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Tea With Madiba: Katherine Tweedie

From meeting Nelson Mandela, to studying at Harvard and competing in the World Ironman Championships, one “normal” woman reflects on accomplished dreams, incredible life experiences, and how to do it all.

By: Katherine Tweedie


If you had asked me when I was 12 years old whether I would ever be special enough or smart enough or talented enough to fulfill dreams such as meeting Madiba (Nelson Mandela’s Xhosa clan name by which he is often known), or studying at Harvard, or being the youngest and first female Africa director at Davos, or coming in the top 10 women in my age group at the World Ironman Triathlon Championships in Hawaii, I would have said there’s no way. And when asked how these and other incredible experiences have occurred, like sailing a tiny boat across the Pacific Ocean or working with young women in violence-torn Kibera after the elections in Kenya, I would have to pause and give it some  thought. Perhaps the best answer lies in the perspective I shared recently with a group of young undergraduate women when asked to talk about my career to date.

I believe that my life experiences and career path have come about through a wonderful combination of luck, hard work and steely determination to make a difference in the world, seasoned with a sense of passion, adventure and belief that I will survive even when stepping through the terrifying doors of the unknown. I was also blessed with  incredible parents and grandparents who provided vast quantities of love and support while instilling in me a keen sense of responsibility, imagination, respect for others and belief in social justice.

In being asked to give career advice to these young girls, I had to think carefully about my answer. Be safe and play by the conventional rules or be a rebel? So I talked from the heart as though speaking frankly to my future daughter and this is what I said.

BE INQUISITIVE.

Never stop your quest and passion for learning and exploring. Travel as much as you can and try going off the beaten track every once in a while. Sit next to the odd-looking person at the dinner party. Sometimes the most unlikely encounters transform your life.

MOVE THE GOAL POSTS.

We are so often constrained by what we think is normal. Sometimes you have to ask the question, “What if I make the impossible part of my everyday?” Training and racing an Ironman triathlon was a perfect example. Winning was another matter.

PEOPLE THAT CHANGE THE WORLD ARE NORMAL PEOPLE.

They just happen to be passionate, talented or in the right place at the right time. At Davos, I had the opportunity to meet many of the iconic leaders of today’s world. I guarantee you that they are all human, and they all worry about exactly the same things each one of us do. There is nothing stopping you from being “a leader” other than your own fear of failure.

DO WHAT YOU LOVE AND WHAT YOU ARE GOOD AT.

If you don’t know, then start by ticking off what you dislike and what you are not good at (but even then, don’t let that stop you). I thought I couldn’t do math in high school and I ended up in a career that uses numbers every day.

CREATE A TWO-WAY SUPPORT NETWORK.

As a woman leader, there is nothing more important. It may be family, friends or an incredible partner. You can’t do it all and do it alone.

BE OPEN TO THE UNKNOWN.

I graduate from Harvard next month. As of yet I don’t know what is next. But as I mentioned, walking into the unknown is one of the most powerful things you can do. It may just result in tea with one of your favorite people in the world.


Katherine Tweedie is currently a Mason Fellow and Mid-Career MPA Candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She was formerly the first female Director and Head of Africa for the World Economic Forum following an earlier career in investment banking and private equity. Katherine holds several Board and advisory positions focused on African development. She is a three-time age group Ironman Triathlon champion as well as a top 10 finisher in the World Championships in Hawaii. She holds both South African and Canadian citizenship and is married to a Mexican economist. She currently has no fixed address.