Many of us dream of a career that is in line with our passions and for Eva Ngigi-Sarwari, an interest in financial services led her into the banking sector.
This interest and decision has seen her rise from distributing bank statements to leading Kenya country operations at Visa, one of the world’s top payment technology companies.
Fresh out of university, curiosity and a readily available opportunity led Eva Ngigi-Sarwari into the banking sector.
“It was at a time when the Kenyan economy was doing very well so the financial services sector was growing,” she shared while speaking to Eve.
“I found myself at a local bank. The first role I was [assigned] to was issuing out statements.”
For anybody wondering what this position entailed, prior to the digital age when most banking services are carried out online or via mobile phone, customers’ statements were issued in hard copy.
“Back then, you had to physically collect it if you didn’t have a postal address or it would be mailed to you,” Ngigi-Sarwari explained. “My job was to print the statements on a dot-matrix, fold it, put it in an envelope, and then distribute.”
Like many fresh graduates, her job didn’t meet her expectations. She had hoped to get a well-deserved footing in the world of employment but the reality was, to get her foot in the door, she had to be willing to accept a starter position.
“So on the first day, you know how you leave university and you’re thinking you’re the best thing ever,” she quips, “and then this sort of humbles you because you’re like, is this what I studied for?”
“Looking back, it was a good place to start.”
Ngigi-Sarwari chose to look at the glass as half full and sought to make the best of her job.
“It was really painful having a client come to the counter and say I want my statement and then you’re shuffling through a pile of statements and it probably takes you another 10 minutes to find it and by then there is a queue building.”
“I tried to make some order out of it so I gave myself a target. I was able to serve clients within a minute”
From there, she served as a teller before moving onto sales.
“It felt like I was where my passion was,” she revealed.
After a stint in sales, a mentor advised her that she should work in corporate banking. She took to the work like a fish to water.
Taking part in a leadership programme helped propel her into different roles.
“I loved piecing together products to build a solution for a client and actually see that change lives, businesses and ultimately the economy.”
From her first job, Ngigi-Sarwari went on to serve in various senior and leadership roles in Co-operative Bank, CFC Stanbic and Standard Chartered Bank before she joined Visa and the Country Lead for Kenya.
“Back then, fresh out of university, I think what was most exciting was the paycheck. But as I advanced to various roles, I went on a self-discovery journey and every step of the way, I fired on that passion to do something that challenges me. The leadership bug bit me when I was at StanChart."
“I had gone through various leadership training programmes and those began orienting me into what it takes to be a leader. I had leaders that I looked up to. I had things that I didn’t like about certain ways in which things were done. That culminated in my saying I’m going to put up my hand and ask for more responsibility.”
In any career, role models play a vital role. While women have traditionally been leaders in certain sectors, there are others where it’s only recently that women have started to break gender barriers and take on leadership roles.
“In the financial services space, it’s only now that we are seeing more women in leadership,” Ngigi-Sarwari explained, “but when I was starting out, there weren’t that many. I have been very lucky in that sense because the line managers that I have had who were women have been extremely supportive and have been cheerleaders.”
“So they helped me not only in terms of conceptualizing it, but also admiring their type of leadership and seeing them navigate an environment that wasn’t originally built for women. That inspired me.”
As a mother keen on being present in her children’s life as well as growing her career, Ngigi-Sarwari has had to make her fair share of sacrifices.
She has had to miss out on my kids’ school activities because duty calls. Sometimes she doesn’t manage to make it home in time for dinner or has to work on weekends or carrying along work during vacations.
“I’m also not part of the society - being able to take part in society’s activities like a funeral back home, or miss out on a family get-together,” she said.
“Battling it out with my peers has also been challenging because sometimes you might not make it for that after-work activity where lobbying for roles or positioning yourself for a work opportunity happens."
Taking on more responsibilities at work often means that one needs to reskill and this often comes with its own set of challenges.
“Being able to reskill for the role meant that you give up your weekends to be able to take up these courses; I went back to school for my MBA when my son was only two years old. That was a challenge because I was a young mother, a new mother, and I’m here with a very challenging course that I want to finish within the shortest time so I take up the maximum number of units.”
And as she took on these roles, she came face to face with the reality that she had to face up to the pressures of each new role.
“The pressures of the role is another challenge. You get into a role that is technically challenging and you have to really put yourself out there to make sure that you deliver.”
What energizes her
As a woman with so much on her plate, Ngigi-Sarwari has taken up practices that help energize her, setting her up for a good day.
Her children are her biggest sources of energy.
“A conversation with them gives a perspective to life,” she says.
Since the lockdown, she has also started going to the gym.
“I’m an avid audio books listener,” she revealed, her preference being motivational books.
When explaining how she gets it all done, Ngigi-Sarwari explained that lists are her secret weapon.
“Every morning before I start my day, I will list out the things that I need to do.”