Sometimes, Go slow to go fast! Entrepreneurs like myself always want to go fast, we love to build. But there always comes a time when you face adversity, pressure and challenges. Every decision and reaction can’t be made just as quickly. Learning to go slow to go fast only gives you great room for perception and more precision in decision making — with foresight as opposed to spur of the moment, often damaging reactions.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Natalie Jabangwe, CEO of EcoCash Zimbabwe. Natalie is currently the youngest chief executive to run a corporate mobile money business in Africa — EcoCash. EcoCash is Zimbabwe’s leading and Africa’s fastest-growing mobile money service of telecoms giant, Econet Wireless and was the 2017 corporate recipient of the Mobile World Congress “Best Mobile Payment Solution”, Glomo Awards. Natalie holds a BSc Information Technology and an Executive M.B.A. (Specialisation in Hi-tech Strategy and Corporate Turnaround) from Imperial College Business School in London, UK. In 2018, Natalie was named a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, in the top 10 upcoming African economic leaders by Choiseul100, and was also appointed to the UN Secretary General’s first global Digital Financing Taskforce.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Professionlly, I’m an accidental computer engineer, my childhood dream was to become a lawyer but my mother encouraged me — in a sense, forced me — to study technology nearly 15 years ago. She was living in the UK at the time and had grasped the winds of tech and was convinced the world would be dynamically shaped by this advent.
My life was inevitably shaped by this decision. I went to university to study computer science and by the time I was in my second year, I had emerged as the top excelling female student, which earned me a place on the Mayor of London’s Leadership Exchange scholarship to the US.
The scholarship was integrated with an internship in the Mayor of Atlanta’s office, serving directly in Shirley Franklin’s office — Atlanta’s first female mayor. At the age of 21, I was responsible for developing the city of Atlanta’s first information technology security policies.
This experience fast tracked my career pathway in financial technology for investment banks, where I got experience setting up trading platforms for some of the bluechip investment banks on the square mile and Canary Wharf in London. I later moved to a fortune 500 firm, NCR corporation, where I was responsible for shaping the company’s digital financial services strategy across multiple markets. This included making a recommendation to accquire Retalix (a chinese software firm) for $650m in 2012, and a flagship deal with Paypal. It was at this stage, I was head-hunted for the top job in Africa, at EcoCash. A perfect opportunity to disrupt financial services digitally, in a way not witnessed before, globally.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Technology is historically a man’s world. In my first job after university, I was hired as the first woman and black person for a top software house in London. Being a minority came with its challenges but I was unphased. Another experience was that of taking on a high-pressured career at an early age, working as Senior IT engineer for investment banks on the trading floor, supporting hard core dealers who are counting spot and forward rates, nails to hammer, where speed is of the essence and superior excellence is demanded. At the time, an industry sector where minority races hardly got hired.
Both experiences taught me that resilience, diligence and hard-work will make you outstanding against any prejudice. As a result, I’m a non-believer in prejudice and I’ve gone out there, aiming for the most audacious dreams.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I had some rules of thumb:
1. Don’t take yourself too seriously, we’ll make mistakes along the way, correct them and keep going
2. Figured that perfection is the enemy of good, progress is more important than perfection, there’s no guarantee on getting anything right, first time, only grit, keeps us going.
3. Meditation, perception and introspection have always given me the space to reflect, restrategise and move on in difficult times. It’s important to take time out, for clarity, under pressure.
4. Believing that we have the power to change things, no matter how tough the going, history has proven this to us, over time. No situation is unbroken, untenable or unshakaeble forever.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
After being head-hunted to drive the growth of EcoCash, in Zimbabwe, and one of the largest in Africa, there is much to look and marvel at, five years later:
Financial inclusion in Zimbabwe was only 10% of banked people, when the business launched in 2012. Today, country penetration of banking is now at 90% because of EcoCash, contributing to nearly 75% of GDP in terms of values we process. With over 9 million customers, we are the largest financial service in the country and second largest by contribution on the African continent. In 2017, Mobile World Congress awarded us the Best Global Mobile Money Solution accolade. It’s concurrently surreal and humbling to have been at the centre of shaping this digital progress in Africa.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
As a childhood dream, I always wanted to study law, and was fixated on it to the point of pre-occupation. At some point, I decided I’d focus and re-direct my passion to computer science, a college option that my mother ferociously negotiated on me, she was a firm believer in tech. Retrospectively, I shouldn’t have gone through so much resistance, but simply kept an open mind and embarked on earlier research, on this option. I’ve learnt, it is possible to learn new skills at any stage. I became very good in this space, once I investigated the tech industry in depth, and re-focused my passion. Today, I keep an open mind on everything, there’s never a one size fits all perspective on my outlook, I challenge the status quo, questioning, gathering vast range of facts, and trying out new experiences. I think this approach makes me an outstanding innovator and certainly something that contributes to my success.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We fail fast, and are not fixated on our failures. A couple of years ago, we decided to innovate a mobile phone centric version of e-Commerce linked to our mobile payment platform. The market was not ready for it, it was an early failure. I was crushed because the product was superior. To date, Africa is still gearing up for a pure e-Commerce and logistics play.
