Notsile Lindelwa Dube: “My experiences are of value to a lot of people: that makes me happy.”



Math vs. Medicine

I was born in the Kingdom of Swaziland (since 2018 – the Kingdom of Eswatini). It's a small country in Southern Africa. I'm from a huge family. Until I was 14 years old, I lived with my maternal family and spent most of my time with my grandmother. I had a younger brother by then, so she was helping my mom to raise us. Granny was a businesswoman: together with my grandpa, a senator of Swaziland at that time, they owned a huge transportation company. So every day after school I would have to go to my grandmother's office, because she had to finish some things, and then we could go home. I would watch her every day counting money and making managing decisions. I guess I acquired a lot of financial skills through this process.

I was a very socialized kid in my childhood, I had many friends, and we loved to build stuff: for example, we made tiny robots. I remember how I would open the PlayStation controller to see what was inside, disassemble it, and put the details together again. So, you would think that I would then go for engineering from these interests, but unfortunately, I did not develop my interest in technics in the future. I completed school in South Africa – my parents had sent me there to finish my studies because they believed that this country had more opportunities for higher education than Swaziland.

After I finished grade 12, there was a huge debate about my career choice between my parents and me. My parents are medicins: dad is a dentist, and mom was a nurse at that time. They wanted me to go into Medicine, but I refused to do so. They considered it to be a secure job because after finishing university in Swaziland or the Republic of South Africa, you definitely could find a job. In my turn, I have always thought that one should not go for Medicine without a passion for it. I didn't have that passion, and I wanted to do anything involving money and calculations, which was math. My parents did not support my idea because they assumed that studying Mathematics would only allow me to teach it.

My parents' arguments seemed unconvincing for me also because their advice was based on their professional experience in medicine. They didn't have any expertise in math. I don't think it came easy for them to accept the fact that I was choosing this path that they disapproved of. It was also hard for them to allow me to go so far away, despite my dad studying in many different countries, including China, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. Luckily, my aunt's husband schooled me about other professional patterns. My question to him was: “How can I make money?” And he said: “Medicine is definitely not the way to go for it unless you're the president's doctor. ” There was a car dealership near his house in Johannesburg that sold really expensive cars like Lamborghinis and Ferraris, so he said to me “You see that garage over there? Doctors do not buy from there”. He told me to consider things like Investment management and the likes. I decided to go with his logic because we had the same thinking path and decided to presume a math degree.

Because of the long dispute with my parents, I ended up not being able to apply for what I wanted to in South Africa on time – applications were closed. So I had to now look at the universities outside. The most obvious options were countries with relevant relationships with Swaziland, Canada, and China. But a friend of mine told me about Russia, where she was studying at that time. Before then, I had never heard of this country, so the first question I asked her, was: “You're where? Where's that?” She told me about her experience in Tambov, where she lived and studied, and explained the application procedure. I started to gain interest, began to read about Russia, and that is how I discovered all the stereotypes about Russia, which are on the Internet: all these things about bears, vodka, and racism.

I ended up applying to the universities in China, Canada, and Russia, and the first country to respond was precisely Russia. When I went to my parents with this, I got a big 'NO.' I guess it's because they were also aware of the stereotypes about Russia. I started to process my documents regardless, but when it came to payment, I had to try talking to them again because who would pay for the tuition? I started negotiating with my parents again: I had to do a lot of persuading, and it took a long time to get them to be on board. Their final verdict was: “We will help you now with your finances and everything, but if things don't work out in Russia, we are not taking the responsibility. Plan B is on you.” I said: OK, deal. They paid for the tuition and flight, and then I went to Russia.


Big city lights

I went to Tambov through Moscow. As I moved away from the capital, all these big buildings and big flashy lights started to disappear. I was like: “What's happening to the lights?” I spent a year in Tambov, learning the Russian language. It was an exciting experience, and I liked it, but I felt that the opportunities in this little city were limited, so I decided to find ways to go to the capital city, Moscow. One day we were on the bus with my friends. One Russian overheard us speaking English and tried to talk with us. Russians like to hear foreigners speaking English and then try to practice their English by conversing with them. So he started to communicate with us in English. In the end, we became close friends with him.

He started to help me move to Moscow. I told him I wanted to do something related to actuarial sciences, and we began to look for universities in Moscow that had this. But we couldn't find actuarial sciences on its own, and there was the option to do applied math and then specialize in it. But not on its own, it was mixed with things like operations research, etc. Initially, I wanted to go to MSU, but my friend suggested enrolling at the People's Friendship University of Russia. He helped me to apply, and I passed. There I spent 4 years doing my BSc in applied math and computer science. But still, I felt I wasn't exposed to job opportunities in this country with that academic experience. Again I started to look for a way to go to MSU, and finally, I got in. I received my MSc in applied math and computer science there.

