I think that women’s greatest strengths lie in our brains and the way in which we use them
“Get up tomorrow early in the morning, and earlier than you did today, and do the best that you can. Always stay near me, for tomorrow I will have much to do.”
So spoke a teenage Joan of Arc after receiving a divine vision which would inspire an entire country to overthrow the shackles of its colonial oppressor and restore pride to a disillusioned nation.
Half a millennia later and at the opposite end of the world, the advice seems custom-built for any active, ambitious personality type, and Commuter Transport Engineering (CTE) founder Patricia Norris certainly fits the mould. Moreover, the tiny Western Cape community of Touwsriver could be forgiven for seeing a divine hand at work when Patricia’s own vision injected new life and pride into a ghost town.
“I think I do have a Joan of Arc complex in some ways,” Patricia says. “A common thread running through all my ventures has been the need for a cause, the heroing of people and communities. I think I am destined to always find opportunities which come on the back of offering real change.”
Touws River was the site of the first CTE factory. “Our journey there is an example of the industrial endeavor of one supported by the industriousness of many. The town was well on its way to becoming a ghost town, having already endured more than a decade of economic deprivation. Originally established as a Spoornet locomotive yard, it went from being a bustling railway town to complete obsolescence as Spoornet shut its yards, figuratively turning the lights off.”
CTE revived the town and will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2018. CTE has contributed R60m in direct wages and an economic multiplier effect of R10m during this time.
In the 1980s, in her early 20s Patricia started a bimonthly community newspaper in the Western Cape province of South Africa. “This gave me an essential insight into cash flow management, and the realisation that there always needs to be a value proposition for your target audience to buy into.” Patricia left SA to complete an MBA in London before returning to a marketing manager job at Transnet in South Africa.
“The MBA gave me invaluable knowledge about the science of decision making, and the cause and effect principle.” However, Patricia says the corporate environment was not for her. She left a cosy senior management position and started bidding for two contracts to supply Koeberg Nuclear facility, and to refurbish Metrorail coaches. She became the first woman to be granted Preferred Supplier status within the nuclear environment; to establish a rolling stock refurbishment company and to sit on the board of a farming co-op, she also heads the first and only company wholly owned by a black woman that was successfully contracted in 1998 by Prasa to repair and renovate Metrorail coaches. Out of this was born her current business, CTE. Nearly 20 years later, CTE is a national company comprised of five separate businesses employing more than 1000 staff, and with 53hct of workshop space. And, in a male-dominated industry, mother of four Patricia has smashed glass ceilings.
“I think that women’s greatest strengths lie in our brains and the way in which we use them. It is important that young women strive to achieve a ‘whole brain’ state in early adult life, and to own their inner sense of support and nurturing. Women are always going to be less overtly aggressive than men, so they need to focus on their inborn strengths. That is the value we bring to the table,” she says.
Patricia warns young women not to start second-guessing their dreams. “Your internal dialogue actually needs to change. A lot of black women have done phenomenal things. We have an incredible strength of character and this needs to transition into a corporate, commercial setting. Young women might feel like backing off from any particular challenge, but the actualisation of women comes from overcoming these internal barriers, from challenging their internal mental barriers.”
Patricia advises young, would-be entrepreneurs to always strive to educate themselves throughout their entire life. “In today’s world there are opportunities I never had, in terms of the digital experience and the access to information on the worldwide web. You can seek out and find innovative teaching on any subject.”
This is vital, she says, as a successful entrepreneur soon starts becoming a leader. “It is quite usual for an entrepreneur to become highly emotive about their vision, but this can hinder clarity of thinking. Passion can in fact be dangerous for an entrepreneur – it can only take you so far. To transition into a leader you need to develop a very healthy balance of skills and to evolve talent within yourself. Passion will not deliver that – only ongoing education and self-actualisation will deliver that,” she says.
Interview with Patricia Norris
By Craig Bishop