Jane Karuku

Jane Karuku is the Group Managing Director and CEO of EABL (East African Breweries Limited), headquartered in Nairobi, with subsidiaries in Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan and Tanzania. She has been instrumental in driving innovations in the business by launching new brands and categories that include Tusker Cider, Tusker Premium Ale, Sikera Cider, and a number of premium scotch whiskeys, gin, rums, and liquors. 

Tell us about your background?

I grew up and had my education in Kenya. Where I come from, education is very important and we were encouraged to give our best to it. I was a bright student. For my first degree, I studied Food Science at the University of Nairobi. I had an option to study medicine, among others. I decided against it because someone told me that in Anatomy, they would give me a dead body for a month. After graduating, I worked in a dairy company that processed butter. Then I got married and moved to California, USA, where I stayed for four and a half years.

My husband was attending University of California, Davis, at the time. While we were there, I did an MBA and we also had two kids. Then I decided to come back home and contribute to my country.

Back in Kenya, I worked as a sales executive. Then, I joined Cadbury Schweppes as a Brand Manager. It was a great company for growing leaders. I think I was identified as somebody with potential. So, they assigned me to run a factory of 250 all male workers. This was the turning point of my life, as I was quite young at that time.

How old were you then?

I was 30 and younger than most of those who worked in the factory. It was tough from a cultural perspective. They’d refer to me as “young girl” and were sometimes condescending. It was my most important growth point, though. I had to learn to influence people who were not necessarily on the same page as me and weren’t interested in listening to a woman who was younger than them. There weren’t many ladies, so I didn’t have many people to share what I was going through with. Regardless, I learnt to be calm even if they were condescending or insulting.

Then, I climbed up the ladder. When I left in 2008, I was Cadbury Schweppes’ Managing Director for 14 countries in Eastern and Southern Africa.

I joined Orange after I left Cadbury Schweppes as a deputy CEO. While I was in that capacity, I was head-hunted by Kofi Annan to lead his NGO, Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, as the President. I worked there for almost three years. However, I am a corporate person and when the opportunity came knocking, I joined Kenya Breweries as the Managing Director. Eventually, I was appointed as the Group CEO for East African Breweries.

How did you influence and gain the respect of the factory staff given how young you were?

I think the first thing I did was listen to them. I discovered that everybody has a point of view, driven by what they want to achieve in a situation or relationship. So, I put myself in their shoes. Sometimes it is as simple as ego. Things like who blinked first or who turned away first. I learnt how to negotiate, because at the end of the day, I was employed to get things done.

For example, if you are on the line and are asked to deliver 10 boxes but decide to deliver two boxes for no apparent reason, I will put myself in your shoes to understand why you did so. Then, I will show you, from your point of view, why it is important to deliver 10 boxes. It could be something as simple as moving you somewhere else.

The main thing is to understand you can’t influence people by force or utility because when the utility doesn’t come, they’ll revert to their old habits. You have to view life through their lenses and then create a win-win situation. It wasn’t easy and I didn’t succeed all the time, but it helped.

What were the management’s benchmarks? How did you perform?

When I joined the company, I worked in brand marketing. We experienced fast growth; however, the factory was not producing enough to meet the demand. So, I was told to go and sort out the problem I had created in brand marketing.

By understanding where they are coming from, we saw things we needed to improve, like hygiene factors and pay. Improving these simple things, as well as communicating and celebrating them helped turn things around. The whole ecosystem changed: it became more productive and less noisy. The employees were happier and we were better able to deliver what the organization required. Because of the improved performance, we improved the workers’ pay and achieved a win-win situation since improved performance meant improved profit. 

During these conversations, we have discovered that financial literacy is crucial for managers. Did you have this skill to start with or did you have to develop it?

I had pursued an MBA. So, I already had financial skills. Also, I had worked in a great organization that improved my capabilities consistently. They had courses that were mandatory for their managers. One of them was a program called Finance for Non-Finance Managers. It was a basic finance course that taught P&L, balance sheets, and complicated economic models depending on the participant’s interest. I think it is important for progressive organizations to continuously deal with the capabilities of their employees.

What challenges do you face in your role today?

Over time, I have learned to see myself from the prism of a leader and less from that of a female. I am a wife, a mother and a daughter, but I prefer to see myself as a leader. Therefore, the challenges I see are “What do I need to accomplish as a leader of this great business?” So, my priority is my role, which is senior. Because I am leading other leaders, I ask myself questions like “How am I doing as a leader of leaders and how do I surround myself with great leaders who I can work with to achieve the business’s performance objectives?”

Apart from performance, I need to ensure that employees are engaged. I am a firm believer of growing talent so they can become better versions of themselves. So, not only do I want a share of the prosperity for the shareholders and the business, I also want to make sure that all players are benefiting, from our employees and suppliers to our trade partners and the communities where we operate. For example, we educate our consumers to ensure they don’t abuse alcohol.

I have realized that being a leader is less about how many times you go to the office, but more about how your contributions within the areas I am in charge of.

You work in a male dominated sector. How do you maintain your reputation? Do you still face challenges solely because you are a woman?

Yes I do. I work for a great organization, Diageo, where diversity and inclusion are core to our goals. We believe the more diverse we are, the better we will perform. We have champions for this agenda and the biggest of them is our global CEO Ivan Menezes.

Under his leadership, it’s mandatory for us to overcome unconscious bias. As a result, everybody within the ecosystem of senior leadership is aware of diversity and inclusion. They are encouraging to women and ensure women don’t feel discriminated against and are seen as an equal to other leaders. We do a lot of training for unconscious bias, even for men so they can get rid of their bias.

