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‘"It was challenging. I was a woman in a man's world... it was all very intimidating"’

Mary Elizabeth Okelo

UnitedSucces Member who paved the way for Kenyan female bank bosses

Mary Okelo, UnitedSucces Member is honoured in Kenyan national newspaper. As the first African woman manager, she helped develop policies leading to further financial inclusion for women in Africa

In May, Anne Mutahi was named the chairperson of Standard Chartered bank, becoming the fifth woman to chair a Nairobi Securities Exchange-listed firm.


Mrs Mutahi joined other highflying women in the banking sector whose success today would not have been possible had it not been for those who went before them, more importantly Mary Elizabeth Okelo.


Mrs Okelo was the first woman bank manager in Kenya. She joined Barclays Bank, as the first African woman management trainee, rose to become a manager before proceeding to help develop policies leading to further financial inclusion for women in Africa.


"It was challenging. I was a woman in a man's world...it was all very intimidating," said Mrs Okelo in a recent interview at her office in Makini School. "We have come from far; just seeing women can walk into a bank today and transact or get a loan is satisfying."


Her hard work in school and good credentials saw her go to London, in 1967, as the first African woman management trainee. Barely in her 20s, she was in a new land facing gender and racial discrimination as she tried to adjust.


This did not deter her, she worked hard and gained her diploma in banking as well as her husband, the late Dr Pius Okelo.


Upon returning home, she started working at Barclays. It was not east balancing her new job and young family, she says. In the early 1980s, this balancing act was challenged when she got a promotion and a transfer to Nakuru. She declined the transfer, opting to stay in Nairobi to be with her family.


"They couldn't believe it; people were fighting for these positions. I am a decisive person and had to consider the impact my moving would have on my two children as an absentee mother and wife," she says.


She had to wait almost five years before another opportunity came. Eventually it came when she was appointed to head the bank's Westlands branch in Nairobi, a first for an African woman. The move was both exciting and frightening for her as the branch was in the red and had low staff morale.


Within a year she had turned it around, attracting new clients. One of her challenges at the branch was when she was summoned for granting a woman a loan without a male guarantor.


"I was called and told I was flouting the rules. But they couldn't sack me, I was an asset to them", she says.


Mrs Okelo joined the banking sector at a time women in the country, and the region as a whole, were still viewed as second class citizens, a period she says they and children were put in the same category and treated "as minors and lunatics". To open a bank account, get a loan or even get a passport, women had to have the consent of a man, mostly either their fathers or husbands.


Before long she was moved to a bigger and more challenging branch, Harambee Avenue. She had also started a women's association in the bank - mentoring them, challenging them to go to school and rise above their lowly positions. Many were tea girls, cashiers or secretaries.


Her dedication to the bank saw her colleagues nickname her "Mrs Barclays", a name she did not recent. At her desk in Harambee Avenue branch, she started Kenya Women Trust Ltd, known as Kenya Women Trust Fund (KWTF) today. This was after a visit to Amsterdam where she met colleagues who were addressing hurdles women faced trying to access credit and land.


She came back and set up KWTF, inviting 100 professional women to sign up and pay Sh2,000 each. With this money they could approach donors to support the organisation and assist other women to access finance.


In 1994, she was named a member of a committee set up to look at all the antiquated laws that discriminated against women, like denying them the right to enter into contracts.


She chaired the economic and banking sector.


"For me it is one of the happiest things I ever did. However much we shouted, if the laws remained discriminatory we could have gone nowhere...the major thing was to give women the capacity to contract," she says.


Earlier, Mrs Okelo had been seconded to the Africa Development Bank as a senior adviser to the bank's president to help formulate women in development policies to be adopted by the financial institution.


Based in Abidjan, she spent three and a half years before moving to be the Vice-President of the Women's World Banking (WWB), of which she was a founding member and had served as a regional representative for three years, from 1985. She later moved to New York where she served as a Vice President in the WWB, from 1991 to 1992.


Challenging time


It was a challenging time going around the region seeking ways to help women. She spent a lot of time travelling in Africa and outside to help women access finances. Having lived away from home for many years, she was ready to return.


In 1992, she took leave of absence and moved back to Kenya.


Upon retruning, she joined her husband in a business they had begun in 1978, Makini Group of Schools. Here passion for children and to educate had seen her start the school which has grown to be one of the leading institutions in the country.


She attributes her success to the support she gets from her family and her faith in God.


She still wakes up at 5am and goes to bed at 10pm, with most of her day spent at Makini School.


Mary Okelo is ranked among influential African women


* Born in Busia, she was the 14th in a family of 17 siblings who include prominent Kenyans such as former Vice-President Moody Awori, corporate captains Joshua Awori and the late Hannington Awori


* Education: Butere Girls and Makerere University - Honours degree in History


* 1967: Goes to London as a Barclays Management Trainee


* 1968: Marries Pius Okelo


* 1970: Returns to Kenya with a Diploma in Banking and joins Barclays Bank


* 1977: Becomes the first woman bank manager


* 1978: Starts Makini School with her husband


* 1987: Named senior adviser to the President of the African Development Bank, Abidjan before moving to New York as the VP of Women World Banking

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