In the third episode of She Powers Africa, IFC chats with Carol Koech, the Country President for Schneider East Africa. Koech shares her career journey and why she’s a champion for African girls to explore STEM careers.
Hello and welcome to She Powers Africa. This podcast celebrates the leading lights in Africa’s renewable energy sector and is powered by IFC’s Energy2Equal Program and the Women in Renewable Energy in Africa Network, which aims to enhance women’s participation in the renewable energy sector across the African continent. And I am your host, Terryanne Chebet.
Now, research by the International Renewable Energy Agency shows that women lag behind men in leadership and in jobs in the renewable energy sector and represent just one third of the energy workforce worldwide. My guest is a true example of resilience and a model for others working to reduce this gender gap. From her early days herding her parents’ cattle in Kenya’s Rift valley to today, where she sits at the helm of one of the largest multinationals as the Country President for Schneider East Africa, Carol is a STEM champion and mentor’s young women at work and in high schools across the continent. Carol, what an absolute honor to sit with you today. Welcome to She Powers Africa.
Carol Koech: Thank you very much Terryanne.
Terryanne Chebet: I’m really excited to sit with you, just listening to your story, and today you are undoubtedly one of the top CEOs in the renewable energy sector. How has your journey been? And I’m just curious about your childhood, what was that like?
Carol Koech: Growing up in rural Kenya, I did what a typical rural child does. For most of the Kenyans who’ve grown up in the village, they would know that, carrying out family activities and chores is a way of life. I was no exception. So early days of my life, I spent doing those chores and one I did quite a bit was herding cows together with my younger sister. My parents were both teachers and my mom was a teacher in the same primary school that I went to. She would always send us home early to go and do all the chores. And one of the things that we did was going to the river to fetch water, all sorts of things that you are required to do to live a comfortable life, according to the village standards.
Terryanne Chebet: You experienced firsthand what energy poverty really is. Tell us a little bit about how that affected you as a child and those that you grew up with.
Carol Koech: There’s a characteristic of the village life and energy poverty. And going back to maybe 20 or 30 years ago, the source of light was kerosene lamp. And my mom, being a schoolteacher, used to go to the nearest town every end of the month to collect her salary. She always had the characteristic five-liter jerry can to fill it with paraffin. We used the paraffin lamp. We were lucky we had the one that, you know, was proper paraffin lamp, but many of our neighbors used the weak lamp that also had a lot of smoke and all sorts of things. We had, I would say, a better experience because we had the paraffin lamp. Many people actually had to do all the activities within the daylight. And if they had to rely on any light, they would then use the firewood. Those days We did not have the solar lanterns. We did not have all this.
Terryanne Chebet: And you have a stellar academic record. I’ve read about you and I’m just curious about you know, when you’re studying STEM at University, why did you choose to study electrical engineering? Is that what you wanted to do as a child?
Carol Koech: To be honest, growing up, I really did not have any role models. So, I didn’t even know the career options that were available, except those that I could see. I mean, my parents being teachers, and also, you know, going to the hospital and seeing the nurses and maybe one or two doctors, those were the models that we had, that were familiar. And the Kenyan university, or rather the Kenyan education system, you know the way the course selection happens, is you get the course that your KCSE [Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education] certificate says, and for me that is where I fell. So, I just went to study engineering. One of my cousins who is a few years older than me was already studying engineering. So, it was a natural progression for me to go because at least I knew one person who was studying.
Carol Koech: So, I went and studied Electrical engineering by default. That’s how I found myself there. And I had no clue what electrical engineering entailed. I didn’t even know what career that would bring me to, but somehow I knew I fit in the class and I just found many other people there. But really speaking about the gender gap, that is really when I started to see very few women participating in this space. Our class was actually the one that had the largest women during our time. We were about nine, but the average size of number of women in a class of about 60 to 70 was between four and eight. Nine was really a big number.
Terryanne Chebet: Right after university, what was your first job?
Carol Koech: I remember when I was at university during my fourth year or so, I had won an award with Safaricom. Safaricom had an award for academic excellence, and I had won that award. So, one of the prizes was to go and work in Safaricom as an intern. So immediately I finished university, even before I graduated, I was still living in my hostel room. I went to Safaricom to do an internship for two months. And while still doing that internship, I started doing interviews for different organizations and then I found myself getting a job with KPMG. Again, I had studied engineering and I found myself at KPMG. I went to KPMG and stayed there for about six months.
