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“Don’t stop believing in your ability to succeed!” — Ushantha O’Donnell (Naidoo), PSH Commercial Lead at Zutari, talks success of women in Construction

“Don’t stop believing in your ability to succeed!” — Ushantha O’Donnell (Naidoo), PSH Commercial Lead at Zutari, talks success of women in Construction

Written by Staff Writer

October 25, 2021

By Charndré Emma Kippie


As engineering consultants and trusted advisors, Zutari co-creates impact that enables economies, communities and environments to thrive. Zutari is committed to the implementation of Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE) in South Africa and has been verified as a Level 1 contributor. We speak to Ushantha O’Donnell (Naidoo) about gender empowerment in this industry.


What got you into the field you’re currently in and led you to Zutari?

When I finished my undergrad and entered the workforce, I became slightly disillusioned by the way women were received in the workplace on construction projects. Many of my male counterparts traditionally dismissed my value-add and I found it difficult to earn a seat at the table. Perhaps I was ambitious beyond my experience or perhaps I simply had more to prove. Either way I resolved to find my niche and carve a space for myself by acquiring as much knowledge and experience as possible. My career radically altered its path and its force, the day I met my first mentor on site.

I was about 5 years into my career and not really progressing as I had dreamed to. I still found myself concerned with the mundane tasks of having to prove that I earned a spot as a construction professional. My mentor was a gifted individual, kind and worldly, and he was a bonafide contracts wizard. I discovered a magic within me. He coached me to rise above the ordinary. For 2 years he oversaw my development and inspired me to pursue a specialised Law degree in Scotland. Upon completion I was admitted as a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators in the United Kingdom. I returned with my niche and my passion carved. I owe it all to the power of mentorship.


What excites you the most about your role?

Every day at Zutari, I receive the opportunity to assist project managers and clients to unlock construction contracts and transform quandaries into workable solutions. I thoroughly delight in helping others to see the power of contracting and agreements, and to re-establish the meeting of minds. 


In what ways do you think your organisation/business is enhancing the South African economy?

We at Zutari, are a crucible of solutionists in every field. We are a confluence in which concentrated forces interact to influence change. We don’t just enhance development; we spearhead it through our partnerships with clients, our graduate education and our diversity of leadership. We are committed to reshaping a South African narrative of the future where we thrive in smart cities and are digitally distinct on the African continent. It’s a multiplier effect which enhances the South African economy through our contributions in the field of engineering.


Do you think your field is diverse in terms of gender equality? 

I believe that my field could improve in its diversity and that is why I am personally committed to upholding an environment that is gender diverse through the magic of mentoring. I am an avid mentor and coach within my space and I revel in unlocking the potential of the people around me. 


What are your top 3 tips for ensuring the success of women in your field?

Read, learn, educate others. I charge all women with the duty to uplift just one woman in their sphere of influence. First read and acquire all the knowledge you can muster about your field, commit it to heart. Then continue learning and diversifying your skills, and when you’ve accomplished the first two tasks, pass your knowledge on to another and uplift a woman from where you once stood. Make climbing that ladder easier for the generations to come after you. Don’t stop, ever.


What have been some major obstacles in your career, as a woman, and how did you overcome them?

Perhaps the most perilous obstacle in my career was recognising the social licence to operate. When you’re a woman and also, a  person of colour, you carry within you an internal submissiveness that threatens to undermine your voice when you need to assert yourself. I, myself fall victim to it from time to time, but I’m fortunate to have a lioness of a mentor in my corner once more. She is coaching me to the next level and has unlocked my licence to operate. She is definitely creating a smoother transition for me to ascend that ladder. 


What are your goals for the future?

I hope to continue to make an impact at Zutari. However, my ultimate dream is to write contracts and legislation for when the human race makes it to Mars. There’s a Space Law programme in the United States that I will pursue one day.


What important/life-changing books have you read?

Outliers – The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell


What advice do you have for young women entrepreneurs who aspire to work in your field?

Don’t stop believing in your ability to succeed. Pour all that you have into developing yourself to the highest degree, then pay it forward immediately when the opportunity arises. Be kind to people and fierce about learning.


Ushantha O’Donnell (Naidoo), PSH Commercial Lead at Zutari, is an Arbitrator and has worked in the Construction environment for over a decade. She has gained experience in the civil, commercial construction, and power sectors respectively. Ushantha has intense experience in pre and post tender contract management, and is experienced in drafting complex correspondence as well as compiling, reviewing and commenting on bespoke contracts, GCC, NEC, and FIDIC. Attending to the identification of risks and the mitigation thereto related to contracts is in her field of expertise. Her accreditations include: LLM in Construction Law, PGD in Civil Engineering, and a BSc(Hons) degree in Quantity Surveying.



*For more, check out our bumper 16th edition of the Standard Bank Top Women Leaders publication on Issuu – Digital Publishing Platform – here

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