Laila has more than 20 years of experience in investment, entrepreneurship, portfolio management and market reform for Pan-African projects and initiatives. In 2010, she was honoured as a Fellow of the Aspen Institute’s Africa Leadership Institute and in 2012, she was named one of the Top 20 Women to Watch in Africa by the Times of London. She has previously occupied high profile leadership positions in organisations such as the Kenya Property Developers Association, Scion Real and at Clifford Chance in New York. She holds a Doctorate and Master's degrees from Stanford Law School, a graduate degree from Cornell Law School and an undergraduate degree from the University of Oregon.
What would you say is the greatest impediment to the success of female professionals?
There are many reasons, some personal and some political. First, there is bias. Many people underestimate and undervalue women’s contribution. Then, there’s a generational problem that is as a result of the historical imbalance where women got fewer opportunities both for education and for work experience. Then, some women are still not good at articulating technical issues confidently. I’d advice women to first invest in being an expert, and then work at bringing that expertise to the table.
You have always had so much going on in terms of career and education. Were you ever worried that you’d fail at balancing it all?
I love what I do. I am very passionate about my work, so much so that lines blur between my personal life, work life and social space. For me those three aspects have always been deeply entwined. I was also lucky to have some good support from my family, and I also had to let go of some of my self-imposed standards of perfection. Right now, I enjoy my life because it is fun and full. I am happy that hopefully, many will get to enjoy the byproducts of my work after I am gone.
What qualities would you attribute to your flourishing career?
I grew up in an extended family where everyone knew that hard work was important, and that you don’t get a pat on the back for every little thing. At home everyone was expected to help out. I credit these values for everything I have. Also, I always try to stay positive, pragmatic, proactive, and grateful. If you allow yourself to be shallow and bitter, you won’t make full use of the opportunities that come your way. You’ll stay stuck.
Have you achieved everything you set out to?
I am a work in progress. Actually I see myself as a fascinating subject for research. I learn more and more about myself with every experience I encounter. I have my strengths and weaknesses like everyone else, but what an adventure it has been uncovering them all!
What attracted you to the fields of investment, entrepreneurship and law?
As I grew up, I got to understand that there is a cycle. Strong businesses create jobs for the community, and pay taxes to the government. Jobs provide dignity to the employees. The revenue from tax, if spent well, can transform lives. Since then I’ve never looked back. My mission in all the positions I hold is to make things better for Africa and its inhabitants.
Was it your decision to study abroad?
Let’s just say I found myself there [laughs], but it really ended up being the best thing I ever did.
What advice would you give millennials who are looking to build strong careers?
Three things. First, is your mindset. Take control of your thoughts, your habits, what you watch or listen to, and what you say to yourself. Secondly, focus on what you have and what you can do. Don’t get stuck comparing yourself with others. If a thought does not motivate or inspire you, abandon it. Lastly, know that you will be rewarded if you make extra effort, and uphold integrity, discipline and perseverance even in times of discouragement. And by the way, a good character is still key. And don’t listen to people who say they can’t work for free. When you are young, you may not have much money or experience, but you have the time and energy that older people envy. Use that to your advantage. Don’t waste your youth!
How best can an entrepreneur attract or impress an investor?
Most investors join a business with the view of expanding it, and not to provide the seed capital. They need proof that you can succeed, that you are smart enough and have the grit to follow the project through, and that you have invested in yourself. For this, it is important to put the little you have into good use so that you can be trusted with more.
What are your general views about the African business space?
The opportunities are boundless. The digital economy is opening up and with the Continental Trade Agreement, African countries will soon merge into one huge economic bloc with unlimited opportunities. We all need to get ready.
Any advice for those in employment?
Remember that you were hired to solve a problem, or to fill a gap. Therefore, you should add value in whatever role you’re playing. The bigger the problem that needs to be solved, the greater the opportunity for you to grow as an individual, and to demonstrate that the company needs you. If you are just starting out, it is germane to keep things professional.
Don’t take things too personally. Be humble, build lasting relationships, and develop your skills.