Caroline Armstrong on being born privilegedThursday March 23 2023
Caroline Armstrong-Ogwapit openly admits that privilege has played a substantial part in her circumstances in life. But it has also been a stump on her path.
She sits on several boards, including at Kenya Airways as a non-executive member, at AIB-AXYS Africa as the chairperson, and at the National Housing Corporation.
She is also the chairperson of the board of trustees at New Faces New Voices, the network of women established by former Mozambique and South African First Lady Graça Machel to amplify the participation and role of women in finance.
She says a ‘‘quirky’’ background, being born a girl, having mixed race, and the schools she attended anchored her on her path in life.
‘‘My mother was feisty and my father ran a nightclub. This meant I was less inclined to conform. I was, therefore, stronger and braver. I was not raised in a way that made me feel like girlhood was a handicap I had to overcome,’’ she adds.
At 18, Caroline was working in finance. At KQ, she represents minority shareholders. She calls the developments in the regional aviation industry a mixed bag.
‘‘We are creating a Pan-African airline. The first level will be between Kenya Airways and South African Airlines. Part of the reason for this [development] is to start to charge the aviation dynamics on the continent and to strengthen these companies.’’
To the executive, the struggles facing the local and regional aviation sectors are not unique. The region, like the rest of the world, she emphasises, is recovering from the effects of the pandemic that forced airlines to ground their aircraft.
‘‘The recovery in Africa is likely to be slower than the rest of the markets. This is because of the state of our economies. The industry is growing. In the past 15 years, there have been more local carriers than we have seen before. As the middle class starts to grow, you have more people able to and choosing to fly.’’
As a member of the board of the National Housing Corporation, she believes Kenya’s housing challenge lies in the mismatch between where the greatest demand is and where supply is being directed.
Her take is that the country must consider the country’s demographics to effectively address the housing challenge. ‘‘Half of our population is below 35, which means demand at the entry level is growing. Our supply, though, has traditionally targeted middle class and upper middle class.’’
The challenge is also in the cost, she observes. While consumers in some markets spend a third of their income on housing, Caroline says Kenyans often spend between 50 and 60 percent to own a house.
‘‘Kenyans can live in a rented house and will pay about two-and-a-half and three times to buy that same house. When you look at the ability to service the demand, few Kenyans can.’’
She cites the cost of finance as an impediment, which she says is compelling the market to look down the ladder toward low-income housing units.
‘‘Affordable housing across the country is being driven substantially. Part of the commitment to reduce this cost is through the provision of land.’’
Kenya has an annual demand of 150,000 housing units. The market, though, supplies 50,000 every year. ‘‘The deficit is pluggable. Countries such as Egypt made [provision of housing] a priority. They could generate funds themselves with the support of the World Bank.’’
Caroline notes that multiple players, from the private sector to financiers, must work together to realise this. ‘‘It comes down to the cost of money. This is what would reduce the cost of a unit to boost home ownership.’’
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To her, leadership is about integrity, fairness, and meritocracy. ‘‘It is about taking people with you. Do it your way. Everything else is input to your journey, not a prescription. To authentically succeed in a way that is of value to you, you must plan and do things as you.’’
Does she think men and women approach leadership differently? Caroline says, unlike men, women are more engaging and always seek to resolve conflict ‘‘rather than create it.’’
Do men deliberately create conflict? ‘‘Not necessarily. But it is a go-to behaviour for them. They do not always seek peace as the best alternative. Women are more inclined to consensus, networks, and teamwork. They are also more inclined to listen to multiple perspectives.’’
She argues that women leaders are also more people-focused than their male counterparts. ‘‘Behind people are lives and behind lives are families. They are not merely statistics.’’
Her belief, though, is that both men and men deserve more. ‘‘This does not mean taking away from somebody else. It is earning what is rightfully yours.’’
On family, she says the experience has taught her the importance of being purposeful in one’s choice of a life partner. Caroline is married with a 10-year-old daughter.
‘‘The family you are born in is what it is. Choose someone you grow with, not apart from. As you grow, are they also growing? Are you growing in the same direction?’’