During my second year at MSU, I was considering going back home as I understood that it was not easy to get employed in Russia, especially when you are not a citizen, and the whole procedure of getting citizenship was really difficult and long. But in October 2017 for the first time, I got a job offer in Russia. Moscow Economic School approached me – they needed a math teacher. But after the job interview, they disappeared and showed again in May 2018. That Spring, I was to finish my education at MSU, and they knew about it. At the same time, I got another job offer from the WorldQuant investment firm. I compared the salaries and decided to choose Moscow Economic School, as their offer was better. I did get job offers from South Africa and Swaziland, too, but I did not want to go back to Africa at the time.

I worked at MES for two years. Teaching is kind of a tricky profession because it is based on repetition. I really enjoyed it during the first year because I had to learn many new things and perfect specific skills. But in the second year, I realized that I had to repeat the same thing that I was doing before, and I started to get bored. I thought I would work for three years maximum, but after a few unpleasant situations, I decided to quit earlier than that, on top of the fact that I felt that I was not innovative. I decided to quit in October 2020. In November, I got an offer from PricewaterhouseCoopers. After passing their tests and interviews, it turned out that PwC couldn't do the visa for me because it was really complicated, and there was the Covid situation. They told me that they usually go out of their way for higher management. So, they had to withdraw the offer. They suggested that I either get the Russian residency or continue studying.

The easiest path is to continue studying because simultaneously, I can focus on getting the residency. I started thinking about where and what I could study. I didn't want to do a Ph.D. since I felt that four years would be too much. Then I remembered about NES. In February 2019, I already began the application process but didn't manage to prepare for the entrance exam in April because I understood it required a lot of studying. My friend, who studied there, inspired me to come to NES. He was studying there back when I was at MSU, and he is now working for Goldman Sachs. We made friends with him when I was in MSU. His stories provoked my interest so much that I decided to enter NES as well: let's just take the exam and see where it will lead me, I was thinking. It took me a year to study for this entrance exam. In June, I tried to pass the exam and didn't do well the first time. But I retook it, and this attempt was successful. That is how I ended up here, at NES.


Always having a plan B 

When I started learning Economics, I didn't expect it to be so hard: especially if you have no background in it, which I hadn't. You have to go the extra mile than others who finished a 4-year Bachelor in Economics. Of course, mathematical subjects, like probability and statistics, are more manageable. But all other things are like aliens to me. And I'm still trying to figure out what is going on. Studying at NES is much more difficult for me in comparison with other universities, but I really like that it's extremely challenging to study here. Since I went to Russia all I wanted was this feeling of a challenge in education. It pushes you, and it pushes your abilities to the maximum. You can't give half, you have to give everything or you don't give anything at all. MSU was like this too, but at least I was trained for four years before going there.

Between all the specializations that NES offers right now, I have explicitly chosen Economics and not Finance because this area will help me develop the skills I need right now. I recently launched a startup in real estate in South Africa, so I want to understand how to grow it. Not every business you start works out. What happens if it doesn't? You should always have a plan B. I know that I can never go wrong with a degree in Economics because economists are in demand in many companies since they study how we think and make certain decisions, investments, and purchases. I didn't know that science does this, to be honest. It's fascinating to find myself in this position. I wasn't expecting it.

One thing that I fell in love with so far in NES is the unbelievable support I get here. Now I am studying remotely: due to Covid restrictions, I am temporarily located in South Africa. I haven't even met a single person physically in NES, but every single person here – from my classmates to my professors – gives me so much support as if they have known me for a long time. In Russia, that is not a frequent situation: people often don't know how to act with a person who is different from them. I had the same support at MSU because I was the only African there. They were supportive, but not to this extent.

Anytime I need help in I can get it in NES. They are there: we make appointments, we have ZOOM calls, and they will explain whatever they need to explain to me. Everyone here, including professors, understands that it's not easy to study online, so they try to help as much as possible. It's a fantastic thing. I can't wait to be in this atmosphere in Moscow. I feel it online, and I'm sure it's gonna be even better when I am offline. So I really can't wait to meet everybody.

After graduating from NES, plans for the future are still very difficult for me to formulate, particularly because of the pandemic. I would like to see my business grow – that's my goal for now. Of course, I guess getting this degree done and learning as much as I can from it. My family members frequently ask, “Where are you going to settle?” They want to know whether I am coming back to South Africa or staying in Russia. I've spent so much time in Russia, I feel comfortable here. I will come back to Africa, when I need to come back, I don't know when. For now, I want to be based here, in Russia. After completing my studies at NES, I plan to stay here a little bit and then return to Africa but with homes in both places.


