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Meet Dr Xandra van Heerden, one of only 7% of women engineers in SA

Despite men and women having equal access to education and work opportunities, there are still several industries in South Africa that are largely dominated by men. One of those, is the science and technology industries.

While a lot is being done to advance women in sciences and to encourage young girls to take an interest in science, the South African science and technology industries are still largely lacking diversity.

In March 2022, it was reported that only 7% of all engineers in South Africa are women. When it comes to empowering women and advancing their presence in particular industries, we often look to government for solutions.

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However, the reality is that a lot can be achieved when private companies take it upon themselves to hire and empower female staff. Skin Rejuvenation Technologies (SRT), the company behind the renowned optiphi skincare brand, is one such business.

Boasting incredible female leadership, the team consists of more than 80% women, many of whom are in senior and managerial positions.

Despite the statistics, South Africa is home to amazing women in science, many of whom are responsible for innovative and cutting-edge skin care technologies. Developed locally, these products compete on an international level, often showcasing innovations that have never been seen before.

Meet Dr Xandra van Heerden

The Citizen spoke to General Manager of Skin Rejuvenation Technologies, Dr Xandra van Heerden to find out what motivates her.

At only 32-years-old, Xandra’s resume rivals that of professionals twice her age.

Xandra has a PhD in Chemical Engineering, and is a former part-time senior lecturer at the University of Pretoria. She says initially she wanted to stay in academia hence the reason for getting her PhD.

Xandra says she has always wanted to study chemical engineering, because it is something you can take into every aspect of business.

Her research at the University of Pretoria in cosmeceutical and biochemical engineering pushed her to leave the world of academia and join a company where she could make a difference in people’s lives.

Before her current role as General Manager at SRT, Xandra joined Medica SA as a research and development engineer, where part of her duties was inventing new technology for wound dressings, etc.

However, only a couple of months later, she was promoted to a managerial position and not long after, the general manager position at Skin Rejuvenation Technologies opened up, and she applied for the job, saying it was a perfect fit as she was really interested in the science behind the products the company makes.

But, what exactly is chemical engineering you might wonder?

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If you had visions of Dexter and Dee-Dee cooking up a new lipstick in their secret laboratory, think again, because Chemical Engineering envelopes a whole spectrum of job descriptions.

Xandra explains that if you have a specific interest, you can draw your Chemical Engineering and your passions together to build something wonderful.

“When you study chemical engineering, the main focus is problem solving. The course includes multiple modules and subjects to teach you critical thinking.

“So, the main focus of a Chemical Engineer in any industry is to analyse processes in businesses, whether it is the financial aspect of it, the making of the products, or the business processes itself – how different departments work, where the gaps are within the various departments and then looking for the problems and analysing them and then finding solutions for those problems.

“Chemical engineering is very broad. The normal idea of chemical engineering is where you go to a big plant like SASOL or Eskom where they make products,” she says.

While this is the idea behind Chemical Engineering, Xandra explains that what they teach you at university during your Chemical Engineering degree, can take you really far. Chemical Engineers can go into software development, because they teach you how to programme, and once again take a problem and a gap in the industry and build something to fill that gap.

Xandra’s number one piece of advice for women working their way to the top is to work hard and to be true to yourself, because if you are passionate about what you are doing, you should pursue your interests and just work hard to proof that you belong there.

When asked what motivates and inspires her, Xandra says she finds her strength in her religion and that God is the one who always motivates her to do better, to be herself and to be the best version of herself.

Xandra’s dream is to take SRT and optiphi global, to grow the company so much that every person in the world knows what optiphi is.

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