Renewing Inspiration: Personal Notes From A Professional Woman

Professional Woman

By Elizabeth Brost, PWT participant, SA Oct. 2015.

When I was in college, it was easy for me to meet interesting people and find interesting projects to engage in. I felt like I knew who I was and had a plan for where I was going. And chances to further my personal growth while providing opportunities for professional development through travel and experiential learning were readily available.

And then I graduated, married, and found a steady job that was almost related to my field of study. But all of that interest and mental stimulation from college slowly morphed into routine. I was living my life and doing my job on autopilot. Talking to my husband about it helped a little, but he couldn’t understand because he, as a man, has not grown up with the same social expectations and pressure that women experience. I needed to bring back that spark of interest into my own life. I longed for the inspiration that comes with a change of perspective and learning something new about myself and others.

Then an old friend forwarded an email to me about a group called Emzingo. They were hosting a professional women’s trek to South Africa to learn about social entrepreneurship and women’s professional development. It was the kind of program that is commonly offered to college students but becomes scarce upon leaving academics for the professional world. It was exactly what I needed at exactly the right time.

I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived in Johannesburg but I promised myself that my only job on this trip was to observe, and learn, and absorb as much as I possibly could. I was greeted by Nizenande and Daniel, who were impressively knowledgeable and welcoming. The other women on the trek were also amazing: I learned as much from them as I did from the actual programs during the trek. The trip offered the ideal balance between structure and freedom. Our days were filled with planned activities and our evenings were open to debrief over the events of the day and to enjoy the local culture.

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The week started with a session that at first felt similar to those professional development/teambuilding seminars that managers make us do once or twice a year. This was a professional development trip after all. We talked about where we were in our professional lives, where we wanted to be, and what kinds of issues were holding us back. We talked about personal issues like a confidence gap and broader issues like how women are perceived in the workplace. It was interesting to hear the different responses from the other women on the trek. A conversation in my own office about these same questions would likely yield some similar answers, but since the women on this trek were from different industries and different cultural areas, it was far more interesting to notice the similarities and differences. At the conclusion of the welcome session, we were asked to state an issue or question we had about our goals and how to achieve them.

As we engaged in the activities of the remainder of the trip, we would be expected to use our experiences to develop a useful response and personal action plan to improve our professional lives back home.

Our time in Johannesburg was filled with fascinating activities. We visited the Apartheid Museum where we learned about the history of how South Africa came to be the country it is today. We met professional women artists and learned about the environment in which they are building their careers. We learned more specifically about women’s role in the history of South Africa, took formal tours of Constitution Hill and the surrounding historical places in central Johannesburg. We explored Soweto and met an incredible matriarch who was improving lives by providing early childhood care and education for the most vulnerable kids in her area. Later we attended panel discussions about women’s professional issues and participated in a social innovation workshop where we helped young entrepreneurs fine tune their business plans and investor pitches.

Before we knew it, it was already time for the second half of the trip: Cape Town. Emzingo took care of all of the in-country transportation which left us free to simply take in as much of the experience as we could. We visited Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela and other revolutionaries were held during the struggle to end Apartheid. We also went on a wine tour and learned about the agriculture and history of the Cape Town area. Our guide Eileen, was exceptionally personable and knowledgeable, both in wine and in the history and culture of the Cape Town area.

In the end, we all sat down to a nice dinner and did our best to recap the week and choose the experience that would be our greatest takeaway. We talked about what we learned and how we could use our experience to improve our professional lives back home. For me, seeing how the spirit of cooperation and understanding was absolutely essential to ending the violence and beginning to slowly bring opportunities to pursue equality within South Africa made me realize that when it comes to women’s empowerment in the professional environment, we will be able to make much greater strides if we engage men in the process.

I honestly don’t know how I could have come to this new perspective though any other experience than this professional women’s trek; it was informative, interesting, invaluable, and simply incredible. Professional women need opportunities like this. We need more of them. Everywhere.

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