By Folake Soetan
VENTURES AFRICA – Ventures Woman had a chance to sit down with Isis Nyong’o, Vice-President and Managing Director for Africa of InMobi an innovative global mobile advertising firm this week, and what an inspiring time it was! As a young African leader in the technology industry, Isis has worked with MTV and Google and been educated at some of the top business institutions. She has taken bold steps in her career and willingly shared her journey in this interview with Ventures Woman. And by the way, she will be speaking at this year’s Mobile Web West Africa Event. Read on!
VW: Thanks for taking the time to inspire the readers of Ventures Woman. We featured you as one of our 20 most powerful African women in Business a few weeks ago and it’s an honour to interview you here today! Congratulations on your appointment as the Vice President Africa and Managing Director of InMobi last year! Can you tell us a bit about InMobi and your new role?
Isis: Sure, thank you! InMobi is one of the world’s largest independent mobile advertising networks. We help advertisers reach mobile internet users; we print ads like banner and text ads onto mobile applications that users access. It’s very much a digital play but on mobile and given the penetration of mobiles in Africa and the growth of the mobile web it makes sense for advertisers to start targeting consumers through this channel.
As for my role, I run one of the regions. The company is split regionally globally and I manage Africa which is continental Africa that is from North Africa through to South Africa. We have focus markets but I do run the whole region and we serve ads across all those markets. So if an advertiser wants to do a campaign throughout every country in Africa we could do that or it could be just in Nigeria or in South Africa.
VW: Why did you decide to take up this new position and how did your previous roles prepare you for it?
Isis: To give you some context, my career has always been in the media and tech space in Africa. Like my job with MyJobsEye, the first online job site in Kenya, I worked there many years ago but it was ahead of its time as a company. I then moved to MTV then Google. One of the things that drew me to Inmobi was that it was very, very clear during my time at Google that there was huge economic potential if we focused on the mobile space. It was also a unique opportunity for me to build a business, lead and build a region as it was not something I had done before. Prior to that, I had worked in business development or sales capacity so it was a very different challenge from a role perspective. I wanted the challenge that comes with how you build a business and a team in a very young industry. I think all three jobs prepared me quite well.
MyJobsEye was a very nimble start-up and I learned how to think more creatively and do a lot myself since in a start-up environment you’re not relying on big budgets. It was also a challenge bringing a new idea to Kenya and trying to pitch it to companies who were hiring, particularly where the online penetration was very low at the time. Those challenges are very similar to mobile web now. Then I think from Google being a leading tech company I learned on three fronts. At Google I had to think globally, I don’t think I’d ever thought on such a large scale until I worked there. Like how do you build scale in businesses? That’s very applicable to what I’m doing now. I also worked on the local content strategy figuring out how to get more African content online and what would drive more users to come on the internet more in Africa.
These are similar challenges in my current job but in the mobile context. So I think it prepared me very well. The third thing is the pan-African experience. Working across many different markets in Africa enabled me to build networks and an understanding of the big markets in Africa. The only part I haven’t really worked in is North Africa, so that’s a new region for me and I have a lot to learn but otherwise I have worked in all the big markets, at least the Anglophone ones.
VW: As a successful African woman, our readers definitely want to know how you got where you are now. What was your academic and professional background?
Isis: I went to really great institutions. I went to Stanford for my undergrad. Being in that environment, although I didn’t work in the tech space immediately after Stanford, there are a lot of things about the Silicon Valley environment that are influential to the way I think now. I went to business school at Harvard after I worked at MyJobsEye for a couple of years and I think business school helped me crystallise that I wanted to work in Africa. I was very active in the African Business group there. It really gave me more skills and broadened my perspective on the types of areas I could get into.
