Meet Smarntha Shonhiwa – the embodiment of ‘girl power’

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BY Donald Tafadzwa Chidoori

When we talk about women and careers one old adage always pops up ‘a man will look at a role, decide that he can deliver on 50% of it and go for it anyway; a woman on the other hand will look at the same role and although she may be able to deliver on 80% of the requirements, will focus on the 20% gap and decide she’s not ready for it.’

However this was not the case for Smarntha Shonhiwa who put on a mantle of fearlessness and had the tenacity to look at the 20% and say what the hack. Even when marriage looked as if it would put her down and take her away from insurance she got back on her feet and became the only female lecturer in the department of Insurance and Actuarial Science at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) in 2011.

The story of Smarntha is non-other than inspirational. Having passed her A ‘levels she was thrown into the odd and complex world of insurance without any knowledge of what career opportunities would be open for her. She, graduated with flying colours, and was aptly recruited as an underwriter at one of the leading insurance firms in the country. However, her stint in insurance practise was short lived as she only worked for a year as she was married and had to move to Bulawayo to.

Smarntha did not however give up on her insurance career as she took up active pursuit of insurance through on-going learning, training and education which resulted in her acquiring a Masters in Insurance and Risk Management from the National University of Science and Technology.

“I graduated with my first degree in Insurance in 2006. I practiced a bit for about a year then I moved from Harare to Bulawayo when I was married. Then I had about a three year break, at that time I was advancing my studies.”

Having realised that she was motivated to work in the industry she decided to take a different mantle and put her skills to use through imparting knowledge to would be insurance and risk management gurus through education. She thus took up a post as a Lecturer in the Department of Insurance and Actuarial Science at NUST where she has been working for more than five years.

At NUST Smarntha was accorded with the onerous task of being a go between NUST and the students when she was appointed the Coordinator of Industrial attachment and Masters Programmes. A task she handled with tact and tenacity.

Her roles included amongst other things organising student time tables, exam time tables and addressing student’s queries.

As the only woman lecturer in the department, Smarntha Shonhiwa was and still is the embodiment of ‘girl power’. Not only did she inspire female students, she also became a mother to all insurance and risk management students at the institution.

“To the students I then became their mother, you how sometimes men are tough so I became more of their mother than their teacher. It was easy for them to come to me than the gentlemen.”

Her exploits as the only female lecturer also opened the flood gates for other female lecturers.

“At one point I was the only one and then the mathematician joined us and then we were two after a while another joined us for insurance then we became three, the last just came in last year (2016) so now we are four.”

What drove her to leave the profession in the first place – being a mother – became her inspiration and motivation to go to work daily.

“What motivates me is seeing students come in and grow, and you have them for four years you teach them, they learn and they go into practice, that process of them coming to us as children and going on to become full-fledged risk managers, I think that process is one thing that really motivates me. Besides teaching them, we are accorded the platform of be even parents to them, to mother them and to father them in one way or the other, I think for the greater good that’s one thing I think motivates me on the job, because I am an insurer, but I am also a teacher and a mother.”

As the saying goes ‘You are only as good as the things you deliver,’ and ‘nothing speaks more loudly than the role you are doing and the results you produceSmarntha over the years has been able to demonstrate the ability to deploy the currency of her skills effectively and nurture a group of successful young students.

In a span of five years over 600 students have passed through her hands, some of them are first line managers, some are general managers, some of them might not be in managerial positions but they are doing very well.

“And that makes me happy, and some of them ask to take me for lunch that shows that I have done something good personally and as NUST.”

One would think that the hundreds of students that have passed through her hands or the General Manager or Chief Executive Officer she has taught to be her greatest achievement. But NO, her greatest achievement has been the ability to change and save lives.

“When students are at campus they have a lot of issues that they face which are just not academic so me being given that platform to help face their challenges so that they also finish their programme.

And to save someone from making the wrong decision because of the position that they are in is my greatest achievement. Sometimes it’s not even money that assist it’s just a word of advice, just that sometimes makes a lot of difference, for me it’s actually the differences that I have made in people’s lives which is important.”

So what is key to the success of this strong, powerful lecturer and loving wife and mother of four?  How does she manage to do it all, how does she balance her impressive career with the ups and downs of family life. The short answer the attributes that make her a woman.

