From the townships of Hammanskraal and the ‘burbs of Jozi, to a billboard in Times Square, Lerato Teffo’s trajectory is something for the books.
Here, she shares her love for understanding structures and people, how that led her to her current role, and the ways in which Yoco enables women to thrive.
You grew up in the township Hammanskraal and the suburbs of Jozi, studied at an Ivy League, Liberal Arts school, and interned at the legendary period underwear company Thinx. And now, you’re celebrating two years at Yoco!
Yeah, it’s been quite a journey! I was born in Hammanskraal, and my mom was a domestic worker. The family she worked for sort of took me into their family and organised for me to go to the same school as their daughter.
When it was time to apply for University, I took the leap and applied at Amherst College in Massachusetts USA. I knew I wanted to study at a prestigious Liberal Arts school, so I only applied to one college. It could have gone terribly wrong but, it somehow worked out!
I initially wanted to study Accounting, but when I got there, I discovered that wasn’t on the curriculum. After a brief stint in Economics – I ended up majoring in Gender Studies.
I always knew I wanted to go into tech, and in one of my summer breaks, I interned at Thinx in New York City. While interning, they asked me to model for them and that’s how I ended up on a billboard in Times Square and in over 500 subways!
When the US political climate became precarious, I came home to SA, and then briefly worked as a learning designer. I soon realised that in order to be fulfilled and thrive at my role, I needed to resonate with the company’s mission. And so, I ended up at Yoco.
Joining Yoco is the best decision I’ve ever made, to be welcomed into a space that makes so much sense to me. I’m 26 and yet I feel like my opinion is valued, and everyone practices respect for everyone’s contribution to the company.
You credit your major in Gender Studies as the catalyst for your own self-understanding. It feels like a natural evolution to want to learn about and understand others, which is at the heart of Customer Insights. How would you define your role?
I define my role as a market researcher with a consumer focus. My goal is to bring the company closer to its customers. In essence, my job is to slow things down and listen, providing the business with information that’s real and that’s out there.
What does your role entail on a day-to-day basis?
My work is all about collaboration and communication. I often have two projects running at a time, so I spend my time researching (desk research, customer interviews, survey analysis) and then synthesising this information and turning it to actionable insights.
You’re currently working on a project about the township economy – a vital, yet frequently overlooked aspect of the larger SA economy. Why is this project so important to you?
I want to create more empathy about a space that so many people are from; to destigmatise it.
I want to show people that if you grew up in a township, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. There’s no shame behind it.
As Yoco grows, so too does the need for a shared understanding and universal truth of what our township economy looks like.
My goal with this research is that no single Yoco employee would stop and be like, what’s a shack? I want to make sure that when we talk about it, we’re coming from a place of authenticity and vulnerability.
I’m super lucky that I was given the leeway to create my own path and build on the knowledge I already have, and use it to create something that I can share with others.
The tech industry is a notoriously male-dominated space. What are some of the things you’ve learnt that may help young women enter the industry and thrive?
It may sound cliche, but you have to really believe in yourself.
I can’t tell you how many people were like, “What the hell are you going to do in tech?!” They thought I was completely nuts. There I was, this black Gender Studies major who said “hey, I’m going to work in tech”.
You need to have the belief and confidence that this is something you can do. It’s important that young women know that there’s not just one way of making it or getting into this space; trial and error is key.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and to ask for help. That was something I really needed to learn because I thought I could do everything myself.
Small things make a big difference. Have someone look at your resume, and say, tweak this, or get someone to coach you through interview questions - those little skills help so much in building your confidence and in helping you get to places you want to be.
What are some of the ways in which Yoco has enabled you to grow and thrive in your role, and as a woman in the tech industry?
They’ve really listened – as a black woman it’s really important to feel heard and seen.
All of my managers and leads really take the time to listen, and they’re really good at getting you to uncover your strengths and your weaknesses and then unpack that, so you can start building the career path you want at Yoco.
My managers are also my biggest champions: they see what energises me and advocate for that, they encourage me to speak my mind and challenge myself.
I’ve been really lucky to have women as my mentors, so for me, nothing seems impossible. To see these powerful women in diverse spaces see you and say you’re worth it, means so much. You’re given the autonomy to take ownership of a space and if it doesn’t work out, you try something else.
Yoco allows women to occupy spaces, there’s a culture of respect for our voices: you feel as valued as anyone else.
There’s also recognition of obstacles that women may face in their careers, and there’s an open dialogue around this and a means to address this should the need arise. I’ve always felt respected and heard by my managers and peers, and it’s an incredible space that’s allowed me to become successful in my career.
Why do you think it’s important that women take up their rightful space in tech?
It’s imperative that there’s diversity of thoughts and opinions; that women’s voices and their perspectives and positionality are valued as those of hetero men.
No one is perfect, no one knows all the answers, but when you get a bunch of different voices in a room – oh my gosh, you make magic happen.
Diverse voices – especially those of women – from different backgrounds bring strength to our work and strength to tech, which is critical as the industry is at the forefront of innovation and access in a lot of ways, so it’s super important that women are here creating and making and doing things, and that they feel comfortable enough to have a seat at the table.
Even if there’s no room, I always just squeeze myself in there, “don’t mind me!” – but it’s never been a problem at Yoco – my experience has been that people want me here.
Another thing that’s crucial is not taking no for an answer. You prove your own worth by saying, actually I should be in this space when you’re there participating and feeling confident in the value that you can add.
Don’t let it stop you if you see that a department has too many men or whatever – go there, shake things up, it’s fun!
This article is part of Yoco’s 2022 International Women’s Month Series #WomenWhoGrowYoco.
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