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Ifeyinwa Afe: Carving a Niche as a Global Leader
At 31 years of age, Ifeyinwa Afe, as HP’s Managing Director of Central Africa is the youngest managing director at HP Europe, the Middle East and Africa. She moved into the post after the company split in 2015 and carved out new high-growth markets in the region. Afe is responsible for a large swath of territory, including Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra-Leone, Angola and Libya. As member of YPO, a global leadership community of more than 30,000 chief executives in 145 countries who are driven by the belief that the world needs better leaders, Afe has carved a niche for herself within and outside Nigeria. In this interview with MARY NNAH she talks about her role in YPO and how it helped in shaping the leader she is today and how she has been able to scale through as a female leader in her field of endeavour
What is your role at YPO and how has your association with YPO helped in shaping the leader you are today?
YPO is the global leadership community of more than 30,000 chief executives in 145 countries who are driven by the belief that the world needs better leaders. Each of our members has achieved significant leadership success at a young age. Combined, they lead businesses and organisations contributing USD 9 trillion in annual revenue. YPO members inspire and support each other through peer learning and exceptional experiences in an inclusive community of open sharing and trust. For more information, visit ypo.org.
I am presently an active member of YPO and by being active; I’m involved in various activities that focus around education, healthcare and community development. My association with YPO has not only helped to define my leadership roadmap in terms of what I do and can still do beyond the business, moulding me into a well-rounded individual and leader.
Do you learn from other female CEOs? If yes, what lessons and from who?
Yes, I surround myself with women who are visionaries and we network and learn from each other – no matter what industry we are in. As women we face similar challenges, such as balancing being a mother, wife, and an executive, being treated equally or trusting your own voice.
What is important for us is to unite, share knowledge and build capacity for the next generation of women.
Are there any factors that limit women participation in the industry?
From a very young age, gender stereotypes such as ‘boys are better at science and maths’ or ‘women have nothing to say about technology’ can discourage girls from studying Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects. But at the rate at which today’s businesses are constantly transforming – think AI, edge, IoT – to remain competitive, there is a massive opportunity for organizations to elevate female leaders in STEM who have strong skills beyond technical competencies to ultimately enable innovation and make the difference between organizations that successfully transform and those that get left behind.
How easy is it for a woman to rise to the level you have gotten to?
I’m lucky, as I joined HP, a company where diversity and inclusion is part of the corporate DNA. At HP, only talent counts. Women must believe in themselves and support each other. We see great examples of female leaders in Africa. I’m sure we all shall team-up to overcome gender bias. Everything is possible.
In your opinion, what can be done to encourage more women to venture into this industry?
It all starts from the schooling system where some of the STEM subjects are discussed at primary level. We also need to talk more about women who are successful in this industry, so that young girls can see that it is possible.
In Africa particularly, countries should unite to create a digital single market in which women and girls can generate the opportunities entrepreneurs and investors need to stimulate innovation for the continent. The free trade zone agreement is a fantastic opportunity to boost Africa’s social economic growth. I am looking forward to seeing its positive impact.
How can we achieve inclusive growth?
More and more organisations shall understand that companies with diverse teams perform better than their peers that lack diversity. Diversity shall be embedded into corporate culture and start from the top. For example, at HP we intentionally created the most diverse board of directors in the U.S. technology industry.
Diversity, equity and inclusion are fundamental to HP’s culture. Our founders Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard embraced diversity as part of the HP Way because it drives innovation. Innovation at HP springs from people bringing their whole selves to work, collaborating and contributing their varied perspectives, knowledge, and experiences. Diverse teams create transformative solutions that better serve our customers and advance how the world works and lives.
What about a brief background about yourself and your company HP?
HP has a long history of innovating to improve lives and transform industries. It was founded in 1939 by Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard in a one car garage, in Palo Alto, California. The first product made by the company was an audio oscillator for Walt Disney, to test audio equipment in the 12 specially equipped theatres showing Fantasia in 1940.
The reason for this background is to show how far HP has gone. It was only in 1966 when the company entered the computer market. Today, HP leads the way in a time of great change and challenges. In the past couple of years, we were on a quest to innovate and create. A never-ending drive to reinvent and reimagine what is possible.
