Nasim Devji has worked at Diamond Trust Bank (DTB) since 1996 though she did not start as the chief executive, but rather as the regional co-ordinator-cum-financial controller.
It was a senior position she had landed after living abroad for 25 years. Mrs Devji had travelled abroad for schooling after she finished high school in Tanzania.
It was her mother that came up with the idea of Mrs Devji and her sibling schooling abroad. She figured that the opportunity would open many doors of excellence for her children.
Widowed while young, her mother had sacrificed to put them through school. It’s that resilience and determination that Mrs Devji would hold on to throughout her stay in the United Kingdom and in life.
“I saw myself as having no other choice. The only way of getting a life better than that of my mother was through education,” she said. Life in the UK, she says, was difficult and one she was not used to.
However, she enrolled for a degree in accounting because she said it allowed her to work as she studied, allowing her to pay for her tuition.
Upon graduating, she realised she needed to specialise to become marketable. She therefore went on to focus on taxation and later furthered her studies in the lucrative oil and gas business by studying oil taxation. She says she had seen the oil boom in the UK and she wanted to take advantage of it.
After years of toiling, she decided to pack her bags and head home. She left the UK and applied for a couple of jobs. The DTB job was the last among the other job vacancies she had considered. So when the invitation to join the bank came, she hopped in.
Her hard work was later recognised after five years of service when she was asked to take up the chief executive position at the company.
“It was scary and daunting at first,” Mrs Devji recalls. “I realised that there were several elements at play, several groups of people that wondered if I could do it but for me, it was their right to question and for me to prove them wrong.”
But Mrs Devji was not distracted by those who doubted her abilities in the corner office. Instead, she focused her mind and energy on creating structures for success, saying that “what mattered to me was the fact that once I accepted the position, I had to remain focused and deliver”.
The first thing she did was to look at the structure of the bank and the people who were heading the different departments. Several people also moved at the time giving her a chance to build her own winning team.
Today, she says she has a family of 970 employees and is happy to list her staff, her supportive husband and loving mother as part of her success and family.
Her husband has always been there for her. Whenever she hosts her staff over at the house for a meeting, it’s Mr Devji who will make sure that everybody is comfortable. Her mother’s cooking keeps them nourished.
“My mother always ensures the guests are well-fed,” she says.
Mrs Devji who enjoys watching wildlife from her new office on Mombasa Road has overseen DTB Group’s steady growth. The bank is now rated as one of the fastest growing commercial banks in the last five years with a market capitalisation of Sh59.8 billion.
The bank has matured its capital base through the years to billions of shillings. She has also seen it through four successful rights issues and posted greater net profits.
Last year, the bank moved offices to its Sh700 million DTB Centre on Mombasa Road, overlooking the Nairobi National Park.
But even as she leads the fast-paced growth of the bank, Mrs Devji is cognisant of the changing banking scene. She recognises that the scenario is transforming and she needs to keep up with the tempo.
“It’s moving extremely fast and there is really no time for one to sit and say I did well yesterday, because what worked yesterday may not work today.”
Though she notes that much in the banking sector has remained the same in the 19 years since she joined DTB, she says technology has influenced change.
“We still do traditional banking but what has influenced the change is technology from non-banking institutions like M-Pesa.”
M-Pesa is the mobile money transfer platform launched in 2007 by Vodafone for use by telecommunication firm Safaricom and Vodacom.
The impact of the service totally changed the banking sector in Kenya. Unbanked Kenyans were soon looped into the formal financial market by making low value daily transactions at a fee.
Years on, mobile money transactions has reached Sh6.5 billion daily as per latest figures from Central Bank of Kenya. At first, banks doubted the technology. But later, they had no choice but join in to connect their systems with the innovation.
At present, every bank in Kenya operates on the mobile money service platform. DTB, too, joined the bandwagon in 2010 as a special M-Pesa agent.
“The industry has no choice but to embrace technology and innovation. It’s very competitive,” she said.
Indeed, the banking sector in Kenya has in the light of technology become very competitive. Every minute counts and Mrs Devji, 60, is aware of that.
“The banks are at a crossroad where they know they have to embrace technology and bring in innovation otherwise in the long run they may not remain competitive.”
Mrs Devji’s foresight in banking and as the only female chief executive in a listed banking institution is impressive. She also happens to be one among only three women heading listed companies in Kenya, a position many women are still fighting to arrive at.
I ask her if associations and groups should be formed to push women to such positions. And her answer is a quick “No.”
“One thing that I believe got me to where I am is hard work and focus. Just don’t be distracted. If you are serious about what you are doing, give it a go. Someone somewhere will recognise it.”
Mrs Devji has leant to fight for her space in the corporate world using her skills and will. She has always believed that one can only be a strong leader through hard work and experience but not special treatment.
“To get to a place without a journey or experience makes you a weak leader,” says the chief executive who is fond of reading career advancing books to refresh her knowledge.
Handing one a seat without them competing for it is not her cup of tea. She calls on women to be ready to compete for positions and perform well for them to get recognition.
She holds a strong opinion on feminism. She is not afraid to contradict its proponents because perhaps she feels her side of the story must be told.
“I really don’t ascribe to that (feminism) because I think they (women) will come out as better leaders if they go through the journey. Experience teaches a lot which you will never acquire if you simply get a position to fill a quota,” she says.
The Federation of Kenya Employers is among organisations fighting for a level playing field for women in boardrooms. While their efforts are justified, Mrs Devji advises women to also consider competing with men to earn it. It’s only through hard work and keeping focused she says, that women will come out and take up the positions they yearn for.
While other women have had to be pushed to the board by male executives, Mrs Devji is pulling her staff in, some of whom are men so long as they qualify for the job.
She is glad to mentor them, once in a while inviting them for board sessions with directors. She is doing what she feels needs to be done. Female or male, each has a chance to advance in their career.
The Western buzz about life-work balance is another subject she feels is derailing women from achieving their full potential. She feels women who have great potential are spending more time trying to fit the work-life balance and losing focus as they end up not achieving either.
“When I wake up in the morning and to go to work, I know I may have to deal with a grumpy secretary. I have to push some people because I want results and I may stay late working. This is what makes up my life. So there is no line between work and life. Everything is part of life.”
Demanding careers should not be an excuse either. “It is possible to balance all of that. One day you may have to work late, the next you will be going home early,” she says.
Mrs Devji believes that it is the quality and not quantity of time one spends at home with family that matters.
“You can be home for 10 hours watching television and not attending to your children. What good is that? Or you can spend an hour with your child and give them the best in that time.”
She, however, recognises that choosing what to do with one’s life is a personal choice – same to picking a career over marriage. Whatever your choice, her advise is that you should be true to yourself.
“I’m not saying abandon one and take another because it’s from within that you can accomplish what you choose. All you need to ask yourself is, what is required at home today? What needs to be done at work?”
But ultimately you will need to make sacrifices. “You can’t move on in life, if you can’t make some sacrifices.”