Racey Muchilwa is the Head of Novartis Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), leading 46 countries. She is also the recipient of the 2020 Leading Women Awards by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), for exemplary leadership during the Covid-19 crisis. She is the first African female leader to win such an award.
The mother of two is also the co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Regional Action Group for Africa (RAGA), in the social intervention-working group on Women Economic Empowerment and Financial Inclusion.
Racey shares her career path with the Sunday Nation.
Tell us about your childhood and family life.
I am the firstborn of eight children – six girls and two boys. As is the case in many African communities, being a firstborn comes with certain responsibilities, chief among them being a good role model to your siblings.
My mother was a teacher and my father was an entrepreneur. My parents believed that girls are just as capable as boys were and he strongly inculcated this mindset in us from a young age.
I recall one time when I was in primary school, my dad promised to take me to Nairobi on a plane if I got admission to a national school. It was overwhelming! You can imagine as a young girl in the village, I only saw planes flying in the sky. Sometimes we could run after them until the sound died down. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that I could fly in a plane that young.
My dad’s promise greatly motivated me to work hard and it paid off. I got admission to Alliance Girls High School. It was equally a major source of pride for my parents when I went to university.
Growing up in Western Kenya, I recall many wonderful experiences. However, the ones that would make me sad were health-related ones. Back then, malaria was a major cause of death. Our family was when my younger sister developed a severe bout of malaria at the age of four. I’m grateful that my sister is alive today due to the treatment that was available. However, many children still die before the age of five years, yet this is a treatable disease.
I also recall many incidents of women giving birth and the babies dying shortly afterward. Of course, many people attribute it to witchcraft but years later, I learned the disease is Sickle Cell. Such heartbreaking stories inspired me to look for solutions for my community and that ignited my interest in health.
I hold a B.Sc. Biochemistry (Major) and Zoology from Egerton University and a Master’s in Business Administration (International Business Management) from the University of Nairobi (U.O.N.). I am also learning French, which is critical because 18 of the countries in my region are francophone countries.
I must emphasize though that learning never ends. To remain relevant in the marketplace, you must continuously upskill yourself. There are many courses on LinkedIn, Coursera or professional papers that could prime you. The marketplace is very dynamic and with the constant changes, one can quickly become obsolete unless you have a growth mindset.
Alongside learning, you also need to unlearn things that have been overtaken by events or do not work; these could be biases, stereotypes, social or cultural misconceptions.
Share with us your career journey.
I began my career as a Medical Representative in one of the largest pharmaceutical distributors in Kenya and held varying positions of responsibility within general management and commercial functions. Interestingly, the distributor I worked for is now one of our key distributors in the country. I mention this because it is critical not to burn your bridges when exiting a company. Equally important is how you show up at work or for people. Show up well.
My first encounter with managing a team was when I was 28 years old. My biggest challenge was being a new manager who did not have management experience and I experienced a lot of self-doubt whether I would do it well or not. Another challenge was managing a team where some of my colleagues had been in the company and industry longer and had excellent relationships with most key stakeholders within the health industry. I wondered, “what I will tell them that they did not already know?”
Some of them were also much older than I was and majority were male. In some cases, they had higher and more qualifications. I am highlighting this since throughout my career journey, I have come across many people who always find a reason to second-guess themselves saying; “I am too young, I have no leadership experience, the team is male-dominated, am I good enough?”
I see imposter syndrome permeating in organizations, and it robs people’s confidence and it is certainly not good for your mental wellbeing. I have seen women turn down promotions or simply refuse to apply for senior roles. We need more women in senior roles to build a critical mass that can instigate lasting change to help other women trying to break the proverbial glass ceiling. Young girls also need role models. I always say, do not be the person who stands in your own way.
I have been in the pharma industry for more than 20 years across different multinationals, of which seven years are in Novartis. I joined Novartis as a Business Franchise Head for Established Medicines. Later, I was appointed as Country Group Head for English East and Horn of Africa. I also worked briefly in Basel, Switzerland before l got a promotion to Head Novartis Pharmaceutical Division as Africa Cluster Head, based in South Africa before I moved to my current role.
Currently, I am the Head of Novartis sub-Saharan Africa, managing 46 African countries. I am based in Nairobi Kenya, which serves as the headquarters for SSA. I am leading a major business transformation that has integrated three major divisions and we have a bold mandate to reach patients irrespective of their income status. This region is home to the world’s largest underserved patients and shoulders 25 per cent of the global disease burden. As a daughter of Africa from a small village in Western Kenya, I want to help improve the lives of people in this region.
What do you remember most about your career journey?
I would sum it as the paradox of my life; meaning the similarity and yet the difference of the younger me versus the older me. As much as my surroundings have changed over the years, my values have remained the same. I remember putting a lot in my work then, wanting to excel at what l was doing, being curious, aspiring to be an inspirational leader, treating people with respect, putting in the hard work and seeking alignment where l needed to and so on.
