My Pivot Journal is a Ventures Africa weekly series documenting people’s career transitions from one industry to another, especially to tech.
Mercy Bobai’s career was mapped out for her, even before she knew what a career meant. She was going to be an engineer. But after two engineering degrees, a family loss, and some hard money lessons, Mercy realized engineering is not as fulfilling as she hoped. She decided it was time to evolve. A tough decision considering why she had become an engineer in the first place. But a few years later, Mercy is confident she made the right choice.
Here is Mercy Bobai’s pivot journal.
How it started
Raised in Abuja, but from southern Kaduna, Mercy Bobai grew up in a traditional northern home. Her dad was the breadwinner, and her mom was a full-time housewife. Mercy, on the other hand, wanted a different life for herself. Thankfully, she was an excellent Mathematics student. Everyone thought she would make an excellent engineer. “I am a very analytical person. My dad, who was also my first mentor, thought that engineering would be the most aggressive expression of my mathematical skills. I was a driven kid. So I went for it,” she recalls.
Mercy studied chemical engineering at Igbinedion university. “I loved it. Engineering expanded my mind. That was the blessing that came with it,” she says. While in school, Mercy worked two different internship roles; one with Kaduna Refinery and Petrolchemical Company (KRPC), and a second with the Nigerian atomic energy commission (NAEC), where she was part of research seeking to extend the shelf life of farm produce. After bagging her first degree, Mercy got a job with the Energy Commission of Nigeria, (ECN). “We were not at the forefront of energy research. We did a lot of background research. But it was interesting to catch up,” she recalls. A year later, Mercy enrolled in the University of Surrey to get a second degree, an MSc. in process systems engineering.
Sadly, just before Mercy’s final MSc. exams, her dad passed. “It was a couple of days before my final exams. I remember I had to come back to Nigeria. Not only was my dad the breadwinner, but he was also my mentor. He was the one guiding and encouraging me on my engineering journey. So when he passed, it just threw me off,” she says.
With her mentor gone, Mercy lost motivation for engineering. “That was when I realized I do not have any internal engineering drive. I was doing it because someone I looked up to thought I could do it. I wanted to make him happy and prove he was right,” she recalls. This realization made Mercy reflect on her career choice and future. “Finishing my MSc. became a struggle. I was dealing with so much grief and confusion.” But that was not all. As the first child, her dad’s death meant Mercy was about to be saddled with new responsibilities. One of which was handling her dad’s finances. But things were not as straightforward.
A relationship manager from the bank was assigned to help her family sort out their financial options. “He tried to sell this beautiful fixed deposit product. With the product, we would get 15 percent returns for a three-month tenure,” she recalls. But 15 percent per annum for three months was just a quarter of the money, a percentage that was not worth the investment. “My finance knowledge was so non-existent that I did not stop to think. I also did not know my options,” she recalls. After the family received their principal plus interest, they were surprised to get a 10 percent debit alert for withholding tax. “For me, it was just fraudulent. That was another thing I was not aware of,” she says. It was a painful way to lose money. But it would begin Mercy’s quest for financial literacy. “I wanted people to know their options with financial products. It is one thing to know your options and not use them. It is another to not know at all.”
Although Mercy had applied for engineering roles, she decided to add finance roles to her list. She was called back for engineering roles, including a 180k entry role at an industrial company. But she also got a job offer at a pan-African bank that presented a better opportunity than the engineering role. “I remember thinking how will they offer me 180k with all my qualifications when someone else thinks I am worth 230k,” she says. So she took the bank job. “Also, at that point, I had decided to get into finance. And the bank’s work culture and operations resonated with me,” she adds.
Mercy’s stint with the pan-African bank was instrumental to her gaining financial knowledge. After going through the banks’ required management training program, she spent 18 months rotating the entire banking system. “I worked in consumer banking, trade-offs, and even HR. It was an intense 18 months,” she says. She ended up working in the control analytics team, checking for fraudulent activities.
But her interest in financial products and investment was still dominant. “I believe everybody should be able to earn on their pennies. It is unfair that someone is using your money to trade and make profit, and you are only getting a marginal share,” she says. So she made an effort to move to a financial service organization. Her engineering background could only take her so far in finance. Financial market roles require a certain level of in-depth knowledge because they can be rigorous.
So Mercy registered for the ACI, a certification required of financial market staff in member countries. “It took me almost a year to complete it. I failed on my first attempt. I realized I had knowledge gaps, so I returned to the books. It took three tries for me to pass,” she says. “The hard part was having to unlearn and relearn. I struggled at different points. In finance, the theory is about understanding the fundamentals. But to apply these fundamentals to the market is different because of the dynamics and uncertainties,” she says. However, Mercy’s hard work paid off as she got her desired job four months after getting her certificate.
How it’s going
Mercy currently lives in Lagos, working as a Financial Market associate with Standard Chartered, an international multinational that offers banking and financial services across the world’s most dynamic markets. As a financial market associate, she supports the company’s financial market business, spanning sales, trading, and liquidity units. A typical day involves funding the bank’s position to ensure clients’ rates go through. “Depending on cash flow and my team’s outlook and projection for the tenure, we take advantage of liquidity opportunities,” she says. Mercy has to keep a close eye on the financial market to ensure her company is abreast. “Someone has to be at the bottom in the market. And you do not want to be that someone,” she says. “You need to be abreast of everything because each trade is either taking or bringing money into your position,” she adds.
Mercy enjoys the dynamics of her new role as it allows for ingenuity. “Engineering is quite straightforward,” she says. “You know that adding A to B would give you C. All you have to do is build on that knowledge. And building on that does not require thinking outside the box. The financial market is the opposite. I am not sure I have had two similar days as there is no copy-and-paste situation. You have to approach each day differently because of the unpredictability. Just like no one saw the Ukraine war coming after the pandemic. Even when the war started, no one projected the effect would get this bad. You could do everything right, and in the end, the market can go according to non-fundamentals or have inexpiable results,” she says.
Although Mercy wants to increase her financial knowledge, she is in no hurry to hold a textbook. Recently, she registered for the CFA Program, a three-part exam that tests the fundamentals of investment tools, valuing assets, portfolio management, and wealth planning. “I plan to get all three levels. But I want to take my time. Because right now, I am gaining more knowledge from experience compared to what I would get from a textbook,” she says.
Mercy is confident she made the right choice switching careers. “When I hear how much my engineering friends that ended up in oil and gas earn, it shakes me a little. But at the end of the day, I am satisfied with what I do. Despite spending so much money studying engineering, I know my dad would have wanted whatever would make me happy. And this gives me ultimate satisfaction.”
Use your currencies – network and communicate.
“I am learning to share my problems and ask for help. As soon as I tell someone about a difficult situation I am facing, I find out the weight is somehow off my shoulders. And there is always someone that might have a solution. Or they would know someone else that has a solution. That brings me to networking, the biggest currency right now. In these times, everyone is smart. So what sets you apart is the people you know,” she says.