Kendi Ntwiga is the Country Leader at Microsoft Kenya, where she is responsible for developing and maintaining effective relationships across the company subsidiary in order to increase Microsoft’s share of voice in the region.
Tell us about your childhood and how you were raised?
I was born in Embu. It is a town not too far from Nairobi that offered a vibrant life back in the day. It was a happy childhood, but things changed when I was around the age of 12. My family ran into some financial problems and because of this, my parents decided we should move to a village upcountry. The village is different from what it is today. It was tough back then. While we resided there, I went from being a confident, carefree girl who would stand on tables, recite poems, and receive guests at the door to a young lady who walked seven kilometers to tend to the farm, look for food, and fetch water and firewood, as I was the oldest.
It was a life of hardship, poverty, and bitterness. I wanted to run away and sometimes wondered why I was born into my family. Eventually, I realized I had two choices: work hard and leave the village or whine and stay there forever. From that early age, I realized I must put in every possible effort to get myself out of the village. And the only way to do that was through education.
What values did your parents instill in you during this period?
My father was an engineer and the reason we were cash-strapped and had to move to the village was that he went back to study computer science. There were bills to be paid, though, and the entire family had to rely on my mother’s little teacher’s salary. Despite the situation, my father always had zeal for his vision. It was in the late 80s to early 90s and computer science was new. He would say with pride, “I’m going to be among the first to understand what this computer thing is about and when I do that, we’ll get a breakthrough for the family”. To help out, he juggled like three jobs.
During that phase, I learned you must apply effort in the right places to get to where you want to be. I also learned the value of working together as a team. I saw how my mother raised us, how she would pick up the slack, yet never complain. Sometimes, when I complained about how we left a town where we had running water for a village where we had to fetch water and firewood, she would say words like, “Kendi, just do it consistently, and it will be fine”. So I learned the value of hard work and consistency.
Also, my parents taught me that what the boys could do, I could do more and even better. My parents would tell me “You see your brother who loves mathematics, you can do better than him.” (He is a professor of mathematics.) So, I believed from an early age that nothing is out of bounds and set aside for boys. I believed that all of us are equal.
One of the themes we’ve witnessed with the women we’ve interviewed is that their fathers telling them they can do anything they want gave them a massive confidence boost. What are your thoughts on that?
Having transitioned from a young girl to the woman I am now, socially and career-wise, I have come to realize that men play a critical role in women’s lives. So even as we amplify the voice of the girl child, it is helpful to take this journey with men. I hope it’s not that we’re looking for permission from them, but affirmation. I think it’s more potent when a male person says “You can do this”.
Tell us about your education?
Because my father studied computer science, I admired and dreamt of doing the same thing. His enthusiasm made it feel like an exciting space to be in. So when I finished high school, I decided to study computer science. After I graduated, I got my first job as an assistant IT manager. I came across the vacancy in a newspaper advert. There were over 500 people for the interview and, given that it was still a new field, I doubt we had all studied Computer Science. Regardless, at the end of the process, there were two of us left and we were both women.
We both had an IT background and I remember we bonded after spending the whole day together. We expected them to hire one of us. They spoke to us separately, told us we were both qualified, and asked us to decide who they should employ between us. I suggested they hire both of us so that the IT manager could have two assistants. After consultations, they called us in and told us we were both hired. And that was how I got my first job.
After a year, the job had gotten monotonous for me. It was around 2001 and the internet wasn’t widespread. So, even though I knew there was a role for tech in the business world, I couldn’t do much research online. I thought to myself, “Let me look at an IT firm and see how I can add value with my technical background by working with them and talking to businesses”. And that was how I started my career as a business person in the world of technology. Shortly after I started, one of the partners for Hewlett Packard, saw me working. They recommended me for a job with HP and that was how I got into HP. Then I got into Oracle after which I worked for Intel. Finally, Microsoft headhunted me.
At some point, I realized I didn’t understand business. So, I went back and studied International Business Management to understand how to do P&L’s, read balance sheets, and run a business efficiently.
Tell us more about learning those financial skills?
One of the options I had to do in university was Bachelor of Commerce but I avoided it because I thought it was tedious. Later, I realized I enjoy business. So, when I went back to study International Business Management, I opted for a Bachelor’s degree. And this was because I wanted to understand all the concepts of business management. It was an interesting journey and I greatly enjoyed it. The lecturers loved me, as I was an engaged and involved student. I was already exposed to the business world and had questions and scenarios that intrigued them. And when I went back to work, I would ask to apply what I was learning. Because of this knowledge, I can relate with a financial expert, with the same ease I would demonstrate with a technical expert. Also, when I have to meet a CEO whose business I am pitching to, I can converse with them comfortably. And because I know that CEOs are always thinking in terms of risk/cost and opportunity, I can have conversations with them within that context and convince them.
What unique challenges do you face as a female CEO?
One of the things I’ve realized is that there are harmful assumptions about women. When I started in my leadership role, people expected me to be a no-nonsense, super tough person who would drive my subordinates to work at any expense, even though they had no basis for that assumption. Before I joined Microsoft, the Microsoft team members reached out to my then team members to ask about me. While that is normal, it was with caution like they expected me to come in and fire them all. They had heard I was tough. However, what the story they heard didn’t say was that, while I expect results, I am also fair. So, when I came in, I had to spend time dispeling those notions.
In your experience, are there advantages to being a female CEO?
