107 years ago, International Women’s Day (IWD) started as a socialist political event to promote women’s rights and their overall contribution to humankind. But even though there is still a lot to be done, it is very important to recognise women who have made it to the top in a highly competitive corporate world.

Through hard work and perseverance these women have been able to attain a level of authority over a group of employees while excelling at their jobs.

In line with this year’s theme #PressforProgress, the world’s largest spirits maker, Diageo is celebrating an outstanding African female leader, Jane Karuku. Jane is the Managing Director of Kenyan Breweries Limited and is currently overseeing the installation of the company’s latest investment, a $142 million new plant in Kisumu, which was announced by President Kenyatta last year. Once complete, this brewery will increase Senator Keg, a local beer popular with a wide spectrum of Kenyans, production by 1 million hectolitres annually in the first 5 years. This project will also create an estimated additional 1000 direct jobs for people in Kenya.

In an exclusive interview with Ventures Africa, Jane Karuku shares her experiences as a woman executive, what it takes to stay at the top, and some of the future projects that await her. She also shares her opinion on what progress means for women and the future of Africa.

My name is Jane Karuku. I am currently the Managing Director of Kenya Breweries Limited (KBL). This is my 5th year in the Diageo world, I served as a non-executive board member for EABL for 2 years prior to joining KBL as the MD. For most of my career, I have worked in FMCG companies, where I have been in different functions from marketing, sales and supply chain and in multiple geographies. I have also had good stints in telecoms and in the NGO world. I also possess a BSc in Food Science and Technology and MBA in Marketing.

Ventures Africa (VA): From your seasoned experience around leadership, how do you define the concept and what characteristics must every leader possess?

Jane Karuku (JK): Leadership is about unleashing the potential or inspiring those you lead to get to a higher and better place for themselves and in doing this, the organization delivers its objectives. As a leader, then, you must provide clarity of direction; (the vision and objectives). One must also have a high degree of EQ so that one can understand how to influence and align the organization with confidence and enthusiasm, and then hold yourself and the organization to account.

VA: Who are some of the leaders that influenced you growing up and also played a part in your Leadership style?

JK: My father has had a great influence on my leadership style – instilling in me the spirit of hard work, confidence and boldness in everything I do. I owe a lot to that character modelling in the formative stages of my life and career.

VA: What was it like rising up the corporate ladder, what were some of the challenges you faced as a woman?

JK: The most challenging thing is to balance family and work as this is always an ongoing struggle. Also as a woman sometimes when you go for a meeting, the other side would still be expecting a gentlemen, and some would even blatantly ask “where is everyone else?” This means that you always have to work hard and prove yourself and hold yourself to very high standards so that you are universally accepted.

VA: With over 20 years of experience in fast-moving consumer-goods industries as former managing director of Cadbury Schweppes East Africa, deputy chief executive and secretary-general of Telkom Kenya and one time president of AGRA; what is the experience like overseeing another major organization like the Kenyan Breweries Limited?

JK: Every role has its own experience and complexity. However, as a leader I am guided by certain ideals wherever I go – and that is leading with integrity and purpose. Always driving performance, winning with energy through people.

VA: How do you handle pressure when things aren’t going as planned?

JK: I am generally a calm person – under pressure, I stay calm and take time out to reflect, consult, review and try again or take lessons and move on.

VA: What are the important qualities you think will help women in the corporate world rise to top leadership positions?

JK: The most important thing for women leaders is self-awareness, a high Emotional Intelligence (EQ), reading widely and ensuring that we have the requisite skills. This is because there are so many issues we have to deal with and balance all the time. These qualities complemented by basic leadership qualities- communication, teamwork, influence, energy and drive and integrity – will make you successful.

VA: How important is mentorship for African women aspiring to leadership positions in business? And how do you think they can get this mentorship?

JK: Mentorship is very important for women in Africa. For a while now women leaders have been few, meaning that there are few role models. This is fast changing now and there are now many role models to look to. Mentoring needs to be intensified particularly in leadership and from both men and women. I have seen this exemplified at Kenya Breweries: whilst we still have a lot to do to fully embed our diversity agenda, we are making significant progress, especially around setting up women’s networks, and building a more robust pipeline for the future.

VA: Between 2008 and 2018, so much has been said about empowering women in a way to bridge the gender gap in Africa, how are you contributing to this end as a model to other women across Africa?

JK: I drive the agenda with a vision for my own organization: to hit 50:50 ratio in the next 5 years through recruitment, mentoring and coaching. As I just highlighted there’s a deliberate agenda for improving the ratios and the results are encouraging so far.

I am also involved in charity work, I love working with young girls, mentoring and coaching them. I am the Chairperson of an NGO, Precious Sisters, an organization that supports and pays for secondary school education for bright and underprivileged girls.

VA:In your opinion, what should the government do to involve a lot more women in political leadership positions?

JK: African governments have to be more deliberate at bringing more women into political leadership. Firstly it is to legislate on this agenda, and to make the tone and message from the top leadership clear. Also create or ensure that there are institutions that sustain the tension for implementation.

VA: Do you have any plan of going into politics or are you interested in politics?

JK: I do not have plans of going into politics.

VA: What do you think of the recent political leadership tussle in African countries like South Africa, Ethiopia, especially in Kenya?

JK: My independent view is that every political event in a democracy prepares it for future realities. Whereas some of these events have served to drag our continent’s development agenda, my view is that they are difficult steps towards political maturity. I won’t talk of other countries but I think Kenya has come a long way since the advent of multi-party democracy in the early 90s – we are a more open society today with lots of democratic space. My wish is that the citizens use the democratic space responsibly and that our future leaders understand the concept of servant leadership to take these countries to the next level.

VA: What are your views on the adverse climate change and its effect on food security and peaceful co-existence among farmers and herdsmen in some parts of Africa. What kind of solutions do you think the government should be thinking of to salvage the situation?

JK: Most players in Africa, citizens included, are alive to the fact that climate change is real, and here with us already. It is manifesting itself in extreme weather conditions, unpredictable timing, declining food productivity, desertification and the fight for water resources in many parts of Africa.

Firstly, governments must declare this as a crisis. This declaration will force all systems to re-think how we address this quickly and effectively; Leadership, resource allocation, new policies, regulation and enforcement, improving food productivity, diversification of food for people and animals, forest & water conservation, construction of dams to stop over reliance on rain fed agriculture.

VA: It’s really amazing to know that you have been on the leadership radar for more than 20 years now; it’s even more incredible especially as an African woman demonstrating differential abilities; What are those things that stood/ still stand out for you in your career?

JK: Self-belief, being bold and wanting to win through people therefore surrounding myself with great talent are some of the things that have stood out. I also think owning success and failure in equal measure is one of the most profound lessons I have learnt to date. It’s normal for every leader to claim success but I believe true leaders are defined by how they emerge from difficult situations. In the contemporary corporate world, which is becoming increasingly complex, leaders who embrace failure as lessons to tackle tomorrow’s problems will have truly transformational effect not only corporate but all leadership positions in our society. I am still learning.

VA: Your candid advice to other women out there?

JK: No one will give you a good opportunity just because you are a woman. A sense of “self-belief” and a “want to win” attitude is critical at whatever career point. You must acquire requisite education, skills and experience. Always stand out in performance amongst our colleagues. Put your best foot forward for the roles available in your organization. Create strong networks around you, get a mentor and most importantly keep learning.

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