Aminata Kane is Chief Executive Officer of Orange SL, driving the operations of the telecommunications giant with more than 2 Million subscribers. She is also Chairman of the Board of Orange Mobile Finance Sierra Leone. With her at the helm, the Orange subsidiary in Sierra Leone has become the market leader, significantly improved its profitability with more than 20% revenue growth per year and +20 EBITDA points, and has established itself as a key player in CSR (education and health) and in innovation with the launching of microcredits, Orange energy and e-Education.
Tell us about growing up and what your childhood was like?
I had a happy childhood. My parents are well educated and they come from several generations of educated people so they were keen on making sure I and my two siblings had great education. My mom is a doctor – an endocrinologist – and my dad was a banker for most of his life. We grew up in France and Africa, spent our toddler years in Senegal. Our parents were very caring and extremely confident in us. They gave us room to explore. They told us, “Each one of you can do and accomplish something in this world and each one of you has a responsibility to give back”. They planted these ideas in us very early in our childhood. Even today, they have the same kind of attitude towards us. At the same time, they ensured we focused on our studies.
How many boys and girls were in your family?
Two girls and a boy. I am the eldest.
We’ve found in our conversations that many women who made it to the top had parents who believed that male and female children are the same. Was that how it felt in your family growing up?
Absolutely. My parents were adamant that we all do our chores and they made sure we did our homework equally. They gave us, the girls, the same opportunity as our brother and didn’t treat us differently. I think the primary reason I believe women and men can do equal work and perform equally is because my parents treated all of us the same.
Tell us about your university years?
It started with a fight with my parents, particularly my dad. He wanted me to study in France, but I preferred the United States. He won, but later on, I was able to win, too. I started by going to prep school in Versailles, France. Then, I got into HEC Paris, which is one of the best business schools in Europe. After four years in business school, I joined McKinsey in Paris. I was there for two and a half years. I learned a lot, but I did not feel that it was the right environment for me. I felt that I needed to have a bit more hands-on experience. Before gaining that experience, I fulfilled one of my wishes, which was to study in the US. So I secured admission to MIT and spent two years there. After that, I got married and moved back to Senegal as my husband was in Dakar and we decided that I would relocate.
Tell us about your career once you got back to Dakar?
When I got to Dakar, I was unsure whether I should join a company, continue a business I had launched while at MIT, work as a consultant, or freelance.
While I was at MIT, I launched a fashion business out of Senegal. This was in 2011 when there were not many ready-to-wear clothes made in Africa. And a lot of the clothes we were getting from the US, Europe, and other places were not necessarily the best for Africans in Africa as the cultural norms frowned on clothes that were too short or showed too much cleavage. Besides, the body shape and fit were not right. However, there were many tailors and fabrics were available at every corner. So, I thought we should launch something where we manufacture ready-to-wear clothing made within Africa. It started quite well and I did it for my 2-year duration at MIT. During this period, I did a lot of back and forths, which I loved. However, I decided to pivot. I thought, let me get more hands-on experience and then I’ll re-launch the business later.
I met Orange and they offered me a job. I thought it was an immense opportunity to learn on-the-ground ops and consumer products. I started as a loyalty manager in the marketing department and quickly rose through the ranks. I was promoted to the Performance Manager position and then, transitioned to Orange Money, where I was the Marketing Director. After that, I was appointed CEO of Orange, Sierra Leone. While that was a quick rise through the ranks, I ensured I delivered my best performance at every step. I think that led to my being noticed.
Are there advantages to being a female CEO?
Sometimes, it provides opportunities, and sometimes, advantages. What I mean by that is, I noticed there were a lot of surprises and questions when I was first appointed to this position. The telecom industry is a male-dominated industry that had not had a female CEO at that time. In fact, few countries had actually seen a female CEO. So, as a 33-year-old woman appointed to that position, there were a lot of questions about my ability to lead the company. This gave me a little advantage because people were caught off guard when I came and I was determined, stern, and strong. It took some time for my competitor to realize I was coming for the role, we were challengers at the time so it caught him off guard. Because he didn’t realize early, he underestimated me and that gave me an advantage.
