The Disruptors: ‘Below Deck’ Star Tumi Mhlongo Is Unapologetically Dominating The World Of Yachting


Fred Jagueneau/Bravo

The Disruptors is a series done each Women’s History Month that highlights Black women shaking up industries and spaces we’re commonly not found in, and opening doors for other Black women and girls in the process.

In her inaugural season as chief stewardess, Below Deck: Mediterranean star Tumi Mhlongo made Bravo history. In the franchise’s eleven-year run, a Black woman has never served in the role – until now.

For context, a chief stewardess, or chief stew, is “the head of the interior of the vessel or superyacht responsible for the upkeep, interior team and delivering 7-star service to guests,” Mhlongo tells ESSENCE.

A social media manager by trade, Tumi first became intrigued by the yachting industry after being introduced to the nautical world by a friend.

“I was working at a photographic agency running their social media accounts, then I had heard of yachting from colleagues and friends of mine,” shares the Johannesburg, South Africa native. “It interested me, as I wanted to continue traveling the world. I had been lucky enough to have traveled in my early years and I felt like I wasn’t done. I still had the travel bug.”

After making up her mind, Mhlongo sought out the necessary certifications, which consisted of STCW 95 (Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers) courses. “That includes all the training you will need to be qualified to work on a vessel,” explains Mhlongo of the entry-level certification required to begin working at sea. From there, the yachtie-turned-television-personality worked her way up the ladder, eventually landing her role as chief stew.

Now known for her interior decorating expertise, the hospitality maven’s South African roots shine through each setting and charter. Of course, her tenure in a leadership capacity in the yachting industry, which white men predominately run, is not without its share of challenges. Mhlongo confesses that she sometimes finds her subordinates grappling with her position as chief stew.

“It has been an interesting journey. I knew it was never going to be easy. I was warned by some of my friends in the industry about it,” shares Mhlongo. “Already being a white female in a male space is hard [enough], but being a Black female is a whole other ball game. Already there are not [many] people of color in the industry, so it almost startles them when they have a Black superior.”

The Disruptors: ‘Below Deck’ Star Tumi Mhlongo Is Unapologetically Dominating The World Of Yachting
Courtesy of subject: Getty/Bravo/WWHL

Additionally, holding down a coveted post in the hospitality industry with much of her job being televised, also has attracted internet critics. Amongst the loudest detractors have been those who pegged Mhlongo as a diversity hire.

“I’m just tired of the narrative,” Mhlongo expressed during an October appearance on Watch What Happens Live. “I’ve just had it. When you work so hard to be where you are and then that gets discredited because of your race, it’s just offensive. It’s disgusting. I draw the line.”

Sadly, her experience is not unique, and like many Black women making strides in industries where their presence is rare, the Johannesburg native tells Essence that there are moments when imposter syndrome creeps in.

“I sometimes do have imposter syndrome from time to time,” she confesses, “but I have recognized what fuels it. It’s from people’s perceptions and opinions and those should never matter, so it is a work in progress.”

Despite the criticism, Mhlongo has carved out a life that many only dream about.

“The travel, money, and experiences,” she lists when quizzed about the best parts of her job. “You really are experiencing places like no other. I have been to places where you can only get there on a yacht or boat. I have been to members-only islands or [places] where [only] the ultra-elite go, [locations where] the yacht has to be a certain distance away from shore unless you have authorization from the island.”

Of course, to whom much is given, much is required. As for the not-so-glamorous parts of the job, she cited a “lack of privacy, being away from your family, not being able to plan birthdays, dinner, vacations in advance because you’re basically always on call.”

For those looking to break into the luxurious world of yachting, the chief stew recommends that hopefuls first examine their “why.”

“First write down why you want to join yachting,” she says, “and make sure you have a purpose. I can’t stress this enough.”

And while there is limited diversity in the yachting industry, on paper, the barriers to entry are minimal.

“In terms of credentials, I didn’t have much hospitality background myself besides hostess work for many years and working as a social media manager for a couple of restaurants,” she says. “But if you have any bartending, waitressing, or hospitality-based experience, it will help tremendously. There are tons of 18-year-olds fresh out of high school who have landed jobs, so anything is possible.”

That said, phrases like “limited diversity” are no longer a deterrent for driven Black women like Mhlongo pursuing their dreams. She, and many women like her, continue to shatter the glass ceilings that have been carefully architected to keep us in “our places.” We’re going after positions we’re qualified to step into and having an impact — regardless of whether people want us there or not.

To learn more about obtaining STCW 95 certification, click here.


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