Aïda Diarra is Senior Vice President and Head of Sub Saharan Africa, at Visa Inc. In this capacity, she oversees Visa’s business operations in 45 countries and five offices in Sub-Saharan Africa. Her focus is digitizing cash, driving wider digital acceptance, and promoting financial inclusion in the diverse markets of the region.
Tell us about your early years and growing up in your family background?
I was born in Senegal, with mixed parentage from Mali and Niger. I spent the early years of my life in Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire, and a year in Paris. Along the line, my parents divorced and I joined my mother in Ethiopia where she had relocated. I did the second part of my high school there.
I went to university in France and graduated with a degree in Economics. I followed this up with a bachelor’s degree in Finance. Then, I did my MBA at the University of Hartford in Connecticut.
Tell us about your career trajectory?
My first job was as a marketer for the Welding Institute of France, despite not having experience as one. The institute had never done marketing before but they realized the industry was changing. They needed someone to help them go after customers bullishly.
It was here that I had my first encounter as an African professional and young graduate with the reality of the world around us. One day not long after I started, this lady looked at me and said, “you know, Aida I have to tell you, when I look at you I see you as a nanny.” Then, I realized you’re going to have people with perceptions like this. And if this is what she sees, it’s not up to me to explain to her. That realization prepared me for the rest of my career.
Later, I returned to the US and started my own business with a friend at a time when the telecom industry was booming and cellular phones were emerging. A lot of companies in Africa were sourcing their infrastructure from the US, which created a unique opportunity for us to be an interface. I worked there for about eight years and then sold my share as my partner and I disagreed on the company’s direction.
Then, I joined Western Union in the US. At the time, they were looking to grow their international business and tap into talents that could drive their outbound activity to selected regions. I started as an assistant marketing manager.
One day, when the general manager of US outbound was doing her rounds, she looked at me and said, “Do you know Aida, if you want to grow in corporate America, you need to find yourself a mentor but it has to be a black mentor, and it has to be a male.” At the time, I didn’t understand why I should have a mentor as I was doing my job right. I also wondered why she narrowed my scope to a black male mentor given my experience and the fact I had traveled to many countries and been in international environments.
As I reflect I can understand where she was coming from, thinking that a young lady coming from Africa would be challenged to evolve in an environment without the proper support. In her mind, proper support meant somebody of the same color and preferably a man because a woman wouldn’t have the same leverage like say in corporate America. I got several promotions until, eventually, I became the director.
Then, I was given the option to join the team in Africa. I wanted a position that would give me a more P&L role and coming to Africa was probably the fastest way to do that. I went to Morocco and my role evolved from being in charge of marketing in Africa to taking on a P&L responsibility in West Africa. Eventually, I ended up in charge of Africa in its entirety, including North Africa. This decision improved my experience, allowed me to impact economies and people, enable remittances, and play a role in driving financial inclusions.
When the opportunity to join Visa came, I looked at the impact we made on the continent with only one vertical of the payment ecosystem. In some countries, we were contributing up to 20% of the GDP. I figured being part of a company that can give a lot to the continent, in addition to remittance, could empower one to have more impact. That formed the basis of my decision to join Visa.
Three years down the line and I am still passionate and driven by the belief that payments are one of the main factors of economic development. If you facilitate trade and commerce, enable more people to enter the formal financial ecosystem, then you’re giving them more options, you’re opening them to the world, and opening the world to Africa.
In your early days, you had a very international background. How do you think that prepared you for your career?
I think it was instrumental because I had to adjust to a new environment and culture many times. In a new country, you have to make it work. This starts with having the humility to understand the culture and how things are done in that environment. It also takes resilience because you need to find a way to make it work for you and everybody else.
What languages do you speak?
I speak French and English. I also understand local languages from Mali and Niger.
What about Ethiopia?
I used to speak Amharic but after I left I had no opportunity to do so. Every time I go to Addis, I still pick up a few words and follow conversations but I am not fluent in it. I love the food, though.
In your opinion, what hard and soft skills did you develop that gave you the capacity to rise through the ranks since your role as an assistant marketing manager? Also, where did you develop the skills to understand a P&L and a balance sheet?
The foundation was my education. I think one of the critical skills I’ve developed from the jobs I’ve held is strategy. Also, it is fundamental to have clarity about your ambitions and align your resources behind them.
Furthermore, ensure you deliver on your commitments. This is what has shaped my career, because I was not very vocal or very outspoken as a professional. But usually, at some point, somebody just turned around and said, “There is somebody who is constantly delivering on results, so we probably should pay attention to her.” It was not necessarily about having visibility, communication, and presence.
From a soft skills perspective, I learned very early that you can’t achieve your goals unless there’s a team that shares your vision and aligns with you to achieve your objectives.
Take the first role in Western Union, nobody knew about Africa. We had to share resources across several markets, including the US. How do I get someone to understand that if he allocates 5% of a resource, he can contribute to driving the growth of the company? I realized early on that your ability to get people to work with you for the greater good is key.
I also thought that it was important to have people wanting to do things because they think it is right as opposed to imposing it on them.
For me, P&L was about having the ammunition to drive the impact I wanted to have in a given market. When you have the responsibility of an entire market, then you have the arbitrage to decide your focus and what drivers you activate. You are also accountable for the outcome.