I also realized that when you are in a challenging position and you plead with your stakeholders for something, they are more willing to listen if you are a woman. However, that advantage disappears the moment you become the leader in the market and you want to become dominant.
The third advantage is not in a female CEO vs male CEO angle, but in a CEO compared to junior staff angle. As a CEO, I have more flexibility. I have more responsibility for sure but I also have more flexibility. I have two young kids, my daughter is five and my son is seven, and I’m able to be there every time they have a program at school or are not feeling well. I drop them every morning at school unless I have to travel. I get that flexibility because I set the company’s agenda and manage the calendar.
Do you feel like you’re winning in the family versus work balance?
Not at all. I’m an expatriate mom so my husband is in Dakar. My first year here, my kids were not with me. When I was first appointed here, I didn’t know how conducive the environment would be for them. At the time, my daughter was 18 months old and my son was three and a half years old. It was very rough, as I had to commute all the time. To be honest with you a lot of the time, I arrived at the plane in tears because I was just missing my kids so much. Later, they relocated with me to Freetown, but my husband has to go back and forth a lot. It’s been hard. My kids are almost always with one parent at a time. It’s not easy at all to be the only parent – neither for my husband nor for me. So, I wouldn’t say I’m winning.
It was an immense opportunity for me from a professional perspective and I really wanted to seize it so I made a big push for my career. Earlier, at a younger age, I made a big push for my family when I decided to move back to Africa without any job or any prospect. I’m glad I landed at Orange, but that was not a given at the time. I pushed for my family at the time and now I’m pushing for my career. Probably in the coming years, I’ll make another push for my family and I think that over the years, it will balance out.
One of the things we’ve heard from women in your position is that they wouldn’t be able to be in their positions if they didn’t have a supportive spouse. Do you agree with that?
Absolutely. I met my husband the day I was admitted to MIT. He knew from the get-go that I was somebody who would run the track and that I was very interested and eager to make an impact on the continent on a large scale. I was very honest and transparent with him about who I was and he’s been supportive since then.
However, while the supporting spouse is paramount, it is not the only thing.
My parents are very supportive as well and whenever something comes up, they step in. The same goes for my siblings. Also, we’re in Africa and have people who help with the cooking, laundry, babysitting, and so on. These things are very essential in my system. So, the support system we get across the board in Africa is fantastic. I think this should be one of the enablers for women to be reaching the top more because we have this as compared to European women or women in the US. The support system that we have allows us to focus a little bit more on our career, which is unfortunate because of the cultural norms in our geography that prevent us from making the most of these opportunities.
Why do you think there are not more female CEOs in Africa?
That’s the million-dollar question. I think it comes from a lack of tone at the top. Most companies are not clear that they want to have more women CEOs. Over the years, I’ve asked my colleagues: Why are you not hiring more women? Why are you not promoting women in your executive committees? And I’ve discovered there are three categories of people: the believers, the non-believers, and those who don’t know the data.
For the believers, things are easy. When you ask: why don’t you hire or promote more women? They go: Find me a capable woman and I’ll do it right. Then, they go ahead and do it. They set the tone at the top. For the non-believers, it doesn’t matter how many studies you bring up to support hiring and promoting women, they will always find an excuse not to do so. Finally, you have the ignorant people who don’t have the data and have never noticed that they don’t have women in their executive committees. When you show people in this group the data, they will fall into either of the first two categories. So, the first question for me is usually “Who is in charge?” Then, I try to determine which category they belong to.
Personally, I think we have more people who do not believe and who will find excuses not to promote women.
The second reason I’ve seen is that some work environments are not conducive for women to go to the top. For some, it is because they see promotion as a threat to their family lives. Others believe they should be supported where they are, and that their performances will speak for them. To change this, I think some environmental awareness and support should be put in place to encourage them to take the next step.
