She's a successful businesswoman who owns two companies focused on the wine production industry in South Africa and wine exports and distribution in the rest of Africa, but Natasha Boks will be the first to tell you, she did not get there on her own.
On Thursday, 24 October, Natasha will be the guest speaker at the Careers Café hosted by the Alumni Relations division in the Arts building on the corner of Merriman and Ryneveld Street between 13:00 and 14:00. If you are an undergraduate or postgraduate student and wish to attend the event, please visit http://bit.ly/BoksCareersCafe3 to reserve your seat or contact Marvin Koopman at firstname.lastname@example.org by Wednesday, 23 October.
“I grew up in Cloetesville in Stellenbosch and my biggest role models and supporters were my mom and my dad. They were the people who would push me against all the odds. They were my cheerleaders and encouraged me to be proud of who I was and celebrate my individuality. Neither of them had finished school, but they taught me that your environment does not dictate where you go in life," says Natasha.
Further support came from her teachers at Cloetesville High School, specifically a married couple who both taught at the school, Mr and Mrs Rogers – the latter her Geography teacher.
“Mr and Mrs Rogers imparted a lot of values on me when it came to education. When I was a learner, they encouraged me to always strive for more in life and to always do my best and once I went to university, they would call to find out how I was doing and how my studies were going. They also bought all the textbooks I required for my first year at university when my parents did not have the money to do so."
Whether there was money or not, Natasha says that it was always a given for her parents that she would go to university. Academically, she excelled at school and even held leadership positions as head girl in primary and high school. While in Grade 10, she came across a programme, the South African Innovation Learning Initiative (SAILI), which was presented at Stellenbosch University, and assisted learners with improving their marks in specific subjects to gain entry into the study programmes they wished to pursue. Natasha enrolled and gave up every Saturday for the next two years to attend the programme to ensure she would get into SU.
“I realised then that no one was going to help me get to my goals, I had to commit and do the work myself."
By the time she had completed the programme, she was accepted for a BSc Molecular Biology degree and registered in 2002. Midway in her first year, her father lost his job. Natasha admits she thought of quitting because she did not want to add to the financial strain at home. But her dad and her elder brother would have none of it. Her dad started a home-based business while her brother contributed what he could from his salary.
However, a year later, Natasha realised that BSc Molecular Biology was not the right fit for her. As much as she was an introvert, she also enjoyed working with people and this specific degree would most likely confine her to a laboratory.
The question was, what to study next. “I loved geography when I was in school and I knew I wanted to pursue a career that would involve me working in nature," she says.
In 2003, she made the shift to focus on winemaking instead and choose to change her degree to Bsc (Agriculture) Oenology and Viticulture. It was the perfect combination of applying science in the winemaking process, provided her with an opportunity to be outdoors, and to interact with other people. However, her change in programme was not met with initial enthusiasm from her parents.
“They were not happy, especially my mother. My dad's grandmother was an alcoholic and she died because of alcoholism, so anything related to alcohol was a taboo for my family in general. But eventually my mother came around."
“It was also a challenge to adapt to a new environment. I was one of six people of colour in my Agriculture class, but at least I could speak Afrikaans. Many of my fellow classmates of colour couldn't and they struggled. I had also never interacted with anyone outside my own race and while I had grown up with Stellenbosch University in my home town, it was still a foreign place to me. Even hanging out in town was something new to me. So yes, it was an adjustment, in particular the social part."
“But I am not one to shy away from a challenge. My parents raised me to speak my mind. I told myself, 'this is where you need to be, you know who you are and if you need to ask for help you do that, because the only thing people could say is no'."
She adds: “It is important to be true to who you are in situations like that. You have to understand your value and the value you add to the lives of others and in the greater scheme of things, because if you don't, you'll try to be someone else to fit in."
For the next three years, despite numerous challenges, Natasha pushed through with bursaries received from NSFAS, SAWIT and the Department of Agriculture.
On 24 October, Natasha will share her life story and career journey and reflect on how she ended up working for Distell, specifically two of South Africa's top wine brands – Nederburg and Zonnebloem – and progressed from assistant wine maker to head winemaker with the support of some of the country's best wine makers.
The Careers Café series was launched in 2016 by the Alumni Relations Office to provide a platform for alumni to engage with the university in a different manner by offering their time and skills to help current students prepare for the careers they want.
For more information about the Careers Café, follow the Alumni Relations Facebook page at www.facebook.com/stellenboschalumni and the SU Facebook page at www.facebook.com/stellenboschuniversity. To attend, RSVP at http://bit.ly/BoksCareersCafe3 or contact Marvin Koopman at email@example.com by Wednesday, 23 October.