When over 16 years ago, a journalist had ambushed him on the sidelines of an event, Leo Stan Ekeh, Chairman, Zinox Group, had delivered what seemed back then like a prophetic announcement, but which today, is gradually proving to be true.
Ekeh had stated that women would lead by the turn of the 21st Century, with the Zinox boss disclosing that the impact of women would be felt even keener in leadership roles from the year 2026.
Coming in an era when many women were facing a glaring and deeply ingrained inequality in the workplace and society, as well as reduced access to opportunities in the political, corporate, religious and social spaces, Ekeh’s projections must have been dismissed or cast aside by many as widely off the mark.
The hard facts or data on the ground were also not consistent with the submission of the serial digital entrepreneur and renowned gender advocacy enthusiast. Globally, women have for long held the short end of the stick or played second fiddle to their male counterparts on the business or political fronts and especially in the male-dominated tech space in which Ekeh operates.
Research shows that out of about 239 billion-dollar Venture Capital-backed companies around the world, less than 25 have a female founder. In other words, most billion-dollar companies are founded by men. Also, a study by McKinsey & Company establishes that women are also grossly underrepresented in CEO positions, too, with only 4% of US Fortune 500 companies having a female CEO. Only a few or rare exceptions buck this trend. For women of color, the numbers are even more disappointing, as only 4% hold a C-suite role among US companies. In addition, a 2018 Woman in the Workplace study reveals that for every 100 men who are promoted to manager level, only 79 women are promoted and, if we break down the data, even more, just 60 black women are promoted.
Yet, many years later, Ekeh returned to the inaugural edition of the Africa Fintech Disrupt Conference sponsored by Access Bank in 2018 with the same message.
At the end of a charged, impassioned speech which ended with a standing ovation from the audience at the crowded hall in the Landmark Event Centre, Oniru, Victoria Island, Lagos, Ekeh had specifically addressed the womenfolk. He had urged them to prepare to take charge, adding that the world should adjust to this coming reality which he reiterated would begin to take shape from 2026.
The Zinox boss has consistently predicted that women would take over and that a time would come when corporate organizations that had no females as CEOs or in their Executive Management cadre would be considered old-fashioned. Specifically, he had based his faith in women as better leaders or managers in the fact that they are more financially prudent, humble, less prone to fraud, spiritually sound, better counselors and possibly even smarter than their male counterparts of the same age – factors which he has identified as traits which make them more naturally suited for leadership. He has also not failed in preaching and practicing the same message internally across the Zinox Group and Konga, recently transformed into a flourishing e-commerce ecosystem after its 2018 acquisition.
As the world marks the 2022 anniversary of International Women’s Day with the theme #BreakTheBias, the outpouring of support for women and consciousness of the growing roles of women in contemporary society seems to be felt even more keenly than ever, prompting another look at the insistence of Ekeh that the future belongs to the gender. Granted, women still face severe cases of inequality and bias the world over, ranging from unequal pay, barriers to promotion, bias against mothers/nursing mothers, higher burnout/stress in women and more importantly, incidences of sexual harassment. Recently, the Nigerian National Assembly also refused assent to a couple of bills targeted at increasing women’s participation in the political space.
But despite it all, there is clear evidence that things are changing.
If the example of a Nigerian woman, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who today, occupies leadership of a global organization – the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is not enough, it would be fitting to also acknowledge that on the political front, countries such as Germany, Greece, Denmark, Estonia, Moldova, Lithuania, Slovakia and even Liberia, here in Africa, have recently had or currently have female presidents or heads of government.
Also, Big Tech has recently enjoyed a taste of woman power with the likes of Susan Wojcicki (CEO, YouTube), Sheryl Sandberg (COO, Facebook), Virginia ‘Ginni’ Rometty (who stepped aside on April 1, 2020, after becoming the first woman to serve as Chairman, President and CEO of IBM) and Meg Whittman (now a board member of Procter & Gamble and General Motors but who was previously president and CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise(HPE)), among many other glowing examples.
Women are now holding down more executive management or C-Level positions across the globe than ever before. More and more women are also aspiring for a better education than their male counterparts. Indeed, a recent Pew Research Center survey agrees that today’s young women are starting their careers better educated than their male counterparts, noting that as most women now get higher education than their mothers and grandmothers before them, they can bring those skills to the workplace and impact business outcomes.
Feedback from another Pew Research Centre survey shows that Americans don’t find significant differences between women and men in their ability to run a company, with numbers varying based on sector. The survey reveals that in certain industries, women seem to have an advantage over men. Notably, 31% of those sampled think a woman would do a better job running a retail chain, while only 6% can say the same for a man. In healthcare, 19% think a woman would be a better choice as a hospital’s manager, while less than half (8%) would say the same for a man.
Interestingly, the same wave of women taking over is sweeping through the Nigerian business domain where, at the last count, almost one-third of Nigerian banks are now led by female CEOs.
Equally of note is the outcome of several studies which further justify the growing appreciation of the leadership qualities of women. These research findings admit that when women secure senior executive positions, companies become more profitable. Instances include a 2018 study conducted by the Boston Consulting Group in partnership with MassChallenge, a US-based global network of accelerators, as well as a 2016 study by Marcus Noland and Tyler Moran published in the Harvard Business Review.
These statistics-backed research are causing a mindset shift in business circles, with investors and business owners now doing more in terms of diversifying the profile of their senior management to accommodate more women.
However, this is a template that Ekeh, for long a lone voice in the wilderness of gender equality, himself has long used as a practical, success-backed example.
Speaking on Tuesday, March 8, 2022, on the anniversary of International Women’s Day at The Herwakening, a women empowerment conference hosted by TD Africa – Ekeh, who had expressed a sense of satisfaction at the huge impetus in the rise of women globally, had challenged participants to a quiz. He had asked them to name the only organisation in the world which had five female Managing Directors within its fold.
The answer to this puzzle, for many of these female participants, was undoubtedly an easy one as this seemed an impossibility.
But that ‘impossibility’ is a reality in the Zinox Group where Ekeh remains arguably the only entrepreneur who has appointed the most females in merited leadership positions anywhere in the world. At the last count, the Zinox Group still has four female Managing Directors and a CEO. They are led by Mrs. Chioma Ekeh, wife of Mr. Ekeh and CEO of TD Africa, a cerebral mathematician and Chartered Accountant who has, over the years, steered the company to the pinnacle of the tech distribution space in Sub-Saharan Africa and consistently maintained its unflagging reputation as the industry leader. She is ably assisted by three other female business leaders, all MDs worth their weight in gold: Chioma Chimere, Coordinating Managing Director (CMD); Shade Oyebode, Managing Director, Operations and Gozy Ijogun, Managing Director, Sales. At Zinox, another female, Kelechi Eze-Okonta, is Managing Director, a position she has occupied since 2018.
As the world rallies around the theme of breaking the bias – as aptly couched for the 2022 anniversary of International Women’s Day, Ekeh’s long-held faith, confidence and absolute non-bias for gender equality remain a fitting example for all the world over and clear foresight of an imminent future the world must be ready to accommodate.