The African and international news media was abuzz in November 2012 when Dr Mwangi bagged the renowned Forbes Africa Person of the Year prize ahead of other stiff contenders including Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote. Ahead of this in June 2012, he was also named the Ernst and Young World Entrepreneur of the Year 2012 in Monte Carlo. Dr. Mwangi was picked from among the 59 country finalists vying for the title across 51 countries, each of whom had already been named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year in their home country. Dr. Mwangi has been honoured twice with Presidential national awards. In 2010, the Financial Times named him as one of the top 50 emerging market business leaders. He is currently the Chairman of Kenya’s Vision 2030 Delivery Board charged with the responsibility of ensuring Kenya becomes a middle income country with global high standards of living by the year 2030. He also serves on several international bodies as an advisor and sits on the Board of the African Leadership Academy in South Africa, having won the inaugural award of that body.
Why are Corporations, Organisations and Governments falling over themselves to dump accolades in the laps of this Kenyan? Who is he and what has he done?
For one, he is the Chief Executive Officer of Equity Bank, the largest bank by customer base in East and Central Africa and the largest African majority owned company in the region. The bank has more than seven million accounts representing over half of all bank accounts in Kenya. It also has operations in Uganda, South Sudan, Rwanda and Tanzania.
At the Ernst and Young award ceremony, Ruben Vardanian, President, Troika Dialog and Chair of the judging panel said, “Not only has James really transformed people’s lives across Africa by offering them access to funding that they have never had before, Equity Bank continues to grow quickly through a strong financial performance.”
Maria Pinelli, Ernst & Young’s Global Vice Chair for Strategic Growth Markets said, “James has been pivotal in the transformation of Equity Bank into one of Africa’s brightest business success stories. His is truly an inspirational story of entrepreneurial spirit with an innovative business model that has the potential to be replicated globally.”
Starting to get the picture aren’t we? Dr. Mwangi holds an Honorary Doctorate in Business Administration (Honoris Causa), from Kenya Methodist University, Doctor of Humane Letters (Honoris Causa) Kenyatta University, and Doctor of Entrepreneurship from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. He is also the holder of a Bachelor of Commerce degree (Accounting option) from the University of Nairobi and is a Certified Public Accountant (CPA (K). He is a graduate of Advanced Management Programme (Strathmore- IESE Business School, Barcelona Spain.)
Dr. Mwangi was pivotal in the transformation of Equity Bank from a failing micro-finance institution to a publicly listed commercial bank. He also drove the bank’s aim to transform the lives and livelihoods of people socially and economically by giving them access to modern, inclusive financial services aimed at maximizing their opportunities. Dr. Mwangi’s association with Equity Bank began in 1992, when a founder (who was also Mwangi’s family friend) urged him to deposit his savings in the struggling Equity Building Society (EBS). Two years later, the Central Bank of Kenya found EBS technically insolvent with poor management and inadequate board supervision. To avoid dissolution, the bank officials decided to overhaul the firm’s strategy and operations.
With several years of experience earned while working for Ernst & Young and Trade Bank, Dr. Mwangi joined EBS in 1994 as the Finance Director and Change Agent, and worked his way up to become Chief Executive Officer in 2004. Under his guidance, Equity Bank has undergone massive transformation growing from a small, insolvent mortgage lending company, to a fast growing internationally recognised bank.
Dr. Mwangi had the foresight to steer the bank towards investing in IT options which gave the Bank a lead in creating synergy between banking and mobile telephones. Innovations such as Mkesho, the world’s first mobile centric bank account, and Orange Money, a mobile money transfer platform for Orange Telecom subscribers were borne out of that idea. Dr. Mwangi is also a leadership coach of sorts, and is actively involved in mentoring his staff. He states unequivocally, “I am a coach. I have an intuitive sense of when someone needs me to coach them. I respect my team and I am willing to lead it. I think I am known to give room to people to perform. I listen to advice. I ask questions. I am a leader who delegates; you do not train, coach and mentor leadership in abstract, you delegate. You give responsibility but hold those you delegate to accountable. You seek dialogue with them so that they can learn.”
Dr. Mwangi is also the Chairman of Equity Group Foundation, which was established to scale up the existing Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives of the Equity Group. The foundation proffers aid in 6 diverse fields including education and leadership development; agriculture; financial literacy & entrepreneurship; health; innovation and environmental sustainability. The Foundation has partnered with the MasterCard Foundation to form the largest Secondary Education and Leadership Scholarship Program in Africa. Equity Bank spends KSh600 million on educational scholarships for Secondary and Tertiary education, and has sponsored over 1,200 children to Universities in Kenya and also in America. According to him, “That is what we would call transformation: new leaders are being created, and while they may not be national leaders, they are leading in their communities and families.”
In an interview with Carol Kimutai, Dr. Mwangi says it has taken a lot of sweat and blood to build Equity Bank to its current state. “It has not been easy but we have stayed focused on our vision; the hard work has paid off handsomely and the bank has received various local and international accolades, and universities like Stanford Graduate School of Business, Columbia Business School, and Lagos Business School have done case studies on Equity Bank.
Dr. Mwangi seems to have a clear cut definition of what it takes to lead in the banking industry. According to him, “A leader must create a purpose larger than making money. For Equity what we do is more of a calling; it is a mission to socio-economic transformation for Africa. People do not report here to do banking. They come to further a higher calling where they see the African people given dignity and an opportunity to transform Africa to become a better continent. Every day somebody feels they have made Africa better. They feel they have given a few more people an opportunity to say goodbye to poverty. If every day you feel you have touched a few more lives, then you are living a purposeful life!”
So now you know. Glad to be of service.