Profiles

A walk in Bata first female CEO’s shoes

BATAA

Bata country manager Jeddidah Thotho during the interview at her Limuru office. January 19, 2021. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

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Summary

  • Bata has been in Kenya (its Africa's regional office) for 80 years and currently has 2,200 employees and 12 stores.
  • It has always been led by a revolving door of Caucasian men.
  • But now it has a new boss; female, black, by the name of Jeddidah Thotho. 

In 1894, three siblings from a cobbler town of Zlin in the Czech Republic started a family business. Tomas, Antonin, and Anna Bata started the Bata Corporation. The next year, Antonin left to join the army, Anna got married leaving Tomas to manage the company. The rest is history but Bata, according to online articles, has sold more than 14 billion pairs of shoes.

Bata has been in Kenya (its Africa's regional office) for 80 years and currently has 2,200 employees and 12 stores. It has always been led by a revolving door of Caucasian men. But now it has a new boss; female, black, by the name of Jeddidah Thotho. A corporate finance graduate of St Mary's University in the US, Jeddidah did an 11-year stint at Sears Holdings leaving as director to come back home 10 years ago where she did a six-year stint at Deacons as Director of Retail before joining Liberty Eagle Holdings. She spoke to JACKSON BIKO at their factory in Limuru.

Let's see the shoes you are wearing.

(Unfoots a pair) These. I am wearing what we call the Bata flexible. It's got ultra-flex cushioning insoles, so very comfortable. When you get to my age, of which you’re kinda there as we have determined (Laughter) you no longer wear high stiletto shoes. Comfort is very important now unlike before when it was all about fashion. Yes, fashion and the look is important but comfort is very important. One of the fastest-growing categories of shoes is sports. In the West, you’ll see people wearing suits with sports sneakers or sports-oriented shoes.

Yeah, a Kamala Harris look. How are your 40s, are they kind to you?

It’s quite good actually. For me, 40 is just a number. But I’m also realising that from a career perspective, I probably have 15 or so years until I retire, God willing. I’m enjoying the journey because I feel like I’ve evolved into the kind of woman I wanted to be. I still have some growth and more importantly, I have young girls looking up to me, wanting me to be their mentor, encouraged by the impact I’m making in society.

And what kind of woman did you want to be?

Growing up, I wanted to be a leader and I have held leadership positions since. I attended a school down the road — Loreto High school, Limuru —and I was a games captain. In the US, I was a hostel leader, acting like a mother taking care of the rest.

I also wanted to have a large family but I only have two children.

You’ve done poorly.

(Laughs) I have. But when I look back, I see young girls drawing closer to me. So they’re like my children.

What do you remember fondly about your 30s?

That’s when I started to take on leadership roles in the corporate world. I started to get managerial, director roles...

I didn’t yet have a family, I’m a late bloomer. I got children much later. They are seven and five years old. You go to the hospital and they’re like..., there’s a terminology they use for older women giving birth. (Laughs) So in my 30s, I was still single, living and working in the US. I had a good time in the US, a career, and a strong social network. It was about partying, going to Vegas, California, Hawaii, Florida, meeting new people, eating different kinds of food, but no real responsibilities. My 30s were good.

And what do you want to remember about your 40s?

Creating change in society. From a leadership perspective, now I have a role in Bata. I have numbers to deliver. But at the same time, I have a responsibility to make a change in society. I want to be known for having made a difference, having inspired.

When do you say you really discovered yourself as a human, as a woman?

I think in my 30s. I was working for a multinational, one of the Fortune 100 companies in the US. I had a career spanning about 12 years that had inclined to the director level where I was the only black woman. But that was also the ceiling because beyond that I wasn’t going to go anywhere.

It was also the time the American economy collapsed, hit by the recession, so companies globally started laying off people. I thought, ‘oh my goodness, if I’m laid off, then what? Am I going back to Kenya? Then what?’

I’d made enough money but I didn’t know what would happen after that? I started soul-searching, to try and find the meaning in life. I had property, but I wasn’t young and I had no children, no family. I reached out to family members here in Kenya. They’d tell me ‘Jeddidah come back. There’ll be lots of opportunities for you here.’ And I was thinking, ‘my friend, I’m working for a massive organisation with thousands of stores, who will I work for in Kenya?’

(Laughs) Arrogance and ego. It felt like coming would have been a downgrade. Then I slowly warmed up to the idea. I did a few interviews and landed at Deacons which was a perfect match. They had just received funds from an institutional investor. They had a small footprint, and were looking to expand. And they were looking for somebody with international experience, passionate about retail. I also became a mother. That’s how I discovered myself.

You mentioned your anxiety of time running out when you were riding high in corporate life in the US. Now that you have children, do you find that your anxiety had merit, in retrospect? Is it important to have children?

I think it is, at least for me. It’s made me more humane. To be honest I was very self-absorbed, it was all about me, my needs, my clothes, my career... Nobody else mattered, just Jeddidah. But now I have people to take care of, people with their own needs and vulnerabilities. I have to be empathetic towards those needs without placing myself in that path.

Being a mother has also helped me to be a better leader because when somebody comes here with a problem, I look at them as somebody's child. How would you want your child to be treated? My humanity has expanded as a result of being a mother. I see people in a different light.

In 2017, you and other top managers at Deacons were retrenched. What did that do to your self-esteem, ego, and sense of security?

It didn’t come abruptly. My boss at the time, Wahome Muchiri, prepared us for it. Also how it was conducted was fair and amicable so it didn’t necessarily knock me down. I realised that it was not personal, it was business.

First black female CEO at Bata in 80 years. Does that come with some pressure not to disappoint?

No. I’m not trying to prove anything. I’m just doing a job. When my bosses put me in this role they were confident in my abilities to perform. Of course, diversity is a big thing now globally and it must have played a role but I don’t think it was to tick a box. Having the right skills helped and I was here, I was ready and qualified and the moment was right.

What do you want to be remembered for at Bata when you are gone?

My leadership. Men lead differently. They are very hardcore; results-oriented. They want numbers, bottom lines. Women are different. Sure, we want those numbers, but it’s how we go about it. It’s the inclusiveness of decision making, making everybody part of the organisation. Most men thrive in hierarchical systems.

I would want a more flat organisation system where I get to understand things on a very detailed level, where decision-making is collaborative and very inclusive. I want to integrate wellness and health in leadership. I want to be known for change.