Terryanne Chebet: What Did you do there?
Carol Koech: I was in the audit team, so I was an audit assistant. Of course, I had been hired amongst many other people who had studied BCom and all those kinds of things. And, you know, after six months I was like, I don’t think this is my thing. I continued interviewing at different organizations. And then I got myself into the management trainee program at Unilever. And so, I went to Unilever after six months. And I spent about four and a half years of my career there. So, because of having worked at KPMG, when I went to Unilever, some of the managers there saw that I already had an affinity for finance. I started doing roles in finance and I had to do a finance qualification. And that’s what happened for those four first four years in my career.
Carol Koech: So, remember, again, I have my engineering degree. I left Unilever and moved to GE. And when I went to GE, I actually went to GE in a finance role. After about two years, I went back to do my masters and I did an MBA. And while doing my masters after the first year, I quickly discovered that actually, I was sitting on much bigger potential. I took a very big risk and moved into a sales role, still within GE. And I’m really grateful for a lot of the people that supported me to make this move. And that was really the beginning of my career in the energy space. I did a couple of different roles within GE, mostly commercial related and worked in both renewable energy and also in, I would say, the traditional energy space, but largely on the power generation side.
Terryanne Chebet: Before we get into the next part of your career, I’m just looking back at your journey. Right from university to management, training positions, your academic record. When you speak to young girls, what do you tell them about getting into STEM? What can they do differently? What are some of the lessons that you learned as a young lady, in your first years of your career, that you look back and say, if I did A, or if you do ABC, you stand a chance to have a good career in renewable energy?
Carol Koech: If you look at young people, I think one of the things that many young people lack are role models. They don’t have access to people who have had careers in certain areas. So generally what young people would do, is they would see the people around them and that defines their world view. So, what I do when I speak to young people is really just show them what is possible and the options available.
Terryanne Chebet: Now, you’ve made it to one of the highest offices in the energy space, one that is male dominated. Take us through your career journey that led you to this moment. I know you’ve told us about your journey to GE. What was the transition like to Schneider and what has the experience been, especially as a woman leader?
Carol Koech: I’d like to just talk about that male dominated part, because I’ve had some very interesting experiences here. Since I moved to a sales role in GE, I’ll tell you I think my life just started shifting. I found myself many times being the only woman seated around tables — negotiating contracts, discussing deals and all those things. And when we say male dominated, you know, sometimes you have to remind yourself, you’re a woman, because when you sit around the table, you talk equally the same, like the men do, sometimes even better. But what I have, you know, constantly reminded myself is I am not here by accident. I am here because I deserve to be here, I deserve to be heard. And because of that, I’ve also learnt a lot from the males around the table.
Carol Koech: And that’s how I’ve built my skills along the way. I’m always watching, especially in the early part of my sales career. When I was sitting around negotiating some very big contracts, you see how people are doing it, how they’re negotiating, how they’re playing the game. And, you know, I’m not just sitting there as a woman. I’m sitting and watching how this game is played, and then I’m adapting to that. But coming back to my career progression, I have been, I would say, fortunate to have the opportunities presented to me, but also fortunate to have leaders that trusted and believed in me and supported my career. And because of that, when I was given the platforms, I also played a big role in ensuring that there was success in whatever activities and roles I had.
Carol Koech: And so I remember about four years ago, I wasn’t really looking to make a transition, but then, you know, there’s this head hunter that came to me and said, oh, we have this organization that has just recently acquired a local company. They’re looking to build a local team. And I was like, hmm, this looks very interesting for me because I get an opportunity to become a part of a company that was a local company that is being transitioned to a multinational. So, I actually moved into Schneider. I was being invited to do a specific job, which, I was not very interested in, but I was much more interested in programs that Schneider was running around sustainability, and they have this program, which they call Access to Energy Program. I remember when I was having the conversation then with the hiring manager, I was like, you know, I’m not interested in the job you’re offering me today.