‘‘My mother is my biggest cheerleader. My husband is my biggest encourager. He has made me do things I would otherwise not have done. I am braver than I would have been alone.’’
Having the courage to try out different experiences in life and parenthood are her biggest accomplishments in life.
‘‘Parenthood gives you focus and drive to be better and do better. But to also have a true vision of longevity and impact because there is a little person in your home who reminds you that they will live through the consequences of what you do. It makes you understand the gravity of your decisions.’’
‘‘My daughter makes me want to become my absolute best so that she can see and become better herself,’’ she adds.
Caroline’s mixed race allowed her to gel in different cultures with ease, she admits. ‘‘The schools I went to gave me different contexts on a lot of things.’’ But the same privileges exposed her to biases.
‘‘When you regard your circumstances as a handicap, you approach every interaction with a chip on your shoulder. This will often come to pass. I had to stop bothering about my race and sex because I could not change them,’’ she says.
Her position is that men and women alike ‘‘carry so much baggage’’ that makes them fight from a lesser position. ‘‘In what ways do you choose to overcome these [shortcomings]? In what ways do you translate them into gifts?’’
For someone who is so vastly experienced, are there things she struggles with at this point? Caroline stares away at the sprawling lawn, her expression contemplative.
She sighs deeply, before exhaling: ‘‘Yeah. Because I am still growing. I am still not there. I also do not intend to ever be there.’’
‘‘Depending on the people I am meeting, the setting, and the table I will be sitting on, I experience the imposter syndrome. It makes me nervous and it is quite daunting. But I always remind myself I am there for a reason. This helps me to ground myself.’’
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She admits that there will always be things that ‘‘scare you as a professional’’ and that it is important to express vulnerability.
‘‘You only see good stories posted on LinkedIn. I do not think this is reflective of everyone’s journey. You want to sit down with people and ask them about their hardest and most painful moments. This is when you get the real story.’’
Even as an executive, Caroline says she is busier now than before, but in a different way. ‘‘I do not know if you ever attain work-life integration. It happens in moments and on some days when things hum beautifully. I cannot say that I have it consistently.’’
But she also gets to choose what she must do herself and what she must delegate. ‘‘I am more purposeful and selfish with my time. I do not spend time with people I do not enjoy being with or those who do not add value to the things I want to achieve.’’
If nothing else, Caroline has a piercing curiosity about people, events, and experiences.
‘‘People do not ask questions when they get what they want. If I am chosen for a role, I always want to know why me. I like to see what others see in me. I like to know that our expectations are aligned.’’
Impact, she says, will always precede one.
‘‘When you go to spaces you imagine you are unrecognisable, you will be recognised. When you think you are unseen, you are seen. Even without knowing, you can mean something to so many people. This gives you a sense of responsibility.’’
At this point in her career, Caroline is less concerned about her aspirations and more about her contribution to others.
‘‘When you are young, you map out your dreams. Your goals come first and everything else comes second. Then life happens and you climb. Your impact becomes your primary goal as everything about you takes a backseat.’’
At this stage, opinions matter less. ‘‘Do you know who you are? Do you know what matters to you and why it matters to you? Opinions are interesting but they are not input in your life. Unless you seek opinion, it is just that.’’
‘‘The people you meet on your way up are the same ones who can catch you on your way down,’’ she says.
Has she had people fail to break her fall? ‘‘No,’’ she replies after prolonged thought. ‘‘Do I think somebody should have spoken up? Yes. Have I fought some battles alone? Yes.’’
As we wind up, she recalls a conversation she and her father had. She was a 17-year-old girl. The father-daughter chat would change the course of her life.
‘‘He said to me that I was going to be and do whatever I wanted and that I did not need to become a man to do it.’’
The words were incomprehensible to her as a teenager. Until she started working. ‘‘I went to financial services. The leadership here was predominantly male at the time. It is then that I started to notice what he (her father) meant.’’
It also made her more decisive in her moves. If she finds herself too good at something, she moves on. ‘‘If I am not doing something that makes me nervous, then I am not growing. There should never be a point [in your career] when you are standing still.’’