Centum boss Risper Alaro on motherhood, work and wellbeing

Risper Alaro

Risper Alaro is the incoming Centum Group financial director.

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • The desire to balance work and family life saw Risper take a three-and-a-half year break from her work in 2018 to connect with herself.
  • As a mother of a teenager and pre-teen, she felt the bond between her and her children grow through the conversations she had with them.

The modern-day woman is viewed as being strong-minded, independent and capable of scaling the career ladder while building a home for her family. Carrying all this weight on her own can easily crush her, but not so for Risper Alaro.

She believes that you can have it all, but not all at the same time. 

Risper got her first job at Centum in her 20s and rose through the ranks to become a managing director for one of the company’s subsidiaries, Centum Business Solutions. In the prime of her career, however, she decided to press the pause button in 2018.

“I just felt like I needed to rediscover who Risper was and spend time with my children,” the mother of two tells Lifestyle.

She was out for three-and-a-half years and after her return last year, she is today the group finance director at Centum. Her appointment to the new role was announced in March.

Risper Alaro

Risper Alaro is the incoming Centum Group financial director.

Photo credit: Pool

“Having it all” is no longer about having a successful career and a family for any woman. It is about having the freedom to change how you work when you need to.

The flexibility to freely switch from one role to another is a need for women who want to explore different aspects of their lives and not be tied down to just one.

As she realised, wearing many different hats can make a woman lose sight of the most important person in her life — herself.

“I just kept on wondering who I would be if I stripped off all the titles. I loved work because it was challenging and that meant there would be a lot of growth but I just wondered, what else?” She said in a recent interview with Lifestyle.

It was at this point that she took a sabbatical from her job. This was not a sudden decision but a lingering thought that she had been pondering on for about two years. It is unusual for someone to take such a long break, let alone if the company would allow it, but Risper’s supervisors were open to the idea.

Long career break

After lengthy discussions and planning with her supervisors, they were able to reach a mutual agreement that gave her an opportunity to fulfil what her heart was calling her to do.

“It was an idea that we walked together on and planned on who would take over in the meantime. It was just a comma and not a full-stop,” she said.

While a number of people questioned Risper’s decision to take a break at the peak of her career, she found new inner peace.

“I got support from my husband and children. When they told me to go for it, I felt at ease because it was something that not many people do,” she said.

During the break, Risper discovered her passion for coaching and mentorship. She found that when she focused on herself, she was able to find a new version of herself who enjoyed serving others. She is a certified executive leadership coach through the International Coach Federation (ICF).

“I also discovered my love for yoga. It got me into a space of very deep introspection and wanting to be in a space where both my mind and my body are at a place of health,” she said.

As a mother of a teenager and pre-teen, Risper felt the bond between her and her children grow through the conversations she had with them, which has opened a door of transparency in their relationship.

“It was a season where I got to know them differently: what they love, what they are thinking and being there for the family. Before I took the break, it was a very scheduled space between work and home,” she said.

What Risper came to understand over time was that there are trade-offs in life and what is most important is for one to be very comfortable with the choices that they make.

With the demands at work, some women feel like they do not get to spend as much time with their children as they want to.

Risper Alaro

Risper Alaro with her children at their home. 

Photo credit: Pool

“During the break, I became a ‘swim’ mum. I discovered that my children love to swim. I made a point of accompanying them to each training and competition,” she added.

A study by the American Psychological Association indicates that Black women highly endorse the Strong Black Woman (SBW) stereotype — a perception that Black women are naturally strong, resilient, self-contained, and self-sacrificing.

Award-winning writer and producer of Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes, often found herself in such a conundrum where she had to juggle motherhood and a demanding career, sometimes sacrificing one for the other. While giving a speech at her alma mater, Dartmouth, in 2014, Shonda gave a fitting and proper answer to “having it all”.

“‘Shonda, how do you do it all?’ The answer is this: I don’t. Whenever you see me somewhere succeeding in one area of my life, that almost certainly means I am failing in another area of my life. If I am killing it on a Scandal script for work, I am probably missing bath and story time at home. If I am at home sewing my kids’ Halloween costumes, I’m probably blowing off a rewrite I was supposed to turn in. If I am accepting a prestigious award, I am missing my baby’s first swim lesson. If I am at my daughter’s debut in her school musical, I am missing Sandra Oh’s last scene ever being filmed at Grey’s Anatomy. If I am succeeding at one, I am inevitably failing at the other. That is the trade-off. That is the Faustian bargain one makes that comes with being a powerful working woman who is also a powerful mother. You never feel a hundred per cent OK; you never get your sea legs; you are always a little nauseous. Something is always lost. Something is always missing,” she said.

The idea of the “strong Black woman” who can do everything on her own may cause more damage than good. In an attempt to look like they are not falling apart, it is easy for women to start breaking down mentally, emotionally and physically.

“We often think that for someone to be successful, the only thing that you need to focus on is their intrinsic strengths and responsibilities. But a person’s community also matters a lot,” said Faith Masambia, a counselling psychologist.

She thinks that the notion of being a superwoman capable of doing everything by herself is an erroneous idea that puts so much strain on women.

“Ask for help in areas where you cannot handle it alone. You need to invest in a good support system. Allow others to help you as you figure out what is a priority in that season,” Risper says.

With her recent appointment as the group financial director at Centum, an investment conglomerate with interests in real estate , Risper takes over from Wambua Kimeu, who will be exiting at the end of May.

Risper Alaro

Risper (third right) ,and other officials at a past event.

Photo credit: Pool

They say that diligence is the mother of good luck and clearly Risper’s work spoke for itself even in her absence. She was offered the position while she was still on her break — which came as a pleasant surprise.

“What I have grown to love is leadership and developing the people around me. I would like to provide an environment where they thrive. Any role that allows me to do that brings me a lot of satisfaction,” she said.

Returning to a new role, Risper feels energetic and ready to go into this new season but with a new mindset — appreciating the humane side in the workplace.

“I chose to come back because I feel like this is a space where a lot of growth is going to happen. The company is really positioned to make a huge impact in the economy. Being part of that growth and impact that Centum will have is one of the key reasons for my return,” she said.

Besides her role at Centum, Risper serves as a non-executive director in Bank of Kigali and the Nairobi Securities Exchange.  She is also a board member for the Kenya Climate Ventures and Population Services Kenya.

She is a fellow of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants , which is the highest achievement awarded to the association’s members with extensive experience and long-term commitment to professionalism and ethics. She also holds the 2014 Archbishop Desmond Tutu Fellowship from African Leadership Institute in Cape Town and Oxford.

In order to break the bias and achieve gender equality in workplaces, women still have to show up and work twice as hard, advises Risper.

“Women bring a lot to the table and what we need to do is consistently bring that. We should not tire of saying what we need to say and contribute what we need to. Many times we tire and stop raising our hands,” she says.

Women do not have to break themselves to make sure everything works as they wish it would, she says, adding that accepting the season that you are in is where you are supposed to be will free you from the idea of having it all at once.

Risper’s parting shot? “Enjoy each season as it comes.”

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