By Dr. Abiona Iwajowa
“There’s something so special about a woman who dominates in a man’s world. It takes a certain grace, strength, intelligence, fearlessness, and the nerve to never take no for an answer.’’ – Rihanna
“A 21st Century woman is a privilege and special blessing to a family and society and anointed to lead corporates and countries from the second quarter of this century. Leadership shall demand global knowledge, style, absolute trust, creative energy and faith in God and all these are domiciled as a right in today’s civilized woman.” – LeoStan (2019)
For long, the world has paid lip service to the place of women in the global scheme of things. The situation, although more critically felt in developing economies, Nigeria inclusive, is one that has remained a problem globally.
Indeed, gender equality is a globally-acknowledged human right. Nevertheless, the world today still faces a disturbing and abject reluctance to leverage on the potential of this very important gender in shaping our existential narratives. Put in another way, despite the growing evidence of the sterling qualities and achievements that women have proved capable of delivering, there are still huge gaps in access to opportunities and decision-making power for women.
Globally, women have fewer opportunities for economic participation than men, less access to basic and higher education, greater health and safety risks, and less political representation. The situation is the same in the corporate space where men have been known to dominate leadership positions, even when there are more capable or at best, equally qualified or suited female counterparts.
Today, women leaders are still a pitiable minority in various sectors. Men continue to outstrip women in leadership roles across every sector in the world. This includes government, corporate, non-profit, education, medicine, military and religion. Research also reveals that globally, at Fortune 500 companies, women hold only 19 percent of board seats and 15 percent of executive management positions. In addition, the number of female CEOs at these companies is a paltry four percent. Four percent of 500 companies equals 20 female CEOs, with male CEOs running the remaining 480 companies.
A report published in March 2020 by data mining company PayScale also shows a global disparity in how men and women are paid, even when all compensable factors are controlled, meaning that women are still being paid less than men due to no attributable reason other than gender. In 2020, women make only $0.81 for every dollar a man makes.
As demonstrated above, this is not only a Nigerian problem. It is a global phenomenon.
The foregoing is in contrast to the evidence-based capacity of women to create a positive disruption when placed in leadership positions.
It is an open secret that guaranteeing the rights of women and giving them opportunities to reach their full potential is critical, not only for attaining gender equality, but also for meeting a wide range of international development goals. Research shows that empowered women and girls contribute to the health and productivity of their families, communities and countries, creating a ripple effect that benefits everyone.
As Michelle Obama, former First Lady of the United States of America one famously declared: “There is no limit to what we, as women, can accomplish.”
Numerous examples abound in government circles, with the likes of Angela Merkel, a woman who leads the powerful nation of Germany. In Chile, Michelle Bachelet also distinguished herself as President of the South American country from 2006 to 2010 and again from 2014 to 2018, the first woman to occupy the position. This is just to mention a few.
Here in Africa, women have also shown they have what it takes to lead from the front, with Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf covering herself in glory after winning the presidential election in 2006, the first in Africa. She was also re-elected in 2011.
Even in the corporate world, where men have dominated, instances abound of women who have distinguished themselves when appointed to leadership positions.
However, there is still a grudging refusal to empower women with leadership responsibilities, not only in Africa., but the world over. Here in Nigeria, there is often times a shocking mind-set when women assume top roles in an organization. In most cases, there is a belief that she was unfairly favoured or, if she is an attractive woman, then she is deemed to have compromised or slept her way to the top.
This is why the example of Leo Stan Ekeh, Chairman of the Zinox Group is worth mentioning.
Although I have not had the privileged of a one-on-one encounter with the man, I recall that as far back as 2014, he had declared that women will lead the world, not as second class citizens, but in the management of global resources mainly in the corporate marketplace, by the second quarter of the 21st Century which starts by 2026. Ekeh, who was speaking at a Women in ICT event at Sheraton Hotel, Ikeja, had cited the increasingly pivotal role women in the corporate sector are playing in the global arena.
