Brenda Mbathi is the President and CEO of GE East Africa.
She is responsible for managing government relations and advocacy across East Africa.
Tell us about your childhood.
I was born in Nairobi, Kenya, just after Kenya’s independence. I come from a lineage of strong women and had five siblings. My mum came from a family of 13, and my aunts, uncles, and cousins were a part of our lives growing up. We were raised on a farm about 20 kilometers from the capital city.
I have fun memories of my childhood. We always had lots of people in the house and this helped us learn the virtue of sharing. Getting up early in the morning and contributing to farm chores were the order of the day and it helped cultivate an active and close extended family life.
Tell us about your education.
I enrolled in nursery school at the age of three, which was customary in our part of the world. Regular schooling started at kindergarten, after which you proceeded to primary school, secondary school, and, if possible, university.
I started my education at All Saints Cathedral School, which was around the city center. It was about an hour’s drive from our house and my father drove us to and from school every day. Many of our teachers were expatriates and the school’s headmistress, Miss Penny, was from the UK. She was the sweetest person you could ever meet and even looked a little like the governess from The Sound of Music.
At age seven, I joined Hillcrest Preparatory School for my primary education. The school followed the British education system and most of the students were expatriates. As a result, I was one of the few Kenyans that went there.
I did my A-levels in the United Kingdom at the Myra House School for Girls. After that, I decided to have my university education in the US. This was a big departure for my family, as we had followed a traditional UK education pathway till that point.
Tell us about your parents’ early lives and education.
My mother was born and raised in Kenya. She attended Alliance Girls High School, which was one of the best high schools in Kenya during that period. After graduation, she went into secretarial practice. At that time, you either studied a secretarial course, nursing, or teaching.
My father had his secondary education at a school in Shrewsbury, UK. When he finished, he proceeded to Oxford University for his tertiary education and studied Politics, Philosophy and Economy.
What were your career ambitions growing up?
Growing up, I always imagined myself as a doctor. However, I changed my mind when I went to university in America. To be a doctor, you had to go through decades of training and practicals. And learning Biology, Chemistry and Physics for another 10 to 12 years didn’t particularly appeal to me.
Besides, I discovered that doctors were not the ones that did most of the work.
As a kid, I interned when I was on vacation. During some of these internships, I worked with nurses at a children’s hospital. I was in charge of cleaning the bedpans and doing whatever else they asked of me. It was while doing this that I noticed that patient care was provided by the rest of the ecosystem except for doctors.
When did you decide to venture into Liberal arts education?
I visited the US Embassy in London to speak with a career counselor to discuss my options. She explained to me that getting a liberal arts education meant I could explore what was out there before deciding what path to take. That was the turning point in my life.
Which American colleges did you apply to?
I applied to many American colleges. However, I didn’t inform my parents immediately. I wanted to secure sponsorship for the application fee first, which I did. Then, when I received my acceptance letters, I started to consider how I would explain it to my parents.
By the way, one thing I did was apply to “women’s colleges.” Those schools had fantastic alumni networks, which were instrumental in the university I eventually attended. In fact, I went to Mount Holyoke College primarily because they had the best alumni tea in Central London.
The alumni who sponsored my trip and hosted me described how wonderful it would be to attend college in the United States. And I thought, now this is going to work because I can tell my parents I’m going to a women’s college in America. After attending mixed schools until my ‘O’ Levels, I went to a women’s school for my A levels and then to a women’s college.
Tell us about your days at Mount Holyoke.
It was very cold. The winters in Massachusetts are a lot colder than the winters in the UK. I found it even more so since we didn’t stay in the UK during winter given that it was during Christmas and we always returned home for the holidays.
Despite the coldness, the US winter was amazing. Mount Holyoke’s campus is still regarded as one of the most beautiful in the United States and it was even more so during winter. It was such a beautiful place to visit that the adjustment was not difficult.
What did you major in?
Pursuing a liberal arts education meant I could just choose different courses. Ultimately, I ended up majoring in International Relations and Geography. I ended up with a double major by default because I took a lot of Geography classes. The reason I took a lot of Geography classes was because they were mainly taught by people from Southeast Asia, Africa, or Latin America and I enjoyed that connection to a more developing world. I really appreciated the professors as they came in with a different perspective.
Were you involved in any other activities on campus?
