Back again with another powerful episode of our Female Voices series, Unlimint is joined by Sarah Chidebelu-Eze, Head of Business Development at Nigeria Inter-Bank Settlement System PLC. Set apart from our previous episodes, Sarah helps us delve into the world of sales, which has historically been led and driven by men until recent years. Whilst women represent more than half of Africa’s population, they surprisingly generate only a third of the continent’s GDP. Of course, in recent years we’ve seen growth and shattering of gender boundaries, but the McKinsey study “The Power of Parity: Advancing Women’s Equality in Africa” cohesively shows us that the vast majority of women are still working in informal sectors, and not in roles that parry with the decision making process.
Reasons like the above are exactly why Unlimint runs this series, and we are fortunate to be joined by women who have transcended these stereotypes, much like Sarah. The conversation brings together numerous elements of confidence, assertion, self-learning, and professional growth. Join us in volume six by clicking on the link below or read our transcript.
You’ve had an incredible journey in business development within financial institutions, could you please give us a brief overview of your journey thus far which has led you to an incredible number of years at Nigeria Inter-Bank Settlement Systems?
I currently work for the Nigerian Inter-Bank Settlement Systems in the Business Development Directorate. I’m passionate about it because I’m excited by newness, innovations and business. This, plus the fact that I love the art of the deal makes me feel I am where I belong.
I started my career in trading- trading financial instruments, bonds, and money market instruments. And that was my first introduction to NIBSS (Nigeria Inter-Bank Settlement System) because we had to settle transactions with NIBSS and being in the Banks Treasury was a great way to understand the industry with a rapid learning curve which was amazing. With the experience gained, I left banking and built trading teams in different organisations. It was a great move for me being an introvert, it pushed me to interact more and challenged me to get out there. NIBSS started off tough because it was new, but I settled in really fast because I had the most amazing bosses who trusted in my abilities even when I sometimes doubted myself. It has been an exciting journey of constant self-renewal and relearning.
Before we delve into your experience, looking more widely at society, how do you think that people and organisations can support combatting gender inequality in the workplace? Especially in areas of the world where culturally, women are discouraged from pursuing a passion or career?
I believe that for every organisation, the senior leadership is responsible for creating a culture that promotes diversity, equality, and inclusion. A number of organisations have started to put in policies that protect these traits and interests, but it’s imperative the leadership puts the policies into practice. Culture is so important, and people should feel comfortable having their voices heard and aspire to have a seat at the table – irrespective of gender.
There are specific careers that where women aren’t prominent, but we can begin changing that through inclusive entry pathways such as scholarships, flexible hours or hybrid working. It goes beyond creating a female-friendly environment, but rather a gender-neutral climate where people are comfortable. An example is the conversation on extended maternity and paternity leave.
Creating this environment is not only beneficial to people, but also to the organisation. I worked for a company that sponsored your further learning, and if you pass the exam, the cost is reimbursed. This was available to everyone and not only furthered individual growth but benefitted the company because their teams’ skills were enhanced.
We’ve come a long way, but it’s definitely not enough, how do you think girls and women in Africa can support themselves with training, education, etc. and each other in reaching their goals to have a successful career path?
The first thing I’d say is you’ve got to believe that you can. You have to believe. And I said during my introduction that I had people around me who believed in me even when I didn’t which is fundamental to our mental wellbeing and growth. When overwhelmed, take a step back for a moment. We have a motivational saying in Nigeria that translates as ‘the people that are doing it don’t have two heads’ which means I can do it too.
Secondly, I would say that there’s no excuse for not learning. Google is your friend. Learning has become so much easier and is accessible to all, so you don’t need to go to a classroom. You can learn so much from the Internet through courses and by reading a book. Surround yourself with people who challenge your mindset. It’s important we realise that we can’t do everything by ourselves. And if you surround yourself with people who know better than you, the chances are that you would have the opportunity to ask the right questions and get the answers. There’s no stupid question.
There’s an opinion that women often need assert a certain level of dominance to be taken seriously in any level or position. Could you give our viewers some advice on how to professionally assert their presence in the room from your experience as a senior member of your team and also a front-facing member?
Everyone, male or female, needs to assert a certain level of confidence, not necessarily dominance, but confidence in doing anything. What is wrong is when that confidence is perceived especially for women, as aggression. That stereotype of a confident woman being aggressive is a bias we need to break. You should express your opinions and people should respect the opinions of others because it makes us all better. To assert yourself you need to first understand yourself and who you are. And then it’s who you are communicating with – senior management, peers, customers, etc.
Dominance also isn’t ‘only my way works’ because we all do things differently and yet we can achieve the same result. If you know your strengths, you can play to them and be confident in your abilities which is why I say it’s so important to know yourself first.
People will challenge you, and some may be threatened, but the fact you are a woman shouldn’t be a factor for those feelings. Be confidently competent.
Trying to stay ahead of competitors, changing regulations, new technologies and your own self-development can feel like a crazy spin. Do you have any advice on how girls and women can prepare themselves and stay organised?
Well, we’ve already talked about the fact that you need to keep learning and surround yourself with smart people. Your network is important. In the current world, we see how important it is that we take care of our mental health. The world is constantly changing and with how fast-paced everything is, it’s important to pace ourselves. This is where collaboration and asking for help are key. You don’t have to carry all the weight on yourself. As women, we’re conditioned to think that we should handle things alone, but if people can assist us that’s not a bad thing.
Enjoy the learning process – from books to courses and podcasts to courses. It will help your learning process massively. One of the things that I do on my way to work is that I’m listening to an e-book. We live in Lagos and there’s lots of traffic so that journey becomes a window for me to improve my knowledge in different areas.
What tips can you give to thrive as a woman in business development, which was once a male-led role?
The key focus in my role is delivering value. You don’t look to a customer or sell a product; it’s more about selling the value that it brings for them. It’s important to be a solution provider, so find solutions for your customers. I learnt not to shove products at my customers but offer them value and a way to solve their problems.
I try to build my teams with this mindset, so my team knows that we strive to deliver value and solve customers’ issues. And of course, as I said, you can’t do it alone. Find people to collaborate with within your organisation and outside of it. Don’t forget to give credit when it’s due because people will appreciate it and respect you more for it.
With so much digital growth heading into Africa, what innovations are you most excited to see that will revolutionise Nigeria, or the continent, for consumers?
I would have to say in the payment space, contactless payments are expected to thrive. These new payment methods are rising with QR codes and contactless transactions across Africa. Its rise is because of convenience. Identity management is another exciting area, Identity is important in validating our transactions and securely completing payments. This is already on the rise, but I’m excited to see how it evolves. I also see exciting changes in trans-African trade deriving from the growth of digitalisation. This will be amazing for Africa. Learning from each other in this trade will only feed more into the innovations we see in different African countries. Also, as we enhance our data collection, the use of predictive and prescriptive analysis and artificial intelligence will better support our roles and how we create and promote our services and products. So, I’m excited about the future.