Lucy Quist is a trailblazer! Apart from being the outgoing CEO of Airtel Ghana, she leads in championing the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) agenda. She is a witty electrical engineer, a creator, a problem solver with a big dream, an Africa transformed through technology. She is also a mother and mentor to many. Our chat was full of eye-openers and encouraging tidbits. Find her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and read her letter to her young self on The Exploratory.
What influence did your early life have on your choice to be an engineer?
My dad worked as an electrical engineer. When I was little, I was involved with engineering. My dad did everything with me. Being a girl was never a consideration of his. I remember, changing a fuse at about 5 years old. It seemed normal to me. Nobody told me that girls don’t do engineering, so I didn’t know. By the time, I realized that people thought that girls did not do these things, I was a teenager. I went to an all-girls secondary school where there was a huge aspiration for science and mathematics and most girls tried to get into the science and maths class. In sixth form, I went to a boys’ secondary school which was mixed. It was one of the best science colleges in Ghana at the time. I knew I would get the best equipment if I went to this school. I also knew that some of the brightest people interested in science and mathematics would be in that school. In the mathematics class, we were less than 10 girls. Suddenly, we are a minority and there were supporting voices. There were also comments like “what are you doing here?” and “You think you know everything?” That was the first time I started seeing the social expectation about science and mathematics for girls. I was 17 when I realized that, for some people, girls shouldn’t do science. I powered on. I had grown up with so much affirmation from home that had built up my confidence. I was able to own my confidence and the principles that I believed in. I was very clear in my mind that I wanted to be an engineer.
So Electrical Engineering was an obvious choice?
I had a few struggles in choosing which engineering path to follow. I thought of doing Chemical Engineering because I was good at Chemistry, and I also thought it would be a good idea to work in the oil and gas industry. At the time in Ghana, there were no courses related to oil and gas. The closest would be Chemical Engineering. But when I went to the UK, I started working in the automotive industry and chemical engineering was not particularly relevant to my new choice. That was how I focused on Electrical and Electronic Engineering.
Tell us about your experience working as an engineer.
I worked in Ford Motor Company in different functions, but I worked in the audio design department for the longest time. I was part of the team that designed the entertainment and interactive systems. I really enjoyed being an electrical and electronic engineer in the automotive industry, because of the intellectual challenge. I went into a profession where you are still a learner, even with a first class degree. For example, in designing a new circuit, I still had to read and understand the specifications of each component. It was a continuous intellectual challenge and it was an opportunity to work with bright people and learn from them. I was also fortunate to work for a large company that made things that people used. Seeing something you designed being manufactured is always amazing. What I really love about engineering is that you are a creator. It is nice to create.
“The inability to communicate makes you irrelevant, regardless of your intelligence!”
What challenges have you noticed about engineering fraternity in Africa that could make a difference in the way they do business?
We have two big gaps in the engineering community. One, a lot of engineers allow themselves to be poor communicators. The consequence is that engineers are rarely the ones who are ultimately in charge. Not everybody speaks engineering. You have to get your message across. An inability to communicate makes you irrelevant, regardless of your intelligence. I usually say to people that one of our biggest problems on the continent is that we don’t have enough makers in positions running countries on the continent. I have invested a lot in being a communicator. Second, engineers don’t understand business. When I worked at Ford, my observation was, there was a team interfacing with customers and they would try and translate the problem to the engineers, which made it an iterative process of trying to figure out what the customer wanted. I realized that we were designing great engineering products but we were taking too long to design and thinking so technically about the design that we were not always meeting the customer’s needs! I felt that I needed to improve and increase my business acumen. That is how I went to business school to learn business. This is an area of opportunity for many engineers.
What benefits have you seen with both the engineering and business qualifications?
I have worked in lots of different functions in the telecommunications industry, but my entry point was business development and strategy. I have spent my time in various forms of leadership which have complemented my career; Business development and strategy, Chief marketing officer in DRC, enterprise sales, that is, designing solutions for other businesses according to their needs, and most recently, CEO of Airtel. My engineering background helped me understand the business. For example, as CEO, if the Chief Technical Officer discusses the network plan with me I understand what she is talking about. At the same time, I needed business acumen so that when my finance director discusses our P&L, I get it. It has been a very technical journey but the complement of business studies has helped me stay on track and progress.
What challenges have you faced as a woman poised for leadership?
Before I became CEO of Airtel, I had earlier been offered a CEO position in Rwanda. The reason I declined was the fact that my children were very young at the time. Knowing the business, I knew I would be at work all the time. I didn’t feel it was the right time for me to be away from them. That was challenging. I do not allow being a woman to dominate my thinking. However, when it comes to my family, I take that responsibility very seriously. The other challenge is I feel that when people offer a leadership position to a woman with sound background and credible proven track record, there is always the issue of “But she is a woman!” I realized this in 2014. In my case, it was a very positive response to me, a woman, being named CEO of Airtel. I couldn’t have anticipated that response. I realized that as a society, we have defined for ourselves what women can do. If you look at my career progression, getting to CEO was a natural step and gender should not matter.
