities such as TechnoGirl Programme.”

With advice from the TechnoGirl Programme mentors, Raquel was able to narrow her choice to the type of engineering she was keen to study. “I chose Industrial Engineering because there are not enough of us and we can work anywhere” she explains. Her excellent high school grades coupled with her TechnoGirl Programme experience led to a scholarship – through Tiger Brands – for her university studies.

“The TechnoGirl Trust team helped guide and remind me that engineering was always a study option and this made all the difference” explains Raquel. From quarterly telephonic check-ins to scholarship advice and regular email updates, Raquel explains how she always felt part of the TechnoGirl Programme family.

Today, Raquel and her husband - “we were childhood sweethearts” she happily recalls - have started a Saturday School programme near Tembisa where 50 Grade 9 learners are given Mathematics lessons per session. Working with the Department of Basic Education, Raquel sees this programme as a way to provide under-resourced learners with guidance and help “bridge the gap.” She and her husband set up the programme in 2015 and pay carefully-selected tutors to conduct the lessons. Raquel also volunteers at the Women in Engineering programme and believes that it is critical to “give back because if I did not have the opportunities I had – such as TechnoGirl Programme – then I would not be an engineer today.” In addition to these many commitments, she is also studying towards her Master’s degree in Industrial Engineering at University of Witwatersrand.

Reflecting on her decade-long journey, Raquel says the job shadowing experience “exposed me to the world of work and more than anything, it made me believe that there was a place for a young smart, black girl like me. TechnoGirl ignited the engineering flame within 15 year-old me, and in doing so my whole life changed. I will forever be grateful that they invested in me.” 





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