Doreen Mbhalati-Mashele’s story is inspirational for tech entrepreneurs.
South African ICT entrepreneur Doreen Mbhalati-Mashele recently saw her inspiring story go global when she was featured on Huawei’s international thought leadership platform Transform.
Read by millions of people around the world, Transform is published several times a year and looks at how tech is shaping the present, while also providing a glimpse of the future.
Mbhalati-Mashele’s feature comes at an apt time, with South Africa set to celebrate Women’s Day in less than three weeks. It’s a story that deserves to be told too.
Having obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and Mathematics, Mbhalati-Mashele struggled to find work after graduating.
She resorted to working as a grocery packer at her local Pick n Pay.
Her ability to find a job was further hampered by the fact that the rural part of Limpopo she lived in had poor levels of connectivity.
“People laughed at me,” she explained to Transform. “They said, ‘Look at that girl. She studied math and science, but now she can’t get a job. Why didn’t she become a teacher, or a nurse?’ I was depressed, always sleeping. I didn’t even want to go out.”
Eventually, she found a job with state-owned enterprise (SOE) Transnet, which saw her move to Johannesburg.
While being in full-time employment was a significant gain, Mbhalati-Mashele had a long-standing fascination with connectivity that her job couldn’t quite scratch.
Then, one morning she sparked up a conversation that would change her life forever.
“One morning, coming off the night shift, I noticed some guys working next to my house,” she told Transform. “They said they were doing a project for the local telecom, installing optical fibre.”
Intrigued, she spoke to the supervisor and then tracked down the manager of the company doing the installations.
After some negotiating, she got them to bring her on board as a sub-contractor while she (along with three employees) learned everything there is to know about the trade.
And so, Derliz Investments was born.
Throughout this period, she was still working at Transnet and would frequently go straight from the night shift she’d just worked to supervise a job site.
Sometime in 2015, Mbhalati-Mashele was working on a site that Telkom had contracted to Huawei, which then subcontracted out to several other companies.
Not realising this, she’d driven straight from her night shift to the job site and fallen asleep in her car, assuming that her workers would keep performing even with her just being present.
To her surprise, some Huawei representatives showed up on the site.
Mbhalati-Mashele expected them to be angry but instead, they showed her compassion.
“The Huawei people said, ‘You’re doing work for five different companies. Why don’t you just get your own contract with us?’,” Mbhalati-Mashele told Transform.
Having established that this was possible, Huawei brought Derliz Investments on as a supplier.
Initially, she was entrusted with five sites over the Christmas holidays on a trial basis.
That work saw Huawei give Doreen a contract and a purchase order. Soon she was managing dozens of sites.
Today, Derliz Investments is one of the main contractors supplying fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) in the Gauteng region and employs more than 500 people.
Even with all those successes behind her back, Mbhalati-Mashele is still passionate about using the skills she’s gained to make life better for ordinary South Africans.
“My goal is to make life better by providing WiFi connections used for communications, transport, connectivity and ultimately eliminating waste,” she told Transform.
“I want to see myself as a part of changing South Africa from the old, traditional ways to more advanced ones.”