Also you’re working amongst really great and inspirational leaders which it helps you think bigger even though you never really know what you’re going to get into afterwards. But one thing that is consistent in my past is that I’ve taken very calculated risks. I’m not completely risk-averse and I don’t take crazy risks. But I’ve taken calculated risks that if I look back they were quite unusual for example coming back to Kenya 10 years ago. Most undergrads were not coming back to their home countries in Africa. There weren’t a lot of opportunities and it was very daunting. Everyone thought I was crazy. I decided to take six months and go back if I don’t find something. But I think that not listening to what other people perceive as possible is something that has enabled me to get where I am. Making transitions from business school to MTV in Africa was challenging, but I decided to just go in there and do it. Also the relationships you build along the way are so important. People I met years ago are still clients of mine today. That network is hugely valuable, you need to really build it yourself and build it in a sincere way.
VW: You mentioned that going to business school crystallised your desire to work in Africa and your decision to stay and invest in Africa shows your passion for the continent. What do you see as Africa’s greatest strengths and where is there real potential for development in Africa?
Isis: One of the strengths that is a bit strange but I believe Africa has is that it is always underestimated. One of the reasons I came back is that my experience in Africa was never what the external perceptions of it were; it was always a lot more complex than those simplified views. I think that a lot of what is happening in growth and development kind of flies under the radar globally because we underestimate Africa. I think that we are becoming more focused as Africans and shifting to being more concerned about Africa rather than what does X country in Europe think about us; I find it inspiring. I saw these as a foundation to build on. I think there’s a lot of potential in every industry. There’s nowhere you can look at and say that everything has been done. Even in media and technology which I know well and many industries I don’t understand there’s still a lot that can be done. A lot of people I know inspire me because they are doing great work in different industries and they are all pieces of the puzzle; it all fits together. There’s a lot of opportunity.
VW: Agreed! Tell us a bit about your personal background and growing up in Kenya. Were there specific experiences and opportunities that shaped your development into the leader that you are today?
Isis: My mother is American and my father is Kenyan and I grew up in both countries spending equal amounts of time in both Nairobi and the US. I was very much a part of my culture. The bi-cultural aspect of my childhood has given me a different perspective and helped me be very open-minded and not take certain things at face-value. From a leadership perspective, when I was younger I don’t know if I would have seen myself as a future leader but I always worked very hard. I was motivated by learning and challenges and had a very strong work ethic at school. I always enjoyed that and I think when you find things that you’re interested in you naturally do well in those things. I never lacked motivation or working hard which I think has helped.
VW: Of course, now you’ve worked in revolutionary companies like Google and now InMobi. What motivates you in your work, what is your philosophy?
Isis: I enjoy innovative companies and innovation. In a rapidly changing environment you can readily see the differences and that’s exciting. 5 years ago on MTV, Kenyans were not listening to Nigerian music or exposed to the culture but now with Nollywood and music videos you have this mixing I could never have predicted! Being part of these shifts is interesting and it motivates me. Also the thought of what can we do with mobile advertising and where InMobi could be in 5 years is very motivating. Knowing that we are at the heart of mobile business which is the dominant device and that it could go in any direction is something I find really powerful and exciting. I don’t see many mediums that have that much potential impact.
VW: Speaking of InMobi, where do you foresee InMobi going in the near future? What are some of your plans/visions for the company?
Isis: It’s hard to say exactly in a field that changes so much. What’s great about InMobi is that it comes from an emerging market (India) compared to American companies I’ve worked for, so they are committed to investing in all the different regions. In many global companies, they come to Africa as the last region and feel that there’s something different about Africa. But at InMobi they see Africa as just another market with potential like anywhere. It makes sense to them, they don’t focus on the negatives that others see but prefer to get in there and start building for the long term. That long term perspective means InMobi will be here for a while. It will likely evolve from purely a mobile ad network in the coming years but we starting in the mobile stage and focused on building the ad network.
VW: Do you have any mentors and/or role models? What roles have they played in your career?
