Carine Umutoni is prominent in Rwanda’s banking and finance sector, not just because of her impressive achievements at a young age, but also as a prime example of the belief that empowered girls can achieve anything in this world. The 42-year-old is the Managing Director of Ecobank Rwanda, a position she assumed in November 2022. She is also a part of the Executive Committee of the Rwanda Bankers’ Association (RBA). ALSO READ: Leading women in Rwanda’s banking sector Before this, Umutoni held various executive roles in different banks, such as the former Banque Commercial du Rwanda (now I&M Bank Rwanda), Bank of Kigali, and KCB Bank Rwanda, among others. When discussing women in the Rwandan banking sector, she stands out, along with Diane Karusisi of Bank of Kigali, Kampeta Sayinzoga of Development Bank of Rwanda (BRD), Patience Mutesi, Managing Director of BPR Bank Rwanda, and Lina Mukashyaka Higiro of NCBA Bank Rwanda, all prominent women in the country’s banking industry. Umutoni is at the helm of the Pan-African bank in Rwanda and has emerged as a formidable presence in the banking industry, but her career path could be considered somewhat accidental. At the start Upon completing her secondary education in Rwanda, Umutoni was sent abroad to pursue university studies. Her parents helped her to find a university in South Africa but when she got there, she discovered that they prioritised locals for medical courses such as dentistry. That was in 1999. “I wanted to be a dentist. When I finished high school, at the time dentistry was unavailable here (in Rwanda). So, I insisted that I wanted to do it,” Umutoni said. “I ended up not doing dentistry and that is how I fell into banking. It was unplanned because I was just waiting to be admitted to dentistry but I had to look for another faculty that was available because it was getting late. “Banking and finance was the only faculty that had room. That’s how I ended up in banking.” When she joined, it was something she thought was temporary as she waited for an opportunity to pursue dentistry, but during the first semester, she fell in love with it and decided to continue. It is something she always tells young people, that sometimes you have to let God decide your destiny and you follow along. Upon returning home in 2003, her banking and finance degree earned her an internship slot, and later a job, in what was then known as Bank of Commerce, Development and Industry (BCDI), which was one of the biggest banks in Rwanda at the time. It would later be acquired by her current employer Ecobank. The same building where she sits today as a CEO is where she sat as an intern 20 years ago. Upon being hired she was transferred to the treasury department, where she kicked off her banking career. Runs in the blood It is also fair to say that it runs in the blood because her father is a retired banker. But how did she scale the ladder to be where she is today? She cannot attribute it to hard work alone because everybody perhaps works hard, but for her it has always been about working smart, as well as being a problem solver and a leader in what she does. Even as an intern, she would take on rigorous tasks, probably something that other people do not want to do, and she would do it excellently. She would take up tasks such as bank reconciliation, which you wouldn’t find interns doing. The other secret was to focus on her work and ensure she did it well. You do not have to wait to be in a managerial position to do what you do very well. In fact, the opposite is true. “You have to start with the small tasks, if you’re a teller, do it so well that anybody who sees you will see that you are actually doing beyond what you’re supposed to do and therefore you’ll be promoted,” Umutoni, a believer in excellence, said. “I think excellence for me is one thing that you can only achieve when you enjoy or like what you’re doing. The small tasks, that’s where you start. You need to really put your heart into it and do it so well,” she added. An enabling environment Her destiny was shaped by a combination of factors; first, her parents who provided equal opportunities for boys and girls, and second, her determined character. She has always been focused and curious right from her nursery days. It is a story her parents keep repeating to her, how she used her spare time to solve complicated puzzles and perfect her other talents. But she also attributes her success to great bosses and great leaders she met along the way who allowed her to serve and grow, something she aligns with the country’s leadership, which strives for excellence, right from the top, beginning with the President. She equally attributes her growth to national policies that give women and men, boys and girls, equal opportunities. The same system that bore female ministers, legislators, and more, also gave birth to women in the financial sector. It is something she does not take for granted because opportunity does not meet only the qualified. There has to be the environment for it to work — and that is what Rwanda has been intentional at doing. At BCR, there were just two women in the executive committee, one as the treasurer (Umutoni), and the other as the legal and company secretary. Breaking barriers It has not been an easy journey for a woman. She has felt intimidated and doubted herself. However, the more doubt set in, the more she challenged herself to work hard and confront the stereotypes and biases women encounter as they advance in their careers. It is a complete support system. She considers herself fortunate to have worked well with others and to have helped them along the way. In this sense, she was seen as competent rather than as a woman. “When you deliver, you break the biases,” she said, emphasising that the policies, too, play a key role because women grow in careers as much as men, in a country that offers equal opportunities. As a woman, she understands well the stereotypes and biases women face in their career paths and that is why she is deliberate in making the institution she leads a safe and conducive place for women to work. This includes policies that ensure equity and equality in opportunities, as well as facilities that allow women to work in the right conditions. “Here at Ecobank we recently set up our nursing room and this was one policy that we put in place to say to women that as you go on maternity leave, don't be afraid to come back, feeling that you have abandoned your baby because you have to go back to work,” she said. The room allows nursing women to go about their work and continue to breastfeed their babies. She believes every workplace should have this room. She believes in women and she walks the talk when it comes to breaking the biases and ensuring that women have equal opportunities. A child or a pregnancy should never be a reason a woman should be deprived of opportunities. She had her three boys while working and it didn’t stop her from growing. Another example she provides is about interviews they held for a job opening, and one woman stood out as qualified for the position — she was five months pregnant. During the deliberations to choose the most suitable candidate for the job, biases arose against the pregnant woman. Some of these biases are unintentional, but her stance was that the woman should be offered the job because she deserved it Some people were concerned that she would be going away too soon, shortly after being hired, but for Umutoni, that wasn’t a reason not to hire her. “She will go and come back. It’s just for three months, let her come do the job,” she advised, and the lady was hired. To date, she is one of the best employees. Above all, it starts with women believing in themselves, and that also extends to how they negotiate. Women shouldn’t settle for less. Striving for financial inclusion As a member of the Rwanda Bankers’ Association, a position she was elected to late last year, Umutoni believes this is another platform and opportunity to deal with pertinent issues, such as the financial inclusion of women. “I believe with women representation in the bankers association, it gives us a task to ensure that we deepen the financial inclusion for gender equality by ensuring that we have the right products for women,” she said. This is so because women in banking understand the challenges women face when it comes to access to finance. Today, women still face challenges regarding collateral, among others, which limits their ability to get loans from banks. All these are issues she hopes she can help address during her tenure because there is still a long way to go. Her agenda also includes nurturing young women bankers and giving them opportunities to grow in rank. Juggling motherhood and work Serving in an executive position comes with its own rigours when it comes to juggling duties with motherhood but for Umutoni it's all about prioritising components of your life, knowing what you need to do at any given time, and being organised. “One thing that works for me is that I come to the office very early and that helps me to wake up very early, get the kids ready for school, and then come to work immediately so that I start my day before everybody else,” Umutoni said. It also helps to have a strong support system, starting with one’s spouse or other family members and friends who come through when the need arises. Born in Kinshasa, in what used to be Zaire, now Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Umutoni holds an MBA in Corporate Strategy and Economic Policy from Maastricht University, Netherlands, and sits on different boards, among other responsibilities. This article is from The New Times’ quarterly newsletter, ‘Beyond Talk’. 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