Get outside your comfort zone! Walls & Roofs sat down with Thembakazi Mdlopane, business development director at LEAF Structures, to talk about her move from the technical drawing room to the boardroom. 

Q: How did you start in your field, and where you are today? 

The Academy of Draughting gave a presentation at my high school in KZN, and I found it interesting. After matriculating, I studied structural steel detailing and that was where my career in the built environment began. In 2009 I moved to Johannesburg to work on the Gautrain project and from there found my way to Novum Structures, before opening LEAF Structures in 2019.  

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced in your career so far, and how did you overcome them? 

When Andrew Spottiswoode gave me a nudge and moved me into business development, it was a challenge that took me out of my comfort zone of detailing drawing. Over time, and with Andrew’s mentorship, I learnt that my technical knowledge was a strength, and I could use it to explain technical concepts and drawings to clients through presentations on design-build methodology on projects. It was an opportunity to see the bigger picture and not just my own small part of it. 

It’s still not a comfort zone for me, but I think the perpetual challenge is possibly what I like about it – there is always something to learn and new ways to do things. 

“We are more adaptable than we think.” – Thembakazi Mdlopane 

Q: What do you consider to be your greatest professional accomplishment to date, and why? 

Being part of the creation of LEAF Structures is a wonderful accomplishment for me. In terms of projects, the University of Cape Town (UCT) D-School’s glass atrium in Cape Town stands out for me personally, and for the team. 

It was a fascinating and prestigious project and even though we had worked on other complex projects, I was a bit nervous about this one. It was our first big project in Cape Town, so naturally many questions came to mind – could we do it, would we deliver it on time and how to navigate all the challenges along the way. 

In the end, I learnt big lessons under difficult circumstances, which was empowering. If you survive under tough conditions, then you know your ability to bend and not break. 

Q: What are your long-term career goals, and how do you plan to achieve them? 

I’m currently studying with UCT, as I want to strengthen my knowledge and grow our business. Our design-build solutions have had positive feedback, so I would like to spread our wings, both regionally within South Africa, into the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the rest of the continent.  

Q: Tell us some fun facts about yourself.  

I would love to visit Singapore and Japan for their amazing architecture. Closer to home, I have a desire to see Sani Pass. My secret hobby is growing my own vegetables in my small balcony garden – I’m very proud of my tomatoes! 

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