However, I think the most important thing is yourself. The moment you start seeing yourself and accepting you are not equal to another person because you are a woman is the moment you disempower yourself. You should consistently reiterate to yourself that you are a leader. For example, I have entered rooms only to discover that people were expecting to see a male CEO. I just smile and make light of it. You get used to it and learn how to handle it as you progress in experience.

I think having an office setting and environment that empowers women participation is also important. For example, EABL offers a six month maternity cover and a one month paternity cover. I think we are the first organization in this part of the world to offer such. The paternity cover had a slow uptake at the beginning but is now gaining traction. These covers help us build our employer credibility and brand. Because of them, our employees know they can be both family and career people. They know they don’t have to sacrifice one for the other.

Do you think there are special advantages to being a female CEO?

Yes. Over the last two years or so of the COVID pandemic, the qualities that naturally come to women, like empathy, have come to bear. Everybody found it tough when COVID hit. We had to change how we worked and transition to work from home. However, not everybody had enough space or the technology for this. So, it was very challenging at the beginning. But because of empathy, we achieved flexibility and were able to accommodate each other, particularly women. The empathy was not only for employees but also for the community and stakeholders.

The other thing is agility. Due to the pandemic, leadership needed to be flexible, agile and fast. And women fit in such a role perfectly because we multitask all the time. We are recovering from the pandemic despite the tough trading environment and restrictions because we have become more creative, innovative and agile in looking for opportunities than before. I think part of that is because we have accommodated what women need into the organization’s culture.

Why do you think there aren’t many female CEOs in Africa?

I think there are several reasons for this. The first one is education. Without a good education, you will have no chance.

The second one is the belief system of women, particularly within the African setting. I am lucky for how I grew up because my biggest cheerleader, even today, is my father. However, women are discriminated against from when they are young girls, even in their homes. They are the ones who cook and their brothers are treated as guests all the time. Despite doing all this hard work alongside their mothers, they are also supposed to study together with their brother. So, you get these messages that you’re different very early in life. If you are not careful, they will be embedded in you and affect your belief system. If you are unlucky and cannot break off from that track, you will be in trouble.

The next one is what I call the unconscious bias of the ecosystem. Earlier in my career, I fielded questions on whether I could do the job, what I’ll do when I get married, what will happen when I give birth, and so on. The unconscious bias for those who do the interviewing and recruiting is something that has never been addressed by the system and it is key. Also, women have been told for a long time that there are jobs we can’t do.

For example, women could only do HR, marketing, nursing and teaching jobs in Kenya. And we think Kenya is a bit progressive. The catchment of CEOs doesn’t usually come from that. This means there are few women who are eligible for CEO roles in Kenya. In fact, in corporate Kenya, we have many women who are in middle management. However, as you get nearer the top, they reduce. Because of the hurdles I have listed, they are not able to move past the legendary glass ceiling.

Many of the women we’ve spoken to mention they had fathers who believed in them and husbands who are supportive. What are your thoughts on this?

That is true. To an extent, if you are lucky and have a good husband, he will be your biggest cheerleader. Evidently after you leave your father’s house, you live with your husband and he can influence your success. If you are a woman like me, your first priority is to ensure your family is thriving. If I doubt that it is not working, it will hamper my performance at work.

What support do you think can be provided for women in similar positions to yours?

One of the things our male colleagues do better is networking. I think they network in many aspects of their lives. Sometimes as a woman, and in particular, as an African woman, we don’t have that luxury because of our responsibilities. For most women, there is usually a big circle of people to cater to and influence. As a result, we can sometimes forget ourselves.

So, I think networking events where we can have authentic conversations would be great. Imagine an evening or a night where many of us network with each other. We would probably learn from each other in ways that we can’t learn from our male colleagues as their challenges would be different from ours. There are challenges we face but can’t share with our male colleagues because they wouldn’t understand. Having a community of CEOs or executives where we can contact, mentor, share best practices, ask questions, provide support, and just have fun would be great.

How do you think we can improve the pipeline of women who become CEOs in Africa?

That’s a great question! We are lucky in Kenya because there are many catchment areas from a schooling perspective. Consequently, we have properly educated people from universities. From a corporate perspective many women are joining the corporate world, both in public and private sectors, as diversity and inclusion gets traction.

However, things fall short at the middle level. I think the reason for that is a lack of stewardship. You can have someone who is talented but whose decision making process is faulty. This can be from the influence of their spouse or not having the right judgment on issues. It is important to achieve the right balance between family and career, and you need a good decision making process to do that. How do you achieve that fine balance without destroying yourself, your family or the organization? So, I think capability-mentoring and coaching are crucial.

More importantly, how do you analyze people’s standards and, therefore, identify real stars who are going to make it? I would say we need some form of assessment. For those who excel, provide a development plan and support to help them grow. It could be around mentoring, capability building, and working on the self. Because at the end of the day, what hinders us from success is more our belief system than the organization.

Finally, there are few female role models and we need to increase that. And as we follow the process I outlined, that will increase.

Conclusion

Mrs. Jane Karuku is the group MD and CEO of EABL. She ticks all the boxes of a successful woman. She has focused on her leadership role and was  instrumental in overseeing the implementation of operational improvements at the KBL before taking on her current position. She has been at the forefront of enhancing the company’s reputation and a champion of talent development and strong innovations pipeline. Currently, she is also the board chairperson of Kenya’s Vision 2030.

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