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Common Purpose / 29 August 2023
Lauryn Mwale wrote an entire book in tandem with her university degree. This one key leadership trait got her through
Sometimes, the greatest opportunities appear by coincidence - the next move is yours to take.
“Life is a series of fun coincidences”, says Lauryn Mwale, published author, activist, mathematics graduate, and winner of our 25Under25 Award.
It’s quite the list of credentials, especially for a person under the age of 25, but Lauryn is firm on her line: Sometimes, the greatest opportunities to make your voice heard appear by coincidence, the only thing that’s in your control is what you intentionally do with that opportunity.
Lauryn was confronted with an issue at 18 years of age, and she’s now turned this into a huge part of her life’s work, and has subsequently become a leader because of it.
As she began studying mathematics at the University of Edinburgh in 2017, she realised that she, a young Black woman from Lusaka, Zambia, was part of a concerningly small minority of Black women who study, and then go on to work in STEM.
“It was really jarring and surprising,” she tells us. “The professors were like, ‘Look around the theatre, this is your graduation class,’ and I was like, ‘Oh! Okay, this is what the next four years is going to be.’
“Sometimes it didn’t matter at all and sometimes it was really isolating to be someone who was Black and female.”
With an ever-curious growth mindset and desire to understand the ‘why’, Lauryn began researching this problem – and she never stopped.
“After I found this first statistic, only 2.9 per cent of STEM degrees go to Black women, it spoke to what I looked around and saw. So, 55 million Googles later, combined with a long-standing desire to write, I had produced 20,000 words through my research.”
An affiliate of Lauryn’s pointed out to her that 20,000 words was no small feat, and if she could reach 50,000 words, it would “basically be a book”.
In what she describes as a “funny coincidence”, Lauryn had already joined a writing club in an attempt to motivate herself to keep going: “I decided I needed help. I needed people to ask me about my progress. I needed community.”
This experimental action, a core part of the intentional leadership framework she was building for herself, turned out to be a game-changer. Someone in the writing group happened to have a connection to a publishing company who were able to give Lauryn advice. It eventually resulted in a hybrid deal whereby Lauryn owned the copyright, but she also had a publisher who was thrilled to publish her words into a book, The Shuri Effect: Bridging the Gap for Young Black Women in STEM.
“I was answering a question that I desperately wanted to answer. I would be sitting in these lecture halls feeling really panicked and isolated. I just didn’t get it - I believe that there could have been thousands of other Black women like me, or people from marginalised communities who could also have been in that room, but they just weren’t.
“All this research I did was really driven by my own desire to answer a question that had really been bothering me, and turning those Googles into chapters was really fun, because I like writing.”
While Lauryn’s humbleness is a lesson for everyone, what really set her apart was having an intentional mindset – a core principle of leadership – to do something about an issue she felt strongly about.
Her journey has encompassed three essential elements that all intentional leaders must practice: Experimentation, having a growth mindset, and having a strong sense of purpose.
“When I was asked to expand the 20,000 words, I could have psyched myself out and felt that I wasn’t capable. But I took that request seriously and continued learning more, and writing more so that I could help others understand this issue, and to allow them to go out and learn more about it. Now when I get asked to talk about this topic, I keep putting my hand up. I keep allowing this to be an adventure.”
An adventure it is; Lauryn is frequently asked to speak to groups of people to educate them on the lack of representation of Black women in STEM, and to help inform and engage with their perspectives on this issue. And while her extensive research and knowledge has well and truly made her an authority and leader in the space, she is also acutely aware of her own limitations.
“As a leader, I think if you are the best person to speak to topic A, speak passionately and emphatically about that topic, and allow all the best people to talk about topics B, C and D. Recognise and create extra space for those people to occupy where it’s needed, only then can you feel assured that your audience is getting all of the information they need.”
That, along with all those timely coincidences throughout Lauryn’s journey, has made all the difference. That’s intentional leadership in action.