There were many things you could be a part of on campus. So, yes, I was involved in other activities. I was able to be a journalist, work as a radio newscaster, join the student government, and join the international students’ organization. By virtue of being a member of the international students organnization, I was also exposed to the African American Association and the Time Association.
Also, we had the opportunity to work.
In freshman year, we only got the lousy jobs like washing dishes. However, it gave us a sense of purpose and pride since it was hard earned money from our labor. Then I became a peer educator and ultimately worked in the student infirmary.
When you got to senior year, what was on your mind about life beyond Mount Holyoke?
I wanted to go to graduate school. And while I got offers from very good graduate school programs, I coudn’t go because it was a lot of stress financially on my parents. I had five siblings and some of them were also going to university. Besides, I wasn’t eligible for financial aid at that time.
So, I came back to Kenya and started my career.
What did you imagine you would be doing after graduation?
I wanted to get an internship at the World Bank. Instead, I was able to work on a World Bank-funded program that studied Kenya’s jewelry economy or “informal economy,” as it was called.
After that, I went to work for an agency called Ogilvy and Mather. I became an Account Executive and worked on various high-profile accounts. Following my stint at Ogilvy and Mather, I worked for Farmers Choice, a well-known Kenyan company that deals with fast-moving perishable goods.
From there, I moved to a subsidiary of Diageo, the alcoholic beverage company, where I spent most of my professional life. Finally, I started working at GE. By the way, I didn’t join GE as the President and CEO. I was recruited to run the sustainability programs across Africa, after which I moved into an enhanced role where I was in charge of government affairs.
Thereafter, I got nominated to be the President and CEO for the East African region.
Tell us a little bit about your corporate trajectory.
Working at Ogilvy was a very important part of my career because I learned a lot. When you are an account executive, you’re working on the other side of the client, and as you know, clients know best. I learned how to look for a solution that will satisfy all the stakeholders.
Since working at Ogilvy, it is something that has stayed with me throughout my professional career. I’ve discovered that, even in my current role, it is important to understand the wants and needs of the various stakeholders, as well as how to put it all together to get the best possible result. A lot of this is dealing with problem-solving in whatever guise the problems appears.
When you got into the global corporate stage as a young woman, did you experience any bias?
To be honest, I did not understand or realize what bias was when I was in it. In fact, I don’t think I understood that it could be any other way until much later on in my career.
That being said, there was bias for the male gender to be in more senior leadership positions. It was the norm, be it with the customers that I worked with or in my own workplace. We just accepted the bias because we didn’t want to rock the boat.
Was there ever a moment when it felt like someone was trying to block your career progress because you were a woman?
Yes, this happened a few times, and it was quite a challenge because I internalized it. It wasn’t something you shared with your friends and family, because it was hard to believe. Besides, attending a women’s college meant I believed the possibilities were endless despite being a woman. So, when I experienced bias, it was a very lonely place to be.
I think facing bias gives us some setbacks as you start to question yourself. And then, you just suppress it and find the best alternative. You’d wonder what the best way out is without upsetting too many people. Because if you ruffle too many feathers at a certain point, things might not go as planned.
So, when the situation became untenable, I looked for alternatives and just stepped out. But it’s definitely been there. And not just gender, but tribal and ethnic, too.
What are the stereotypes associated with being multiracial?
Many perceive it is an advantage but that is not always the case. Being multiracial can be a disadvantage or an advantage.
For one, you lack a sense of belonging. For instance, during the census, you are assigned to a tribe according to your paternal lineage. However, in my case, my paternal lineage didn’t have a tribe in the country where I resided. They would look at me and say, “No, this is really difficult, we don’t know where to place you.”
You have an international education in Kenya, the UK, and the US. Has the sense of being multinational ever been an asset?
I believe it is an asset in that I am open to diversity and inclusion, and I am also very open-minded. That’s helpful because I’m able to embrace and work with people of all nationalities. Apart from the role that I hold as President and CEO for GE East Africa, I’m the leader of our inclusion and diversity work for GE outside of the US and Europe.
Maybe it’s because of how I’m able to embrace diversity and try to be inclusive, or maybe it’s because of my life’s journey and what I’ve seen but I am empathetic towards people who are trying to find their identity and sense of belonging. How can they show up and bring their best selves to the workplace? How do we get out of this whole being biased thing? These are the questions I try to find answers to.
We all have biases, including me. But I wondered when I got that appointment, “Wow, how was I selected?” Maybe because of those sorts of things—my exposure—I’m able to try and bring people together.
