Yvonne Ike is Managing Director and Head of Sub Saharan Africa (Ex-RSA) at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Yvonne has received many international awards including being recognized by the Queen of England as one of the top 200 business women in the UK to make a significant impact in society and in 2019 she was also recognised as one of the Top 100 Women CEOs in Africa.
Tell us about your childhood and growing up?
My ancestry is from Nigeria, although I was born in London, England. I have an older brother and a younger sister. When I was less than 10 years of age, I moved to Nigeria and had my secondary education there. Later, I came back to England for my university education. When I finished, I did not know what I wanted to do. So, I trained as an auditor for three years. During this period, my love for numbers and finance became apparent and this led to me joining Ernst and Young. Eventually, I decided to join the banking sector; I got my first job at Lehman Brothers, from there, I moved to JPMorgan. After working there for 15 years, I moved to Bank of America where I’ve been for the past seven years.
The women we’ve met during these interviews reveal their families made them believe they could do anything. Was this the case for you growing up?
I believe so. My mother is extraordinarily feisty. She thinks me and my sister are the best things in the world and anyone who disagrees with her automatically gets on her bad side. She spent her life equipping and positioning us for the best opportunities. Growing up, she taught us that nobody but God could stop us from doing what we wanted to do. More than that, she instilled strong values in us such as the fear of God and strong, excellent characters. Also, she taught us to be intentional about living a life that is meaningful, not only to ourselves, but also to those around us, and to be the best versions of ourselves. Her lessons helped me and my sister to get to where we are.
Was there any event in particular that made you feel smart and powerful?
There are many such events, actually. My mother is a practicing Roman Catholic. Nevertheless, she divorced my biological father when I was about eight years old. She told us she did that because she didn’t want to raise girls in that kind of marriage, because it was not what a woman of her caliber, and certainly her daughters’ calibers, deserved. It was a massive decision for her, because it went against her religion and culture as an African woman. However, she had to do it because of us.
She was prepared to take whatever it was life dealt her; however, she didn’t want us to live a life where we felt we had to settle. So having someone make such an important life decision for me overwhelms me till today. Because of it, I have a sense of responsibility about living my life to the best of my abilities.
How did you get your first job?
It was university recruiting. After I graduated, I had two options: train as an accountant or do a Masters’ program. As someone who believed I could do anything, I applied to the top five firms at the time. One of them, PwC, gave me an offer but it was about six months after I applied, which means I would have had to enter with the next intake, instead of the one I applied with. By that time, Ernst and Young had given me an offer. I liked the way they treated me as a person and I could see myself doing well there. So, I accepted. I interviewed with them and got the job.
Why did you choose the training instead of the Master’s degree? What was the thinking behind your decision?
I’m not sure about my rationale as I was very young at the time. However, I looked at the relevance of the training to me – I spoke to people about what the work entailed and looked at the exam curriculum – and felt that training and accounting would give me a good understanding of how businesses work. As an auditor, you get to go behind the scenes and understand how it all works. You get to examine everything – business operations, legal, and tax. I liked the idea of that and the idea of unpacking what a company was really like by looking at their numbers.
At the time, it was what I thought would give me a better step into life. One thing I did then was set a timeline when there is uncertainty. I think about the type of person I want to be and the type of things I want. Then, I break it down to what I’ll achieve within a certain period, say the next two or three years. So, instead of trying to figure out my life at the age of 21, I simply ask “What are the skills I want to acquire now? What are the perspectives I think will enrich me and where’s the best place to get them?”
Do you think it was better to work at Ernst than get a degree?
Absolutely. Another big driver for choosing the training was that I was itching to get into the practicalities of the real world. There are merits to having a master’s degree. But for me at that time, the idea of working was more appealing.
What was your time at Ernst like?
It was very good, because it made me realize I did not want to be an accountant. It also taught me a lot. Being Nigerian and being my mother’s daughter, I didn’t realize I had some disadvantages, like being a woman and being black. So, I had to learn how to adapt culturally into the work environment. For example, if you’re working in England, and you don’t like going to the pubs or drinking beers, then you could be classified as unsuitable, as a lot of team and relationship building occur after hours. So, I had to learn how to interact enough to be part of the team.
Also, the work experience enriched and taught me a lot. But then it made me realize I was more interested in finance, which was why I eventually left for Lehman’s. I worked in global markets at Lehman’s. I did the same at JPMorgan for a while. Eventually, I switched to asset management, and then investment banking. Afterwards, I was appointed the West African region CEO of Renaissance Capital. That was my first opportunity to run a business in Africa. Even though I had begun covering Africa in 2006, I had never lived on the continent in my adult years. I certainly hadn’t run a business there. Eventually, I left Renaissance Capital and moved to Bank of America, because I felt I needed to work on a platform that was bigger and, therefore, could be more influential in implementing my plan to impact Africa’s development through finance. And Bank of America provided me with that platform.
How did you navigate the masculine-inclined culture of networking after work?
It is a constraint if you’re not doing what is considered normal, whether it’s playing golf, going to football matches, or pubs. It is important to realize this, especially when we get to the point where our technical abilities are no longer enough for progress. Because, apart from performing, you also have to understand how to play the game. Oftentimes, we women only focus on our jobs, instead of also thinking about how to manage engagements, relationships, and our careers.
