Mathematicians are not all nerds. They are skilled in solving ambiguous problems that we find in today’s world, and have some social skills to boot. Meet Ms. Thabang Ntume Seamolo, a mathematician, as she tells us how she is carving out a niche for herself as a Management Information Systems Analyst at the First National Bank of Botswana.
Question: Tell me about how you came into mathematics. Was it always your dream?
Thabang: I always seemed to excel at only one subject and that was Mathematics. I didn’t have to struggle, I understood numbers better than words, which happens even now. I had to work a bit harder at other subjects compared to mathematics. I grew up wanting to be a doctor because I wanted the respectable and prestigious career. One time, just as I was completing high school, my cousin found me doing my math homework and asked if I had heard of actuarial science which involved using mathematics to solve problems in the business world. I got interested, researched about it, and then got stuck between pursuing either medicine and actuarial science.
Question: How did you make the decision at University?
Thabang: At the University of Botswana, I enrolled for all three sciences in my common year, since my intention was to pursue medicine. There was still limited information on actuarial science. However, in the first week, we were given a Biology assignment which I found very difficult, since I prefer numbers to words. I quit Biology. I decided I am not going to be a doctor if I am going to be reading a lot of words. That left me with the option of either being an actuary or an engineer. Mathematics was easy for me unlike physics and chemistry which narrowed down my options to actuarial science. I decided to take a double major in mathematics and statistics with the aim of eventually taking the actuary examinations. This was the option available to me since I could not sponsor myself to study actuarial science directly.
Question: Graduating with the mathematics and science degree and still not an actuary, how did you get to where you are currently?
Thabang: When I graduated, most people felt that the only job I could do with my degree was to teach. I did not intend to be a teacher. I joined the government internship programme, which placed me at First National Bank (FNB). At FNB, they were not prepared for a mathematics graduate and as such, they didn’t know where to place me. I knew somehow that I had to be relevant and use the skills I had gained to be useful in the business. I started my departmental rotation at the Service department, which is involved with dealing with customers and handling any complaints involved. My mathematics skills came in handy, though indirectly. Solving service issues such as money lost in the system, or credited to a different account, takes a lot of problem solving skills and quick thinking, and being a mathematician was a plus in terms of this. I then moved to the Treasury department, which deals with global markets, meaning trading money and such activities. They were not prepared to teach a student who didn’t already have the financial knowledge because they had never had somebody like me interned at that department. I made myself useful in sorting out their problems, such as highlighting the unnecessary parts of their processes and increasing overall efficiency in their processes. I believe my skills in mathematics enabled me to think at that level. After that I moved to the collections department, where I have been for the past two years. There I found myself and fitted in.
Question: What does your work at collections involve?
Thabang: The Collections department which is involved with recovery of debt. This involves monitoring of business in its entirety, analyzing customer behaviour, how much is owed for the different products. The results of this analysis directly influences the bank’s strategy in terms of the way of doing things and efficiency. There is also monitoring of performance of the different models, which involved answering the questions, “Did we achieve the goals? Should we continue with this model that we have created?” The right people for this job are people like me with statistical or mathematical skills, people who can think in terms of numbers.
Question: What does your typical day involve?
Thabang: I deal with data, lots and lots of numbers. From the data, I am able to notice any gaps in the system, the processes, or the strategy put in place. I am also able to use the output of the banking system to measure its own efficiency, and then give advice on how to improve the system. For example, for every loan in the bank, there is an approval process and formulas in the system for monitoring the collected amount and the loan balance, but the system may not be at 100%. My job is to monitor the system, check for gaps in the presented data and ensure 100% efficiency. So I need to know my way around the system, what the users see when they use the system and what the expected output is after they put data into the system. There is also a lot of problem solving. Banking operations rely heavily on the state of the economy, which also changes a lot. Recently, Bank of Botswana lowered the interest rates for all the banks because of the state of the economy. This affects, among other things, the expected profit margins of the bank and the debt calculations based on the new interest rates. In the same landscape, there are also companies being liquidated and people being retrenched, which affects the bank’s bottom line. It is our job to perform analysis on the situation, what arrangements can we make for our customers knowing the status they are in right now. Since we do not know what is going to happen in the future, we can only provide chances of these people getting jobs and the possibility of recovering the money. Then there is consistent daily monitoring such as departmental performance, how much was collected and the monthly reports, and these also change when the economic atmosphere changes.
Question: What do you love most about your job?
