What you need to know:
- When I reflect back on the dreams my parents had for me, and the goals I set for myself, I never imagined that my journey would lead me here.
- But as it has been said, we live our lives forwards but understand it backwards.
Who is Sylvia Mulinge?
A mother of two. Born in Nairobi, raised in Nakuru. First born in a family of five. In terms of perspective I am curious, entrepreneurial, and like to live on the sunny side of life.
Tell us about your family and educational background.
I have two amazing children, Jason (12) and Jasmine (9) who light up my world and give a lot of meaning to my everyday life. They are my greatest life companions and keep me young.
I went to primary school in Nakuru and later did my secondary school in Mary Mount Secondary School. I graduated with honours from the University of Nairobi with a Bachelor of Science degree in Food Science and Technology and I am now pursuing an Executive MBA among other courses I am taking.
I don’t particularly enjoy the scholarly life, though it does help to expand and broaden your horizons, but I definitely enjoy the school of life. This is where I have learnt most of the lessons that have carried and sustained me through life.
Were you always driven to succeed as is now apparent in your career?
When I reflect back on the dreams my parents had for me, and the goals I set for myself, I never imagined that my journey would lead me here. But as it has been said, we live our lives forwards but understand it backwards.
My father (a retired engineer) has always been my inspiration, he taught me how to have a strong work ethic and discipline. My mother (she worked in a bank as a secretary) taught me how to pray and learn to depend on Him who created me, to see me through what I could not achieve in my own strength.
My parents always wanted me to be the best I could be. They had the same wishes for my other siblings, and they made many sacrifices for us. Their best gift to us was to give us a good education with the knowledge that with that, we could go out and become the best versions of ourselves.
So that’s all I have done, if really there is to be a formula. I have just given my best to every space I have found myself in. Living the best version of me in the various expressions of my life, learning to forgive myself when I don’t, and just living one day at a time.
How would you describe the kind of person you are?
Easy going, driven, enjoy a good challenge and live life from a legacy mindset. “What will change because Sylvia was here?” I like to ask the people I have the privilege to mentor to write out their eulogies. Living life with that mindset helps you to define your life choices and boundaries … and amazingly, liberates you.
I love interacting with people, but I am also quite private. I enjoy a good laugh so I try to surround myself with people who bring positive energy. I like to hang out with young people, they are not as constrained in their mindsets and teach me a lot about the possibilities that exist.
What does your role as Chief Customer Officer entail?
The customer is at the heart of everything we do, and my role is to focus on our meeting our customers’ articulated and unarticulated needs, and discover how we can surpass their expectations.
This is a journey that we are on, one that we always don’t get right, but our commitment remains unwavering. My responsibilities include market share, revenue and profitability growth, customer excellence, brand and brand experience management, sales and sales operations, commercial planning and pricing.
How long have you worked at Safaricom and what roles have you held previously?
I have been working in Safaricom for the last 12 years. I joined the organisation in 2006 as a Prepay Product Manager with the primary responsibility of growing our customer base through engaging and relevant marketing campaigns.
I then moved to run our Retail Business as Head of Retail where I spearheaded the conversion of Safaricom Customer Care Shops into independent retail business units and grew our retail footprint.
In 2009, I was appointed as the Head of Sales, Safaricom Business, where during my tenure, Safaricom Business grew tenfold in fixed data in a span of two years.
I became the General Manager for Enterprise Business in 2011, reporting directly into the CEO, with the key responsibility of growing our B2B business and expanding our customer footprint and product portfolio.
In 2015, I was appointed Director of Consumer Business which is a commercial leadership role before taking up my current role last year.
How do you manage with some of the controversial news about you?
Controversial? I am not sure which ones those are, not that I would pay much attention to them anyway. Life is made up of moments and choices. Not all of them matter, or have any lasting impact. So you have to learn to live deliberately, travel light, know who you are and not allow naysayers to define your identity. Living in that space, that is true freedom.
