'It was a bit unsettling when I moved here. The people didn't look like me'

New to the Parish: Tetlanyo Lekalake arrived from Botswana via South Africa in 2014

Tetlanyo Lekalake  hopes to go to business school in the next few years. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Tetlanyo Lekalake hopes to go to business school in the next few years. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

When Tetlanyo Lekalake moved to Dublin she felt like she was in the minority for the first time in her life. Growing up in Botswana and South Africa she was used to seeing people like herself in positions of authority and senior management. She did become aware of racial tensions in South Africa during her teenage years, but never counted herself as different or unable to achieve her goals.

“It was a bit unsettling when I first moved here. The people around me generally didn’t look like me and all the people I came to admire, my role models, didn’t look like me either. Because you don’t see them in senior management positions you start to feel that maybe Africans here live on the periphery."

Lekalake’s plan was never to come to Europe. She was studying marketing in Cape Town and already had a job set up with a local ad agency when representatives from the Pernod Ricard Distillers turned up at her university one day. They gave a presentation on competition seeking a new digital campaign for Absolut Vodka and said the winners in South Africa would travel to Paris to compete against the international teams. The overall winners would be offered contracts with the group’s offices in Europe.

I was surprised by how familiar everything looked here – the roads, the buildings. It wasn’t too dissimilar to other big cities

Despite the fact that her exams were just days away, Lekalake jumped at the chance to take part and convinced two friends studying computer science and finance to get involved. The group won the national leg of the competition and a few months later were flown to Paris to compete against teams from across the globe.

“We won that competition in March so then I knew I had a job in Europe, I just had to complete my year in university.”

Lekalake had hoped to move to Paris where she could improve her French but the company felt her marketing skills would be of better use at Jameson Irish Whiskey. “The company had the idea that maybe I could work in Johannesburg when I was done with the year abroad. Jameson made the most sense because South Africa is its third biggest market.”

In March 2014, Lekalake boarded a plane to Ireland. She always imagined Ireland as a nation filled with green pastures, sheep and leprechauns based on the movies she’d seen. Determined to get to know the real country, she spent the weeks before her arrival reading posts by local Irish bloggers. “When you picture going abroad you have in your head that things will be so different. But I was surprised by how familiar everything looked here – the roads, the buildings. It wasn’t too dissimilar to other big cities.”

By coincidence, Lekalake’s closest friend had also found work in Dublin and gave her a bed while she found a place to live. Fresh out of college, Lekalake loved the sense of freedom and independence she felt in her Irish home. She enjoyed working with Jameson and travelled around Europe and to the United States on holidays. Her year long contract with the company flew by and before she knew it she was faced with the decision of what to do next.

A lot of people say they didn’t know there were so many successful African people here”

“I definitely felt I wasn’t ready to go back, one year wasn’t enough. The first few months were difficult but then it grows on your and you get used to the rhythm.”

She knew Facebook had an office in Dublin and decided to apply for a marketing position at the tech company. “I can still remember the very first time I saw Facebook. It was when my sister was studying in the US and only American students had it. It was only when I moved here that I realised Dublin was a tech hub and all of a sudden working in a company like Facebook seemed achievable. I prepared for the interview like I would for an exam. I really wanted to get into the company.”

Two years later, Lekalake is still working with Facebook. She is active member of the Facebook staff community and was recently involved in setting up the European branch of “Black at Facebook” which provides a platform and voice for nationalities who feel underrepresented in the workplace. She is also the co-founder of the African Professional Network of Ireland which was set up to encourage collaboration and professional support between people from diverse backgrounds.

“We want to be able to give people an environment where they can connect with other African professionals. A lot of people say they didn’t know there were so many successful African people here. Obviously where you’re disparate and not connected its hard to see that.

Doing stuff for other people with no monetary benefits, that gives you a real sense of purpose and is the most satisfying thing”

“I also feel it’s important in terms of integrating into the broader Irish community and having that sense of belonging. You want people to know it’s possible to overcome those mental barriers that stop them from applying or going to an interview with the full confidence that they can do this.”

Lekalake says her time working within the diverse setting of the Facebook office has taught her about the importance of allowing people to be themselves and accepting and celebrating who they are.

“Having to try and adapt to a different culture, I’ve tried that before and it’s just really uncomfortable. It doesn’t feel genuine and you lose that sense of integrity. When you can be yourself and people embrace that, that’s what makes a place feel like home.”

Lekalake hopes to go to business school in the next few years and is looking at colleges in Ireland, the UK and the US. She also wants to set up her own business in the future.

“When I first moved here I felt like I’d taken the easy way out – Irish people are known for being friendly and the English language was never a barrier. But what I’ll definitely take away from my time here is I’ve grown as a person.

“I have a much deeper appreciation of different cultures. The other thing is a sense of purpose. Doing stuff for other people with no monetary benefits, that gives you a real sense of purpose and is the most satisfying thing.”