Female CEOs have a responsibility to help other women to rise to the top of their fields and to ensure that there is a pipeline of female talent working up the ranks of their companies.
That's one of the key takeaways from a recent Connecting Africa interview with MTN Liberia CEO Uche Ofodile, who talked to us about the role leaders should play to empower more women in Africa, among other things.
She is American by birth but has lived in Africa since 2002 and has held high level roles in Ghana, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) before taking on the role of CEO of MTN Liberia in April 2018.
She may be one of very few female CEO's at telcos on the continent but sees her position as a powerful platform to help other women get into the industry.
Ofodile spoke to me about her passion for empowering women and how she is using social media to promote mentorship and to inspire women to embrace the opportunities around them.
Paula Gilbert (PG): I know you had a lot of interesting high-profile roles and you've lived in lots of different countries across Africa. So, what was the path that led you to this role at MTN?
Uche Ofodile, MTN Liberia CEO.
Uche Ofodile (UO) : I like to think my path is quite interesting. I was born and raised in the United States and I worked there for a number of years before moving to Nigeria. I was quite lucky because when I moved to Nigeria GSM was just coming up. I ended up working for one of the companies that had been granted a GSM license, that was my first job in Nigeria. I came in as a brand manager and I was really excited about the opportunity to learn the business from the ground up. Prior to that I hadn't worked in telecommunications, I'd worked in non-profits and also the financial industry. It was a really exciting time, once GSM came, it just opened up the world to Nigeria and Nigeria to the world. It was exciting to be a part of that.
PG: Liberia is a country people maybe don't know that much about. So, what is the telecoms market like there and what is MTN's strategy for growth?
UO: It's a country of 5 million people. It was the first country to become independent in Africa, so it has a really long history. We know Liberia from what we see on the news and you hear some of the things that happened to Liberia in the past. But there's so much beauty in the country and the people are such a resilient people. In Liberia MTN is one of two players, our competitor is Orange. I think the market is still underserved in terms of data. The way that MTN sees its opportunity there, it's really about driving a digital future. We have a very strong mobile money business, we were first to launch, and we've been really pushing that very aggressively.
Very much like you've seen in other parts of Africa, we see the importance of driving internet usage in the country, and the impact that can have. One of our big goals is driving data usage. We've had a phenomenal year so far in terms of bringing new digital customers onto the network. We have also been very aggressive in terms of building out a 4G network.
PG: You are one of very few female leaders in this kind of space. What's it like being in this industry that is so male dominated?
UO: It's a very interesting question because on the one hand, it is male dominated and the statistics speak to that, but on the other hand I also see the there's been progress. In Ghana, in the last couple of years there have been three female CEOs of major telcos. Airtel had a female CEO and so did Tigo and Vodafone, I'm not sure that's happened anywhere in the world, so that's amazing. I definitely think that in some countries, there's acceleration and in others we still have a lot of work to do. Overall the industry is still male dominated and it's going to take a lot of work to fix that.
We all talk about women leadership, but the glass ceiling starts way before the management level, we really need to start looking more at the pipeline coming in. That has to be a very deliberate approach and has to start from when people are walking into the job force. To ensure that we are keeping an eye on female talent and creating avenues for them to take that first step and go all the way through. I think MTN is taking this quite seriously. I joined in 2018 and less than 18 months later, there's another female CEO on-board. I suspect that there will be more announcements going forward.
PG: So, do you think there's enough space for women in this industry?
UO: Absolutely. What we need is for more young girls to look at studying STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] related fields. I don't have a STEM background, by the way, so I'm not saying that that's the only way to come in. But we certainly need more women in that space because at the end of the day technology is driving all of our conversations. We need more women, not just from a CEO point of view, but from a product point of view and from how we design. We need to be having those conversations much earlier. But there is room.
It's really important for people to understand that when we speak about women empowerment or leadership, it's not about reducing for others. It's about adding to the table. I think that sometimes gets lost in the conversation. I was on a panel recently, and one of the men jokingly said to me: you are trying to get rid of us. I said no, we are just trying to join you. It's not an either/or conversation. It's about expansion. I think that's hugely important because the statistic prove it. We're not just doing it because we want to do the right thing. There's also an element of business performance, that if you're a shareholder, or a director or CEO, that should matter to you.