Isis: I don’t have a mentor but I do have a lot of people that I seek advice from. I think also because I’ve worked in industries that are so niched you’re hard pressed to find a media mogul in Africa who’s a woman, they just aren’t there. So I look at what kind of advice I need about a career move or a problem and I get this from men and women of different groups and industries and this has worked from me. I really admire some of the people who are 10 years older than me who were working in Africa years ago when it was much more difficult but also coming from similar backgrounds having been educated abroad, then experienced the challenges but were still able to build that African dream. They are not famous but they built the dream in the way that people like me and those younger than me will be able to do now. Of course, I admire people that everyone else admires (laughing), like Nelson Mandela and definitely Steve Jobs. Also Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, I find her quite inspirational because there are not a lot of women in technology and she’s a very inspirational leader in the industry.
VW: That’s great. So in a company like InMobi, what qualities would a young woman looking to build her career in mobile advertising need to display to be considered a great addition to the team?
Isis: That’s a great question! I definitely look for someone who’s excited about the industry and comfortable working in a start-up environment; that is comfortable with working without much structure and brings a lot of ideas and is there to help create. I’m very non-hierarchal and believe that no matter how junior someone is everyone has an idea to shape what we’re doing. I think also being a team player is talked about a lot but is very important. So someone who can fit in, work hard with the team, have fun and engage with the team is ideal. And you can see this when you’re interacting with people.
VW: In working in an industry notoriously dominated by men, what opportunities or challenges, has that yielded for you? Based on these, what are your recommendations for other women looking to advance to a high level in their career?
Isis: I think almost all industries are male-dominated especially in Africa and I would just say people shouldn’t focus too much on it. I’m not someone who focused too much on my gender and what it meant. I think it’s about being true to yourself. I’ve been very fortunate and I don’t think I’ve faced any major limitations due to gender but I’m not naïve to not know that there are probably things I didn’t get access to that I didn’t even realise. However I never really faced day-to-day discrimination. It was actually a bit of a novelty to have a foreign, young woman pushing MTV or something (laughing) but it’s about not being too focused on it. I often don’t even realise that I am one of two women in a whole conference. In fact I was at a mobile conference recently in Nairobi and one of the women speakers and I were both waiting for the ladies’ and she said this was the first conference she had been to where she had to wait for the toilet! And it made me stop and look around and realise that there were a lot of young women, probably 30-40% of the total! With many more young women developers it makes me realise there are more women in this space now which is great.
VW: You will be attending the Mobile Web West Africa 2012 conference in Lagos in a few days. What is it and what role will InMobi play in this?
Isis: It’s a very good conference series which brings together different players from the global web space, so it’s not just about advertising but you have content producers, developers and others. So if I was a marketer at a consumer products company I would want to go to understand what is happening in mobile in Africa. If I’m in advertising, I can understand what the different channels are and learn from the information on appealing to the different African regional markets. We at InMobi are sponsors of the event and are quite involved in an app competition and I’m also giving a keynote speech. So it has come together as a really good conference on thought leadership in mobile web in Africa.
VW: Any final encouragement to women aiming to be excellent in business?
Isis: One thing I have noticed in myself and other women I have worked with is that we work really hard but are afraid of asking for what you want when it comes to a promotion, or taking a lead on a project; just don’t be afraid of asking. Studies show that women think that hard work will get them there but what I think is that hard work will get you to a certain place but you’ve got to be able to manage perceptions and ask for things or it’s likely that they will be overlooked. Men tend to be much more comfortable saying that they did a fantastic job on something and as a manager you set the bar there, but women tend to work hard and hope someone will notice. People will appreciate it and keep you working hard because you’re dependable but you’re not going to move up until you manage perceptions and go after the thing you want. I find that women tend not to do that as much as men.
VW: Out of general curiosity what does your name mean?
Isis: Isis is an Egyptian name, the goddess of fertility from ancient Egyptian mythology.
VW: It’s a lovely name!
Thanks to Isis Nyong’o for her deeply insightful words on women in business. I don’t think the advice on going after what you want in business could have been better put. Click to learn more about InMobi and the Mobile Web West Africa 2012 conference.