Conversation with Agnes Gathaiya, CEO – IPSL, the Spirit of Progress
In Kenya today, Pesalink is offered by most banks and allows customers to make payments by moving money straight from their bank account to another bank account real time. The instant payment platform is built and managed by Integrated Payment Services Limited (IPSL), a fully-owned subsidiary of Kenya Bankers Association (KBA). In its first 24 months since it was rolled out in February 2017, it has enabled the movement of about KSh 150 billion. But that comes as no surprise, since it is the cheapest way of sending KES 10 to KES 999,999 from point A to B, and it eliminates the time lags involved in traditional methods of money transfer since it is real time, cashless and is account to account.
Kenya was about the 10th country globally to introduce instant payments and in the one year that the current CEO has been on the seat, at least 12 countries have come to benchmark on how they have successfully rolled out the platform. And now, the mission of Ms. Agnes Gathaiya, Pesalink CEO, is to ensure that Kenyans know they have the convenient option of using Pesalink in their daily transactions.
But just who is she, and how did she get to that position? She has a comprehensive and diverse portfolio in her career journey. She has juggled consulting, technology, banking, traveling for business and motherhood. These experiences laid a foundation and defined her passion for the dynamic payments industry.
Her bold and expressive style has been quickly respected within the industry and she shares her journey, purpose and evolving spirit with Daisy Moraa.
DM: The previous IPSL CEO was a woman and so here the CEO seat is not a preserve for the men. How has the experience been like for you?
AG: I became the CEO of Pesalink in February 2018, that is just over one year ago. I went through a rigorous interview process. I don’t think they were looking for a woman CEO. They were looking for somebody with the experience and skills to be able to come and execute the mandate that was put in place by the shareholders. I went through a competitive recruitment process and then I got the job.
DM: Are there many female CEOs in the financial services sector?
We are very few women CEOs and not just in the financial sector. Today in banking, we have Nasim Mohamed Devji, who is the CEO of Diamond Trust Bank and Betty Korir of Credit Bank, out of 43 banks, soon to be 41 out of the post-merger activities.
DM: Is there a reason for the gender disparity in the top positions of corporate leadership?
I don’t know. Personally, I think leadership does not have a gender.
When I look back at the opportunities that were there for my mother, and those that were there for my grandmother, I think we have grown in such leaps and bounds in two generations that we should actually be proud of the gains.
Today in Kenya, about 19.8% of all board positions are held by women, but globally, the statistics is 15%. We are actually ahead of the global trend. Should we be excited and celebrate that 20% of the seats are taken up by women? Yes, to the extent that 5 – 10 years ago, that was probably lower single digit.
When you look at the education exam results the government periodically announces, and the statistics that say that actually 48.9% of people entering the formal workforce are women we see that for young women there is almost parity as they start their careers. Unfortunately, the number of women then tampers off to almost nothing as we get into the decision making and leadership roles.
DM: I would touch on a few things that you said. First, my generation and your generation have a lot of opportunities that our parents did not have. There are also a lot of qualified women who want to leave the job market because they are in a different season. Does this mean the systems we have are not conducive to understand that women are also caregivers at home?
AG: I find more and more companies in Kenya getting more progressive when it comes to creating a conducive environment that has balance. I have worked in a number of industries and companies both local and multinationals. All companies exist to create and maximise shareholder value. Companies are realizing how they create this value is as important as hitting those numbers.
We need to take a little bit of a long-term approach as to how that shareholder value is created especially when it comes to women. There is empirical evidence that shows that shareholder value is created faster and more sustainably when you have a good gender mix in decision making and leadership positions. If we look at many women there are about six years in their career that they get married, get pregnant, give birth and then there is the maternity leave. You come back to work, you work half days, you pump in the office or wherever you can and rush back home to breastfeed. After about a year and a half the cycle repeats. On average, women have two to three children. For those who cluster them, it is about six years of split responsibility. And this is where many of us drop off. Juggling a career and a new family is hard work
Some companies are actually awakening to this and are doing what they can – longer maternity leave, log-in from home options, pumping stations and fridges, creches etc all this to keep their top talent. The question is, what can we do as women to ensure we do not stagnate or fall off during that critical period in our lives?