Thabang: The nature of my work. There is always a problem to solve. Math has always been my strength. I don’t even have to think too hard to understand, and with my work right now, I deal with a lot of numbers. My communication is in terms of numbers. This means being able to create a formula which was not done by anyone. Just being able to write a formula that will solve a problem, I love that.
Question: What challenges have you had as a female pioneer in this area, creating a niche for yourself?
Thabang: Communication. I have found that there is a certain way we communicate as scientists, which may not be understandable to others in different specializations. When you are working on something, you speak in technical terms which is a bit complex for other people. Another thing is that as the only woman in the team, as much as I may know a lot, men seem to trust other men in leadership roles other than the woman. So if I were to say as a woman “this is what is going to happen”, they will need affirmation from a male figure. It is a downer for women. I had to adjust from an all female team in the service department to an all male team in collections.
Question: What advice do you have for women in this position?
Thabang: Be bold and know what you are doing. People learn to trust you with time. Your standards have to be double compared to everyone else for them to be confident that you are as good as everyone else. I think it is also important to appreciate the positive aspects of being a woman. We are better communicators and are able to relay sensitive information in a tactful way and also get information from the team. An example is when someone does not agree with a negative report that we have done, which may affect their performance and professional growth. As a woman, I am able to listen when they vent and explain how the numbers came to be. Men tend to be brisk and straightforward, issuing no assurance, just facts.
Question: How has your personality affected your career and how to you deal with negative traits?
Thabang: Personality counts a lot. The corporate world requires that you fight for what you want. As an individual, being outspoken and self driven, I am not the kind to shy away from mentioning things that should be done in a certain way, or asking if I don’t understand why things have to be done a certain way. I am the kind to go out, demand and follow up until I am given the opportunity. So your personality helps to excel in the corporate world. To deal with personality traits that are not very outgoing, I think the people you surround yourself with add a lot of value. The energy of positive people helps you tremendously. Your outlook on life is also very important. Accepting that, sometimes, things will not go the way you intend them to and that there is always a lesson to learn from a situation, good or bad wil help in moving on from any scenario that you have been marinating yourself in such as failure.
Question: Having a busy career and family is a challenge for many women worldwide. How do you see yourself handling this?
Thabang:I am currently not married so this is not an issue yet. How would I balance this in future? Everything is always urgent with my job and you are required to provide assistance at the exact moment that it is needed. I think you can only be smarter and more innovative with your work, find quicker way to solve problems, or do your reports.
Question: Have you had any mentors in math and are you mentoring anyone?
Thabang: I like to think of people who I come across and empower me with information as mentor for that moment. Being where I am, each and every person that I have met has had influence on where I am today. Apart from that, I have mostly been driven by passion in what I want to do. I currently mentor a group of girls. I was previously teaching them dance and built a relationship with them. I have been able to empower them,. I hope to help them in terms of directing their careers and finding what it is that they want to do, based on their skills. I remember I had to move from pillar to post in order to find opportunities based on the skills that I have. I am also mentoring a young lady that I met at a women’s network, helping her to be the best that she can and to know that she can use the skills that she has to be anything that she wants to be.
Question: Let us talk about hobbies. You talked about dance before, how did you get into that?
Thabang: I started dancing in secondary school but only got training when I joined the UB dance club. I have not been dancing in a while since it is difficult to balance work and dance. Last year, I joined FNB talent show, which reminded me why I love dance. I am now starting a dance class at work. We are currently just recruiting dancers for the club. I also watch movies, I am committed to movies one day a week. I read because it is fun to do and it is relaxing. I am currently reading a book by John Demartini, on finding your authentic self and what it is that you truly want out of life.
Question: Have you found your authentic self?
Thabang: I have. I think my purpose as an individual is mainly to motivate people to encourage and uplift people. I look at myself as a motivational speaker. Motivating people and taking people step by step out of certain situations gives me fulfillment. I currently do a lot of motivational speaking at church to the youth. I am a Christian and very spiritual, I also really want to find myself in Christ.
Question: What is your favorite quote?
Thabang: The greatest of these is love(1 Corinthians 13:13). If you operate on the basis of love, then everything is balanced. That is when you are your authentic self.
Question: What advice would you give to young ladies at the university working towards their future careers?
Thabang: What I have realized in my journey, is that as an individual, you have to be an all-rounder, whether you are a man or a woman. You have to be more informed than most, learn things that you were not told to learn and you should be intuitive and think forward. What would be necessary to achieve this. While in UB, I figured that I could not find work with maths and statistics, and did an optional course in economics to broaden my sphere of thinking. That added weight, was of some help fitting into the FNB environment. You need to be an all-rounder. Do not look at yourself as a woman, but as someone who can do anything.