Gwendoline Abunaw has sent the elevator back down… for although she is the first woman to become the Country Head of a Pan African Bank in Cameroon—she is determined not to be the last, and is already preparing other women for such roles.
“This is a big deal, it’s true, but I did not realise how big it was until it actually happened…
“Suddenly, I was on the front of all the papers as Ecobank Cameroon’s ‘Premiere Dame.’ The community I had lived in, almost unnoticed for over 20 years, was placed under the spotlight. It felt as though everyone wanted to know each detail of my life. How many children I have, how did I manage my career and family, and how could they do it, too?”
This is Gwen Abunaw, Managing Director of Ecobank, Cameroon.
Her secret weapons are books such as Robin Sharma’s The leader without a Title, John Kotter’s That’s not how we do it here and Marie benedict’s The only woman in the room, as a direct and indirect source of learning.
It also helps that she is one of four sisters (and her father did not yearn for sons). Today, each of her sisters look after a different aspect of her life: her image, her style and issues of importance. They are her core team. Having a reliable team that has your back is important to keep positive and strong, says Abunaw.
Education has been key, the majority of which was in Africa itself. Abunaw attended the University Of Buea in Cameroon, and lived some of her early years in various parts of Africa, and then steadily worked up the ranks of several financial institutions.
A secret of success is sharing and then executing upon your ideas. At the end of her internship at Standard Chartered Bank, Abunaw suggested a written processes for the department, and setting up an archive room for the trade department. This is what led to her being offered the Management Trainee Program, enabling her to work in all areas and understand the bank from front to back office.
Faced with a choice between growing her career and her responsibilities as a young wife, Abunaw chose to join her husband who had been transferred to London for PwC, which he now heads in Cameroon. Empower your partner whilst also equipping yourself. Whilst in London Abunaw completed an MBA from the London Metropolitan University, and then when the family returned Cameroon, she began again as an intern. This time it was at Afriland First Bank, then occupied an account management position at Ecobank, and was poached by Citi where she spent the next five years, beginning as a Senior Relationship Manager and rising to rank of Resident Vice President. When Ecobank Cameroon wanted a Corporate Bank Head, Abunaw returned to share her acquired experience, and from there she became a Deputy MD.
There is a special place in heaven for women who empower other women, (and men). It was a woman, the Group Head of HR who spotted Abunaw, and asked for her to be interviewed by the Group CEO and then by a member of the Group Board of Directors. And so the process of promotion began. Abunaw was worried about the step change, and it was her father who reminded her that she had already been the First Female Corporate Bank Head, and increased bank revenue by 50% while simultaneously performing the role of Deputy MD, so she was amply prepared or this new challenge.
In many ways it was simply the title that was making too much noise. There was a tsunami of communication and people reaching out to her via every medium. Suddenly everything mattered; how she looked, the choices she made, what she paid attention to, being acutely watched and still becoming a role model for many.
“I was thrown into the public eye and had to rapidly train myself in communication and PR, in enrolling people’s support and even in improving my personal brand! Hence, I began PAWA – Pan African Women’s Association in a bid to empower women with skills to help them define their career paths; for our careers are determined by us – and how we present ourselves. We always have a chance to give back, and we need to go above and beyond, for the next person…”
Ensuring that this change was instituted was no small task. “We gathered all the women who worked for Ecobank Cameroon (these account for 56-58% of our employee base) for a two day meet at the Head Quarters in Douala while the men “held the forte”. For two full days we spoke, shared, danced and our leadership grew. Among the numerous wins resulting from this, my PA who had graduated with a marketing degree, finally decided to go for a suitable role, and the sisterhood certainly helped. We now play sports together, walk together and plan to reach out to other women and communities as a team…”
It’s now Gwen’s fourth year as MD and she has achieved the highest sales revenue ever since when the bank opened in Cameroon, and the highest profit before tax thus far. Plus, she said proudly, “I am also in great company now. There is a lady leading as Deputy MD of SCB-Attijariwafa, Standard Chartered has a female deputy MD, there is a female deputy MD in UBA, and this trajectory is growing…”
“We have so much going for us in Cameroon where the literacy rate is 80% and through local opinion leaders, we can easily increase this statistic further. We are an accommodating people…” I could tell this through Gwen’s nature alone, in the way she would accommodate and encourage other’s growth, through the values of Ecobank and through others’ cooperative manner.
As a firm believer in the potential of her people, their history of accommodating others and making the best with whatever resources they are given; Gwen continues on her journey, with the reminder that “Our purpose and leadership is ours, and we must grab it with both hands, mould it and accommodate others, so that it has the biggest positive impact possible.”