During that time, you have to continuously be creating the same value that you were creating before. We talk about leaning in, but I find many of us have a tendency of leaning back and assume that the organization will no longer be interested in us when they realize we are pregnant.
DM: Leaning back, I suppose you have seen a lot of that. Have you been able to curtail that?
I worked at Chase Bank for a short time and after it closed, everybody started thinking about their future and one young lady came to see me and told me– by then I had already resigned – “You are very lucky. You know there is nothing I can do. I am pregnant and I cannot look for another opportunity until I have given birth”
I told the young lady, “First, who told you that, you can actually apply for jobs while you are pregnant. Nothing stops you. You know my dear, just apply. What is the worst that could happen?” She applied and she got a job. And she started a job at 8 months pregnant. Now, the organization that she went to is Co-operative Bank of Kenya. They hired her at 8 months because they saw the value she will add to the organization. When I left Chase Bank, I joined Safaricom and during induction week for new hires, there was a lady who was also 8 months pregnant starting on the same day I was”.
As I said, there is a growing number of organizations today in Kenya that look at the value and the contribution you are bringing. And if you are creating value every single day, in this day and age, there are employers out there who will not deny you new opportunities or promotions because you are pregnant or juggling raising a young family.
So, my advice to young women is don’t do yourself a disservice by sitting back and leaning back and shifting focus completely. By all means do not create risks to yourself or your child, but if you have a problem free pregnancy, you continue to perform and exceed expectations. Even when you are at home, read books, keep sharp. Ensure you are constantly growing, that way you continue being invaluable to that organization and they will never allow you to stagnate or leave.
Unfortunately, the inverse is also true. I have heard of organisations that look for ways to lay women off during this season. Sad but true. They don’t realize they are curtailing their long-term success and sustainability.
DM: I checked your LinkedIn Page, and your profile is impressive. Why did you choose the financial services sector how were you able to get into leadership roles and what does it take to be where you are now?
AG: Growing up it was made abundantly clear in our home that my parents only owed us an education. As soon as I was done with college, I was expected to find myself a job and get on with it. I have worked for about 21 years now. No short cuts here. I started working formally as a Business Analyst at Deloitte in 1998, and before then I had done all sorts of short-term jobs. I spent about 14 years there and it was the best training ground I could ever have had because I was exposed to client work in corporate finance, strategy, corporate recovery, operations management and human capital management for the first 7 or so years. My last 7 years focused on building a public sector proposition that focused on working with governments and donors to transform service delivery to citizens. That was very interesting and meaningful work.
By the time I resigned my job at Deloitte I felt that I was beginning to stagnate. I had a good team that delivered fabulous work, I had been in my position as an Associate Director for a bit and I definitely knew I was not ready for the next step which would have taken me into the Partnership path. That path would see me stop being an employee and become a shareholder. Completely different ball game. I had a new baby and I was the woman we have just discussed in the earlier question. The question was do I tread water until I was ready to take on the big responsibility that lay ahead of me or do, I move? I chose to move. I had three months’ notice to figure out what next.
DM: And were the three months enough for you to make your next move?
(Laughs) Mercifully and thankfully, Software group SAP came calling, they needed somebody to build up their public sector business. SAP is a German company, the largest software applications company in the world and when I joined them, I knew nothing about technology but knew tons about business development and had great commercial acumen. I learned everything I could about business and technology trends and challenges, solutions that SAP had developed to enhance organizational performance as well as what our competitors were doing and suddenly, I was selling software, preaching software. Doing all manner of presentations to organizations. Within three months, I was appointed to run the large enterprise business and deputized the Managing Director.
DM: How was it like working there?
