14 Apr 2020 / Article

“Women often build their own barriers”

Manon Karamoko, Chief Executive Officer, Unilever Côte d’Ivoire

At just 38 years old, Manon Karamoko, CEO of Unilever Côte d’Ivoire, heads up French-speaking West and Central Africa (comprising 15 countries and more than 300 staff) for the Dutch-British multinational, which boasted a turnover of €51bn in 2019. Before her current role, she held the position of Chief Financial Officer from November 2018 to February 2020. She is also a member of the Management Committee and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Unilever Côte d’Ivoire. With a Bachelor’s degree in finance from Northeastern University (Boston) and a Master’s degree in accounting from George Washington University, Karamoko tells us what daily life is really like for a woman leader.

 

Are you happy to be a businesswoman in Africa?

Yes, absolutely. Firstly, because I do it with a patriotic spirit, for the continent. And secondly because, in my experience, we African businesswomen are very much appreciated in Africa. 

Does “female leadership” exist?

No. There is no male leadership, so there is no female leadership. I just feel like a leader, and I do my job as a man could. My femininity is never involved in my job.

Have you ever felt that you encounter specific obstacles in your career because of your gender?

The only obstacles specific to women are biological. The others don’t really exist – we women often build our own barriers, including that famous glass ceiling.

Do you think you are a role model for other women?

In all humility, yes. I realised that last year. A gentleman sent me a message saying that since learning that I was CEO, he looked at his daughter differently. It is important to change mentalities and to make people understand that Africa’s development depends on men and women. That is why I am striving today to be as committed as possible to playing my part in this change.

Are you in a minority in your company’s management meetings – or boards of directors? And, if so, how do you feel about it?

No, at Unilever, gender diversity is a priority. Unilever Côte d’Ivoire’s Management Board is 50% female [prior to February 2020 – on 14 February, an additional man was recruited]. In November 2019, two women were recruited to the Board of Directors, so I am no longer alone. In fact, 37% of the Board is now made up of women. 

Is there a gender strategy in your company?

Yes. Locally, we really try to promote women to a managerial level. More generally, female applicants are given priority in recruitment. We are also setting up facilities for young mothers so that they have access to rooms to breastfeed their babies.

Professionally, is there someone who inspires you?

The person who has inspired me the most in my career isn’t well known; her name is Annette Ake, and I worked with her for three and a half years as a Business Planning Analyst at the Sandoz laboratory based in Senegal. She was the Managing Director. Her motto strongly influenced my way of being a woman in business: focus not on being “a working woman”, but on being “a professional”. 

And outside the professional world, is there an African figure that particularly inspires you?

Tidjane Thiam. As an aside, my father was always a subscriber to Jeune Afrique and he particularly liked the section dedicated to key business figures. My father used to say to me, “You’ve got to appear in Jeune Afrique, like Tidjane Thiam”. I’ve tried to follow a path like his by breaking through all the barriers that have stood in front of me.

 What work (film, series, album) has made the biggest impression on you, and why?

Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall, 1990). It’s the story of a woman’s transformation from one status to another. I find this moment of transition interesting. It shows us that we must always aspire to be better and not hesitate to break with routine… I could watch it ten times in a row and still get emotional!

 What do you do to relax after a day’s work?

Two things: I go jogging, and I spend time with my children. I have a little girl [aged 8] and a boy [aged 13].

 Are you active in an organisation or women’s network, or as a mentor?

I am a member of two organisations. The first is the African Women Leadership Association that I created with friends, and which brings together professional women who have studied abroad. We organise training workshops – for example, we recently organised training on the Côte d’Ivoire stock market. The purpose of these workshops is to facilitate access and understanding for all on uncommon, but useful, topics in our professions.

Recently, I also joined Yelenba Women in Action, an association of young women that offers vocational training. We are currently planning to refurbish a school to facilitate learning in rural areas.

 In your opinion, can forums such as the Women in Business Meeting make a difference for African businesswomen?

Yes, it is essential to take advantage of such platforms of exchange. Each of them makes a difference in its own field. These forums are necessary for women to exchange, progress and encourage each other.

 What kind of girl were you when you were 20 years old?

I was a dreamer, I wanted to conquer the world. But I was always very focused on my studies thanks to my father who was already keen for me to become a leader. I was trying to plan out my life, as I still do today, by the way… That’s my slightly nerdy side [laughs].

 What’s the next country in Africa you want to visit and why?

Rwanda. I’ve never been. I’ve heard so many good things about it, and I’d like to see for myself. And maybe pick up some inspiration for my own country, Côte d’Ivoire.

 Today, are you where you’ve always wanted to be?

Yes, and then some. I didn’t expect to be CEO at 38! I knew I would be a leader, but not so soon.

 

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