PG: So how do we get young girls to want to do these kinds of jobs that are in the technology or ICT space? Or even just to have that aspiration to want to be the CEO?
UO: I know that there may be some women who don't agree with me, but I think we have a responsibility to make what we do look sexy. If you go on social media today, -- which is where a lot of young kids are and where they get a lot of information from -- what's really interesting to many young people is fashion, entertainment, etc. and those things are important, but so is what we do, so is technology, so is STEM and so is being a CEO. We've got to make those conversations look really interesting to people. At the end of the day we have a lot of women who just don't know it's a choice. So how do we reach them? I think we've got to start thinking about different ways of doing that. For me personally, I use social media to talk about what women can achieve and I talk about leadership quite a bit.
I think that as a CEO, I have a responsibility to do that. We must have strategic intent and be willing to see it through. I'm not interested in just making noise. I'm interested in action. For women who are CEOs, you've got to go out there and say, I'm a CEO, you can be one too. We need to bring people up that we know have potential and help make that potential become a reality. If we're not doing that, then we're kidding ourselves and I think it's disingenuous.
PG: So do you take time to mentor other women?
UO: I do, both internally and externally. Because I do a lot of stuff on social media I have a lot of women reaching out to me from different parts of the continent. They asked me questions or ask my advice and I respond to that. I have women within my own organization and the MTN group who do the same. I give a lot of my time and I see that as a responsibility. I almost feel as though if I can't say I've brought x-amount of other women on board, then my achievements are incomplete, no matter what else I do.
I know there are a lot of women who don't want to be known as a 'woman CEO'. I absolutely do, but not perhaps for the reasons that they're worried about. I do because I want other women to understand that I need you to join me so that I'm not the only one, or you can be the next one, but they need to be able to aspire to dream.
PG: I guess that's a tricky thing, because you don't always want your femaleness pointed out, but then you can also use that for good?
UO: Absolutely, but I think it depends on the context. Obviously, that cannot be the only thing I'm known for, and hopefully my results at MTN Liberia will speak for themselves. But at the same time, I will not shy away from it because I think it's very important to signal to other women coming up that they can do it. I've had so many women, even when I was a chief marketing officer, who said to me: I went into marketing because of you. That's quite powerful, and we cannot run away from that.
There are other women who are doing really great work in terms of trying to get more women onto boards. I want to join a board where I'll be the only woman. I don't want to join a board where they have answered that question already, I want to go to one where they're still struggling with it. We have a responsibility to change things and I take that responsibility quite seriously.
PG: So, growing up as a young girl what were your aspirations and how has that changed over time?
UO: First of all, I am the child of an African family and my Dad wanted me to be a lawyer when I was growing up. So I think for a very long time I thought that's what I was going to do. At college the plan was to do four years of political science and then go to law school. That's how I started off, but I just realized that, although I enjoyed political science, I just wasn't passionate about law at all. So, it took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do.
I ended up in public relations and my first job was at one of the biggest PR firms in New York City. I learned how to do editing and we had to prep a lot of CEOs for interviews with journalists, getting them ready and teaching them how to answer questions. Those lessons have stayed with me for years. Even though I didn't enjoy PR as a career I learned from it. From there I went into marketing which I really enjoyed.
But then I had a very important conversation with a mentor which changed everything. I had been in marketing for many years and I had a coach, one day she said to me: Uche, you've had all this success, what do you want to do next? If you could do anything in the world, what would you do? And I had to really think about it. When I met with her the next session I had realized that I didn't just want to go and do another big marketing job, I didn't know if that was enough anymore. She then asked me if I had ever thought about being a CEO? I almost recoiled at that conversation because it had never crossed my mind. But the minute she said it, it was like a light bulb came on and I was obsessed with the idea. So, I put a plan in place, and it happened for me a couple of years later. At the time I wasn't dissatisfied in marketing but it was that conversation, her poking me and prompting me that opened my mind to think maybe I should be looking at something bigger. And that's how I ended up here.
PG: What would be your advice to young girls and to other women?
UO: For me the light-bulb moment was someone prompting me. Perhaps I shouldn't have been prompted. Perhaps I should have been doing this homework anyway. I do think it's hugely important for women to be very clear about what it is that they want to do and where they're trying to get to. There is a natural graduation, but at some point you've got to have that conversation with yourself. I think it needs to happen very early. Because, this may be controversial, but it allows you to make choices about who your life partner will be - because that is hugely critical on your journey.
