‘Meet the Boss’ is a How we made it in Africa interview series where we pose the same ten questions to business leaders across the continent.
Patricia Ithau, managing director, L’Oréal East Africa
1. What was your first job?
I was a clerk at a leading law firm in Kenya after finishing high school. I spent more time on my hands and knees stacking, sorting and searching for files. I was earning 1,500 shillings (US$18), and that was a lot of money as far as I was concerned.
2. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
I have never thought about that. When I look at my career, there are women I admired for their tenacity. For example, when I first started working many years ago, I admired Rose Kimotho (media entrepreneur) for her tenacity and ambition. I tend to admire local people who have made a difference and try to get learnings from them.
3. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
Performance. I think I have a pathological fear of failure. When I am not performing or things are not working, that keeps me awake at night.
4. What are the top reasons why you have been successful in business?
I am a very determined and reliable person. I really believe in dependability and reliability. If you leave a task to me I will make sure it is done. When people are not reliable, I pull away from them. I also believe in humility and respect for all human beings.
5. What are the best things about Kenya?
It is a combination of the people and the space called Kenya. I have travelled a lot and I just love that Kenya is my home. I also admire the determination of Kenyans.
6. And the worst?
That would be our driving habits. That is the single biggest thing that annoys me; the fact that we have no courtesy. I don’t know where we lost those manners. It manifests itself the best in our driving. There are so many times you see drivers overtaking, overlapping and getting into a gridlock, yet they are going nowhere. How can we get Kenyans to come back to being courteous? Even when we stand in queues, people just pass and go right in front of you. I would love to run a campaign that would get Kenyans back to being courteous.
7. Your future career plans?
At the end of my career I want to work and give to something that is making a difference in other people’s social lives. If by 55 I have not developed something that is solely geared towards making a difference to people who have a challenge in some way, then I will not have lived my life.
8. How do you relax?
Collapse on a sofa; my best relaxation is having absolutely nothing to do. I love to sit around with friends and just have a good chuckle, a good meal and maybe a glass of wine. The next thing is having a Saturday afternoon in my house with absolutely no plan. I also love reading. In fact, I started a book club and I have read great books in the last 18 months.
9. What is your message to Africa’s young aspiring business people and entrepreneurs?
Stay focused; choose what you want to do and give it the time it is going to take. Don’t get into the ‘new toy syndrome’. It is fair enough to try different things until you find what works, but always start with your passion. Let it give you traction before you start moving to the next thing.
The other important thing is patience. I know young people are not patient and when I was younger I was also not patient. Success doesn’t come overnight. A lot of people want riches overnight. Lastly, always stay true to your values.
10. How can Africa realise its full potential?
By focusing on building everybody. Kenya and other African countries are endowed in talent and resources. What holds us back is that the people who have the opportunity to build, only build themselves. That is why corruption comes into play. When you build yourself a 20 room house using stolen money, are you really going to enjoy it when you drive out and there are pot holes everywhere because you spent the money that would have fixed that road? We need to rise above selfishness and corruption.