Wanja Gikonyo is the first female CEO of Betway Kenya. She’s also the first woman to take on the CEO role at any major sporting company in the country. That’s no small feat in an industry that’s often described as an “all-boys club” and is still very clearly dominated by men.
She spoke with BETTY MUINDI about her own career trajectory, motherhood, being a tech enthusiast, leader…and everything in between.
Just a few minutes to 10am, I am ushered into the Betway Betting Company boardroom. I pull out one of the chairs and sit down, my body immediately relaxed, I guess because of the warm and welcoming gestures shown by the company staff as I made my way into the office located on the 6th floor of Galana Plaza off Agwings Kodhek road .
“Would you like something to drink?” a guy I met at the reception decorously asks, I opt for warm water. And just before I take my first sip, I hear soft heel steps approaching on the glossy tiles.
There are several sections of offices across each other, the managers office on one side and between them, the boardroom where I sit. From the steps, you can tell the person on the other side of the door has been in some armed service or other, there is a marching quality to it.
Then the door is opened and a lady, elegant and energetic walks in and greets me, “Hi, Wanja,” she utters while gently but firmly shaking my hand, maintaining eye contact. “Hallo, Betty,” I shake her hand as gracefully as I can.
GET THE BALL ROLLING
I direct her to a seat that would be convenient for me and my photographer during the interview. I do a little briefing about our interview as she nods with approval. She reminds me that she would be having another meeting in a few minutes so we begin the interview right away.
Wanja Gikonyo was born at Aga Khan University Hospital Nairobi and raised in Nairobi’s leafy suburbs of Loresho. She went to Loreto Convent Msongari for her primary education and a little bit of high school before going to do her O levels in Thika.
After high school, Wanja left for the USA to study at the University of Maryland, College Park, MD Robert H. Smith School of Business and received an MBA in International Finance. She also pursued a Bachelor of Science degree from James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, USA.
She stayed in USA for 10 years studying while working in between. She came back home in 2002 and immediately landed a job at AccessKenya when the company was just rolling out Voice of Internet Protocol(VoIP) a phone service that made long distance phone calls possible at a minimal cost. She was instrumental in launching and setting up of the service while serving as the Business Development Manager.
“It was an interesting period. The year when Mwai Kibaki became President and he liberated the web industry and companies like AccessKenya were allowed to have internet and sell it,” she reminisces.
It is at AccessKenya that Wanja was introduced to the internet world and what is possible on the internet. The mobile phone industry was also growing very fast, companies such as Safaricom had just launched a mobile money transfer system, Mpesa.
She was approached by a South African company, Intarget Limited offering mobile aggregation, content and advertising platform and services to corporate and media clientele, which wanted to make entry into Kenya.
“I did some research and I started understanding that even the internet I was selling was going to end up on the phone. I joined the company and we opened an office in Kenya where I served as the country manager for seven years,” she explains.
It is during this time that more people had started getting news, music, entertainment, weather forecast, banking among other services through their phones. One of the other services that had moved onto the mobile platform was betting.
That is how, towards the end of her term at Intarget, one of the gaming industry’s finest online and mobile platform, Betway, when it brought its Brand to Africa for the first time, Kenya as its first port of call, Wanja was appointed as its Country Manager.
“It is a very interesting space from the technology point of view because everything we do is online. From acquiring gamers, SMS is through the Betway website, we advertise online, study game trends online, place bets online and if you win you withdraw your money online, everything is basically linked to IT.”
LIFE IS A GAMBLE
She decribes her work at Betway for the last two years as a very exciting venture. The kind of work that goes behind the product available is what makes it interesting, especially now in when the betting industry seems to be eliciting so much interest.
“My experience at Betway has been a growing time for me, I have gotten to do things out of my comfort zone and push myself to places I haven’t been before,” she says. She has been able to dig in to and learn the ropes in the mobile money world because of her close interaction with Safaricom’s Mpesa and Airtel’s Airtel money.
From a Government policy point of view, she has learnt how bills work, who to talk to, how to lobby, how many people you need to support when tax bills looming around the betting industry are tabled in Parliament.
Betway, she says has introduced her to the world of sports, “locally, I am an ardent fan of Mathare United and West Ham United on the international front. They also happen to be clubs that Betway sponsors,” she laughs.
Even though she does not say it, Wanja has achieved big strides running of the multi-million company, in a world where there are more than 50 competing betting companies. She began the Kenyan office from scratch from setting up of furniture to computers, staff and today she has over 34 employees working under her watch.
“I enjoy creating and watching something grow from an idea to actual fruition. Betway has afforded me that opportunity and it continues to be interesting,” she says. One of Betways key mantras that she has strongly advocates is responsible betting.
“Gaming is a form of entertainment and that is what it should be; the same way you would go and have a drink while watching a game. Spend only what you can afford to lose, the same way you would not go out and drink your whole salary.
I try to caution our clients to attend to all their needs and whatever is left over they can go on and bet with it. If you win it is okay, but if you lose, it is not the end of the world,” she offers. She further reiterates that betting is not an investment venture, neither is it an income earner.
It is an entertainment sport. Wanja does not shy from admitting that she is also a gamer, for her, betting is a daily thing, “I work on a platform that needs continuous upgrading, I play on our platform, I test my competitors.”
The betting industry still being relatively new in the African market, they are still learning what kenyans would like to see because every country is different, which kind of sport they like and so on so that they can make those services available. Mother to one, a six year old baby girl, Wanja divulges that she has no choice but find a balance between her busy work schedule and raising her daughter.
“I have a personal and a professional life, so those two have to work together and that means that I have to give time to each and everyone of them,” she says. Her personal life revolves around her child, “she goes to school, she has some entertainment engagements that she does and every day I make sure that I spend time with her after or before school.”
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
But not without its challenges, “it is a moving target, there are times when I am doing really well and other times I am doing well in one side and not the other. But it is always something that is always on my mind, I cannot neglect one thing for the other.”
On a typical weekend or off day, Wanja enjoys athletics, “I do a lot of running, in fact, this year, I trained and ran two marathons. I ran the Lewa and Standard chattered marathon.”
She also enjoys reading non fiction books, biographies; things that help her better herself and learn how to deal with other people. She says she challenges herself to at least read one book a month.
Right now she is reading The 10x Rule. The book is basically for achieving success in business and in life. The basic premise is that you should take whatever goal you want to achieve and times it by 10, then offer up 10 times the effort to succeed.
“If you want to be good at something, you have to do it at least 10 times. Its about repetition. We forget that as adults, children repeat something over and over again until they get it right. But adults try something once and when it fails they give up.”
She says perceptions that betting is an evil vice is what ails the betting industry in Kenya but she is positive that it is something that will settle down with time. “I mean Kenya breweries does not have such kind of issues now.
There are some people who might abuse alcohol, drink and drive, same thing with betting. On the contrary there are a wide range of people who place their bets responsibly and they use that money effectively.
Although she admits, there is the danger of someone misusing it by getting carried away, thus the responsible beting initiative. The company has recently introduced Betway Sare in partnership with Airtel money. Gamers no longer have to use data bundles to place their bets.