Windhoek-The words ‘you are too stupid, you will never work in a bank’, from Ester Kali’s economics teacher did not discourage her from pursuing a banking career.
Kali, who is now the chief executive officer of Letshego, was in her Grade 10 economics class when she responded to a question posed by her teacher to the class on what career paths learners intended to follow. That was when the teacher tried to cut her down to what he thought was her size.
But contrary to her teacher’s prophesy, her first job was at First National Bank (FNB) in Ondangwa, where at the age of 19 she worked as an enquiry officer.
Speaking to the New Era team from her air-conditioned office this week, a friendly Kali, who could not stop smiling throughout the interview, shared how she overcame the odds and achieved her dreams of working in the banking industry.
Kali worked her way through the ranks of FNB, becoming a force to be reckoned with.
She held numerous leadership positions at FNB including the role of executive for retail and business banking.
“It’s only when I was climbing the success ladder that I remembered the words of my teacher,” said Kali with a smile on her face. She says she defied the odds because she believed in herself.
“I think that is something that some teachers can say to their learners but it depends how you take it. I took it as a challenge to prove to him that I will be able to do it because I believe in myself,” said Kali, looking back on her journey to becoming the CEO of financial services institution Letshego.
Explaining what her role is, Kali said part of her mandate from the board is to diversify the institution. In 2016 Letshego obtained a banking licence.
“What we now need to do is the launch of the solution that we have but I don’t want to talk about that now as the plans will be announced soon,” said Kali on plans to diversify the institution.
Her journey to become a successful woman in the corporate world was not without challenges. At one point she was accused of sleeping with her bosses and doing them special favours, which supposedly landed her managerial positions.
She was also rumoured to have gotten managerial positions because of affirmative action policies.
“That did not get me down. I knew that I did my studies and I worked hard,” said Kali – who has a Master of Business Administration from the Maastricht School of Management – on how she overcame adversity.
In the early stages of her career, Kali learnt that “women were not taken as seriously” as their male counterparts in boardroom meetings.
“In 1997 when I became a manager I was among many men and obviously men are always the ones who take control, leaving the woman threatened because the perception is this is a man’s world,” she said.
She added: “I remember at one stage in the boardroom men would want to take the lead and leave women behind the scenes and request them to bring them coffee. I proved that I could do it. Not only through the job but also through the necessary training.”
Hungry for success, Kali sought advice from women who were doing well in society, including Inge Zaamwani-Kamwi, who is President Hage Geingob’s advisor for constitutional affairs and private sector interface.
“She taught me to never allow a man to talk on my behalf. That is the mistake many women make. You would want to bring a point across and then men would say ‘I think this is what Ester means’ – don’t allow that,” she said.
Kali also discovered that in order to succeed she had to be careful of ‘corporate politics’. “There will always be corporate politics but it’s how you manage corporate politics. And through the process I learnt that it’s not what you say but how you say it,” said Kali, adding that women sometimes express too much emotion instead of making their points firmly.
“I think we must stand our ground and bring our points across. We must not forget to groom ourselves and get mentors, otherwise you will become irrelevant,” said Kali.
On a personal level, Kali who was raised by a single mother, had to learn how to make time for her children.
“Unfortunately sometimes there is a price to pay when you are a businesswoman or a career woman. And sometimes you tend to spend more time in the working environment than at home. But there needs to be that balance,” added the mother of three. She has two daughters and one son.
Early in her career, Kali made use of nanny services to assist her to cope with her children and some of her responsibilities at home.
“I have learnt that weekends should be for my family. Yes sometimes it’s a challenge but I have learnt to get there,” added Kali, saying raising her children was challenging.
“I quickly moved on the ladder of being a senior manager while my children were small.” She said that giving children money without investing in their education is not a wise decision.
“I want to leave a legacy of making sure that my kids are well educated. If you give your children money without education it might not tie in very well.”
‘Saving is key’
Asked why many people continue to sink in debt, Kali said that people do not know how to save money. “What is needed is financial literacy.”
She revealed that Letshego would be working with the Financial Literacy Initiative on an initiative the agreement for which is in the early stages of being concluded.
“We really want to contribute to the education of our customers and staff in terms of financial well-being,” added Kali.