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Life lessons that took a village girl to the C-suite

 Mary Wamae, the Group Executive Director at Equity Group Holdings PLC (Photo: Stafford Ondego, M. Wangari)

When Mary Wangari sat down with a mentee, she expected to be doing the mentoring. Much to her surprise, the mentor became mentored, she left the meeting, an aspiring author.

But why write a book at 54 years old? “I wish I had done it earlier,” Mary says in her autobiography.

In her book, ‘The Village Girl’, Mary Wangari documents her life from grass to grace. Born in Tetu village, now, she sits at the helm of her career as a top banking executive.

Mary’s story is one of purpose and passion in her personal and professional life, Equity Group CEO Dr James Mwangi wrote in the foreword.

Mary was born to a single mother of six. Her mother had a profound impact on her life and that of her siblings.

In the late 80’s, Mary joined university, which also marked her very first visit to the big city, of Nairobi.

Born a few years after independence, “I had a normal childhood, characterized by village life in post-colonial Kenya,” she says.

As a child, she enjoyed escapades with her siblings. “One of the chores I loathed the most was delivering milk to the village dairy,” she laughs.

She paints the picture of a close-knit family, which played a part in shaping who she is today.

“My siblings are my biggest support system,” she says.

Her childhood routine of waking up early has stuck with her even in adulthood- only this time, she wakes at 4.45 to be in her elegant office in a towering building in the city, not to deliver milk to the village dairy. 

Mary also hated picking coffee, which happened just before Christmas! An encounter with a snake on the coffee farm only strengthened her hatred for coffee picking. 

 Equity Group Managing Director and CEO, Dr. James Mwangi with Group Executive Director, Mary Wangari (Photo: Wilberforce Okwiri/ Standard)

“Back in the day, I also enjoyed the open-air cinema. The village was also treated to dance competitions, but my mother wouldn’t allow us to attend.

The safari rally was another highlight of her childhood; “we lived for the thrill of watching the cars make their way through the muddy, winding roads near my village.”

Mary says she misses the simplicity of village life. She does not fancy the many comforts children today enjoy, and wouldn’t trade her childhood for it. 

“I could do it all over again. I would choose the village 10 times over. It shaped the person I am today.”

From an early age, she had a burning desire to go to school, and, ultimately secure a job and help her mother financially.

Mary, a devoted believer with a solid foundation in the Catholic faith watched TV and wore her first pair of shoes in high school.

She did her CPE in 1980 from Tetu Boys’ Primary School. Yes, boys.

Mary says she got a practical lesson from her mother on the need to make small savings and investments irrespective of the size of her income.

This was after her mother, alongside kinsmen in the village formed an investment group. They erected several buildings from which income is generated to date.

“I have modelled my savings and investment plans around this,” she says. 

Wangari lost her mother in 2017 after battling diabetes and hypertension. 

Her stay in the village taught her the value of building social capital. Today, Equity Bank’s agency banking model is built around this credit access model. 

“One of the habits I learned early in life was to account for every penny. Transparency in all my dealings with others, personal or professional level, is non-negotiable”.

In 1991, Wangari was admitted as an advocate of the High Court of Kenya, and for 13 years, she had a career in law private practice.

Mary fondly recounts her very first car; a green Toyota Starlet.

Mary met Patrick Wamae in 1987, got engaged in and married as per Kikuyu customary law in 1992. Their marriage was solemnised in church in 2005.

After 25 years of marriage, Mary Wangari and Dr Wamae ended their marriage in 2018 after a two-year separation.

“The decision to end a marriage was not easy. I had a hard time understanding how I thrived in complex projects, yet failed the most important personal project - my marriage,” she grieved.

Motherhood came with a lot of responsibility and maturity. Mary welcomed her first child in 1992, and in three years, a second was born. 

“As a young mother, I went through the rollercoaster of sometimes feeling overwhelmed from having to balance my work, taking care of the children and being a wife.”

Mary says she was not spared of the guilt every career woman feels on whether they are giving enough time and love for their children and family. 

“Sometimes I wished I had more time at home”.

One day, in 2002, Mary’s long relationship with Equity Group began when a representative from the bank visited her office in the Nairobi CBD. She was asked to draw up a contract for a potential investment.

“I have learnt that doing the right things in the right way will always earn you the respect of both your juniors and seniors,” she says.

For Mary, one of the most valuable lessons she learnt from her mother was to never complain despite difficult circumstances one may find themselves in.

She says some stressful moments for career women come from wanting to be superwomen. “Personally I accepted that I cannot do it all, like preparing dinner daily, so I sought the help of a househelp.” Mary enjoys cooking for her family every Sunday. She also enjoys a special vegetable soup that her mother loved.

Looking back, Mary misses attending her children’s school events, especially sports days. “The children are bigger now, but we still go on trips and holidays together,” she shares.

In her quest to find out the true meaning of life, she has taken it upon herself to reach out and uplift others - especially young people helping them become self-reliant by acquiring skills to find employment and earn a living. 

“While money is important, it takes holding someone else’s hand and pointing them to the golden door for them to unlock their potential,” she says.

 She believes that for one to have a full and fulfilling life, one must build resilience, open doors for others, have a purpose, and integrity and be authentic.

“If You don’t ask, the answer will always be NO,” is one of the principles she embraces.

Away from career, Mary likes listening to music.

“I am not the movie type. My daughter loves football, so she drags me along to give moral support. I also enjoy a cup of tea when I get home.”

The mother of three says that she is training for golf as well.

“I am not sure I like it yet because I haven’t done it seriously, but I’m trying it out. I like meditation and to keep fit I walk in the neighbourhood,” she says.

She says that for women to rise through the corporate ladder and occupy the C-suite in any organization, it will take both deliberate short- and long-term planning.

“You have to stand out in your line of work to earn the respect of your male colleagues”.

“I attribute my success to passion and finding a purpose in my job on top of putting in hours. You have to work hard and smart. There’s no substitute for hard work,” says Wangari.

She says women are judged harshly as being too ambitious, and a go-getter can be perceived as aggressive. At the same time, being nice, you become a pushover. 

“I have learned to be nice and respectful, but assertive in a way that does not compromise my values and beliefs”.

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