Laila Macharia: Inside the mind of top investor

Centum Investments vice chairperson of the board and Absa Bank non-executive director Laila Macharia. [File, Standard]

From her 14th-floor corner office at the I&M Bank Tower, Laila Macharia has an eagle's view of Nairobi's bustling central business district (CBD).

This vantage point in a way mirrors her place among the top dealmakers in Kenya's corporate boardrooms and investing circles.

Her staying power, she points out, lies in being a meticulous strategic planner able to conceptualise and midwife a vision where others fail.

"I've taken this for granted at times, but over time, I've realised that it's a skill that many don't have. Some people may have the vision, but that ability to break it down and get results is what I'm good at," she tells Enterprise.

For over two decades now, Dr Macharia has established herself as a serial entrepreneur and angel investor with interests in the creative industry, technology, real estate and high finance in the US and East Africa.

An angel investor is a private investor focused on financing small business ventures in exchange for equity.

She is currently the vice chairperson of the board of Centum Investments - Kenya's largest publicly traded investments group with a Sh47 billion asset base and is also a non-executive director of Absa Bank Kenya, where she chairs the Credit Committee.

Her crown jewel is the Africa Digital Media Institute (ADMI), which trains creative entrepreneurs where she bought a stake seven years ago and has helped steer it into one of the region's top professional schools.

The 10-year-old institution was recently announced as a winner of the Digital Transformation category for Top 100 mid-sized companies in 2022.

Macharia traces her business acumen to a young age, selling artwork back in high school. Back then, she was a playwright, orator and violin player. "My friends called me a fiddler", she jokes.

Her adventure began when she joined university abroad in the early 90s. She recalls that software engineering was then the "big thing" and she took a few classes but wasn't eager to pursue it as a career.

"I didn't enjoy it and realised that it wasn't for me. I'm motivated by seeing people's lives changed... I moved to planning and public policy, and that's where I found my space," she says of her student days at the University of Oregon in the US.

Afterwards, she went to law school, which turned out to be a life-changing experience and would work for a top law firm in New York.

"This was a random decision that has served me well as law underpins policy. It's good for writing, advocacy and logic. All of those fed into my strategy," says Macharia in hindsight.

She was keen on human rights law, which saw her do an internship in South Africa just before their seminal election that ushered in black rule and was involved in prisoner's and women's rights.

This was an eye-opening experience for a 22-year-old.

Macharia's legal career would also see her work at Clifford Chance, a New York law firm, as a corporate finance associate where she helped coordinate a $5 billion (Sh605 billion) bond financing programme, among other high-level transactions.

While in the US, she didn't sit pretty, with the entrepreneurial bug leading her to real estate.

She would renovate houses and lease them out to the US government under the Section 8 housing programme, which offered low-income housing.

However, it was a class she took that would set her on a full-blown entrepreneurship path after discovering how business can greatly transform lives.

One of her professors introduced the class to a case study on how the newly industrialised countries of South East Asia such as Singapore had managed to lift millions out of poverty in less than a generation.

"I realised that the heart of that (economic miracle of the Asian tigers) is business. That you cannot do it through grants. No matter how much you love people, charity is not sustainable, what you do is grow the economy and create jobs and once people have jobs they can start moving up," she explains.

She also credits her parents with instilling values of hard work, and integrity and also allowing her to flourish independently at a young age.

Her mother, an economist, was one of the first indigenous female bankers who headed the foreign exchange function at the Central Bank of Kenya, while her father was the first director of adult education in the country as part of educational reforms in independent Kenya.

After 14 years in the US, Macharia returned to Kenya in 2003 amid an air of optimism that came in with the Mwai Kibaki regime after years of stifled growth.

In this expanding economy, she saw the opportunity in real estate and would go on to make a mark with her firm, Scion Real, an advisory firm covering infrastructure finance and property investment, which raised over Sh3.6 billion for various property developments across Africa.

However, business wasn't as smooth compared to the US where there was facilitation from all fronts, including market research and access to credit.

"The market there is so efficient and information is plentiful that one can strategise, so when investing you know what's going to happen and what price you're going to get," she notes.

This explains why she joined hands with others to create the Kenya Property Developers Association (KPDA), a real estate industry lobby group.

The team was instrumental in the early reforms of KPDA including helping with policy analysis, e-construction permits, a code of ethics for builders and the development of real investment trusts (Reits) regulations, among others.

Soon enough, Macharia would broaden her horizons and venture into the larger investment space as an investor and also join various boards such as the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (Kepsa).

"I have a bird's eye view of the economy and how business is happening, how businesses are doing and how financing works, which is very exciting," she says of her current boardroom stints.

As an angel investor, she's invested in over 20 companies and is part of outfits such as the Africa Business Angel Network (ABAN).

One of her more prominent angel investments is ADMI, whose founder Wilfred Kiumi was introduced to her by a friend and would soon strike a business partnership after a few months.

ADMI was then known as the Jamhuri Film and Television Academy.

Within a few months, the founder managed to convince Macharia to invest in the institution.

"He (Kiumi) convinced me to invest in what was a relatively small investment in the beginning, but we hung together. It's been 10 years for him and seven for me, and the company has made quite a contribution to the community and the economy," she says.

She notes that the institution came at a time when the creative sector was transitioning and becoming more digital and lucrative.

Creatives were renowned for being ignorant of business and the school wanted to change this. This would be done by building on their soft skills, discipline and image and delivering profit and impact.

"Creativity, technology and business are a powerful combination because you see your talent as an asset," she points out.

"And now we have a market across the world and have different niche audiences and not only can people find you but you can also find your tribe."

Macharia says that the school's pedagogy was arrived at after talking to creatives, media houses and employers about the type of worker they desired.

Their orientation is global, meaning students can work anywhere in the world with their learning. It targets students of all ages - from high school graduates to established professionals - and prepares them for the future of work.

ADMI began as a dream to train and empower Kenyan filmmakers and since its inception, it has trained over 3,000 creatives in Africa and beyond. It has since expanded into a wide range of courses, including game development, UI/UX, content creation, digital marketing, animation, photography, and sound engineering.

The firm also has DigiStars, a programme aimed at preparing teenagers early for digital transformation and is also big on the upskilling for professionals to help boost their careers.

It is set to offer a Metaverse Academy as the digital world shifts to virtual and augmented reality.

Macharia says that her mission is to skill Africa for that global demand and help eradicate unemployment. She hopes that Technical and Vocational Education and Training Institutes (TVETs) will be embraced more to bridge the skills gap in a market-relevant way. "There is a huge need for digital talent for tech and tech-enabled companies across the world. Africa's young people are the solution."