This is still the case even now. The one thing l have had to work on continuously has been, being courageous and brave enough to stand up for myself when I am being disrespected by anyone, without the fear of being judged. I have learnt to challenge back respectfully and to accept challenges too. I invite even my children to challenge me when they need to, but respectfully. The same goes for all my colleagues.
What has been the key driver of your growth? Lessons learnt, highlights and failures?
My Christian beliefs have played a big role in modelling my values and behavior towards work. One of the key drivers has been purposing to work with excellence, not because I am being paid to do the work, but because I am passionate about what I do and it’s in line with my purpose.
Leading with the heart and always remembering that the biggest asset you have is your team and treating them, as you would like to be treated. I have also learnt the power of surrounding yourself with the right people, smarter people.
As a CEO of your career, have a personal board of directors for self-governance, insights and foresight. You should have people or a person who will keep you accountable, those who will cheer you, mentor you and advocate for you.
You must also have a challenge network, a concept I picked from American author Adam Grant. These people push you, call you out and help panel beat the rough edges. In life, not just your career, having a challenge network is just as important as your cheering squad.
Who would you single out as having been useful in your career growth?
The approach I have in life is, no matter the experience, whether good or bad, you learn something from it. You learn what to do, or what not to do, and who to be and who not to be. I have used the positive experience to appreciate that l have people in my life who have and will always have my back.
On the other hand, the negative experiences remind me that human beings are unique and different and l should embrace the difference, but have the wisdom, not to allow these experiences to bring me down but instead learn from them.
I have been fortunate to have good mentors, coaches and managers who believed in me even when I did not. My first manager in Novartis was one of them. He saw in me what others, including myself, did not see. He helped me navigate times when l was not sure, pointing out the areas of improvement and always reminding me to celebrate the smallest wins.
This has been the thread with all the managers I have had in Novartis. I have an excellent mentor in Novartis who, despite the executive role she holds in the company, has remained authentic and true to her purpose, leads by example and is never afraid to be vulnerable. I can relate to this because as leaders, we should always remember we are not leading “statistics or things” but people, who deserve to be treated with respect.
Key decisions you might have taken along your career?
Carefully deciding whom to appoint as my Board of Directors for my career. Giving opportunity to employees who displayed a good attitude with bandwidth to be upskilled for better performance. An average performer with the right attitude can be upskilled; the best performer with the worst attitude can bring everyone down because of the negative energy.
Advocating for hiring women because of their merit, not gender. I believe tokenism can do more harm by denying the right person the job. However, in a patriarchal society, encouraging an equitable environment to play in and deliberate policies in our organizations to empower and support women are paramount.
These policies should support equality and equity competitively. I am a firm believer that organizations should not hire women just to tick an affirmative box or diversity agenda, but inclusion in decision-making is critical to avoid unbalanced representation not just in the workplace but also in the economy as a whole.
I turned down a regional role for a national role to raise one of my children as I got the hang of motherhood. This was important to me and my sons needed more of my time.
What would you tell your younger self?
Considering, I’m the firstborn and the responsibilities that come with that, I think I was too harsh on myself while growing up. If I was to do it again, I would have more self-compassion, take myself less seriously, reward myself more, stand up for myself when bullied, listen, reflect more and be happy. I would have this sticker everywhere reminding me, “The happiest people do not have the best of everything, they make the best of everything they have.”
Considering I’m a recovering perfectionist, I would also tell my younger self to make more mistakes and learn from them; I absolutely love Albert Einstein’s quote “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new”.
Knowing what I know now, another nugget of wisdom would be the sky is not the limit but the stepping-stone.
What would you advise the youth in Kenya and Africa today?
Do not just have dreams, but dreams that scare you into action. Surround yourself with those who have your best interest for your success, be it your business or career. Learn relentlessly since life will never stop teaching.
Develop and foster good work ethics, always working with excellence and integrity, whether you are employed or own a business. Work hard, but also work smart. Treat everyone with respect; we are all human beings and that’s the bare minimum human beings deserve. My late dad used to say, “respect all, fear none”. Respect opens doors for you, fear closes these doors and prevents us from moving forward.
Lastly, stay true to yourself, always. It is an authentic state and you live a happier life.
Your future plans?
I’m giving my very best in my current role to make a difference in the lives of people in Africa and globally. Our SSA business model is unique to us and we have a bold mandate to reach as many patients as possible irrespective of their income status. That’s certainly no mean feat. Which is why we are working with as many partners to help address current and emerging health challenges across Africa. I have a passion for people and making a difference wherever l am placed by running impactful commercial enterprises. In future, I hope to do the same in a different role but in an expanded region.
What do you do for fun?
I am an avid reader, and currently I am reading Multipliers by Liz Wiseman. To unwind, I dance to any music with a good beat. I also love spending time with my family and have daily spiritual reflections.