Did you have female role models as you were climbing through the ranks?
I have had some very strong role models. I had a great boss when I was starting out and she taught me the ropes. There was a lot of tough love but we’re still friends even today. She keeps growing in her professional career and doing great things. At the time, though, she probably wouldn’t have thought that I thought of her as a role model. Sometimes, when you have subordinates, you might not know that you are inspiring them.
Another of my female role models is my mother. She is a hard worker and, even in her old age, hasn’t stopped working. She wakes up early every day to work on her farm as she has done religiously for many, many years. It’s kept her strong, fit, healthy, and alive. Also, she’s extremely generous in spirit and gives all of herself to everything she does. That has resonated with me.
I also have a core group of female friends who always tell me the truth. They are my biggest cheerleaders, but they also tell me the cold hard truth when I need to hear it. They are also very supportive and encouraging and that’s important.
My husband is another role model. Having someone who can just listen to everything you want to tell them about what’s going on in your life is nice. Even if all they do is listen, you can never underestimate the usefulness of a good sounding board. I have also realized that growing in your spirituality is important as it helps you stay grounded and makes you a better person.
Have you had any male role models and tutors?
Many of my bosses have been male. They have been a big part of my life and have always pushed me to be better and do more. At times, it seemed brutal, but I can’t thank them enough. So for sure, the workplace is not just all about one gender, it is about knowing that you need everybody and I am very grateful for the roles male role models have played.
I think when I look at my childhood experience, I just never sat down to really consider whether it was a man or a woman who was giving me a chance. I have always simply thought that someone is supporting me. However, I am more aware now and more conscious of my support in terms of gender bias and ensuring we’re keeping women in the loop.Nevertheless, men have definitely impacted my career, both co-workers and bosses.
What do you think of the belief that women aren’t always supportive of other women?
I think it is true. Women aren’t always supportive of other women and there are many reasons for it. I think it will take a few years for us to fully understand the bias and unnecessary competition that causes it. Nevertheless, it is getting better in the workplace, at least from where I sit.
On my part, I try to help others and there are a few senior leaders today that I can claim I have helped on their journey. I hope that in the future I will be remembered as one of those ladies who helped other ladies.
Do you see a difference between women in the workplace in Kenya versus your international peer group?
Not in terms of competency. However, I think there is a difference in cultures sometimes. In Africa today, we are more exposed and have a “can do” attitude. It is evident in the female leadership on the continent, which is becoming more prominent and more regularized. We do everything we can to encourage and facilitate that attitude in the workplace.
Despite this, there is still a gender bias and gender parity in the public sector. However, the right questions are being asked about the situation. The private sector is definitely doing better on that front. I am very glad about that because it shows the intentionality to change things.
For instance, most hiring panels are frequently made up of men, which shouldn’t be. So, we have to be intentional about ensuring the hiring panel is diverse, which then extends to the candidate slate. Let’s ensure there is diversity in all aspects, including gender, tribe, religion, and even age.
Do you think your father’s role in telling you that you could be anything was critical for you to achieve what you’ve achieved?
I wouldn’t say it was just my father who said we could be anything. My parents’ belief, both my father and my mother, in all of their children, male and female, was fundamental. They made us understand that you can be whatever you want to be, but you will have to work hard.
My father’s sense of education was extremely important. He truly believed in a good education, reading all the time, and getting more knowledge about anything. He said, “Even if you read a comic, you must read something every day.”
Because of him, I still read print newspapers early in the morning and this frustrates many people. In fact, my friends and colleagues in the office always say “If it’s in the newspaper, Brenda will find it.”
Would you say your spouse has been supportive of your career?
Yes, he has. It is very important to have a supportive spouse and I’m very lucky to have him. Without his support, I don’t think I would do the work I do. He’s also a CEO and I’ve been a supportive spouse to him as well.
I believe it is about two individuals understanding and making it work for each other. You need a soulmate who can help and support you as you go through work. As a CEO, there are loads of challenges you will face and you will need your partner’s support when they happen. We’re fortunate that we have each other. I think it is a blessing from God.
What do you think about your legacy as the CEO of GE East Africa?
GE is known for its efforts toward building a world that works. I hope that my being part of the company and its mission has made a difference. The company has made a difference in my life and I hope I’ve made a difference in it, too.
It’s truly been an honor.