I loved it. It was fun, most of the people were amazing and if it was an adrenaline rush I was looking for, I definitely got it! The pace of fast definitely high pressure. Though the position I took up at SAP was a lateral move from where I was previously, the stagnation I feared never happened as I learned so much and got hooked to the technology space.
DM: What made you move from that job?
I spent about 4 years at SAP and as I mentioned it was a great learning experience. It was a matrix organization which basically means I reported all over the place for different elements of my work. For a global organization this meant that I travelled a lot. Very quickly I had a KLM platinum card. I literally, lived on a plane and remember, at that time, I had a young child. A point came when I would wake up and it would be dark and I would open my eyes, look around, and wonder “Which country am I in?”
One day I came home and I found my 5-year-old daughter had written on the walls as she used to when she was two. I looked critically at everything that was going on. I realized my daughter was regressing because I wasn’t there. So, I wrote my resignation letter and handed it in.
I sat at home for six months to bring her back to where she needed to be. For six months every morning, I woke up, prepared and dropped her to school, picked her up at lunchtime, had lunch with her and put her down to nap. Later on, we would have dinner and I would put her down to sleep. Six months. Every single day for six months, that was our routine and she began to thrive again.
DM: Six months without work, weren’t the bills piling up?
(Laughs) Of course, it was hard financially. As a single mother, we rely solely on my income. I am glad that the value of saving was taught to me early in my life. But even with that, we had to really cut back on many things that were not essential. We stripped down to the bare minimum. I purposed to be home for 6 months and did it! Come January next year, I had two job offers. One from Chase Bank Kenya (currently acquired by Mauritian lender SBM Holdings) and one from the top global consulting firm. At the time both made for excellent choices. And I took Chase bank. I knew if I took the other opportunity, I would soon be back living on an airplane.
DM: And then the Chase Bank scandal happened
AG: I had been at Chase Bank for about a year when this happened. Chase Bank had a great brand. Had a really good product and was really loved by customers. I was completely shocked when it closed and crushed because of the implications this had on my customers. I interviewed and got a position with Safaricom PLC soon after the bank closed. I worked there for one and half year.
DM: You have had interesting trajectories in career, what helped you scale up to become CEO?
AG: What is interesting to note is that Deloitte, SAP, Chase Bank and Safaricom were all lateral moves for me. I barely made more money one job to the next, levels of responsibility were almost the same, distance from top leadership (I was reporting to the CEO) was almost the same except at Safaricom
However, each job was an opportunity to learn something new. SAP introduced me to technology, Chase Bank introduced me to banking and Safaricom introduced me to telecommunications and service provision. So, when the Pesalink opportunity came up I had found a perfect match since Pesalink marries everything I had done. So, here I am.
DM: Now you are at the top, how is it being here and bringing all your skill sets and knowledge to Pesalink?
Globally the concept of instant payments – the ability to move money from one bank account to another real time is still very novel. There is no roadmap and again Kenya is ahead of the curve.
It is very exciting and my focus is on three things in the short term. One – all our stakeholders must be enthusiastically on board and pulling in the same direction. Two, our customers must love, have confidence and trust in what we are doing. The third is that all this must happen in an ecosystem that is safe and secure.
So, when I joined a year ago, I needed to fix those three elements for us to be able to move forward. It is still a work in progress, but work done has seen a surge in confidence and in the number of people using Pesalink for the first time as the customer journey has become more delightful. The number of people doing multiple transactions on a monthly basis has also greatly improved. We are not there yet and are still working at improving.
DM: What is the one piece of advice that you were told by someone else that would like to pass on to anyone who will read this interview?
AG: When I was in Deloitte, I was honored to have worked with many great people from whom I am indebted even today. John Kiarie and Harveen Gadhoke gave me a lot of latitude and taught me that leadership does not have an age or a gender. What it has is attributes that people look out for. If you have them, then you are a leader whether the title has been bestowed on you or not. If you start behaving like a leader, people will recognize you as a leader and within no time, you will have that title.”
I have kept that with me.