Tell us about mentorship and why you are so involved.
I mentor a lot of young people, both women and men. I also do mentoring on my social media platforms. I dedicate Wednesday to conversations around STEM. I also visit schools and talk to children because I understand that representation matters. Until you see someone like you doing something, it is not a social norm. Another issue I tackle with mentorship is socialization. Before the young minds explore, they are conditioned to think in a certain way. In the case of young girls, the people who restrict them the most are their own mothers. I visit primary and junior high schools because I feel the girls are not fully conditioned yet and can be convinced to be anything in STEM, or embrace problem solving and analytical thinking. I want to inspire and showcase other people who are in STEM so that young people can see that there are many people who are doing well in STEM and they can also be like them. TV is another area I think we need to look at. There is no content supporting the current STEM conversation which is happening online. One thing that has happened in Ghana since we started pushing the STEM agenda is that people are beginning to talk about it. We now need to give little girls a reason why STEM is normal by developing STEM related TV content. Mentoring is extremely important to me because representation is extremely important to me.
As we celebrate the International day of the Girl and Women in science, do you think we are doing enough?
I don’t think we are doing enough in STEM, period. STEM as a whole is suffering because we do not see ourselves in Africa as the creators of our destiny. Engineers are creators. If you want to create a future, you need STEM and you need creators. Even from a national discourse point of view, none of our countries is taking STEM seriously enough, which is even worse when you go down to girls. I have had journalists ask me “What is STEM?” Another issue is that we have inherited a colonial system of education premised on the fact that girls don’t have the mental capacity to go to school. In Western education, boys were in school for hundreds of years before girls ever went to school. The disadvantage of education, which extends to STEM, is not an issue of African culture at all. In fact, most of our African culture respected the role of women in society. When we are solving a problem, we need to decide what the problem is and whose problem it is. Not all of them are our problems! Are we doing enough for girls in particular? No. We seem to always be starting from zero when talking about girls in STEM yet we have been doing this for decades. Why are we still talking at a base level? We have to disabuse the notion that girls are of a lower mental capacity. The biggest problem in STEM is the idea that STEM is for smart people, and girls are not smart enough. We have to disabuse our minds and the minds of girls that STEM is special. Women in STEM need to be visible and willing to be part of the national discourse so that people know it is normal. To my sons, it is normal that I am an engineer. As a woman in STEM, it is my responsibility to ensure that my son as much as possible doesn’t become the boy who discourages a girl but becomes the boy who encourages a girl.
Do you have any female role models or mentors, what role have they played in your career?
In terms of my aspiration to be a STEM CEO, I have always looked up to Ursula Burns, former CEO of Xerox, even though I haven’t met her in person. I follow her career. She was building a career in engineering and accepted the position of Special Assistant to the CEO. Many engineers wouldn’t have taken the position. However, according to her, she wouldn’t have become CEO if she hadn’t. She impressed the CEO and was put in charge of a unit that was failing. Her willingness to turn the business around by applying her problem solving ability is the strength of engineers. By being close to the highest person in the company, she was involved in conversations that she would have never been part of if she was working as an engineer. I admire her tenacity in that regard. Another person who has inspired me a lot is my mother. My mother would always tell me, especially when I was complaining, ‘Life is what you make it!’ Instead of complaining, what are you doing about your life? At the same time, when I watch her life, the biggest thing that has led her life is her ability to dream and imagine things that are not within her reach. She grew up in a village not so far from the city. She saw a plane flying high and said, ‘One day I am going to sit in one of those.’ Considering that she was the only one of her siblings in school, I don’t know how she thought that was going to happen! Her dreams came true within 10 years and she has travelled to many different places. We need to dream bigger. Really big. These are the things that have really influenced me a lot professionally and personally.
What is your dream for the future? My dream is a transformed Africa, where we have allowed technology to transform our way of life and that transformation should feed into the prosperity of Africa. We have to create an Africa where the majority have an opportunity to prosper and have access to great health care, education and job opportunities. We need to transform our continent by creating bigger solutions and doing things on a large scale such as making our countries work together. Most businesses in Africa are still small scale because they depend on the manpower of individual human beings.
What is your favorite quote or mantra, something that motivates you to be better?
It is not a quote really. It is having a cheerleader. I have always had at least one cheerleader, somebody who believes in me even more than I believe in myself. Each time, it is somebody who has achieved more than I have at that point in my life and they are saying to me, ‘Wow! You are really good!’ It makes a huge difference because in life and in our professional journey, there are ups and downs. The cheerleaders have kept me going in difficult times. My cheerleaders tend to be business leaders, but I think the longest serving cheerleader has been my husband. We need more cheerleaders. It pains me, when I go to schools, that our children don’t have enough cheerleaders even in their classrooms!
What do you do to relax?
I like TV, something analytical like investigations on NCIS because there is always some problem to solve. So my brain is kind of active but at the same time relaxing. I enjoy hanging out with my family. When I am with my kids, I start to see life from a different perspective, and I find that very relaxing. I like to take time and just be with them. I like being. Whenever I can, I travel.
You owe it to yourself to realize the potential that is within you!