Bianca Rousseau hadn’t heard of ‘imposter syndrome’ when she first stepped into the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB), but by her account she was certainly racked by it.
It was 2017, and Rousseau was starting the Postgraduate Diploma in Business Management Practice (PGDip) at the UCT GSB. She immediately felt out of place among the young professionals in her class, all bristling with five-star qualifications and confidence. She and her matric certificate paled by comparison, she felt.
“You begin to ask yourself if you’re worthy of being there, if this is the right place for you, if the UCT GSB has actually made the right decision allowing you into this space,” she recalls. “You think you’re not worthy enough, you think you don’t belong.”
But Rousseau, 35, would show the same grit that had stood her in good stead earlier in her life. With no means to afford university, she started working in the hospitality industry the day after finishing her final school exams, saving up money for BCom studies with UNISA. Ultimately, she could only afford one semester, though, after which life and tragedies – including the death of her mother – put the brakes on her studies. Later, she invested the last of her savings into an online short course with Get Smarter and passed with flying colours, despite having to study into the early hours of the morning while nursing a newborn.
The qualification didn’t catapult Rousseau’s career – she was in the IT industry then – to the next level as she had hoped. So a few years later when celebrated tech entrepreneur Luvuyo Rani, a UCT GSB alumnus, told her about the School and its postgraduate diploma programme that accepts people without a degree – provided they can demonstrate on-the-job workplace learning (called recognition of prior learning in academic circles) – she was determined to get in. She cried when she received the acceptance letter, she recalls.
And Rousseau would show herself to be no imposter. When she graduated in 2018, she did so with two class medals to her name.
If the UCT GSB would leave its mark on her, Rousseau would return the favour. Amid domestic challenges, it was the costs of her studies that proved to be the biggest hurdle to overcome. Frustrated that the School offered no scholarships or bursaries for the programme, she convinced her class and the UCT GSB to establish the One on One Fund, committed to raising funding for PGDip students.
“It seemed absurd that there were no bursaries available, especially as the course is a stepping stone for the very kind of person who most needs support – people trying to bridge a gap in their studies, people of colour, mothers: people like me,” she told UCT for an article in 2018.
A crucial element of the One on One Fund was to incorporate mentorship as a founding principle. By chance, Rousseau’s current employer, the African Scholars’ Fund, (led and directed by another UCT GSB alumnus, Eliza James) where she serves as communications manager, similarly includes mentorship support to the school learners it assists.
Rousseau had seen the difference that mentorship made for her classmates. And she benefitted from it first-hand, even though she had to scout for her own mentors in the forms of David McClean of the Henley Business School, and Dr Sianne Alves, director of UCT's Office for Inclusivity and Change.
She believes that mentorship could be even more powerful for adults (and children) of colour and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, she says.
“Yes, the cognitive abilities to succeed are there, but what often undermines people is that imposter syndrome,” Rousseau adds. “Mentorship is that helping hand, someone that says, I was once in the same place that you are now, I recognise your value, and I am willing to help you get yourself into the spaces you dream of occupying.”