After Aniqah Deers graduates with an Executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA) on 15 December, she’ll have one last order of business: to visit her mother’s gravesite to tell her that she has obtained the degree that’s been 13 years in the making.
“Around 2010, I’d enrolled to do my master’s, but seven months in, I fell pregnant with twins,” Aniqah, who is the head of branding and campaigns at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Communication and Marketing Department (CMD) said. “I had a high-risk pregnancy, so I had to quit. I recall how supportive my mom was. She said to me, ‘Don’t worry; you’ll get there again.’ She’d always encouraged me to go back and do my master’s – 11 years later, with her encouragement and support, I got to do that.”
In 2021, during the first year of Aniqah’s EMBA, her mother, Nafiesa, passed away. At the time, Aniqah was mom to twin boys on the cusp of adolescence and working full time at CMD, where she’s been serving as the head of branding and campaigns for four years. To top it all, she’d begun her studies slap bang in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was “a crazy time” to say the least.
“I knew that if I was successful, my sons would reap the benefits of that success.”
“I’d thought about quitting the programme because I was completely distraught when she left us,” Aniqah said of the woman who had been “a constant” in her life. Still, she pushed on, and submitted her thesis in time, ironically on her mom’s birthday, on 10 December last year.
Yet the cord that tethers Aniqah’s academic journey to her mother is stronger still – not only did she dedicate her dissertation to her mom, but it was inspired by her too.
“My thesis was about how mothers influence their daughters academically and in their career progression, specifically the daughter who chooses to have a career or pursue her own level of self-defined success,” Aniqah explained. “My mother was respectful, calm, sweet and strong. She never said to me, ‘I want you to study’ or ‘I want you to stay home and raise your children.’ She was supportive no matter what I’d decided on or wanted out of life.”
For her research, she interviewed various women who defined success differently: one whose achievements was defined by her ability to raise her children; another who was the sole breadwinner and perceived success as being able to offer her family financial stability; and a woman who didn’t have a very good relationship with her mother growing up, yet viewed their relationship as something positive.
“The one thing that was constant, regardless of circumstance, was that when a mother exerts a positive influence, her daughter is able to achieve the same career progression as someone who is formally supported by an employer,” Aniqah noted. “With the support of her mother, a daughter is more able to overcome status quo issues or social and economic issues, racism, gender disparity – all the things that usually place women on an unequal footing.”
That finding was profound: “I think a lot of women would have guessed it, but I was fortunate enough to prove it.”
The mother of all challenges
Aniqah nonchalantly mentioned that she has always been studying something or other – and this is no exaggeration. After completing an undergraduate diploma in marketing at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), she did a BTech in Marketing, also at CPUT. Two years later, she obtained a degree in project management from Varsity College; this was followed by a postgraduate diploma from the UCT Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB), specialising in innovative leadership, and finally her EMBA.
So, what drives her? “In my professional capacity, I realised there was more to it than just specialising in a specific type of acumen,” Aniqah said. “It’s about learning how to expand on the skill set that I already have – how can I have a wider range of conversation, so that it’s not rooted specifically in what I know?”
As for the EMBA, she added, “I’d always known that I wanted to study marketing, but I wanted to merge the psychology of the brain with the psychology of business.”
“Once I had a plan in my head, I was committed to sticking to it.”
The next obvious question is how – as a wife, mother and a nine-to-five employee – did she manage to complete a master’s on time?
“Consistency was 100% the key,” she said unflinchingly. “Once I had a plan in my head, I was committed to sticking to it. For example, I’d dedicate three Sundays a month to my studies, and on the fourth Sunday, it was up to my boys or my husband to decide what we should do for the day.”
Understandably, there were times when her children weren’t entirely happy with the new routine, which often left Aniqah feeling guilty, especially because her sons were at a critical age, moving from tween to teen, and needing more emotional support.
“There probably wasn’t a fair balance of time between myself and my sons,” she said. “But I knew that at the end of the two-year timeline, they would ultimately benefit. I knew that if I was successful, they would reap the benefits of that success.”
Sources of strength
No doubt, a strong support structure also saw Aniqah to the finish line. Apart from her mom and her sister, who have always been there for her, she is also grateful to her supervisor, Jenny McDonogh, “for always leading her in the right direction”, as well as an EMBA alumnus and successful woman in her own right who served as a mentor.
“We had never met, yet she gave freely of her time, as often as I needed it, when I was feeling extremely vulnerable,” Aniqah said.
She reserves special mention for the women who agreed to be interviewed for her dissertation.
“They didn’t have to tell me any of the things that went on in their lives, yet [were it not for the research questions], I don’t think they would have acknowledged the power in their journey. It’s almost something that’s expected of you as a woman: you’re expected to sacrifice, put yourself last, put your career on hold, put everything on hold for the sake of others. I don’t think that they fully acknowledged the role they play, if not in their own success, then in the success of others.”
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