“My advice to younger women?”, offered the buxom 50-year-old Kenyan lady sat opposite me in the canteen, “marry now, while you’re in love, to get it out of your system, then you can get divorced in a few years and start really getting on with your career and your life.”
We were at a Leadership Workshop for 60 female local entrepreneurs in Nairobi, as part of Goldman Sachs Foundation’s global 10,000 Women program. The only problem was, Rutendo, Ghoncheh & I were the facilitators, and these ladies were teaching us far more than we were able to teach them.
The day started with a rousing prayer full of clapping and shouting; even for the unreligious it warmed the blood against the surprisingly chilly Nairobi air. In groups of 20 we began by sharing the stories behind the various company names. I was amazed at how many women had incorporated their parents, husband’s or children’s names into the name of the business. Two ladies even admitted they’d christened their younger children after the company, to make sure the whole family was included. They were also impressively ambitious; phrases like ‘East Africa Ltd’, ‘Empire’ and ‘Global’ were the norm.
Next each lady ranked a list of 20 values - the kind that conflict in life every day such as family, accomplishment, wealth, love, recognition, integrity. Via a lively game moving round the room to stand under numbers which represented their priorities, the ladies revealed a lot about the trade-offs they were making. We discussed integrity, and almost all women ranked it 6th or 7th. They wanted it to be higher, they said, but the reality was that rules had to be bent if they wanted their business to succeed – ‘tokens of appreciation’ have to be given to officials, customers have to be persuaded of the superior quality of cheap Chinese goods. We discussed love, and all but one or two gathered en masse at the bottom rankings. ‘Our men hold us back’, they said, ‘prioritise them at your peril.’ We discussed recognition and there was fierce debate between those who thought it essential to be role models for younger women, and those who thought it missed the point of what being a role model was about. At the end we asked them to reveal their #1 ranked value – and all but a brave few stood next to Salvation, where a large group gathered and broke into spontaneous hallelujahs. The most revealing comment was whispered to Rutendo as the group formed: “You can’t ask us that here; we’re all going to say our first priority is God, no matter what the truth is.”
Later in the afternoon (after a discussion about leadership styles that fell so flat I’m pretending it never happened) we discussed ways of giving feedback. As facilitators, and perhaps naively, we showed the women a method called SBI (Situation, Behaviour, Impact) which encourages feedback based on facts, not feelings. They launched a collective counter-attack, saying this ‘diplomacy’ was too soft for the uneducated people they employed. They shared stories of workers who would be absent each day after their football team played, and employees who stayed late at work only to use the company buildings as a bedroom, and those workers who knew their importance and would use it to blackmail the CEO. For these people, they recommended ‘shock therapy’ – losing it with them once every few months so they know that you’re not soft. Eventually they came to an agreement – SBI was better than feedback based on feelings, but you should never be afraid to fire someone who is not committed, no matter how important they might seem.
Throughout the day these ladies intimidated me and inspired me in equal measure. They, with their medium-sized businesses, are the ones really driving the local economy, creating jobs, investing in growth, pouring their money back into their children’s education. They’re not doing it from a place of privilege, or as an ‘interesting career’. They’re doing it out of ambition, passion and commitment to their family’s future - and as the lady I had lunch with reminded me, to show their daughters what women can do.