Creating sustainable infrastructure for our planet while breaking down barriers and tackling inequality within STEM industries sounds like a challenging pursuit, but for Laurena Basutu it’s a natural quest in her already flourishing engineering career.
The Zimbabwe-born project manager was recently announced as the recipient of this year’s UN Women Australia MBA scholarship, a program that funds the study of the University of Sydney Business School’s part-time MBA and aims to promote gender equality at the most senior levels of the nation’s public, corporate and not-for-profit sectors, worth more than $60,000.
It’s a remarkable achievement for a young woman who has wanted to become an engineer since she was twelve.
“I have always been intrigued by the physical things that impact people’s daily lives – roads, rail, hospitals,” she told Women’s Agenda. “Engineers were the people that made things happen and I have always wanted to be someone that made things happen.”
Basutu was born and raised in Zimbabwe, but arrived in Australia in 2004 before moving to the small, far south coastal NSW town of Narooma.
“What moving to Narooma did was introduce me to people and institutions that could help me fulfil these dreams sooner and perhaps at a larger scale than I had ever imagined,” she says. “It was not until I moved to Australia in 2004 and took the free school bus to Narooma High School that I understood what true access was,” she told Sydney University last week.
“That bus trip changed my life. It gave me the structural support to access an education that would not have been available to me otherwise. Beyond that, it opened my eyes to the fact that no-one can be free without equal access.”
Basutu spoke this week to Women’s Agenda, describing the way her history has informed her ambitions to create sustainable infrastructure that give women physical, economic and social access to opportunities.
“I am a product of my history, I was born in Zimbabwe after the Independence,” she said. “One of the first generation of Zimbabweans to be born free. That freedom meant access to economic and social opportunities that were only a dream to my forebears.”
“It’s this history that drives me. The understanding that access to opportunity, especially for women, is not always guaranteed and for some like my mother it is not a birthright. Therefore, it is important to work to secure, strengthen and codify this access in systems, policies and structural frameworks.”
Strong women have shaped Basutu’s success as she notes her mother as a continuous source of inspiration, who “taught me to be the heroine of my own story.”
“She has always reminded me that no one is coming to live my life for me and it is my responsibility to advocate for myself and pursue my own dreams, not the expectations of others.”
Now a project manager with Transport for NSW, Basutu’s days are busy and varied, but her agenda remains the same.
“Each day is different, one day I could be working with other engineers to solve a technical problem; the next I may be working with lawyers to negotiate a contract,” she says. “What stays the same for me is the purpose, my goal has always been to work on projects that take people where they want to go in a safe, reliable and accessible way.”
Several women in her orbit keep her inspired to do what she does, which is important, since Basutu remains a minority in her field. In her sector of rail, women comprise just 25 percent of the workforce.
“Representation really does matter,” she says. “Not only because if you cannot see yourself in a workplace, it is difficult to imagine that it is for you, but because diverse teams produce better more innovative solutions for the communities they serve”.
Basutu says she is excited about meeting a host of new, inspiring people through her MBA at Sydney University.
“What I am most excited about is to meet and learn from different people, from different backgrounds with different ways of thinking and understanding the world,” she explains.
She is also looking forward to sharpening her skills in order to understand and address the root causes of inequality.
“Structural change is often incremental,” she remarks. “The key to success is often working with like-minded people toward a long-term outcome.”
Basutu’s focus remains squarely on creating infrastructure that enables women to have physical, economic and social access to opportunities.
“How or in what form this will take is still a mystery”, she says, “but I am keen to explore and take every opportunity that arises to fulfil this goal”.