Mary Wamae, at the top of Equity Bank
It can only be described as labyrinthic— the way to Mary Wangari Wamae’s office at the headquarters of Equity Bank in Nairobi. Out the lift, you trod along hushed wood-panelled corridors under a deep carpet the colour of blood fresh from a carotid.
Corridors run into other corridors that spill out in different corridors, past a long-glass cabinet bearing forest upon the forest of trophies, awards, and plaques, then another intersection, a right turn whereupon you finally run into a gentleman in a tie holding the door open and there, behind a massive desk in an even husher, power-soaked corner office is Mary rising from her seat, apologising over the state of her busy desk.
In many ways that walk to her office —JACKSON BIKO discovered — is reminiscent of her journey to where she is now as the Group Executive Director for Equity Group Holdings from modest beginnings in a small hamlet in Nyeri.
Indeed, she has made her bones; over 28 years experience in legal practice, strategy, and banking, starting at the bank as a Group Company Secretary and Director of Corporate Strategy having left her law firm — Mary Wangari & Company Advocates after 13 years.
Last year, she was awarded the overall winner of the 2021 Women On Boards Awards. She mentors girls and runs a book club.
Who is the most important person to ever walk through this office’s door and what did they leave you with?
[Pause] A client from Molo. It was several years ago. It was his first time in Nairobi, he said he was wandering in the city when he saw a house on adoor, which turned out to be our logo. He went in and met “darkness,” he told me. He said he felt like he was home.
The bank he had gone into was our Jeevanjee branch. I realised later that the darkness he was referring to was the sheer number of people he met at the branch, it was packed.
That mzee’s story was vital when we were rebranding and debating on whether to change our logo and what it means to clients. It’s of a house and a house means a place of comfort, shelter.
From where do you draw your greatest strength?
If you Googled the primary school I went to, I doubt you will find it.
I did not leave my village until I came to university. My mother was a peasant farmer in Nyeri. And she would tell me, ‘Mary, you have to work very hard for you to get yourself out of this village.’
I was driven by that need to break away from the village and give a good account of myself. My mom stressed integrity and hard work and that set a very strong foundation for me in life.
What do you remember of your father growing up?
My mom was a single mother. I have five siblings; one sister and four brothers. So you can imagine what a challenge it was for a single mother who had no fixed income. Unfortunately, we lost her in 2017.
She taught us to stand on our own. She was also very prayerful. We are Catholics. She always said prayer will get you through a lot of the issues.
Was there any impact of your father not being there in your life?
I wasn’t aware that there was a gap until high school when I’d see fathers visiting their daughters. That’s when it hit me that something was missing.
Did you ever look for him?
I did not look for him. [Pause] No. I did not look for him.
What do you think those pearl accessories you are wearing say about you?
Well, I still wear a little bit of gold sometimes but I avoid extravagance, probably because of the way I was brought up. But then again, there are people who were brought up in need and when they get some money they splash it out all over.
I don’t believe in that, but of course, there’s pressure when you occupy an office like this.
I prefer to mentor and inspire especially women who are trying to break the ceiling using my knowledge and experience, not what I own. I like to live a quiet life. [Chuckling] I’m not sure whether that is possible in this environment.
Certainty not with a carpet like this one. When in your life were you most fearful?
[Pause] Maybe many times but one of the fears that come to mind is failure. I was married, then I divorced in 2018. That kind of thing hits you because I asked God questions.
I have done many successful projects, overseen successful investments in this bank that run in a trillion, but why couldn’t I make my marriage succeed? How come this project failed?
[Chuckles]. I think that is one period in my life when I felt a bit unsure because it raised questions I couldn’t answer.
What was that thing in the divorce that made you fearful?
The uncertainty of the end. I looked at it as a stool with three legs, how was it going to stand with only two legs? And you know how society perceives marriage.
I wondered how the church would take it? How would my friends take it? How was I going to handle my in-laws, my children? I have three children.
It wasn’t easy because there are a lot of pieces you have to almost repackage to stabilise yourself. But we thank God that that’s behind us.
When you mentor girls, what do you tell them about marriage?
Well, I tell them that there are still good men out there who can create stable families and there’s no need to fear getting into marriage. But I think I’m also conscious to also tell them there are some minimum non-negotiables; respect, companionship, and peace of mind.
Abuse of any form in marriage should not be accepted. The other important thing is financial independence, because if things don’t work out then you have a way out.
I tell my daughters; work at it but you don’t need to be stuck if things don’t work out —have a way out. And the only way out is financial independence, being able to stand on your own as a woman. You have to be able to take life head-on, either with or without a spouse.
What part of your life now is a work in progress?
Now? Equity. (Laughs) Equity as you can see takes a lot of my time. But the mentorship and coaching aspect is also in progress. I’m trying to figure out how to do that more impactfully.
I’m now writing a book. On the family side, I have three girls; one is doing a Master’s degree, she just went to Toronto.
The other one is working. My youngest is in high school, joining university hopefully this year. So yeah, working on that also just to make sure that they have the right support.
How do you reward yourself?
Spa. [Laughter] Give me a spa treatment anytime, I would be happy and content. When I build my house I told the architect you can forget the kitchen and anything else, but please don’t forget the spa.
Are you planning on pursuing romantic love and companionship in the future?
Yes, I think so. [Pause] If it happens. [Laughter] I’m sure you know it’s not easy. Earlier we talked about power and authority and I don’t know if these go with love. If you hear people calling you “madam”, just know you are in trouble. [Laughter]