From matatu driver to corporate dealmaker

Frank Molla, Head of Sub Sahara Africa at BPC (Banking Payments Commerce) headquartered in Switzerland.

Childhood is a short season that defines one’s life. Born and raised in the tough Kariobangi South neighbourhood, Frank Molla remembers his mother’s blessings about a future that seemed impossible at the time.

“My dear mother would say things to me that at the time did not really connect or make sense,” he says.

“One of the things she would say was that one day I would travel and see the world. It’s like she knew something that I did not know, and I firmly believe that parents have the power over their children with the words that they speak to and over them.”

“Later on, as an adult the words she sowed into my life as a child kept me believing and knocking on every door life threw my way, even when everything around me screamed that there was no reason to keep believing.”

Molla is the Head of Sub-Sahara Africa at Switzerland-based Banking Payments Commerce (BPC), an electronics payment company with a footprint in 100 countries.

For almost 20 years now, he has been at the forefront of Kenya’s and Africa’s payments sector and has also worked for multinationals such as American Express and Mastercard - which he accomplished without a degree in an arduous journey marked by disappointment before he finally got his big break.

“I’m bridging real life to digital to impact how consumers bank, pay and transact,” he says of his profession.

Tough childhood

Molla had a tough childhood and has been working since he was 17 years old. His first job was starting a garbage collection business in Kariobangi South.

He’s the third born in a family of seven - five boys and two girls. His father worked for a local media company while his mother was a stay-at-home mum.

After high school, Molla only attended African Nazarene University for one semester before his education was cut short following his father’s retirement. 

“It was not easy adjusting to the reality that I was no longer going to university, but when life hands you lemons you have to know how to make lemonade in order to survive,” he says.

His challenging background meant that he had to find a way to earn some money. This saw him partner with a few neighbourhood friends to start a business. “When I look back on my first job and business, I can now see that while doing my garbage business I was engaging in sales, business development and account management, which I have been doing for the last 18 years in the payments space,” he says.

Apart from working as a garbage collector, he also worked as a matatu tout, driver, mechanic, DJ, casual labourer at SmithKline Beecham, a radio presenter in Arusha Tanzania, and event organiser, among other odd jobs.

Entry into payments space

Molla got his first job in the payments space as a cashier at Equity Bank when he was 25 years old. 

“I worked for a year and after seeing the little potential for growth, I took all my savings and headed to Dubai in search of greener pastures. I was hungry for more and I was willing to take a risk.”

Going to Dubai changed his life, and not because it went the way he wanted, but because it did not work out.

“I stayed in Dubai for six months and the whole time I slept in the living room of a friend’s house. After working for a while, I quickly realised that the only employment that I was getting was odd jobs, and I believed there was more for me than that,” he says.

“I do not know if it was my mother’s words or the motivational books which taught me to believe in my brand and value, but I had this feeling that there was more to my life…so I changed my mind and headed back home.” 

It was not an easy decision to return home “where I had nothing really waiting for me, but I knew that Dubai was not it for me. This was despite the fact that I had spent all my savings to get there.”

On returning home he heard that Barclays (now Absa Kenya) was hiring for managerial positions and he went for an interview, but he got a job as a direct sales representative and on contract because he did not have a degree.

“I was frustrated at first because I was raised to believe that you are successful and safe when you have a permanent job, but I soon learnt that you can thrive even when on contract,” he points out. 

Molla worked at the lender for the next five years and quickly rose up the ranks from direct sales representative to team leader, to sales manager and senior sales manager. He accomplished this while on contract and was never employed permanently as he had no degree.

It was here that, he says, he learnt a valuable lesson on the difference between a job and a career. “I learnt that my career was in payments, and so it was no longer just about getting my job done to get paid. I was not only good at it - I was passionate and wanted to grow in it.

“So, it did not matter that I was never made a permanent employee because I did not have a degree. I did my job well and never lost it and instead grew while on contract.”

The multinationals

Global payments giant American Express soon came calling. The multinational was venturing into the African market and was looking to hire a manager for business development, global corporate payments.

“My colleagues went for the interview, but they did not tell me because they all knew that I did not have a degree and that was a requirement of the job,” says Molla. 

“However, one of the ladies who got the job was unable to take it because it involved a lot of travelling and she had a young family, and she proposed me for the job. I had only met her in the office less than three times, but it seems that she had been watching me and how much I loved my job.

“BPC called me for an interview and I landed the job. It just goes to show that you should do your work well because you never know who is watching.” American Express took a chance on him and he landed the job whose office was located in Spain, and he has never looked back.

From American Express, he moved to Mastercard where he worked as the director of business development and country director East Africa-Growth Markets, and from there he moved to his current role at BPC.

“Some people still can’t believe that I have gotten where I am today without a degree. They are baffled,” Molla says.

“However, I do not tell my story to devalue the importance of a degree. I tell my story to encourage those who may not get a chance to go to university either because they do not qualify or maybe because they lack school fees, to know that they too can make it despite not having a degree.”

He says that despite getting that far without a degree, he has still had to go back to school for career growth.

“I still do not have a degree; instead I have adopted what I call ‘lean learning’. This approach gives me instant access to the relevant business skills I need in order to continue growing and thriving in my career without necessarily returning to do a degree.”

“So, I have started with Harvard in Boston and Strathmore in Kenya where I have done a number of short courses. I’m a certified master negotiator by Harvard and Strathmore where I have taken other programmes on negotiation, leadership, management, doing business in Africa, Europe, Asia and the Middle East and being an effective board member.

“I am currently back in school and doing another course at Strathmore.”

As a parting shot to budding business leaders, Molla says: “Believe in yourself. Be prepared to work hard. Get mentors. Destiny can never be denied but only delayed.”