Forward Leadership – Uche Ofodile’s passion to see young African leaders at their very best

Uche Ofodile is passionate about supporting Africa’s next crop of leaders. She is a strong advocate for women empowerment through ‘forward leadership’ and has for the past 10 years been at the forefront in driving business turnarounds for top multi-national companies across Africa. She has taken up some of the most powerful jobs in Africa’s telecommunication industry including CMO and more recently a CEO role in DRC

In this interview with Nana Appiah Acquaye, Uche talks about her career rewarding experience in DRC and her desire to contribute to nurturing and developing talent in Africa.

Biztech: Welcome back from the DRC. How was the experience as a first time CEO and in DRC?

UO: It was by far one of my most exciting career experiences. First of all, it was a completely new experience, I had never worked in a francophone country so I had to try to quickly learn French.  It was also my first CEO role. When I first arrived in DRC, I took the opportunity to travel across the country and I was pleasantly surprised at the beauty of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They have the most beautiful landscape.

From the moment I landed in Kinshasa, what was obvious was the energy of the people, they were so vibrant. My immediate thoughts were how can I harness this energy through use of technology? And indeed that was my challenge for the subsequent 2 years.

Our strategic focus was to turnaround the commercial performance, improve the brand perception as well drive a much stronger employee performance and engagement. I believe we were able to achieve all 3 and this eventually led to an in-country acquisition by Orange.

Looking back on it, I can honestly say this role was by far the most challenging and probably the most rewarding career experience.

Biztech: Tell us, in what ways is technology changing the lives of the people in DRC?

UO: As a business we were very eager to get people connected, especially online. Internet penetration in DRC is still below 10 percent and this was a big opportunity for us to drive data. Our goal was to find really innovative ways to get people online.

One way we approached this was through partnerships. One of our most successful partnerships was with Facebook to provide people with access. We launched a product that gave new data subscribers free access to Facebook and a number of other sites relevant to our customers and we were also able to do a workshop for some of our external stakeholders including very senior government officials.  We were able to bring more people online and we also demonstrated to that it is a useful tool to speak directly to their constituents. It was brilliant.

One of the biggest challenges we faced was providing the Congolese with affordable Internet ready devices (a big consideration for access) and there were serious challenges on taxation of handsets. This of course made it very difficult. Countries that have been able to address high taxation on devices have seen a significant uptake in internet usage.  This is a positive result and one I would like to see replicated across the continent.  

Biztech: What do you say about the industry being largely male dominated and what are the challenges facing women in Technology?

UO: Yes it is true that the tech industry is still largely male dominated, however I think in the last couple of years things are beginning to shift.  In Ghana for example 3 out of 5 of the MNOs are run by women.  There were none 2 years ago. I see similar trends in other industries as well.  However, it's by no means problem solved.  There is still a challenge with the pipeline and the stories about women in senior roles are still too few and far in between and it requires leadership from the top to address and fix it.

I remember on my first day on the job in DRC, I met the management team in the boardroom and I was very surprised to see that they were all men, all of them. 12 people and not one woman! I was determined to change that and over the next few months through internal promotions and external hires, we went from 0 to 40% on the executive team. In the wider business, we focused on identifying talent through a mentorship programme.  Most importantly I tried as much as possible to meet and speak with as many women as possible to talk about the need to articulate their ambitions. We need to be active participants in our careers which means saying what you want and not being afraid. It was only after I said I wanted to become a CEO and started working towards it that it eventually became a reality. It was not easy but it all started with me saying it out loud.  I am also a strong advocate for taking careers risks and this includes taking up roles which are more challenging and may even be outside our comfort zones and sometimes country.

Biztech: Do you believe that organizations should have quota for women or there should be an opportunity that women should put themselves forward?

UO: I see quotas as a necessary evil. Necessary in some organizations to force the change. In my situation for instance I had a mindset that I wanted diversity in the leadership team and within the business because I strongly believe diversity is important to the growth and development of any organization. It is extremely difficult to achieve diversity if the leader does not believe in it. It requires support especially from the top.

Biztech: Now let’s talk about your other passion. How do you plan to support young people across Africa with the knowledge and experiences you have acquired over the years?

UO: Lately I have been doing a lot of writing on my website, and on my social media pages @ucheofodile.  I am also taking up more speaking engagements. All these are geared towards sharing my experiences and spurring others on. I have a great community of over 70,000 people on my platform and these include people from several other African countries. Its interesting engaging them and getting varied perspectives on various issues. At present I am looking at other opportunities to nurture the community, grow and deepen the engagement.

Africa is on a path to greatness however we need talent to facilitate this growth. And I am not just talking about formal education, we need young leaders who can think on their feet and take bold decisions that will drive Africa forward. By providing mentorship and guidance we can help nurture and develop talent that will drive the African agenda. I want to be a part of the many that guide our young leaders to greatness. I want to see them driving change and growth.

Biztech: Having worked in Nigeria, Ghana and DRC, what do you see as forward leadership in Africa?

UO: For me, forward leadership is about pulling people up to sit at the table and contribute in a meaningful way that impacts positively on people, businesses and the continent. It is about making people understand the importance of looking at the bigger picture. It is also about advancing the needs of businesses and ensuring the welfare and wellbeing of the people that work within the organization. We also have a responsibility to improve the living standards in the communities where we operate. 

Leadership, as I keep telling people is not about being the senior person. We can all help pull up those behind us. For instance someone in his first job can serve as a leader on his team and mentor someone who is in senior high school. Such a person can guide them to make better and informed decisions about academic work and career choices.  Forward leadership is about reaching out to young people, helping them to progress and achieve the best of their competencies and more. 

Biztech: What is next for Uche Ofodile?

UO: Well, I am spending well deserved time with the family and mulling over a number of opportunities. After two very complicated business turnarounds over the last eight years, I want to make sure I continue to take on opportunities that stretch me, allow me to have a big impact on businesses and people.  I strongly believe that my skills are industry agnostic so what I bring to the table in terms of driving a business can be done across a number of industries not just telecommunications. 

UO: In the interim, I am keenly pursuing one of my biggest passions of encouraging and driving leadership among young Africans especially women. I am saying to them, you can do it and therefore put yourself forward. I am telling them do a great job and the rewards will come experience and brilliant execution. I am urging them that no matter how challenging things get at work, never burn bridges because this community of talent is so small. I want to help them navigate this career journey so they can realize their ambitions today and even the ones they don't realize they have.

UO: And the response so far has been great. What’s wonderful is as I share my knowledge, I am learning a lot from them as well.  That is pretty exciting to me.


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