Another barrier is cultural norms. Unfortunately, in Africa, there is still a stigma for women who are ambitious. At some point, you have to make a push in your job if you want a promotion. However, if you come home everyday to an upset husband or your mother-in-law is not happy with you, at some point, you will question everything. So if we had less of these, I’m sure there will be more women at the top, because women are bold, hardworking, and committed to delivering excellently.
Finally, when you are a female CEO, you have to conquer many challenges to stay at the top. I think women at the top encounter more challenges than men, especially when people believe they’re becoming too powerful. And while it’s great to have female CEOs, it’s better to retain those who attain the role. Unfortunately, the challenges make some of us want to move out of the ranks and to a quieter life.
The CEO of African Bank in South Africa left her position despite having stellar performance for reasons you just mentioned. What are your thoughts on that?
I believe the same. At some point when we achieved dominance in the market, some people started targeting me in the press, at meetings, etcetera. I was the same Aminata that everybody embraced and enjoyed her company. So, I was surprised when I was being tagged as too powerful, alongside other narratives that hadn’t come up before. Occurrences like this can make you give up, especially if you don’t want to deal with them.
What could be done to support female CEOs in Africa and make them stay in their roles?
First of all, I think your initiative is fantastic and helpful because it creates awareness and shows women they are not alone. Hearing other women’s stories about how hard it’s been and how they have navigated a male-dominated industry or environment helps. It helps to see role models and women who have sustained such jobs through their careers. Let’s celebrate the women who are there. Let them talk and inspire other women to prioritize their careers.
Secondly, most of the expatriate packages or CEO packages are for men. However, most women think “Family first”. So when you offer a job to a woman in another country, why are you not thinking about something for her husband? Are you making sure the kids will be in a good school? Are you taking into account that she will have to commute frequently to visit her family if they don’t relocate with her? I think we need to tailor CEO packages for women that reflect their needs.
Coaching, I would say, is super important. When I was appointed, Orange paired me with a fantastic female coach for my first month in office. I was able to talk to her about some topics I was shy about, like sexual harassment. And it was something that a lot of women go through and are ashamed to talk about, especially since men brush it off easily. She helped me through it. However, it helps to also have men you can talk to. The majority of CEOs are still men and having them explain things to you would be helpful.
The last thing is about expectations. A big part of the CEO job is lobbying and advocating. So, you would expect a CEO to mingle and meet with other CEOs. But as a woman, if you mingle at night or during the weekends and go for drinks with some people, it can put you in embarrassing and awkward situations, especially if the press is involved. Besides, we have to care for our families, too. So, we have to set expectations.
How do we support women who are just climbing up the corporate ladder in Africa?
I would say that awareness remains important not only to get women to the top but also to ensure they rise through the ranks. They have to believe that the company is serious about what they say. One thing I noticed that gained a lot of trust with my female co-workers was that, early on, I was adamant that I wanted more women in the executive committee. Today, 42% of my executive committee are women. If I could get to 50%, I will be there. For the senior manager and mid manager ranks, there was a huge gap but we are promoting women twice as fast as men to close that gap.
Also something that was very important for me was to close the salary gap. Over the years, we have made many corrections to ensure that men and women of the same rank get the same salary. Actions like these demonstrate to women that they are important to a company. It shows they are in the right environment and that they can climb the ladder without having to make compromises on their family and so on.
There is also setting a tone at the top by instituting change and giving promotions when deserved. These actions will encourage them to apply for these positions and progress.
From a maternity leave perspective, making sure they can take their maternity leaves fully without any harassment should be a priority. Also, being flexible enough to extend their leave if the need arises is a crucial factor to retaining women in a company. Maternity leave is a vital topic where women are either happy with their company for letting them stay home at such an important time of their life or are resentful because they feel the company asked too much of them at a time when they needed to be more present with their families.
Do you get to implement your solutions?
They’re allowing me to try new ideas. Also, some of the things I’ve tried in Sierra Leone have been tried in other countries and we’re sharing a lot of best practices within the group. I think Orange is keen on having more women within its ranks and it provides the support we need to deliver. So, I’m thankful for the company.