 “I think what has to happen is that you have to be organised that one is also a gift that comes with being a woman you got the grace of being organised and also being a multi tasker, so you can do multiple things at the same time and also try to balance everything.”

 “One trick I have seen both at work and at home is that when you actually set yourself to do a task do it to perfection so that you finish it do something finish it so that you close the chapter. Avoid doing things half-baked so you will continuously have to do them again. Also keep a schedule so that you don’t have too many things on your desk, if something comes work on it finish it and try to keep your desk most of the times, and you will also be up to date”

Talking about issues that hold women back in the progression of their careers, Smarntha alluded to the fact that the deck is almost always stacked against women from early in their careers when they are obstructed to be on the same development track as their male peers.

“Well I think the issue that I can say mostly affects women is not intellectual per say because they are equally good, but then what happens is that, I will give an example for students maybe when they graduate after four years doing a programme, you find out that most of the women a year or two after they finish, or maybe even before they finish school they get married. And when they get married the family starts so now for them to continue with their masters’ programme and going up higher, and also practicing and being at home the challenge is handling everything at once.”

 “By the time the children grow up you are also older and maybe too old for you to now start school, a lot of people then just shelve it. The challenge that I see is the balance the work becomes more and more. ”

Smarntha was however, quick to point out that while the above scenario might be true for some women it was not always case. She emphasised that neither gender nor intellect, were the major setbacks to the progression of women in the industry.

She highlighted that the older generation of mothers and leaders who realised at some point although it was long back that gender is not deterrence and had penetrated the industry, and set the pace; were an inspiration to women in insurance. Their success was proof or living testimony that marriage, gender and motherhood were not an obstacle.

She also highlighted that unlike older generations that were limited by societal stereotypes to join the field on insurance and risk management the younger generation was more fearless and enthusiastic and want to partake in everything and anything as long as their intellect can accommodate it.

“Generations that are coming up are generations who are very independent and free. Gender for them is not a barrier unlike before when gender actually determined what you could do and not do.”

“Before the trend was that mostly women were involved in a lot of arts, a lot of reading, supposedly it was man that did the mathematics side of things but we have seen a shift slowly in women actually partaking in such disciplines.”

According to Smarntha, other than the success of the old guard, the increased involvement of women in the male dominated field of insurance could also be seen, in the enrolment statistics at NUST and the increasing number of young female leaders in the field.

“I have been lecturing for more than five years, from the time that I started the programme in 2002, we had more men than we had women, but slowly as the years are progressing the intake is now almost 50:50, that’s why I was saying the generation which is coming up is not cognoscenti of gender.”

However, the insurance industry has a lot of ground to make up in initiating and developing effective and meaningful mentoring, leadership and support programmes that will result not in gender equality but gender equity in leadership. And to her media has a critical role to play towards this regard.

“The media can create a channel or platform that can bring a lot of women so that they can share ideas, they can share the problems and they can also share the solutions and even have those ones who have gone up the ladder to give wisdom on how they got there to the ones who are still working on catching up getting where they are.”

Smarntha also said that the media also have a critical role in demystifying insurance. Giving an example of when she was working as an underwriter, her duties included assessing new business, evaluating the risk that the insurer is holding and ascertaining a price to the risk. And ultimately deciding whether to accept the risk or repudiate the risk depending on the factors that are involved in the risk. Her family and friends thought that she was selling motor insurance.

“Because for most of the people insurance is motor and the reason why it is so is because like I said the complexity of the products, and also we can also attribute it to our economy it’s a bit tight, insurance is an industry which need of lo of educating the public, that is where the media comes in.

Smarntha concluded the interview by sharing a piece of advice to both practising and aspiring women in insurance.

“I would advise young girls and even the women are already practicing and those that might want to practice that insurance and risk management is a really good industry where you can actually learn a lot. It can be challenging a bit but there is always that hard work, but it’s a good industry where you can actually grow. I encourage them to join us and make this industry bigger.”

Smarntha Shonhiwa has spent all her working life in the risk industry and Risk and Insure Zimbabwe could not conclude the interview without knowing the riskiest thing had ever done in her life.

Here is what she said

“I can’t even bungee jump that’s how averse I am, in terms of risk management. I am not a risk taker anyhow; NO NO NO that’s why I even insure because I want the peace of mind, that insurance comes with.”

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