AirtelÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s data and value-added services (VAS) manager Thokozani Unyolo, Nee Mijiga, speaks on the strengths that have seen her survive the cut-throat corporate world, an upbringing that imparted these strengths, her hopes and dreams and everything in between.
Where does the story of your life begin?
I was born on 23rd of April 1981 at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre. I am the last born in a family of six boys and four girls. Unfortunately, one of my brothers and one of my sisters passed on.
My father greatly influenced the development of my personality. He taught me to study, work hard and pursue my dreams. My mother also played a significant role in helping me become the person I am today as she is a disciplinarian who taught me standards to live by.
She also taught me to maintain an emotional balance even under stress. What I remember most about growing up is the fact that my dad used to make me read difficult books to him. He would correct me on pronunciations of complicated words.
As a young girl, I dreamt of being a doctor, so I could help others. However, as I grew older, I realised that my passion did not lay in looking at and working with people that are suffering on a day-to-day basis. I, therefore, settled on marketing
Were there any incidents or responsibilities that helped groom you for your present career?
I held a lot of positions and stood out in each of the schools I attended. During my university years, I spent my last two years at university working as a studentÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s assistant to the human resources behaviour lecturer.
My roles included assisting with invigilating examinations, marking scripts and posting notices on campus and general office duties. This experience helped me mature and taught me the importance of confidentiality; as I was always handling sensitive student information.
What did you do after university?
I moved back to Malawi and got my first job as marketing and sales officer at Malawi Switch Centre (Malswitch) where I worked for three years. I later joined Southern Bottlers Limited as senior brands manager for non-alcoholic beverages.
Through my experience at Sobo, I gained invaluable insight that has served me well over the years; for the first time I fully appreciated what proper planning, taking initiative, resilience and strong belief in oneÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s convictions could achieve.
And then took all this expertise to Airtel…
Yes, I did. When I joined the company in 2008, I spent my first few months learning about the mobile industry from my peers and subordinates. I also researched on top mobile operators in terms of products and services.
Up to now, each time I travel, I collect brochures and take pictures of what has impressed me from other operators. I try to stay sharp; constantly think outside the box, keep abreast of trends and find golden gaps on which I can capitalise to get the upper hand over our competitors
What does your position at Airtel entail?
I am responsible for managing products from the different product groups namely; core, messaging, data, content and devices. My responsibilities include managing the entire product life cycle from the development of the business case to tactical activities development of creative and innovative product plans to ensure growth in usage as well as revenue across all groups.
Naturally, I am thrilled at challenges so much that my current job; to coordinate launch of new products and optimise performance of existing ones, not only excites but also inspires me.
You work in a cut-throat corporate world. What challenges does this present?
You need to keep learning to remain abreast of the trends and be aware of the changes in the industry. Speed in marketing and quality in execution are critical in this field.
I have learnt to think fast and be decisive in every task I undertake.Ã‚Â You also need to have strong work ethic and a thick skin. If you can take the heat and are able to think on your feet, then welcome to the wonderful world of marketing!
You recently won AirtelÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s employee of the first half of 2011 marketing department award. On what basis were you awarded?
I was awarded on the following; impact of financial contribution, dedication and hard work, innovativeness as well as going out ofÃ‚Â my way to add value to the business. This to me has attested that hard work pays and it has made me think of even greater things to do both in my life and for the business.
You seem so self-confident. Have there been moments where you felt like giving up?
I am currently pursuing a Masters of Business Administration at Gordons Institute of Business Science (GIBS) and recently took a very tough statistics exam which I thought I would fail.
However, in such moments of self-doubt, I take each day as it comes and I believe God will never burden me with more than I can bear. I am a firm believer of the saying that everything happens for a reason. I prayed about it and asked God to guide me.
A lot of times, women are not confident enough or aggressive enough to advance in the corporate world. What do you think holds them back?
Most women do not have a firm sense of self-belief. I would advise them to never give up and to believe in themselves no matter what.
What are your strengths? How about the weaknesses?
I am a team player. I am resilient, reliable and committed. I am also humble and a people person. I am full of energy and very passionate about every task that is presented to me among others.
If I could describe myself in one sentence, it would be Ã¢â‚¬Ëœhighly focused and ruthless at execution.Ã‚Â One of my weaknesses would be lack of patience, but I am working on this.
As a wife and mother, how do you fit everything into your schedule?
Combining my career, education and home has not been easy. In everything I do, I have to accommodate my husband and my son Paul Jayson, who is six years old. My son is the reason I work hard as I want to give him the best life possible.
Right now, my family is my number one priority and I make sure I keep it that way. I try my best to get home by 6pm, so I can spend time with my son and hear what he learnt in school. I read to him before he goes to bed.
I also make sure I attend student and teacher conferences at school despite my busy schedule. Sunday afternoons when I am around, I take him out to Game Street for an hour and whenever he is on holiday, we go out of the country so that he is exposed to different cultures.
My husband and I usually go out to eat and catch up once in a while during week days. On weekends, we go for walks together and share ideas. I love cooking and I get into the kitchen to do that on Sundays.
I also call my husband at midday every day just to check how his day is going. My parents live in Blantyre, so I make sure I call them two times a week at least.
You didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t tell us who your husband is…
Leon Kush Unyolo. He is a businessperson. He has been instrumental to my success as he is very understanding, supportive and encourages me to work hard.Ã‚Â He even points out to me areas I need to work on to improve.
What are your guiding principles?
As they say Ã¢â‚¬Å“a great leader aspires to do more than simply accomplish her objectivesÃ¢â‚¬Â, I have always strived to achieve beyond expectations and infuse passion in whatever I do; wherever I have worked, my ultimate goal has been to leave a legacy.
I also believe that you should treat people like you would want to be treated. Also, on course to achieving big dreams, take good care of the little things in your life. Think big and your situation will soon expand accordingly. Carry yourself like the person you want to become. Openness and listening are essential.
What are your biggest fears?
Not achieving some of my greatest plans.
What drives you?
Creativity, innovation and watching my campaigns unfold.
Any future ambitions, dreams yet to be achieved?
I want to use my MBA experience to build on my strength while at the same time working on my Achilles heels. Personally, my aspiration is to make a difference in the community that I live in and contribute actively to the economic growth of Malawi by setting up my own business.
The mobile arena fascinates me. Malawi is an agriculture-based economy with most of the proceeds coming from tobacco and with the global sales declining; the country needs to look at other commodities that are required globally.
However, there are other agriculture products that can be sold, but not much has been done to secure markets for these. I hope that my training will teach me to discern business opportunities which will eventually help to develop the country economically in terms of agribusiness especially in the area of value-adding products and agri- marketing.
Thoko at a glance
- Hill View Primary School in BCA
- Kamuzu Academy Grammar School
- Obtained a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from University of Namibia
- Is behind AirtelÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 100 Free SMSÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s campaign
- Introduced Sobo Pineapple, which fast gained popularity in Malawi
- Loves a good challenge