Easy to quit, hard to stay

My main role model is my grandmother. I have already said that I used to spend a lot of time with her in my childhood at her office. But I haven't mentioned that she would change and go to the garden when we got home, and I had to do the same thing. She always had work to do. This work ethic came from her a lot, so I grew up with the mentality that you always have to work to get what you want. My second role model is my mom because she has always done everything it took to make sure I had everything I needed. She taught me what it means to always put your children first. She is actually the reason for my dad, brothers, and my success because she took us all to school. She sacrificed her life to give us a better one, so she basically used up all she had to push us instead of herself. I find such selflessness extremely incredible.

Finally, I would say “me”, because I also look up to myself a lot. I'm one person who praises myself a lot when I achieve something. I encourage myself during dark days and talk myself out of certain things that I feel are leading us astray. I will sometimes look at myself and say: “You know, I'm so proud of you! You doing really well. Keep it up!” And if something didn't work out or is wrong, I will say to myself: “This is not OK, or you are still in the same position. You need to move forward in one way or another.” I am my own motivation. I am very sensitive towards changes in my life, I like to see myself evolve if I can say that, and if I am not evolving, I start to get into this depression of trying to figure out how I am going to get out of this.

A lot of famous people inspire me, too. I look up to Oprah Winfrey a lot, I look up to Elon Mask as well. Especially Elon, because he is from South Africa, and he went outside and built a life in another country, which is not easy. When you achieve that much, it means you worked hard. Jeff Besos and all these successful people also inspire me: you gain a lot from reading their life stories. And then I had a lot of ancient role models who fought for something they believed in. I would give an example of Madame C.J. Walker, who was the first self-made Afroamerican woman to make a fortune of 1 million dollars, and Mary Curie, who discovered radioactivity.

Their stories have encouraged me a lot as I have the exact same attitude towards life. You would agree with me that it's easy to be like: “No, this is too hard and I am going home”, or “This is too hard for me, I don't want to do this anymore.” It's easy to quit. And I've been put in situations like that a lot in Russia, where it was just really hard, and if it were someone else, they probably would leave, not willing to continue struggling. Now I feel that I have become a role model for a lot of Africans, who see that actually, it is possible to get employed in Russia, it is possible to enter top universities here, it is possible to overcome certain situations, etc. Now I am a reference for them and many others. It makes me happy because it means that my experience is of value.

I love reading. I like to read books on human psychology and the way people think. I am susceptible to people and their feelings. I need to understand how to communicate with them and what happens when people enter your space, how do you make them feel comfortable, based on their characters and the way they think. It's even a very good business advantage, but I do it for personal reasons. I also read books on math, science, and business, and now economics, as I've entered this club. To get rest, I go to a swimming pool –– I love swimming. It was torturous for me when all the gyms and swimming pools were closed during the lockdown in Moscow. So in my spare time in Moscow, you can find me at the pool or at home, reading a book.


Invest in yourself 

What advice would I give to my younger self, a 17-year old girl who had just arrived in Russia? Well, I can't say work hard, because I've always worked hard. I would say: “Focus on yourself.” When I was young, I concentrated and spent so much of my energy on other people and their expectations of me. And when I look back now, I regret that time I wasted doing those things and not focusing on myself. Now I realize how useless it was because it did not positively impact my life. So to that Nono, I would say: “You need to focus on yourself and invest a lot of time in you and your personal development.” Also, I would recommend that she enjoy life and balance it with important decisions.

I also recall advice, which my grandmother gave us all in the family. My favorite was: “If you want to do things well, do them yourself.” She hated sending someone to do something for you, and she hated passing your responsibility onto someone else. She was really against this habit. Over time, I can see the importance of this advice. And second, she loved to say: “Even if you have nothing to do, find something to do.” She didn't like to see you sitting down and doing nothing. So if she found you lazying around, she would give you something to do. She was a real workaholic, and I guess it transpired to everybody in our family. When I look at all of the people who grew up around her, I see that we have the same spirit and think alike. I think she would be proud to see how far we've come.

Granny passed away in 2016, and later I dedicated my book Life of an African in Russia: 'A long letter to my grandmother' in memory of her. That time I was studying at MSU, and I felt like I needed to tell her more about my life in Russia as if we were still in touch. So this book started as letters to her: I would write some small letters, telling her about my day, describing what was going on during the day. And then I was like: wow, there are so many letters, let me just make this book. And then every day I would write, and of course, I had to get some things from the archives in my mind about my childhood in Africa. This book also describes my relocation to Russia and all the challenges I had to overcome here as a foreigner: things like the language barrier, the weather, and all other things you have to get along with.

I have lived in Russia for more than 10 years, and of course, during this period I managed to adapt all the features of life in this country. And if I were to compare Russia with Russia I arrived in 10 years ago, there is a huge difference. Now it is a much more open country, people are more friendly. Now I want to add the experience at NES to my book. I hope I can publish its edited edition.