Here is what he had to say: “Women are naturally more structured, trustworthy, less greedy, live longer and more prayerful than men. These innate qualities have strategically endowed women with the basic ingredients for leadership. As entrepreneurs, all you need to do is combine these innate qualities with absolute commitment, capacity for innovation, credibility and sound digital knowledge and very soon, the male folk will be struggling to keep pace with the women in the industry.’’
Fast forward to 2019, I was privileged to attend the Disrupt Africa conference organised by Access Bank in May 2019 where Mr. Ekeh was one of the guest speakers at the event.
This time, he had also preached the gospel of women empowerment to the packed audience at the Landmark Centre, Oniru, Victoria Island. According to him, gone are the days when parents would rather prefer to have male kids, as was in the case in the olden days. Ekeh had stated that women are heavily knowledgeable, highly domesticated, humane, humble and less greedy, even as he noted that current statistics indicate that women have proven to be more knowledgeable and intelligent compared with men in the same age bracket and intelligence quotient (IQ). Further, he cited their concentration power and integrity in managing resources as far higher than those of their male counterparts.
Equally important, he had told the listening audience that the foregoing had nothing to do with Africa, noting that it was a global phenomenon.
I was one of the many who had given him a standing ovation at the end of his moving speech. After the conference, I had engaged a few other participants on the thoughts expressed at the event especially the thought-provoking ones espoused by Mr. Ekeh. I was initially of the impression that he was probably playing to the gallery at the conference, as many are wont to do at such public speaking engagements.
This had made me embark on some sort of mini-research or investigation into the Zinox Group. However, my investigations threw up a startling revelation and actually gave me some hope in the future of the battle for women empowerment in Nigeria and beyond.
Indeed, the Zinox Group, led by Ekeh, remains a shining light and a good example of a conglomerate that has not only justified the power of women as leaders, but also given them an equal playing ground to thrive.
At Technology Distributions Ltd. (TD Africa) which incidentally is arguably the biggest company in the Zinox Group in revenue terms, women occupy the first four management executive positions. The company is led by the CEO, Mrs. Chioma Ekeh, wife of Ekeh, a first-rate mathematician and certified Chartered Accountant who has previously worked in the United Kingdom. Next to her is another woman, the Coordinating Managing Director, Mrs. Chioma Chimere. Following closely is yet another woman, Mrs. Shade Oyebode, who is the Managing Director (Operations) and then, Mrs. Andrea Ijogun who is the Managing Director (Sales). Although I did not succeed in obtaining a clear state of the company’s impressive financial figures, it is worth mentioning here that Technology Distributions Ltd. is credited with pioneering ICT distribution in West Africa and till today, it represents the biggest, globally recognised names in the sector such as Microsoft, IBM, Dell, HP, Samsung, Cisco, Lenovo, to mention a few.
If the example of Technology Distributions is deemed a fluke or a chance occurrence, then let us turn our attentions to Zinox Technologies Ltd., the most popular company in the Zinox Group. In 2006 and 2010, the company had rescued Nigeria from a national embarrassment by overseeing the rollout of the computer hardware, components and software solutions used by INEC for the successful conduct of the general elections, rising to the occasion to deliver after foreign contractors failed. It repeated the feat in 2014 when it designed the Direct Data Capture (DDC) machines, Card Readers and worked with INEC in capturing and delivering a credible database of voters – a factor which contributed immensely in reducing post-election litigations.
Zinox Technologies Ltd. is also led by a female Managing Director, Mrs. Kelechi Eze-Okonta – with an M,Sc. in International Business Management from University of Liverpool, United Kingdom – a position she has held, along with all the perks of that office, for the past three years.
Do we still consider that a fluke?
