- Lizelle Strydom Pottier was a single teen mom when she got her first job, in a call center.
- She worked her way up from sales to recruiter to managing director by her late twenties.
- Strydom Pottier advocated for training and always put her hand up in the early years.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Lizelle Strydom Pottier, a 37-year-old managing director in Durban, South Africa. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
At only 17, just as I was finishing my last year in school in Durban, South Africa, I found out I was pregnant.
I had planned to go to college and study law so I could change the world, determined not to be another woman of color in South Africa who got pregnant young. The news about my pregnancy was initially devastating. I felt I had let myself and everyone around me down.
I finished high school in 2003 and gave birth to my daughter in February 2004.
Shortly after giving birth, I started looking for a job to support my family. It was expensive to raise a child, and my mother was already struggling to make ends meet as a hard-working single parent raising me and my two younger siblings.
I applied for a sales job because I loved to talk
My mom saw a job advertisement for a call center in Durban. She said I loved talking and needed to apply. The salary was a little over $230 a month plus commission. The money could cover transport, food, diapers, and formula, as well as contribute to rent as I lived with my mom. I had to get the job.
When I got to the reception for the initial interview, there were nine men for every woman waiting. I started talking to everyone, asking them what they were going to say in the interview.
After a quick interview, I went home and found out I’d got the job. The interviewer thought I was an easy conversationalist.
I started as a call agent the following Monday at the office that would later become CCI Global, a global business-outsourcing company.
I couldn’t afford childcare, so my grandma came to our house to watch her every day for me. Even though I was nervous to leave her, I knew she was in good hands.
Sitting next to the best person at my job helped me improve
For six months, I sold telecom packages to UK customers. I gave my job everything, often working extra hours to prove myself. Since I wasn’t the top salesperson, I made sure to sit next to the top salesperson in my spare time to find out how they spoke on the phone to customers.
My persistence to learn and succeed paid off. Six months after I started the job, I was promoted to the role of verifier — the person who makes the final sale and closes the deal.
A year into the job, I wanted to work in the human-resources department. It would mean career progression and more money, and more money would allow me to contribute more at home. I also thought I would enjoy HR.
Advocate for internal training and promotions
I was told I didn’t have the qualifications and hadn’t put in enough hours for the company yet.
I told them they could pay for me to get the qualifications. At first, they gave me excuses, but I persisted. In 2006, they agreed to pay for three human-resource certificates while promoting me to the human-resources department.
The company took a risk on me, and I had to prove to the higher-ups I was worth it. Whatever they needed, I put my hand up to do it. I felt a responsibility to show that, given the opportunity and the training, the people who might not be qualified on paper could be successful.
I worked hard to overcome societal barriers
As a human-resources administrator, I was making about $650 monthly. It gave me the cushion I needed to move out of my mother’s home and rent my own place with my daughter’s father. Soon after, in 2007, we were married.
The things that weren’t supposed to happen for me — getting a stable job, living on my own, and getting married — had happened by the time I was 23. I had broken down all these barriers. It felt amazing but terrifying. I had to work harder to continue to have a seat at the table.
I worked my way up to recruiter at CCI Global — then up again in 2013 to recruitment manager. It was challenging moving up in a male-dominated industry. I remember that when I started as a recruiter, I was told at different points to “get the coffee,” “take notes,” or “make sure everybody has a pen and paper.”
People didn’t associate a young, successful woman of color with a senior recruiter role. I was fortunate that the leaders at the time wanted me to succeed and were constantly in my corner making sure I was heard and supported.
Taking a director role meant I could pay it forward to the next generation
By the time I was 27, I’d been helping CCI grow for almost a decade. As a recruitment manager, I had become that person recruiting based on the applicant’s experience and education, rather than on potential.
I had always talked about paying it forward for people like me who just needed an opportunity to succeed. It felt like I had gone backward in terms of what I set out to do.
As I felt torn about my life’s direction, CareerBox Africa approached me in 2013 and asked me to be its managing director.
I was to help set up CareerBox Africa as a separate nonprofit within CCI Group. CareerBox is now CCI’s recruitment arm and develops talent to work within the company. I’ve been working for it ever since as a managing director.
I’ve changed the makeup of the company
My life mission now is to help young African women and men access tech employment. Two-thirds of CCI’s team is now female. Over half its leadership team is also female.
As a director, I’ve had to learn I can’t put my hand up for everything anymore.
I’ve also had to find ways to focus on my work at work and focus on my family when I’m home. When I drop the ball with that, I have an amazing family support system to help pick up the pieces.
Since joining CareerBox Africa, my growth is no longer in the form of promotions but in creating a sustainable model to provide more opportunities to underserved, disadvantaged communities. There’s no title I want more than “role model” — it’s all I need.