But if you ever have a job around this space, then I’m interested. It’s very strange because about two or three weeks later, they were like, can you come and discuss a proposal we have? And then, you know, they had put together something to suit my interests and this was for me an opportunity to realize that actually you can define the jobs you want and, it can be made. So, I moved into that role, stayed in it for about a year, then moved to a different role where I was running a division. And then I knew I had been, you know, informed along the way that I was being prepared to become the country leader. So, I was working and putting together those skills. And then in 2020, right in the middle of COVID, I get appointed as the country leader. And it’s been an interesting journey since then.
Terryanne Chebet: Tell me about some of the challenges. You’ve had a sterling career, if I may say that, but I know nothing comes without any challenges thrown your way. In your career journey, what sort of challenges would you say you have faced?
Carol Koech: Oh, challenges are always there. I mean, being in a sales role, first of all means that it’s a very high-pressure environment. You must deliver the numbers. I remember the first year when I moved to a sales role. I did not sell even a cent. It was very frustrating to see at the end of the year, people getting paid bonuses and you are there not seeing anything, but I think I would say that as the challenges have been presented, they’ve really helped me to build myself. And I’ve used them as steppingstones to learn. I’ve had situations in my career where, companies constantly reorganize and, some jobs fall off and I’ve been a victim of those where at one point or another, my role has fallen off. You know, I’ve gotten this redundancy letter and then it’s, you know, helter-skelter to try and get another job. And I think I’ve also been fortunate to manage that situation fairly okay. So, I’d say challenges are constant. Currently, of course, I have a big responsibility and I’m constantly facing challenges. There are external challenges from the market, there are internal challenges from the organization, and sometimes personal challenges as well.
Terryanne Chebet: So, what does a day in your life today look like when you get into the office in the morning? What are some of the responsibilities? What does your role entail?
Carol Koech: I would say my days are not the same. Like now here we are. I’ve not had a day like this before. So, I’d say the current role that I have is really about building the Schneider brand in the local market. So that entails engaging externally a lot. I have to ensure that I’m visible in the market, in the industry. Coming back to the organization, I’m responsible for managing the full company, the organization. It’s about managing the business, ensuring that we are doing the right things, that we are making the right decisions. It’s about managing the people; ensuring that people are motivated. It’s about building the team about hiring, managing performance. I mean, it’s really, I would say a very wide experience.
Terryanne Chebet: I’m curious about some key highlights in your career, stories that you look back at and laugh or smile and situations that you have faced generally as a woman in leadership.
Carol Koech: I try to remember those and there are really many. But let me just give you one. I remember, when I was working at GE, covering the sub-Sahara Africa region, and I’m sure the listeners on this podcast that are in Nigeria would resonate with this. I traveled quite a bit in Nigeria into some of the remote towns. And I remember one time I was in Port Harcourt, and I was going to visit a particular customer location. I’m seated in this four-by-four. The cars are big. And then I have this chaser car in front and a chaser car at the back, and I’m thinking, hmm, the village girl here has all these escorts. You know, I look back at that and it’s really an amazing experience. But I’ve really, I would say, had some experiences that have had me pinching myself. Is it really me going through this stuff? But I’ve also had some low moments. It’s really just a constant accepting that life and growth comes, and experiences are like this.
Terryanne Chebet: As we come to an end, if you could give one piece of advice to young girls and women who want to power Africa’s renewable energy sector in the future, what would it be?
Carol Koech: If you look at energy access in Africa, I really would like to go a little bit into statistics here. The people who bear the brunt of lack of energy are the women. If you have to make a meal for your family, then you’re trying to beat the daylight. It means that you’re working in a very limited time and pressure. The women really have a chance to improve their quality of lives by participating in ensuring that there’s energy access, but more importantly in ensuring that it’s energy that is sustaining the climate. Because again, the same people that bear the brunt of lack of energy are the ones that bear the brunt of climate change today. It’s the women who are walking longer distances to collect water and all that. So that really is the reason why we must be part of the solution to make the quality of our lives and our mothers and our sisters better.
Terryanne Chebet: It’s been such an absolute pleasure to speak with you, Carol. You have been listening to She Powers Africa. This is a podcast celebrating leading lights in Africa’s renewable energy sector. And my guest today has been Carol Koech. She’s a Country President for Schneider East Africa. And my name is Terryanne Chebet. Until next time, Kwaheri.