Landa Mabenge is a Sussex Chevening scholar, MA Gender Studies student and entrepreneur. We were delighted to have him join the Business School as Events and Communications Coordinator for a term this year. His consultancy educates and creates awareness on transgender and gender diverse identities, and works with organisations to develop and implement diversity policies. He talks to us about life as an international student, what it takes to be a leader, and why studying at Sussex was a childhood dream.
When choosing a place to study your Masters, what made Sussex stand out for you?
Sussex has always been a childhood dream, ever since I learnt that South Africa’s former President Thabo Mbeki studied Economics there, whilst in the midst of the liberation struggle during apartheid. I have always admired the way that he approached development and the economy.
Sussex has a fantastic global reputation and is consistently ranked among the best in the world – you don’t ever speak about UK universities and leave it out. Whilst talking to other students, I found they all had such amazing experiences that came with their degree. I decided it would be the best place to nurture my leadership abilities and to build my own network.
Sussex also takes its alumni very seriously and invests in their network, so there’s opportunity for me to build bigger connections outside of my course. The opportunity to also work as part of the Business School has been priceless. I’ve met people who have added value to who I am and the person I am becoming.
What was your experience of being a Chevening scholar?
I heard about it from another Chevening scholar and decided to apply. It’s the UK Government’s contribution towards developing young leaders from different countries – an investment in not only your academic journey but also the building of professional networks.
The UK is the best in terms of higher education, and the scholarship made it all possible for me, covering my tuition and living expenses. A one year Masters is tough, rigorous and requires all of you – but it also stretches you and unleashes your true potential.
From your perspective of being an international student coming to the UK, what was your most surprising discovery?
That summer will never really descend on the UK. It’s been freezing at times! But honestly, I think the UK is an extremely user-friendly and accommodating place for international students. It feels like space has been created for them to be nurtured, to learn and to grow during their time here. It introduces this canvas where one can just paint whatever they need to paint, to get what they need out of their experience in the UK, both in the classroom and independently.
Did you bring anything with you to remind you of home?
I brought pictures of friends and family who mean the world to me, and a South African flag face mask which I proudly wore everywhere!
What are your tips to help students balance work with studies?
Time management is an essential skill. As an international student I could only work 20 hours per week, so I needed to plan out my days effectively. Blocking out four hours every morning to focus on my role made it easier to manage and meant I had the afternoon to concentrate on my studies. It allowed me to have a good work life balance and to plan time to rest, to take a walk, or to connect with nature.
Your book, Becoming Him: A trans memoir of triumph, is an account of your lived experience as a trans man. What is important for you that readers take away from your story?
For me, the one fundamental thing is for people to realise that no two lives are the same. We each embody a uniqueness, and it’s important to be able to embrace this. There shouldn’t be any gatekeeping from other human beings that keeps people from doing so. Becoming Him is irrefutable proof that life is a maze that can only be navigated by the person walking through it. It reminds us that individuality, in a world which makes conformity a norm, is the ultimate prize.
In 2016 you founded landamconsulting.co.za, providing diversity consultancy services and vital linkages to healthcare. What advice would you give to an aspiring entrepreneur about setting up their own venture?
You need to be guided by your purpose, and that purpose must be aligned with your passion. Spend time with yourself to figure out why you are here and what you are good at. What is the one thing you would do and not need to be remunerated for? This will guide you towards a business that is uniquely yours. Being a gender diversity consultancy, my business is very new to South Africa, and I am watching my footprint grow year on year.
You must also be a diligent worker and willing to juggle multiple streams of income. A lot of things in your life may take a back seat whilst you’re setting yourself up and aligning your passion with your business model – it can be a long, tough, but rewarding journey. The profits will take time to yield, but don’t give up. Eventually the hard work will pay off.
Your work includes transgender diversity and inclusivity training. What are the biggest challenges organisations face around diversity and inclusivity? What steps can be taken to address these?
I think the biggest challenge is the fear of upsetting redundant policies that have been in place for a long time. Because gender and sex have been viewed as this binary, it’s often considered “safer” to continue seeing them like that. Organisations become complacent and don’t want to embrace diversity because they don’t know how to, they don’t know who to speak to, and it’s seen as a niche area. It’s important to switch things up because in a lot of spaces I’ve worked, I’ve found that many employees are actually very diverse. They just don’t have clear policies or safe spaces in the workplace where they can be who they are.
It’s important for organisations to not be scared, to be innovative, to unlearn what they have learnt about gender, sex, and identity, and to invest in new learnings. They need to bring in consultants, to have conversations, and to look at people’s lived experiences. This research ensures policies are tailored to create space for everyone, including people who are diverse.
You undertake consultancy work around the development of gender diversity policies. Which factors are essential for organisations to consider when creating policies?
When policies are created it’s important to have lived experience. You can have all of the theory under the sun but, without lived experiences, you won’t have an example of how a practical solution might look in terms of your development of policies.
The policies are there to ensure everyone is able to find safety in the workplace, so it’s important to try multiple ways of getting feedback – this could be through anonymous surveys and in-house online courses. These tools allow employees an opportunity to engage. When I delivered training for a global banking organisation, one of the most common questions was: “How can we make space for diverse people?” As life evolves, we need revision and improvement to policies to ensure continued transformation.
You also need intersection of experiences as well, because those catalyse this visibility and transformation in the workplace. When I speak about intersectionality, I’m looking at things like race, gender, and identity expression. To create and implement effective policy requires a collaborative approach with those who do the work, like I do, and those who have lived experiences.
What does good leadership in business look like to you?
Leadership must marry transformation. This is non-negotiable. Good leadership means assuming a holistic approach to interacting and working with people. Good leadership also means being able to be wrong about some ideals you once held as the gospel truth, and a willingness to learn every single day. It’s not for the weak or complacent – leadership is a trait that you must be willing to invest in.
Who inspires you?
Every person who lives their truth in a world that seeks to invalidate them. But if I had to narrow it down to one person it would be my late grandmother. She was someone who was able to evolve in her life, even at 90 years old. We had conversations about me being transgender and she passed no judgements, but reflected and responded in a compassionate way that affirmed me. She told me that I knew myself best, and that she wasn’t going to squash me in a box that wasn’t mine to belong in.
What is the best piece of advice someone has given you?
That life is a journey, and I must trust the timing of how things are unfolding for me. We all get so caught up in wanting the next achievement, and wanting to get where we want to be, and a lot of the time it’s not going to work out how we think it will. That teaches you patience. Everything in your life has a specific time when it will happen, and you need to embrace the beauty of every phase of your life – the good, and even the not so good.
Describe your Sussex experience in three words.
Life-changing, eye-opening and demanding. I mean demanding as a good thing! I think of it in terms of being challenged and having opportunities to break comfortable patterns, to reinvent and to grow.