This mind-set has never been more important, especially in Africa because we are living through the dawn of a new age. Where the cyber and physical worlds converge in entirely new ways to create amazing new possibilities, and this is exactly what attracted me to this company.
I graduated from Igbinedion University with a qualification in Economics and Development Studies. But technology was my passion. I started as an intern, then grew into different positions – learning about the business, until I became the MD of West, Central Africa in 2016. Today I am responsible for a large portfolio in various African regions.
What makes HP different from others in the industry?
The core of our business is driven by our values. We encourage flexibility, innovation, diversity and inclusion, and teamwork. We are passionate about what technology can bring into our lives. Whether it is technology for work, school, play or to help protect the planet. We foresee social, economic, and ecological megatrends that will spur major innovations to help improve our lives.
New products like a hearing aid that takes your temperature, or a desk chair that gives you tips to improve your posture, and new services like driverless delivery and AI-assisted 3D manufacturing, will all soon be a reality. HP will be the leader in cyber-physical systems that will make a difference to society.
The information technology landscape is very competitive and capital intensive, how is your company doing?
During the pandemic period we have all realized that a PC is essential. It keeps us learning, working, entertaining, communicating from any place. HP finished 2020 strong, and we had an exceptional start to the current year. The strength of our portfolio and diversity of our businesses is driving our performance and positioning HP well for the future. I’m very optimistic and confident about HP’s positions in Central Africa.
How is COVID-19 impacting your operations and the industry at large?
The pandemic has caused a huge demand for PCs. Today people can’t travel, so they must connect virtually. But in the future, when they can travel again, they may not necessarily do so because technology gives them the option of not traveling all the time. During last year many industries have digitalised and went through a process that in our pre-covid lives would have taken years. This is amazing and it’s great how IT can be an enabler – a force for good in facilitating global growth.
As a business, do you have policies that support women and do you take gender issues into consideration in your projects?
At HP we approach our gender equity advocacy by elevating the voices of women and girls. We partnered UN Women Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and we signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to expand digital learning opportunities for women and girls in five priority countries: South Africa, Senegal, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Morocco.
This collaboration builds a model of partnership where equipment and entrepreneurial online learning courses are offered in digital classrooms to more than 5,000 women.
We also partnered Black Girls Code in 2019 on an Enrichment Workshop series that utilises storytelling, creativity and technology to inspire coding in five and six-year-olds. HP provides students with Rox’s Secret Code storybooks, which will serve as the basis for building and coding their own 3D augmented reality or custom robot. Once the workshop is over, the students will be able to continue the coding adventure via picture books and an app.
How challenging is it for you as female boss in this industry?
As an African female, I have had to navigate many challenges as a boss in the tech industry. I went through a phase where I was challenged by the fears that I might not be enough as a woman to make the right decisions, like my male counterparts. There were also instances where other people in the industry tried to prevent me from applying for more senior roles because it would affect my family life and my ability to be a good mother. Today, I am a mother, wife, and MD of a multinational technology company in Africa.
Every day, I strive to teach other women that there will be many stigmas throughout your career and journey, but one must always go for what they want and never try to please anyone or doubt themselves.
What is your source of motivation?
My twins! They inspire and motivate me for more. I’m so excited to see the new digital-native generation grow. My twins are almost six years old and when I think of myself at their age, I see how much they already know and what amazing industries they will see in future. At the same time, I understand that we need to do our best to minimise the existing digital divide. Kids shall have equal opportunities and access to IT, no matter where they live and learn.
How do you motivate or get the best out of your team?
A leader, whether male or female, must know how to carry others with them. Such a leader is followed by people who believe in their project and who need to be stimulated and inspired.
I am motivated by the opportunity to uplift and empower young people and women in Africa. But it all starts with improving access to quality education and using technology as an enabler of growth for the continent. I also ensure that everyone in the team feels included.
For instance, during our annual reviews, I look at the way in which salary increases or stock options are given and make sure that there are no forgotten people. Likewise, when we have an annual discount, I make sure that there are as many women as men. This battle is not a battle of men against women; it is a battle so that everyone in the team dares to take the light.
I’ve always believed in the smaller things and actions, hence you will often hear me say, don’t wait till you’re able to take action in some grand way or approach, do the little things that matter, they add up.