Can you tell us about any specific challenges that you face as a woman, a senior woman executive?
There are many.
When I was growing up, my mother wanted to prepare me. She was like, “You are a woman, black, and from Africa. That is not a good starting point.” I didn’t understand her at the time. Depending on where you’ve lived and your experience, you form an opinion on things, situations, and people. Typically, the perception around women is one thing and the perception around blacks is another. When you combine them, people perceive who and what you are in a new way. Apart from this, there is your projection of yourself. For example, if you’re a low-key person, there will be another layer on top of everything I have described. I think every woman faces challenges in what they do. Every leader, regardless of whether you’re male or female, faces challenges. Finally, every black or African American faces challenges.
My approach is to make sure I understand my environment, as opposed to focusing on the perception they have. Figure out what it takes to be successful in your environment, understand their reaction to who you are, and then define a game plan to be successful.
Let me give you an example: there was a time I was presenting a review of our strategic priority in a position to the CEO. We had several executives present who we had to convince to invest in our market as opposed to someplace else. So my colleagues presented their plans and everybody was at the table listening. When I started presenting, the CFO stood up, went to the table to grab coffee, turned his back to me and the others, and just stood there. So, I stopped. After 30 seconds, he turns around and says “No Aida, please continue”. I replied, “Who am I going to talk to? If you’re not sitting at the table, looking at me, and being present as I present to you?” What was the underlying implication of that behavior to a professional?
In cases like that, you demand that you receive the proper attention.
How did you do that?
I said, “I’m waiting for you, there’s no way I can speak to you when you’re turning your back. So please take your time. I understand you may need coffee and then when you’re ready, we’ll go ahead.” And he had to come back and sit at the table.
Things like this happen every day in many organizations. Now, the question is “How do you respond to that?” You can choose not to respond, but when you choose to respond, it has to be worth it. I can do it because I’m presenting to the CEO and CFO, but if it’s somebody else, I might not address it because otherwise, it becomes a constant challenge, which is not healthy.
Can you comment on imposter syndrome as a senior woman?
It’s something that I have lived with all along. Probably because, as I said, the career trajectory was not something I planned. In everything I do, I challenge myself to question if I deserve to be there. So, I took every job and promotion as a huge responsibility and did my best to deserve them. I see some other male colleagues that take it from a different perspective. So I suspect it happens to many women in general.
What do you have to say on work-life balance?
This is a tricky one and COVID has taken it to another dimension. For most people, balancing your family, social life, and work has been a challenge. I prefer the term “work-life alignment” because I don’t know if you can balance everything. You just have to make things work, centering what matters most to you.
For example, I travel quite a lot and I have a son. In everything I do, my priority is to ensure he’s fine. So when he was too young to go to school, I was traveling with him and the nanny. So at least, even if I was in meetings all day, I could be with him in the evening. When he had school and could not travel with me, his dad stayed with him. My mother did her part in ensuring that balance, too. So in everything I did, he was at the center. That’s not to say I was able to do everything, though.
Do you think there are circumstances where being a woman is an asset as CEO?
I think it’s an asset due to skill sets that are becoming increasingly recognized as necessary for good leadership. For example, as women, we have the capability to empathize and focus on what matters most, we strategize daily to keep our houses in order, and prioritize where to apply our resources. And we do all of these extremely well.
Why do you think there aren’t more women CEOs in Africa?
First, I think the number is growing in countries like Kenya, Rwanda, and Nigeria. Should there be more? I believe so. I was part of a group in a previous role that looked at driving gender diversity in the organization. We spent a lot of time understanding why from the director level upward, more men than women were climbing the ladder, whereas there was parity in roles below.
We spoke to some of the women in the organization to find out their reasons. The first was family life. The women felt, for their work-life balance, they had to let their career plateau. The second thing they told us was how, despite being competent, they didn’t have the time to network. They couldn’t afford the time it required. And if it was necessary for career growth, then good riddance. The third thing we discovered was that they were not interested in office politics, for lack of a better word. Many of them were not interested in alignments and lobbying.
The other piece of the puzzle is that, in Africa, to have a powerful woman in a household is not yet culturally well accepted.
Yes, things are evolving, but this situation is still present. And it can be more or less difficult depending on the country.
If somebody wants to help improve the pipeline, how could you be better supported?
I think it’s about challenging the perception of the continent from all dimensions. You find that very often, there is a passion around Africa for the potential it holds but there’s also a lot of apprehension for good or bad reasons. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but it’s the reality. In my view, finding the balance is what’s important. So, do good in terms of shaping the agenda of the continent for growth and at the same time, making a profit.
Can you give us your thoughts on what programs or activities we can use to create a pipeline to the top spot for women in corporate Africa?
I’m a believer in examples. And the more you make it tangible, the more you showcase women that have gone through a journey and have made it possible, the more you are letting women and young girls know that it is possible. For example, a lady told me how they got to have a representation that is half women and gender diverse in the political environment in Rwanda. It started with a mandate from the head of state who wanted more women in government. However, despite their best efforts, it was initially hard. Then, once they successfully convinced a few who then demonstrated that it is possible to make it work, it became easier to convince others.
So I think we have some work to do and for me it starts in school. Also, having the opportunity to engage, connect, share learnings and best practices is second to none. I believe creating forums will help accomplish this.