To my surprise, our Group chairman, Dr. Strive Masiyiwa, congratulated me for it in an EXCO meeting. Surprisingly a hefty failure that I was celebrated for. His rationale was, we had pushed the boundaries in an unready market. The lesson; we should always be pushing beyond our comfort zone, to increase our chances for success.
You can almost tell the company culture we have, experimental and innovative, driven right from the top to bottom. There are no penalties but celebration for this culture in our organisation.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Rest, reflect and meditate as often as you can. Taking time out to rest and re-energise provides for great foresight and minimises regrets. Impeccable for laser sharp decision making in a dynamic business environment, especially in a world that graviates on social media for opinions.
Reading avidly and travelling incessantly are critical for continous learning and broader perspectives. In addition, keep a good but small support network of confidantes — needed for those days when your energy and confidence wanes out.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Having role models to look up to, who’ve had similar challenges, particularly on prejudice, but without succumbing, became a great source of help and inspiration;
At the early stages of my career, watching a woman of colour like Michelle Obama become first lady in 2008 kept me inspired beyond the prejudice of race. Having women like Ursula Burns, once CEO and Chairman of Xerox, an engineer and person of colour like myself, rising to the top and shaping a global tech firm, gave me great courage beyond the prejudice of gender. I was fortunate, in fact blessed, to have Mayor Shriley Franklin, the first female and African American Mayor at the city of Atlanta as my first boss, while interning for her. She gave me a big job at the age of 21, to deliver the city’s first IT security policies and was a good example against the prejudice of having great ambitions.
With these sources of inspiration to draw from, I never looked back on my potential, when I was faced with hard times.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
As one of the youngest CEOs of a corporate fintech in Africa, I’ve been recognised as a young global leader of the World Economic Forum, also named top 10 upcoming economic leaders in Africa by Choiseul 100 network, became a member of YPO, the world’s largest institute of young CEOs and recently appointed to the UN Secretary General’s 17 member advisory task force on digital financing. I use these platforms to influnce on digital policy and innovation that will reshape the economic transformation of the African continent. Beyond my professional remit, as a leader, I’m championing the development potential of others.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Don’t ask for permission, go for gold, always!
Earlier in my career, I already had a flair for audacious goals as well as good inclination on tech trends globally. Initially, I thought my ideas were far fetched and imaginative. But I took the chance for personal development by doing an Executive MBA at Imperial College Business School in London, a world reknown instituion for shaping and producing some the world’s best inventors. In this envionment, I was inspired to become comfortable with innovation, experiments and audacious goals. While studying there, in 2012, I developed an NFC (near field communication) based smart phone App for students and represented Imperial College Business School at the 2012 London Olympics Business Programme. This led to a culmination of a series of events that built the credibility that paved way for my current role.
Schedule time out!
In as much as it is important to work hard, I remind my team, all the time, on the importance of working hard and enjoying what you do. Adding fun to our goals inspires and energises our work. At the early stages of my C-Suite role, I spent endless hours in the office, this came at a cost to time spent with my daughter and it almost affected her early education pathway. I went on a “balancing course” by Success Management Institute, it changed my approach to balancing my life comittments, all round. The business has thrived to greater scale, I am available for my daughter, friends, family and I stil have enough time for the team and for strategic thinking.
This has always been a rule of thumb, and I should have practiced this and integrated it into my work much earlier. Making work enjoyable provides for inspiration and energy. It means that my team and I love spending time on the job because in as much as it is hard work, it is fun! We are often plugged in, almost infinitely.
Sometimes, Go slow to go fast!
Entrepreneurs like myself always want to go fast, we love to build. But there always comes a time when you face adversity, pressure and challenges. Every decision and reaction can’t be made just as quickly. Learning to go slow to go fast only gives you great room for perception and more precision in decision making — with foresight as opposed to spur of the moment, often damaging reactions.
Build with growth insight, from the onset!
The biggest lesson of them all. Leaders of entreprenuerial start-up firms, that grow into huge corporates have been caught unaware on the challenges that come with growth. From Mack Zuckerberg, Travis Kalanik, most have faced challenges on systems processes, regulation and governance. We morphed into the largest financial service in the country in the shortest possible time, building for growth from day one would have saved some on operational pains that came with hyper-scale growth. We got there eventually, painfully so, by responding very swiftly to the changing needs of a growing business.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I have started one:
It should become Africa’s number one platform that features inspirational stories and role models on the continent, of under 40’s. It is important for people prejudiced for so long, to understand that, themselves; not others, have the power to influence and change their circumstances. Providing a platform to drive home the nuance of ownership and innovation, is a movement im looking forward to curating — www.africaxshow.com — video blogging micro-site
Secondly, I have also cofounded an innovation hub — www.ibuhub.com, centered on identifying some of Africa’s innovative ideas, provide an ecosystem that supports these to scale, make linkages for global capital and markets.