Sheila Azuntaba is CEO of Innovative Microfinance Ltd, Ghana. Previously, she was Assistant Vice President of Citigroup’s Global Transaction Services Unit in Nigeria, Corporate Investment Manager with CitiGroup in Nairobi, Kenya and Relationship Manager, Ecobank Ghana Ltd. As a former Miss Ghana (1996), Sheila remains passionate about empowering enterprising women as well as supporting the less fortunate and marginalised using her valuable experience and industry insight. She is a member of the Executive women’s network of Ghana and sits on Boards of foundations with values similar to her own. She holds an MBA in Finance from Strathclyde Business School, Glasgow and a BA (Hons) in Marketing from University of Westminster London.
What made you decide to get into microfinance and what for you is the bigger purpose of your engagement in this area?
I see wealth as freedom, and who wouldn’t want to be financially free? I made the decision based on two things, to earn a living (financial freedom) and to have a sense of purpose. It wasn’t easy initially and still isn’t but I get to do what I absolutely love and that I am passionate about, (giving back and watching my fellow women push themselves and thrive responsibly and create wealth). I have had to find a cause that fits with mine and the company’s objective so that it makes sense with what I do.
Your organization ‘Innovative Microfinance’ provides credit, savings products, and business training etc. how do you do this innovatively?
We provide access to basic financial services and products as part of a community developmental initiative. Bridging the gap between the supply of and demand for basic financial products and services to the rural poor and micro SME’s is what we believe in. We have done so by using what we have and partnering with other companies who have what we do not have, especially in the use technology to cut down on costs and reach more communities. For example through the use of smart phones linked to our software to open accounts. We employ from beneficiary communities and make leaders in those communities an extension of our offices.
How have you built your business and in what ways might your business be modeling how to keep an enterprise financially sustainable?
I have built it based on core values. One thing I do is to align whatever I get myself involved with what my beliefs are. As an entrepreneur, I have linked my personal and business goals which has helped with not only fulfilling my goals, but with seeking investors with similar goals. As a for-profit business, we have targets and deadlines as well obligations to investors and customers. It’s usually a juggling act, but commitment, drive, determination, not taking things for granted, not getting complacent and always challenging yourself goes a long way to keep you sustainable. You have to do whatever it takes to remain relevant in a rather volatile business environment.
Starting and growing a business is exciting and overwhelming some say. What factors would you say are important for the rising of more women entrepreneurs in Africa?
As women it’s not always easy to find jobs that will be compatible with our family responsibilities, so more and more women globally are being bitten by the entrepreneurial bug (applause). Is growing your own business exciting? Very much so, fulfilling oh yes in most cases….You are your own boss, you get to set your own time etc. However starting a business and keeping the business going is not easy; the obstacles and challenges can be daunting but keeping the endgame in mind and focusing on my purpose motivates me. A word to fellow women entrepreneurs; always be clear about your goal and purpose, know your craft but most importantly own it, defend it, know that the path to being an entrepreneur can be difficult so be very mindful of the price you are willing to pay for success and ensure that you are prepared for it.
You were once a beauty queen and have gone on to build a good career. What has been most meaningful for you in your journey?
Being a beauty queen, (can be the dream of most girls growing up), gave me a platform and a voice, (although doesn’t always guarantee success). One decision I made was to quickly determine how I could use the platform to figure out the next chapter of my life. Most meaningful has been discovering the true value of what I could use that platform to do besides chasing financial returns. Finding that voice, developing it and strengthening my position as both a career woman and a past beauty queen gave me the clarity and drive to venture into the entrepreneurial world. But it hasn’t been so seamless; I have encountered my fair share of challenges. The one I have had to continuously overcome has been dealing with stereotypical views about beauty queens not being career minded and not being taken seriously most of the time. Nonetheless, I am humbled to be in a position to contribute my quota to the development of my country through inclusive financing.
How do you challenge yourself professionally and what would be your tips on how women can drive their careers forward?
Every opportunity I get, I learn something new. I hate not having something exciting to look forward to. I come up with the stretching targets and goals for myself and my team and I keep pushing the status quo. I believe in nothing ventured, nothing gained. And once you venture into this awesome and amazing club of entrepreneurship, prepare to get yourself yanked out of your comfort zone most of the time.
To women, I would say recognize that you cannot have it all. Decide what is most important at any one time, focus on it and get rid of the guilt of not doing everything. If success doesn’t come easily, don’t doubt yourself; use your core values and strength as an anchor to get you through. Continue to learn and if an opportunity presents itself, never feel inadequate and don’t compromise on your core values. Finally, don’t sell yourself short; confidently step out there and own your success.
Obviously as a leader, you work with others to achieve your goals. How do you ensure that those around you and those in your charge develop and advance?
I believe in training and giving everyone an equal opportunity to prove themselves in their various roles. I have found that most employees who are good at their jobs, would rather be given the chance to be responsible, challenged and not often told what to do, especially when roles are clearly defined. As human beings, we all crave a certain level of validation and respect for what we are able to accomplish. So as a leader, I have had to get to know my staff individually, what makes them tick more than just as employees. Being interested in their success and encouraging them to look at their personal growth within and beyond ‘Innovative’ gives them that sense of freedom to put in their best.
Sometimes people stick with a career or a job that’s not going anywhere because they are afraid to change. How have you managed your own career transitions?
I respect and value those who choose to create their own path, and stick to it regardless. I have never been afraid of change or to try something new, especially when an opportunity presents itself. But I must admit, it takes some inner strength and guts to do away with a regular pay cheque and venture into your own business. You are constantly fighting not to fail, although I have learnt that fear of failure should not be a standing block. There are huge financial risks one has to take to get their business off the ground, and put in many working hours daily. As scary as that can be, I am blessed with the ability to trust my gut and believe things will always work out.
What’s the best advice you received that is undergirding your success as a person, as career woman and as a leader?
My motivating advice yet is that I should appreciate failure with the same amount of energy, enthusiasm and determination as I would with success, (easier said than done). Afterall, I am never going to have every problem solved, never going to have all the right answers but I should never be afraid to keep pushing. Some failure is almost inevitable, but my attitude will determine whether I get to make it or not.
When things get crazy, how do you unwind to stay engaged and resilient?
I will be of no use to myself or my team if I am not focused. One important luxury I need is enough sleep. It has also taken time to develop and live with a positive mind-frame all the time. Even when things seem bleak, I find that I am able to take an optimistic view on issues that others see as problems. To totally unwind, I turn to exercising with a group of friends. I find that therapeutic; it unclogs my mind and I get the chance to bounce ideas off them and just focus on other things other than work.