Yes, they are. Being a female CEO is a good thing because I can walk into a room and ask “How are the children?” That immediately softens you as a person whether you are male or female because most people have a soft spot for children. So when I ask that question, you feel obliged to respond with something substantial. Sometimes I do things like that deliberately to throw people off. The fact that I can be soft when I want helps me connect with people, which provides a foundation for discussing business. And because most CEOs are men, I can take advantage of the soft side of being a woman in my interactions with them.
We’ve heard from many women that they need to socialize and network with their male clients to be effective in their roles but this can be difficult within the African context. How do you deal with it?
First, I am married; I’ve been married for most of my high-end career. That helps. Secondly, I have a policy, which is that I don’t do social outings. I keep things strictly business. Everyone, both men and women, knows this. So, even if you hear anyone trying to say that something is going on between Kendi and somebody, other people will vouch for me and tell you it’s simply business.
I don’t assume people asking for meals are doing so with ulterior motives, because I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes, however, I can tell that something inappropriate is about to happen. I think this ability is something every woman has. In these instances, I divert them quickly in a way that will not embarrass the person, because then, it becomes personal. Of course, when things like that occur, we won’t meet again. Also, I don’t socialize often with the same person. It’s enough for them to know they can call me directly and I can do the same. When that is achieved, then it’s done.
What would you say to inspire female CEOs who struggle with networking?
The reality is that I cannot stop people from being attracted to me. We are successful, beautiful women. That means we are attractive to the average person. And whether we’re dating or married, we are the ones who make the decisions about who we are with. This means things will only go as far as we allow. And we can choose to not allow anything, which is what I do.
Also, I avoid late evening meetings. I do dinner but I excuse myself around 8:30 pm. By that time, we have probably been meeting for about an hour, which is ample time to finish our business discussion. After that, it’s just socializing which I’m not interested in.
Are you concerned about the perception of other people who might see you dining with your clients?
I’m not concerned because I’m consistent. The reason is that I don’t treat anybody specially, apart from my husband. When I’m with my husband, I can relax and just be a woman. Outside of this, I see everyone as the same and I’m formal with them. So, I’m not bothered by what others think because it’s just business.
Why do you think there aren’t more female CEOs in Africa?
First, we women always second guess ourselves. I do it, too, but I have a few people who don’t allow me to do it often. Also, we wait until we are perfect to do anything and we care too much about what society thinks of us. That’s why you asked the last question. Also, we’re boxed, especially in Africa, from a societal context. We are told we must be caregivers. That even if we’re CEOs, we must come home and cook seven-course meals.
However, while seven-course meals will be served in my house, I don’t have to be the one who cooks or serves them. I can pay someone to do that.
Have you had any experiences where people expect you to serve tea in a meeting?
In Kenyan government meetings, prayer is said before, and perhaps after, meetings. And community-wise, the people who pray are women. That’s the other version of serve me tea. I love to pray so I don’t usually mind. As to people expecting me to serve them tea, I can do that, but not because I feel forced. And when I sit at the head of the table, I’ll still be the boss.
I haven’t experienced it as much, though. I’m in an outward role. So, when I meet people, they already know who I am. In my past assignments, people didn’t always know who I was. I have a small body and was sometimes ignored. However, I didn’t take offense. There are many things that can cause offense but I don’t think this is one of them. Instead, I use it to my advantage, if possible, and move forward. It’s different if you are being outrightly rude, then I will put you in your place. But if you’re just doing it out of ignorance, I won’t take it personally. That doesn’t mean it’s excusable, though.
What are your thoughts on work-life integration?
I’m taking this call from my house and my three children are on half term break. I live in a closed community and I encourage their friends to visit and play with them. So, I’m hosting four other children, which means there are seven children in my house as we speak. The reason I can do this is because I have help around me. I hire managers who are leaders in their profession and execute their roles exceptionally well.
They are experts in their professions and are better than I am. I tell them what I like and don’t like, and work on a program, as well as the menu. As a result of this system, they can work independently without my input. It’s the same way I operate in the office: I have people who are responsible for different things. And then we come together to deliver results.
Having a system is very important because if there’s chaos in the house, I won’t be able to concentrate. I’m African and as the mother, I’m expected to run the home. It’s ingrained in our history. So I can’t get annoyed and say, “Now, it has to change”. However, I can work around it. The time and energy I have at home is to bond with my partner and our children and improve our relationships. This re-energizes me and allows me to deliver tomorrow and the day after that.
What measures can we put in place to increase the number of women in executive positions across Africa?
First, as a woman, learn about yourself and know what makes you happy. Start there so that you’re not simply ticking the box of “I’m going to be a leader” because they’re saying women should be leaders. If it’s not your thing, you don’t have to do it. If it is, stop giving excuses and do what you need to do.
For example, I once had a program in the US when my daughter was three months old. They didn’t approve of me coming with her. And while I’m a professional, I’m also a mother – one who believes exclusively in nursing. So, I told them I wouldn’t participate unless they allowed me to travel with my daughter.
So, sometimes you have to create the rules for you to continue being at the table. However, you have to be excellent at what you do so they are willing to make an exception for you when you need concessions. There can be no excuses: not the fact that you are a nursing mother, don’t have children yet, or don’t have a man. Instead, examine the issue, then address it head-on. When there is no provision for something you require, look at the value you provide, then make a case for yourself and ask for an exception. Chances are they will grant it.
How do you think we can support female CEOs and position them for more success?
Research shows that the same men who agree to female appointments give them tasks they’re highly likely to fail. Instead of doing that, equip them for success when you select them for assignments. If someone has a blind spot, help them improve. Don’t leave them so you can make an example of them, say you tried, and go back to the status quo. Help them succeed.