Rita Kavashe: Shattering stereotypes in the world of vehicles

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For a long time, vehicles have largely been the domain of men.But for Rita Kavashe, they are her world, and she understands them perfectly. The managing director of Isuzu East Africa has shattered stereotypes and glass ceilings in the industry.It has not been an easy journey. Many times she has encountered situations in which people would call seeking to speak to the managing director, and when she got on the line they would say they want to speak to the MD, not the secretary.She has also sat at male-dominated auto forums where their facial expressions betray their discomfort because of her presence.Despite being seen as an outsider, years of steering Isuzu, formerly General Motors East Africa, to great heights, and her commitment to the growth of the auto industry in general, has earned her respect from her peers. “Initially there was doubt about whether I would make it. Eventually, they realised I was making it, and therefore I earned their respect,” says Kavashe.Industry recognitionEarning recognition from industry players resulted in her being elected chairperson of the Kenya Vehicle Manufacturers Association and the Kenya Motor Industry Association, positions she held at different times.And, early this month, British American Tobacco Kenya became the latest company to appoint Kavashe as chair of its board.For Kavashe, her career path was made easier because she was working for a company committed to diversity in the workplace. This meant that development of female employees was central to the firm’s values.More importantly, she has been an embodiment of the fact that hard work and determination is rewarding, irrespective of someone’s background. When she joined the automotive industry, she did not have an engineering background so she had to learn on the job through direct interaction with colleagues. She quickly learnt the acronyms, models and engineering concepts.In a 2017 interview with CNN, she was referred to as “The queen of commercial trucks in Kenya”.UpbringingKavashe grew up in Taita Taveta County, in southeastern Kenya.”I did not imagine I would be where I am, not at all,” she says, adding that growing up her father instilled in her the virtues of creating relationships, leaving a good impression, working hard and, when in a position of leadership, serving with dedication.She says if she had not gone into the auto industry, she would have become a teacher. Indeed, she attained a bachelor’s degree in Education from Moi University in Kenya, in 1991. In addition, she has an MBA from the University of Nairobi and attended the Harvard Business School leadership programme in 2013.The lessons from her father have borne fruit. Today, she is the managing director of the biggest auto assembler in the region, with a commanding 44.5 per cent market share, up from 15 per cent when she took over in 2010.Over the years, unit sales have increased significantly, with Isuzu selling 5,150 new vehicles in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in 2019 against 11,800 overall industry sales. The nearest competitor, Toyota, has a 28 per cent market share.This year, however, the Covid-19 pandemic has put a slump on the auto industry with projections pointing to a 15 per drop in unit sales by year-end to 8,500. Isuzu aims to close the year at 3,800 units sold.Besides being an industry titan, Kavashe is sought after by many companies, including some listed on the Nairobi Securities Exchange.She also serves as the chairperson of Bamburi Cement and the Kenya Roads Board, is the vice-chair of the Kenya Private Sector Alliance, and sits on the boards of the Kenya Vision 2030 Delivery Board, Boma Panafrican Ltd, and the University of Eldoret Endowment Trust Board of Trustees.These appointments do not come her way easily. To be on the board of a listed company involves a rigorous recruitment process including interviews because they need credible leaders who can help in there growth and the majority also want diversity in their boards.”Companies want me to serve on their boards because I run a successful company. I am respected and I have good networks,” she states.Kavashe joined General Motors soon after university as a sales representative in 1995. Over the years, she has held several key roles in sales and marketing. She had a six-month stint working in South Africa in 2010.Career successThe real star started shining when she took over the corner office. Back then, many multinationals opted for South Africa for vehicle assembly and Kenya was losing out. This meant fewer jobs, as well as the erosion of the manufacturing sector.Kavashe understood that it was critical it grow local production. One of her major tasks was to expand the Nairobi factory to include new production lines for the company’s commercial vehicle segments.This move culminated in Isuzu bringing back the production of the pick-up truck to Kenya from South Africa.Apart from focusing on production, which has resulted in the creation of 150 more jobs, Isuzu has also been strategic in strengthening its dealer footprint across East Africa, enhancing after-sales service and also being customer-centric.Kavashe’s steering of the company gave Isuzu the confidence to retain her when it acquired General Motors in 2015. In fact, and unknown to many, she encouraged the transaction because the company was already selling 98 per cent of the Isuzu brand.While transitions are often delicate with concerns of job losses and the coming in of a totally different culture, she saw opportunities for future growth.”The acquisition was smooth because we identified that as an opportunity in our strategic plan,” she says.While leading Isuzu has been both a wonderful and interesting experience, the opportunity to serve on boards has given her the chance to encourage other women to take up board positions, and mentor young girls looking up to her for inspiration.Today Kavashe is a champion of the Women on Boards Network, which addresses issues on how more women can get ready for board positions.She is also an executive coach certified by the Academy of Executive Coaches (AOEC), UK, a credential she uses to mentor young girls on matters of career and family, among other issues, and give them the much-needed inspiration that they too can rise to the peak.”I am not only attractive to young girls but also to women at my own level. We draw inspiration from each other,” Kavashe says.While her plate seems always full, the one aspect of her life that she has been conscious not to neglect is her family. The mother of two has ensured that her children never experienced a gap, although at times her jobs entails her being away for days, even weeks.”My family and my jobs have been joined at the hip for the longest time,” she says, adding that her heart bleeds whenever she has had to miss on school visits or important family events. “There are those moments when I wish I was at home.”In 2017, she was awarded the Moran of the Order of the Burning Spear for exemplary service to the country as a business leader.Kavashe on work, life and passionThe demanding schedules of her job, board engagements and service to the community have not stopped Rita Kavashe from having her “me-time”.”I love to jog. I’ve been running ever since I was in school,” she says.The last book she read was Leadership Essential Writings By Our Great Thinkers, edited by Elizabeth D. Samet.Before Covid, she was a gym enthusiast. Now she’s taken up a new passion for flowers and gardening. “It’s a kind of therapy for me. My place to reflect and unwind from the busy life,” she says. This is where you’re likely to find her on a Saturday afternoon. She also collects African inspired paintings.Kavashe says being with friends and networking are important aspects of her social life. She considers giving of her time as the greatest gift.Working at one companyIt has been interesting. There are always exciting projects we are working on as a team. To break the monotony, I have opted to tap into other sectors like board positions to bring in new fresh thinking.The boards meet four times a year. The calendar is clear so it is not that challenging. At Isuzu, I have a strong team. As managing director, my work is to look outwards, not at the daily mechanics of micromanaging.Journey to the topWhenever I am given a responsibility I discharge it to the best of my ability. I tap into other people. I will not sleep with a problem, instead I look for someone to help me solve it. I connect easily. I have made it this far step by step, and I’m still growing.Women empowermentI reach out to women because there are many opportunities to serve. I encourage them to sharpen their skills to prepare for board positions. They should live their dreams, but need to know it’s a journey. It takes time to be strong and solid, to learn and to add value at a higher level.MentoringThere are many girls and younger women looking up to me for inspiration. I’m available for them because I know the impact that has on their lives. Some have told me how I touched their lives. I am aware that I need to give myself to the community.TravelMy best destination yet in East Africa is Zanzibar, and I would love to visit Hawaii.

Sep 26, 2020 (Nation Media Group via COMTEX) —

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