Few women in the microfinance world are as recognizable as Jennifer Riria. She is the CEO of Kenya Women Holding, twice-voted Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year (East Africa and Kenya respectively in 2013 and 2014) and a Ford Foundation “Champion of Democracy.” She was first female Board Member of the Nairobi Stock Exchange and the Chair of Post Office Savings Bank for four years. She is also the chair of Women’s World Banking’s Board of Trustees. This level of success however, more so for a woman in a patriarchal society like Kenya, was not easy.
Growing up in a poor household in rural Kenya, Jennifer witnessed firsthand the abuse women received at the hands of society: “I watched my mother and other women in the village operate as donkeys. They would carry on their backs firewood, bananas, a bag of other stuff and a baby. I saw them get abused, beaten and work 24 hours a day,” she said in an interview. Education was her escape –she did well enough to be placed at the prestigious Precious Blood High School in Nairobi as a teenager and has not looked back since. Instead, she has reached out a hand to help women and girls that were just like her once.
After Jennifer graduated from University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, she pursued additional studies in the UK at the University of Leeds. Upon completing that, Jennifer returned to Kenya to complete her PhD at Kenyatta University. Her thesis topic—women, education and development—can be seen as a peek into her future, but before she became the advocate for women’s economic empowerment, Jennifer taught at the university for ten years. It was only after a stint in the United Nations that she took a full step into the world that now holds her in such high esteem.
In 1991, Kenya Women Finance Trust (KWFT), the precursor to today’s Kenya Women Microfinance Bank (KWMB), a subsidiary of Kenya Women Holding, was in a troubled state. Founded in 1981 under the auspices of Mary Okello, KWFT was “set up a financial Institution devoted to addressing solely financial needs of women. In fact, their specific objectives were to set up a woman serving, woman led bank” (KWMB website). Ten years on however, KWFT was bleeding money at the rate of $300,000 a year (GrameenAmerica blog). Despite her lack of experience in the financial industry, Jennifer bravely took the helm and relentlessly sought education, support and advice from those around her. In an interview with Financial Times, Jennifer confided: “I was the loan officer; I was the accountant; I was the auditor; I was everything. But I knew what poverty means; I knew what hunger means; I knew these women.” This fearless dive into the unknown paid off. Many years later, KWFT emerged as a model microfinance institution, one that is dead-on in achieving its mission, providing 900,000 women with financial products such as loans, savings and insurance.
Especially in times of crisis, leadership can be the deciding factor in whether a company or even a cause, can survive. But contrary to the vision of a leader as a single individual, rallying their followers from on high, Jennifer’s idea is this: “I like to work with people because I believe that I can’t do it alone.” In another interview, she said “People should not become leaders so they can be worshipped by the people, but so that they can truly serve the people with commitment and with sincerity.”
When asked about her position as chief in an industry dominated by men, Jennifer’s position is clear: “I am big into women’s leadership. We have got to have leaders to run these institutions and we need women to run them.” Nevertheless, she admits that even at KWFT, women drop out of the race for leadership at the middle management level. She worries that women don’t want leadership positions because they have so many other priorities, particularly in their mid to late 30s when they are married with their first children. “We are very conscious of this and we try to push them up the ladder but it is not always possible.”
In response to this, KWMB has a specific strategy of holding leadership training so that they can identify and develop women leaders. In fact, KWMB (then known as KWFT) won the first Women’s World Banking Excellence in Leadership Award launched in 2011. The award recognizes the “role-model” institution in the network that exemplifies both excellence in women leadership and excellence in performance. Nevertheless, training is just one piece of the puzzle: mentorship is the other. “Women need to see that it can be done,” she said. “My definition of mentors is people who will get women to move to the next level. It is not the ones who say ‘be good and be nice,’ no. Whatever it takes to move you to the next level, take it.” She also believes that mentorship, like any good business plan, has to be structured and done in levels. “Mentorship is a slow process,” she admits, perhaps even slower for women being mentored into leadership roles because they will also be breaking the barriers of culture and the ladders of tradition at the same time.
Still, the path to women’s leadership is clear for Jennifer: with mentorship, support, exposure and visibility, Jennifer believes, “we will have strong women leaders.”
With so much achieved in her life, what has kept the indefatigable Jennifer Riria going? Simple. It is the belief that “the woman is the core. She holds us up. It is essential to support women, if we want to make a difference (Grameen America).”
Post Script from Ujjivan CEO, Samit Ghosh
I have the great honor of being a member of the Board of Trustees of Women’s World Banking chaired by Jennifer. I have always held Jennifer in awe, as I knew that she is an outstanding leader with a lot of history but wrapped around it, is her warmth, friendship and the easy smile. This is a good opportunity to know about her enormous achievements. I love the aplomb with which she carries herself and her fancy head dresses. Jennifer is a fierce advocate of women empowerment and financial inclusion but at the same enjoys talking about the ear-rings she got from India. She is a role model for women around the world.
– Samit Ghosh, December 11, 2014