This young woman made a challenging career change. Now she’s making a fundamental, tangible difference in the lives of less advantaged people in Anglophone Africa. For these achievements, World Woman Hour honors her as one of 60 women leading change in the world. Zanélle Dalglish works for the global energy management company Schneider Electric, where she began her career in the Human Resources division as an industrial psychologist, a role that involves using the principles of psychology to help employees be more satisfied and more productive in their jobs. Then at age 29 she undertook a big leap, re-orienting herself to serve as Head of the company’s Sustainable Development & Academy program in Southern Africa.
She is currently the Director of Sustainable Development as well as the Schneider Electric training Academy across Anglophone Africa.
The Schneider Electric Access to Energy & Education outreach program is targeted to communities that are “off the grid”—they are too remote or too poor to be reached by the high voltage lines that normally bring plug-in electrical power to people. So Schneider Electric’s goodwill efforts help them in two ways: by continuously evolving access to energy solutions for local, sustainable power generation, such as with solar energy, and by practically training young people with the relevant skills required for practical application within the field of energy.
The idea is to build foundations for human development all around. Zanélle is in charge of this work for an area including her native South Africa and all English-speaking countries in Africa. Her teams have won prizes for their social contributions. In an interview with World Woman Hour, Zanélle radiated a personal energy that you might say is positively electric.
Q: Given that you were trained in industrial psychology, what inspired you to change course and work with less advantaged communities?
Zanélle: I’ve always had a passion to make an impact in the lives of people. And at Schneider Electric I was able to take an innovative career path, in that I’ve been able to reskill and reinvent myself in the field of sustainability as well as corporate citizenship. As a South African citizen, seeing the high levels of unemployment and unskilled youth in the country gave me an urgency to look into this global crisis. We have found that creating access to energy, as well as access to education for youth, leads to opportunities for economic activity, which is completely life-changing for them. This is such an exciting career, and it is such a privilege for me to do what I love every single day.
Q: Could you explain how you’re addressing the problems you mentioned?
Zanélle: For access to energy, Schneider Electric has a range of solutions, like small lighting solutions. [Also called “off-grid lighting” kits. A typical kit has an LED lamp running on a battery that’s charged in the daytime by a small solar panel.] These solutions might seem small in size, but they are very large in impact. They can give people light in the home environment, or even for economic activity, and this is absolutely life-changing because when the lights go on for people, Life Is On. At the community level we even have small micro-grids, which for example can run containerized bakeries to bake bread with the energy from the sun.
In education, we focus on our skills development programs. It is very important for people to be well trained in order to work with electrical energy. Safety is of first importance, and then you need the required technical skills. We’ve trained students and especially youth, using large electrical equipment that has been modified for safe training purposes. In addition, we have entrepreneurship training modules to accelerate the students in that direction. If they’re not able to secure employment, they would be able to start their own businesses within the field of energy.
One challenge is that there seems to be a gender equality issue in getting people trained for practical work in energy. We’re looking at how to bring gender equality into this very exciting space, so that we can look forward to more digital energy in the future, and also to having more equal societies for women who want to bring their practical skills to the labour market.
Q: So, what could lead to more women being trained, recruited, and hired?
Zanélle: I believe the answer is for people to see how gender diversity and gender equality can really make a difference. Time and time again, in environments where we have the genders working together equally in teams, we have seen people’s ideas merging and we see them coming up with brilliant solutions. One example is in our training centers where young women and young men are learning and working alongside each other. They build on one another’s ideas. They become such beautiful complimentary teammates. The gender equality within those teams accelerates all of them for brilliance.
And I honestly believe that these pockets of gender equality are helping to springboard women. In the field of energy in the past, women often have not received the same opportunities as their male counterparts, but this is changing. The world is changing and it’s changing for the good.
Q: Aside from having a career in energy, how can the rest of us get involved in sustainable development?
Zanélle: There are many different things that people can do. I think you just have to get started somewhere. We often think our contribution is very small and wouldn’t make an impact, but that is not true. Every act does make an impact. First, people can look at their own carbon emissions to understand how they affect the environment, and how they can contribute to a greener future. Secondly, volunteering in an initiative close to you can make a really big impact, whether it’s with an NGO or in a school or with a company like mine.
Also, you may not be aware of having skills that can help others, until you start exploring. At Schneider Electric we often find that when we ask employees to volunteer, they say they’re not sure how they could contribute until we ask some questions: “Well, what do you love doing? What are the strengths that you have in your job? What special skills do you have?” And suddenly, we don’t have enough time to talk about everything they could contribute.
Q: A lot of young women would like to hear about lessons you’ve learned in managing your own career. Have you had failures or setbacks along the way? And if so, how do you deal with them?
Zanélle: I have definitely experienced a few setbacks in my career, as well as other times that felt like failures. And I think the key to success is to just keep going. Never give up. Never stop believing in yourself.
And when you experience a failure, don’t ruminate, or overthink it. Just think about it constructively. Surround yourself with people who will give you honest feedback, that can help you to prevent that [from happening again] and have opportunities to grow. Also, always have a plan B, C, and D. I find that if I have different options to consider in case I fail, I can fail quickly and move on, and I continue to just be great.
Q: As a woman in a leadership position, what does leading mean to you?
Zanélle: Leading to me is setting a clear vision, while inspiring and developing others to join me on my journey.
Q: Very succinct. Very good. Let’s finish with a couple of questions that are fun, but also meaningful. As a woman, what is your superpower?
Zanélle: My superpower is getting things done. I create order in chaos, unpack and resolve complex problems with efficiency.
Q: If you had a huge billboard that everybody in the world could see, what message would you put on it?
Zanélle: Be yourself. Embrace vulnerability. Have courage.
Q: How are you leading change for woman?
Zanélle: I am leading change for woman by being authentic, taking courage, embracing my vulnerability and showing impactful results while continuously developing and inspiring other women.