What advice can you give to women in managerial positions and those hoping to climb the corporate ladder?
Seek progress, not perfection. For in seeking perfection, happiness becomes an elusive goal. As women we beat ourselves up too much, it is not necessary. Surround yourself with a strong support ecosystem that will enable you to manage your tasks at home and bring the best of you to work.
As Patricia Murugami of Strathmore taught us, build your own personal board of directors who will keep you accountable in all your different roles, and help you become a better you.
What do you enjoy most about working for Safaricom?
I read a book the other day where the author said that we spend too much time at work for it not to have a deeper meaning, and I agree. I am in a position that enables me to build and implement strategies that touch people’s lives and make a difference.
Safaricom is a great brand that is Kenyan built and Kenyan owned, and one that reflects the hopes and aspirations of many of us Kenyans.
Our customers expect much from us, and it is a great privilege to birth and bring to life their expectations. We also live in changing times, and it is exciting to see how we will evolve with our customers as their lifestyles transform in the digital world we live in today.
Plus, the added incentive of having great colleagues at work and a great work culture, makes this journey even more fulfilling.
With your busy schedule, do you find time to be with your children — to cook or enjoy an activity together?
I try! There is never a perfect work-life balance, so I have learnt to integrate. If you find purpose in your work and your work fulfils your purpose, then it all works out in the long term. I have also learnt the power of boundaries, and carving time out for the non-negotiables. Still work in progress, but getting better daily!
What drives you?
Legacy. Impact. Purposeful living.
Who are the three women (dead or alive) you admire most?
I admire many women, we all have our own battle scars that tell our stories, shape us and inspire others to keep moving. But the three women I admire most: My daughter, for her confidence and passion, and pure zest for life. My sisters, for their resilience and never giving up on the possibilities that we could be as a family. My mother, who taught me that life’s battles are won on your knees.
What is the must have item in your handbag?
If you were to start all over again, what would you change?
Absolutely Nothing. I am grateful for the broken road that led me here. This is what has made me what I am today.
What is your dream vacation destination?
Ha ha. Bahamas! There is a story to it, but not one I will tell you today!
How do you spend your time outside work?
I enjoy spending time with my children, being at home, travelling, and reading. I took a deejay class once, though I am terrible at it … I wish I wasn’t!
What are you currently reading?
Hit Refresh by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Culture Code by Daniel Coyle
How to turn down a billion dollars, the Snapchat story by Billy Gallagher
How do you unwind?
Music. Books. Sleep.
What achievements are you most proud of?
I am proud to be a mum of two amazing children and it is inspiring to watch them grow. If that’s the only thing I did right in life, I would be at peace.
Professionally, I am very proud of the fact that I made it into the C-Suite at age 34, and in the same year I was appointed by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader, 2015.
I was also named as one of the Top 40 under 40 women in Kenya for 3 years in a row.
I am also proud to be serving in two boards that transform lives; one that supports Kenyan businesses scale up and another that impacts communities living in slums, seeking to provide better life outcomes for them.
I also sponsor the Women in Business initiative that seeks to promote the number of women doing business with Safaricom as part of driving the achievement of SDG Goal 10 of Reducing Inequality, and the numbers are growing. Progress for women is progress for all.
How would you sum up life?
Small daily improvements are the key to staggering long-term results. I am a work in progress, very conscious of the fact that I am running a race with a finish line. I am purposeful about making an impact in the lives of people around me, and I hope that in this life, I will be able to birth and bring to life that which I was created for, while enjoying the journey that life places me on.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
We live in a disruptive world, and this disruption is positive if it allows for greater consumer choice but negative if it results in exploitation of the vulnerable. In 5 years I hope to be leading and participating in efforts that drive a more equitable world. As a friend of mine would say, “Leadership is the Cause; Everything else is Effect.”
Not many. Go on the road less travelled. Be the best version of me. Live for the audience of one. Everything else will fall into place.