Only 21 of the Fortune 500 companies are led by women. One woman who wants to be included on that list is Rita Kavashe. She is Africa’s first female managing director (MD) of American automobile giant General Motors (GM). Kavashe leads the African operations of the number two global automobile seller as of 2012. Globally, GM sold 9.3 million units last year compared to Toyota’s 9.75 million.
The motor industry has been dominated by men; it is only now that, 105-year-old, GM has appointed 51-year-old Mary Barra as its first female senior vice president, global product development. In April, another woman, Veronica Johns, made headlines when she was appointed CEO of Fiat Chrysler Australia.
“I don’t believe there is anything like a glass ceiling. As long as there are opportunities to grow in an organization, there is no excuse regardless of whether you are a man or a woman,” says Kavashe.
Kavashe is the only female managing director in Kenya’s male-dominated motor industry. She took over the reins of GM East Africa in 2011 after an 18-year stint, which began as a sales representative. After three years she was promoted to general manager of national sales and was responsible for seven dealers in Kenya. In 2005, she was made the commercial director and five years later, she was given a short-term assignment in GM South Africa to set up their export operations.
When she returned from South Africa, she was appointed MD for GM East Africa and export director for GM Sub-Saharan Africa, where she oversees more than 40 Sub-Saharan Africa countries. In 2012, GM sold 180,000 vehicles in Africa and controlled 10% of market share.
Kenya’s motor industry is largely dominated by multinationals: Toyota, Simba Colt, Cooper Motor Corporation, DT Dobie and Indian conglomerate Tata. All of them have male directors. According to statistics from the Kenya Motor Industry (KMI), in 2012 GM lost the number one spot in terms of car sales to Japanese car maker Toyota. Kavashe is determined to regain the number one slot.
“We recently opened a new factory for buses, it can assemble three buses per day,” she says.
In Kenya, GM controls 26% of the market, while its closest rival Toyota enjoys 24.8%.
According to Business Monitor International report, domestic production is one of the ways Kenya attracts investment especially from Chinese companies. Commercial vehicle manufacturer Beiqi Foton Motor launched its first domestically-produced trucks in June 2011, after establishing a local subsidiary in the country in late 2010. As part of a growing focus on Africa by Chinese automobile companies, there are growing investments in automobile assembly plants.
While established dealers such as Toyota and imported second-hand vehicles—mainly from Japan and the United Arab Emirates, that account for around 70% of the market—give her sleepless nights; her experience of almost two decades is an advantage she has used to build local networks and contacts. Isuzu buses are one of the leading brands in Kenya because of the growing public transport and education sector, which are its largest clients.
Being at the top, especially as a woman, comes with its challenges. Grant Thornton International research shows that women hold less than a quarter of senior management positions in privately-held businesses globally. Only 24% of senior management positions are held by women. Women tend to fizzle out as they rise through the ranks because of the societal pressures that weigh heavily on them.
According to Bringing the other half to the boardroom: Case study of state corporations and listed companies in Kenya; a study by the Kenya Institute of Management, many women fear failure, which affects their confidence. There are also cultural issues that come into play. Most men are uncomfortable having a female boss and would likely do things to sabotage their leadership.
Kavashe’s management team is 80% male and although she has not encountered major challenges managing men, she says that it is important for you, as a leader, to ensure the team rallies behind you so as to achieve set organizational objectives.
As a trained teacher, with a degree in education, she applies many of the skills she acquired during her teaching career to her job in the motor industry.
“I learnt human psychology, understanding and interacting with people and planning, which I use to set and monitor my objectives.”
Her role involves making strategic decisions regarding investments, expansion and distribution in both the public and private sectors. To sit at the helm, she dedicated much time to study the competition and overcome the gender stereotypes that often discourage women from getting to the top. Women are judged harshly beginning with their looks.
She admits that sometimes she sacrificed family time and wished that she could have spent more time with her children.
“You have to manage many balls in the air because of the demands on your time. You can have your cake and eat it as long as you learn to balance,” says the mother of two.
This balancing act has forced Kavashe to make certain conscious decisions—she stopped traveling during weekends to spend time with her family.
“Before, I was busy working, then I realized that one part of my life was not moving. If there is a weekend event, I go with my children. It is very lonely at the top, you need your family to be with you!” she says.
It has not all been smooth sailing for Kavashe. One of her most challenging moments came during a review of GM’s distribution footprint; the change was not taken well by dealers. She admits that it was a frustrating moment, but after consulting with stakeholders, she went back and made slight amendments.
“As a CEO you are not always right. It was a tough moment for me because my best dealer was not happy and it created a lot of anxiety.”
For now, Kavashe is focused on motivating 350 employees at GM East Africa and ensuring that the company remains profitable. She has set her eyes on the road ahead and plans to be global CEO at the GM headquarters in Detroit. Who knows, she may just be the first African GM CEO.