Kenyan Entrepreneur Shimi Shah on her global leadership journey - CNBC Africa

Kenyan Entrepreneur Shimi Shah on her global leadership journey

East Africa

by Monique Vanek 0

Photo: Wikipedia

You were born and raised in Kenya, with an Indian heritage, educated in the UK and now leading a global business. How did the different environments impact you?

I was very fortunate to experience a multi-cultural and multi-lingual environment since my school days in Kenya. My parents have always encouraged me to travel and experience new cultures and counties. I was also fortunate that my career enabled me to continue my global journey, allowing me to live and work in numerous countries.

I grew up in Kenya, where my parents were born; my grandfather had emigrated from Northern India (Gujurat) and lived in Ruiru, a small town about 20 miles from Nairobi.

My father’s story is a true rags-to-riches tale and has been my inspiration for everything I have achieved. As the eldest child of six, he left school at the age of 11 to work for his uncle’s clothing store in Nairobi. Initially a market stall, it became a small shop. My parents opened their first retail store in Nairobi with money accrued from years of saving and the selling of my mother’s wedding jewelry. By the time I was born in the 1970s, they had amassed one of the largest retail operations in East Africa. Their work ethics was passed on to me from a very early age.

After graduating from King’s College, London and followed by a Master’s at Cambridge University, I started my graduate training program at Citibank, where I worked in trade finance for Africa. At the time, in the early 1990s, there were few female peers in the African structure capital industry. I learned to adapt to a male-dominated environment, not to mention a politically volatile and often dangerous one, visiting African countries to secure financing of roads, bridges, power plants, and large infrastructure projects.

When did you decide to leave the corporate world and why?

At age 24, I decided to go out on my own as I discovered that investment banking was not for me. After doing some research and talking to my parents and a wider network, I set up an international jewelry distribution business based on a similar concept to Avon. I sold the business a few years later – with hindsight more out of lack of experience of growing a business to the next stage and falling into the trap of selling too early, albeit at a significant profit. This led to a career in venture capital. I developed knowledge of business valuation and growing and adding value to businesses through investment capital, initially investing in the nascent technology sector in the United Kingdom. Over the next decade, I worked in Europe, California, and the Middle East investing in early stage technology businesses.

In Dubai, you established one of the first female investment companies in the Middle East. What drove you to enter this sector?

In 2001, I was asked by the U.K. government to establish a £50m investment fund to commercialise technologies out of government departments and universities that required seed funding to develop these companies to the next level. When I later moved to Dubai, I was asked by one of the government entities there to establish a similar concept, forming an investment company for women in the region that is run and managed by women. 

What is your current line of business?

After establishing one of the first female investment companies in the Middle East, I left the private equity business and joined Carousel Solutions, a company founded by my husband, Simon Nestel. Simon had established a strong technology business with blue chip clients across the Middle East and I saw a gap for a business advisory practice catering to the small and medium enterprise (SME) market in the region.  Now, we have a thriving advisory business where we provide advice to the SME sector, design and build company boards for family offices and investment firms, as well as advising European and US companies on entry into the Middle East markets.

And Africa?

Africa wasn’t on my horizon again until 2011, when I became an advisor to a South African based family investment company. Since then, I have been involved in the field of renewable energy (solar), technology and telecoms, as well as consumer services. I am currently in the process of raising a $100 million social impact investment fund looking at investing in the off-grid electric space for East Africa.

We are seeing an increasing number of initiatives to promote African women in business and provide them with a platform to connect and exchange ideas about issues relevant to women in business. Do you think enough is being done, especially to promote women on boards?

Promoting the role of women on boards remains a personal passion of mine. This is an issue that needs to be addressed on a global scale and perhaps even more so in Africa. A lot has changed since my time in Africa in the 1990s. However, there is still a gap in women’s leadership in many African business areas, such as banking, finance, technology, and telecom industries, particularly at the board level. For this to happen, prominent business women need to mentor and help develop the skills of women in middle and senior management. There also needs to be more networks and openness to address other ways of having more women at board level.

What has helped you most in your career moving across different continents and cultures?

In between several careers and challenges spanning over two decades, I have made lifelong friends from all over the world – and this is my true wealth. The people I have met and the experiences, both good and bad, have shaped my life. Alongside this, my family and upbringing have shaped my leadership journey, allowing me to deal with the challenges and embrace and appreciate the successes.

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