For me to become CEO of MTN Liberia meant I had to be a CEO in DRC, it meant I had to work in Ghana and Nigeria. If I had never left the US, I'm not sure what my journey would have looked like, it would have been very different. You've got to be open to the opportunities and where they take you. It may not be enough for you to be great in South Africa alone, you may have to go to another country to gain other skills. But the fact is that you need to be open to those changes. If you plan to be a family person, you have to have a partner who's willing to go on that journey with you. That's a big decision. I'm not sure that we always talk about that aspect of it.
When I was in the DRC, I was going to promote a young lady, but she needed her husband's permission to take the job because it was going to be outside of Kinshasa. She couldn't take the job for that reason, so I felt very bad for her. But she wasn't even willing to have a conversation with her husband because she knew that his answer would be no. I'm an expat and I know it's not always easy to make these moves as a woman. We almost expect for a man to travel for work but the conversation is sometimes harder for a woman to have when she has to move to a different country. So even if you're not very clear about the path itself, you have to be very clear about what you're willing to do, what you will be open to, and you also need to make sure that if you are planning to have a family that you have a partner who is going to be supportive of your work aspirations.
PG: I'm guessing your partner has been supportive?
UO: Yes he has been, but it hasn't always been easy. No matter how supportive you are it's never 100% easy. It helped that when I met him I was an expat and so he knew I wasn't from the country I was living in and that I would be moving around, he knew that upfront. I cannot tell you the number of women I've spoken to who don't have that support. It sounds archaic, but that's part of the reason why sometimes it's difficult for women take on new opportunities. We need to be having these conversations upfront with our family to say this is who I'm going to be, this is what I want to do. Are you going to be supportive?
PG: We always talk about the idea of a work/life balance, how do you manage your personal life and being a CEO, I'm not sure if you have kids?
UO: I don't have kids. In a way, not having kids is because I've been pursuing the career. It's never been the right time. I actually think we need more companies and CEOs to be mindful of this. For example, at one of the companies I worked for, we were going to hire someone and the head of HR said to me that she suspected the candidate was pregnant, so we shouldn't make her an offer. So, I said well is pregnancy a disease now? Her issue was that this woman would join and in a few months she would go on maternity leave, but for me that was not a problem. We hired her and it was fine. I think companies need to be more mindful and supportive and not see pregnancy as a negative.
On the work/life balance, I'm going to be very honest, I think that the younger you are in your career, it's harder to push for that. Because, unfortunately, that is the time where you're trying to prove yourself. It sucks, but I don't want to be dishonest. I tell people in my organization all the time, we close at five-pm, I'm not going to give you a gold medal if I see you here at eight o'clock, it doesn't tell me anything. What tells me whether you're great or not is if you have done great work. But at the same time for someone who's really trying to hustle and wants to be seen as a contributor to the organization, that may mean that you want to take on extra projects, which may mean sometimes that you stay later than others are willing to do. But that's a choice. I think as we get older within the organization it changes.
For mothers and for people who have families, I think that there are additional things that we can do. I'm very excited that a lot of companies are beginning to take on board things like paternity leave. I think that we need to be more flexible with moms. And I think we have to stop having a mindset of penalizing people if they want to leave it on time, I think that culture is old-school. We're a technology company, people can work from anywhere. The expectation is that people should get their work done, and if that means that people want to leave at five, so they can spend time with their kids and do their work from there then we should make room for people to do that.
PG: What's your personal vision for this industry in Africa, and what you want to see happening?
UO: Wakanda? (she laughs). You know technology is so liberating. I just want for Africa to be able to lean into its possibility and potential and the way that we can do that is through technology and giving access to everyone.
My other vision is I want to see more women take on more than we're doing today. There has been a lot of progress, at least since I started working in Africa in 2002, but there's so much more we can do. There are so many brilliant women that are now coming up. The thing that social media and access to the internet has also done for them is it has given them a much more global perspective than perhaps we had coming up. They are smarter, they're sharper, they have more knowledge, more access to information. I'm hoping that this allows them to get into these roles, not just from a technology point of view but across industries, quicker than we have. That we see many more women coming through the pipeline. We've got to push that agenda a little more holistically that we're doing right now.
— Paula Gilbert, Editor, Connecting Africa