Born in Guyana, Bob Collymore was raised by his grandparents for 12 years. At 16, he was sent to join his mother who was leaving in the UK at the time. As the only black child in his class, Collymore faced untold racial abuse, always careful with his every move to avoid a black eye.
Eventhough he longed earnestly for a tertiary education, Collymore had to forgo a place at Warwick University because he didn’t qualify for funding. Unable to pursue a degree, he worked as a junior underwriter and also as a train announcer while pursuing his passion for surreal art.
He would probably have spent the rest of his years selling oil painting, were it not for his mother’s timely intervention. She had joked that she would evict him unless he got a serious job and to show her commitment in helping him realize his worth and capability; she got him an interview at British Telecom, where she worked at the time. He was given an entry-level job as a clerical officer.
And like the woman envisaged, her son’s career took flight in 1993 when he joined the UK’s Cellnet as the manager of handset strategy, just as the corporate world was beginning to venture into mobile telephone. Collymore loved every bit of the new experience. His wilderness was now flowing with milk and honey.
“I was walking down a path no one else had walked and I thought, ‘this is good because the rules aren’t written and I’m just going to make the rules up as I go’,” he remembers. “We took some risks. This change thing – it is actually quite exciting, it’s good, and you will make mistakes and you will stumble and fall and that’s quite neat.”
It was indeed his first call to prominence. Now his lack of a University degree doesn’t mean much.
“I didn’t go to the smart university; this is probably the only thing which has ever distinguished me,” he says. “Nothing beats this job.”
In 1994 Collymore took a step higher to become the purchasing director of Dixons Stores Group where he had the opportunity of honing his managerial skill and gaining more experience. Few years later, he joined Vodafone UK and in 1998, he was made handset purchasing director and later, the head of the group’s global handset purchasing.
In 2010, Robert Collymore settled at the helm of his enviable career as the CEO of Safaricom Limited, a leading communications company in Africa and pioneer of M-PESA, the world’s most developed mobile payment system.
His work experience spans across diverse countries such as Japan, South Africa and the United Kingdom where he’s held senior roles in marketing, purchasing, retail and corporate affairs. He is passionate about many things especially engineering businesses to be agents of change in the society.
The visionary leader has served as a Commissioner on the United Nations Commission on Life-Saving Commodities for women and children. He sits on The Vision 2030 Delivery Board and is the founding trustee of the National Road Safety Trust, Kenya. He is also the chairman of the TEAMS (The East African Marine System) Board.
He has also been appointed to the United Nations Global Compact Board by the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, as recognition of Safaricom’s commitment to environmental, sustainability and anti-corruption issues as well as the work it is undertaking to address the Millennium Development Goals 4 and 5 on maternal health and child mortality.
In Kenya, Collymore has become a house hold name and a national champion. He was awarded the Moran of the Order of the Burning Spear by the Kenyan president in 2012 – a prize rarely given to foreigners – was presented with a goat for his birthday and is often urged to get “a piece of land” in keeping with local tradition. A reward for selfless service if you ask me.
Points to Remember…
Robert Collymore wasn’t limited by his past or lack of higher education, instead he rode on his challenges to achieve greatness.
Sometimes the little push that appears like an inconvenience is actually our launch pad to destiny. Collymore wouldn’t have got to the helm of his career, were it not for his mother’s push.
Do the best you can to get a good education. “I wanted to go to university and I disliked not having gone and for some years after I wished I’d gone. Now it doesn’t matter, [but] I would always advise a young person to go to the best university you can find.”