Lizz Ntonjira: Staying true to myself and standing my ground have seen me progress

Lizz Ntonjira Mutuma

Global Communication Director at Amref Health Africa Lizz Ntonjira Mutuma.

Photo credit: Pool

Lizz Ntonjira Mutuma is the global communications director at Amref Health Africa. The 34-year-old holds a law degree from the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, a post graduate diploma in public relations from the Chartered Institute of Public Relations in the UK and a master’s degree in public policy and management from Strathmore University

She is also a Public Policy Management Fellow of Virginia Commonwealth University in the United States and a recipient of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders (2015). 

She is also the founder of the Lizz Ntonjira Network, a platform that provides innovative, interactive and tailored training and coaching for the youth.

Here, she shares her career journey with the Sunday Nation.

Tell us about your childhood and family life.

I was born in Meru County and both my parents were civil servants: my dad was an economist and my mum was a nurse. Both are retired now. Because of the nature of their jobs, we moved around a lot. I grew up with five siblings whom I truly adore and parents that I honour, love and respect for their sacrifices.

As a child, I wanted to be a pilot. That was before I realised that I needed to be very good at maths and physics yet I preferred languages and humanities. So, I decided to become a lawyer even though I don’t practise. I am more drawn to strategic communication and policy implementation.

What about your career journey - how and where you started, your roles and salaries?

I’ve always been passionate about storytelling. I first got published when I was only 10 years old, so becoming a writer was something I looked forward to. While pursuing my law degree, I struggled and got a regular column in the Daily Nation during my first year on campus. That was in 2005.

The following year, while still studying and writing for the newspaper, I got a job as a news anchor at K24, when the media station was relatively new. At 19, back then, I must have been one of the country's youngest (if not the youngest) news anchors. I also volunteered at a PR company.

In terms of salaries, I think my first paycheck was for Sh10,000, in 2005.

I juggled several things back then. I'm a strong believer in the saying ‘No pain, no gain’. I remember, with fondness, many sleepless nights because I was either studying for an exam or completing a work assignment.

My career growth over the past 16 years has been organic. I have worked extremely hard and smart to get to where I am today. Being able to do everything I have done and be efficient at it all has shaped who I am today.

What has stood out in your career journey? 

As a young woman who has often been the youngest amongst senior leadership in the various roles over the years, prejudice and bias against my age and gender inevitably became a catalyst to my accomplishments. I feel strongly that the status quo has to change. 

Institutional mindsets are the most significant barriers to women and youth leadership, especially at the higher levels. People make assumptions about women and the youth based on their stereotypical roles in society.

There is a lot of age discrimination in the workplace, including an unwarranted bias against millennials. It doesn't help that so many negative articles and so-called studies continue to perpetuate this misinformed perception. 

As a generation, millennials battle with very unique challenges, but which generation doesn't? I have sat in panel interviews where the male panelists have suggested that we shouldn't hire too many young women in case they all fall pregnant at the same time.

Most of the time, the interview questions directed at women are different from those directed at men. Women are often asked if they are married and how many children they have. Such questions are an outright invasion of privacy.

I've yet to hear a man ask those questions. One thing I have noticed is that women and young people rarely speak up. We need to speak up and to speak confidently, regardless of the odds. 

How have you progressed over the year's career-wise?

To progress through the years, I have stayed true to myself and stood my ground. I raised questions when I needed clarity and questioned anything that did not sit right in my conscience. I always ask uncomfortable questions because I love clarity.

And that need to seek clarity has sometimes rubbed some people the wrong way because they are not used to people being straightforward, but we are all in a better place when we are clear about expectations. I’m definitely not a “yes person”, I will always ask questions. That has greatly helped me in my career growth.

My motto at the workplace is 'Teamwork makes the dream work'. In each role I have held, I have had to deliver over and above expectations because there's always some sort of bias I'm working against - my age, gender or misconstrued perceptions of who I am.

What are the key drivers of your growth and what habits have you found useful?

Taking risks and trusting my instincts have been the biggest drivers of my growth. I recall a time when I left a permanent and pensionable job for a three-year contract, and most of my peers thought I was crazy, so did my mum.

But my analysis had shown that the contract job would help me to meet my long-term goals faster. Many people fear taking jobs on contract yet they are just as good as any others.

The habits that have helped me over the years are always yearning to learn new skills and capabilities, and being resilient and consistent. Having conversations with people who have been there before me, who mentor me has also been very impactful.

Learning to stick to boundaries at the workplace and pursuing what I'm passionate about has also been instrumental, so much so that sometimes I don't feel like I'm working but living my dream.

Who are the people or relationships you can single out as useful in your career growth, and how did they influence your trajectory?

My husband has been an invaluable asset in solid conversations regarding people management, which is one of the most difficult skills to learn as a leader. He is a patient and empathetic servant leader.

I also treasure lessons from my mentor Dr Bitange Ndemo. He is such a visionary and has always taught me to think and plan 10 or 15 years ahead. 

And I truly admire the skills I have learnt over the years from Julie Masiga, another mentor who happens to be the editor of my book, “#YouthCan”. I have also learnt a lot from my current and previous bosses and colleagues, and my siblings and friends have been a phenomenal support system.

Your current role and its scope?

I am currently the global communications director at Amref Health Africa, the largest Africa-based international non-governmental organisation, currently running programs in over 35 countries in Africa, with lessons learnt over 60 years of engagement with governments, communities, and partners to increase sustainable health access in Africa.

Amref Health Africa’s work incorporates programme development, fundraising, partnership, advocacy, monitoring and evaluation. It has 11 offices in Europe and North America as well as subsidiaries: Amref Flying Doctors, Amref Enterprises and the Amref International University.

Your future plans?

My future plans and ambition scare me most times, but for now, I'm taking it a day at a time and playing those cards close to my chest. 

What is your advice for the youth in Kenya?

Be ready every day to compete with who you were yesterday. Don't compete with other people because comparison is the thief of joy but challenge and empower yourself using other people's stories of resilience and accomplishments.

As the young people of this country, we have often been told that we must ask for power or a seat at the table. But we have the power and the numbers. We don't need seats; we are at the table. We are heading into an election period, and for political systems to be representative, all parts of society must be included. 

Young people in this country have often been disenfranchised or disengaged from political processes because civic education is not prioritised. So I implore all young people to be engaged, learn about political processes and vote wisely. 

What would you tell your younger self?
Believe you can, and you will. 

Your parting shot?
Be you. Do not let anyone or any circumstance define who you are. 

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