Personally, I’ve been fortunate to have good people around me who have provided the necessary support I’ve needed to excel. For example, there was a time when I thought I should be promoted to the MD position at a company I worked for. I broached the topic with my boss and assumed he would do something about it. However, the promotion never came. And then I found out he never even nominated me. Instead of getting annoyed, I decided to try another approach. I asked around about what I could do to get the promotion I wanted and deserved. Many people were willing to share and that helped a lot.
As it so happened, there was an MDs’ meeting around that time that would have people from all over the world in attendance. They invited me and other rising talents to the event. I didn’t plan to go, because I was busy. At the time, there was this amazing lady in investment banking who called me and asked if I was going to attend the meeting. Then, she threatened there would be hell to pay if I missed it. Because of her, I attended the meeting. There, I met several MDs and connected with them. One of the people I met in that meeting was somebody who would later interview people about whether I should be an MD. While he didn’t know me beyond that conversation, I was no longer just some name on a file to him. I was a human being who he had connected with. If that lady hadn’t made me go to that meeting, I would have missed out on networking with the right people and getting an understanding of the requirements for making MD and making sure they understood why I was qualified.
As women, we need to understand the system we’re working in and play it to our advantage in an authentic way. Instead of simply working, we should also learn to speak about the work we’ve done. More importantly, we need to understand how to network and engage effectively. Networking with people you like, for example, your friends and family, is interesting. However, it doesn’t necessarily help you advance in your career. To get your message across and do the work you need to do, you will have to network with people you don’t necessarily like or understand. And it is in doing this that we push ourselves to be more diverse in our thinking.
In your opinion, what is effective networking and engagement?
I believe effective engagement happens in two ways: what you want to give to the situation and what you want to get from it. For me, networking starts with identifying where you are and where you want to be. It is about being proactive, reaching out, and risking rejection. Effective networking is about having a meaningful reason for following up on someone. It is about finding people with whom you can share mutual value. Many people go to events, collect business cards and make contacts they won’t bother to follow up with. It shouldn’t be.
What are your thoughts on work-life balance?
Work-life balance is very important because working really hard and not finding a balance will only have detrimental effects. However, I’m not sure our lives are ever fully balanced. I think we have phases of our lives where we can afford to work harder and phases where we can’t. I am an employee, a mother, a wife, a daughter, a member of her community, and a friend. To achieve balance, I have to identify the most important things during the phase I am currently in. Then, I have to prioritize and work toward achieving them.
Where did you raise your children?
I have one daughter. She’s 18 now and she was born in England. She studied in England until 2009, when I moved to Nigeria to head Renaissance Capital. We were there for four years. It was a phenomenal experience. We’re both Nigerians; however, we had physical adjustment issues when we arrived. I was quite upset with myself for taking her back at that time. But when I look at it all in terms of what it did to her strength of character and confidence, I do not regret it.
What structure did you have that helped you with your family and career?
I was lucky to be mentored by a senior woman at JPMorgan who said to me, “To be successful in this position as a woman, you need to have infrastructure.” Infrastructure takes two forms: the one you pay for and your support system. To me, the one you pay for is a necessity as you can rely on it whenever you need it. Your support system refers to your family, friends, contacts at your child’s school, and so on. In my experience, infrastructure is an investment and it doesn’t have to make sense to everybody. If it works for you and eases your responsibilities, then go ahead with it, even if other people think it’s excessive. We may not need our infrastructure every day, but when we do, it can make all the difference.
Why do you think there aren’t more female CEOs in Africa?
I think there are two reasons for that: the first is that women are not given enough opportunities to demonstrate their capability, while the second is that we face certain cultural challenges in Africa that make it hard. For example, women are not encouraged to take charge, especially in situations where there are people older than us, and that can make us struggle.
We’re told to respect our elders, to not put ourselves out there too much, and that men should be in charge. Of course, I’m generalizing now but it applies to enough women for it to matter and for us to want to change it. Because of this culture, we are hesitant to reach out for roles and opportunities that put us in charge. What’s more? We women never think we’re ready for that big, challenging assignment. And those of us who take on these roles encounter men and women, both young and old, who question why we’re doing it and, in some cases, don’t want to engage with us.
How do you handle such situations?
With amusement and grace. I am unaccepting of that kind of thinking and think we all have a responsibility to change it. However, being angry and upset about it is a luxury I cannot indulge in, as it distracts me from getting people to focus on what matters.
How do you think we can increase the number of women in executive roles?
We need to start by educating more women, as the more educated women we have, the more they can take positions of authority later in life. I’m talking about both academic and life education. In the workplace, we have to be consciously intentional about what our organizations are doing to make life tenable for women and how they are encouraging their development.
How many of us think the maternity leave requirement in our organization isn’t good enough for mothers, yet don’t say anything about it? How often do we embrace women we think are smart and connect them with sponsors that are relevant to their journey? The women who’ve made it to the highest level have had people who, at some point, looked out for them and ensured there were structures in place for them to succeed.
What do you think is the difference between mentors and sponsors?
A mentor is someone who will tell you the truth and offer you a different perspective, mostly on your professional life. In other words, mentoring is helping someone navigate their professional issues.
On the other hand, sponsorship is about taking some measure of responsibility for someone’s career and supporting the person’s ownership of their career. It is saying: I am going to recommend Teresa for a job, then using my influence and research to convince the right people to give her a chance and the right structure to hold her up should she flounder along the way.