If so, what about Task Systems Ltd., Leo Stan Ekeh’s first company? Incorporated over 30 years ago in 1987, Task Systems Ltd. was the company through which Mr. Ekeh transformed the Nigerian media and publishing landscape, transitioning it from its prevailing analogue state of metal cast style publishing and ushering them into the world of Desktop Publishing and Computer Graphics many years ago. In fact, my late twin brother, who was a top journalist, was one of the witnesses of this revolution which transformed the likes of Punch, Guardian, Sketch, Daily Times, Vanguard, Daily Independent and many others. Back then, he had claimed that Mr. Ekeh was an American whiz-kid! It was until recently that I discovered that he trained in India and the United Kingdom.
For the past five years, Task Systems Ltd. had a woman, Ms. Olufunke Oduntan, as Managing Director. It was only earlier this year that she was replaced by a man, Stanley Okpalaeke with an MBA from LBS as MD after her retirement.
The Group Head, Human Resources, Mrs. Chioma Nwoke, is also female.
Across the Zinox Group, women have not only held top executive management positions; they have also been encouraged to aspire to the very echelon of the corporate ladder. In this remarkable Nigerian example, there are no glass ceilings for the women-folk. At this juncture, it is worth stating that some of these women have worked in the Zinox Group for the past 20 years, growing through the ranks and displaying a high level of integrity, performance and credibility – qualities that have made them undisputable choices for the rarefied positions they occupy.
Indeed, each of these women have merited their appointments.
This is clear when you look at their respective profiles. These are corporate giants who know their onions and who can defend their appointments or distinguish themselves in similar appointments in the global marketplace. These are women who are ethical and spiritually filled and imbued with the right ingredients to drive a business to profitability. Further, their occupancy of those lofty positions is tested on an annual basis, with their unerringly brilliant leadership seeing to the continuous profitability of the Zinox Group.
More remarkable is the fact that the Zinox Group has remained in the forefront of sustaining Nigeria’s march to technological emancipation. The numerous feats recorded by the various companies in the Zinox Group have not only given Nigeria a voice in the technology sphere; but have also gone a long way and still continues to usher millions of Nigerians into the contemporary world mediated by advancements in technology.
But there has hardly been any significant recognition for this Nigerian miracle.
It appears the Nigerian government is more comfortable with recognizing politicians or noise-making institutions and persons who hardly contribute anything of note to the nation’s development. If not, how do we justify the fact that such a gender-sensitive, high-performing entity that has been in business for over 30 years in a difficult terrain such as Nigeria without any major scandal, providing direct and indirect employment opportunities for millions of Nigerians has not received any form of special honour by the Nigerian government?
I put it down to the fact that the Zinox Group is not a noise-making entity, as exemplified by the character of the organization and the fact that its leadership is dominated by women, who are naturally conservative. Perhaps, if the company was into beating the drums of its many achievements they would be identified. Very unfortunate!
Having a man such as Leo Stan Ekeh as a Nigerian is a blessing to this country. These are the kind of leaders that Nigeria needs – people that see beyond today. He has shown remarkable vision in many of his dealings and specifically, with his clarion calls for women empowerment which he has not only preached but implemented across his companies while the country struggles with civilization.
Little wonder, Mr. Ekeh has been at the forefront of driving the charge to computerize Nigeria for the past 30 years, as he has always declared that no nation is truly independent without achieving technological independence.
Despite the non-recognition by the Nigerian government for its many contributions to national development, the Zinox Group has been mightily blessed. In my research, I have followed the growth of this exciting technology group and, despite the difficulties in the operating environment, the Zinox Group has continued to give hope to many Nigerians. No wonder Alhaji Lateef Jakande- the former Governor of Lagos state said at the launch of Task Systems’ Allen Avenue, Ikeja office in 1992, that if the country could have five Leo Stan Ekehs, Nigeria would emerge as a quality representative of Africa in the global community.
Today, a lot of our young ones are out of school without any clarity as to how long this predicament will last. Yet, the government cannot partner with a proudly Nigerian brand such as this to empower these little kids, all of whom will pay taxes in future, with simple gadgets and devices to aid their learning. On the other hand, the government is investing billions in a feeding programme riddled with controversy for out-of-school children.
What a shame!
Dr. Abiona Iwajowa is a policy expert who writes from Kano