Returning to Africa has been as much a personal journey as it has been a professional one for WPP Scangroup CFO Miriam Kaggwa, who is a chemical engineer by training, a scientist by nature and a finance leader by choice.
CFO Miriam Kaggwa is a chemical engineer by training, a scientist by nature and a finance leader by choice.
Returning to Africa has been as much a personal journey as it has been a professional one for Miriam, who took on the role of CFO at WPP Scangroup in Kenya, where she is also in charge of operations, in February 2023.
“I left the African continent when I was 16 years old, but this is home because my formulative years were on the continent,” she explains of her return more than 30 years later.
The move back has been met with mixed reviews from Miriam’s three children, who joined her in Kenya four months ago after completing their school year in the US.
“The younger ones are so happy to be here and the older one is still adjusting to the idea, but I am confident she will eventually come to appreciate the move. We have to have a sense of identity and identity means different things to different people. When I say I am Ugandan, it not only means that I speak the language and eat the food but I completely identify with and relate to the Ugandan culture: I belong. Identity anchors you wherever you go in the world, and I wanted that for my children - to be grounded and have a sense of identity,” she explains.
A foundation in problem solving
From a professional perspective, Miriam finds the move extremely fulfilling, in many ways. "Several of the problems you're trying to solve here, like compliance and tax are slightly different from the problems we were trying to solve in the US marketplace,” she says. “WPP Scangroup is also undergoing change and it has been exciting to be part of that journey as we try to create more value for all our stakeholders.’’
After studying at the United World College of the Adriatic in Trieste, Italy, Miriam spent several years in the US where she completed her training as a chemical engineer.
It is this foundation that Miriam credits for her ability to be a problem solver. “The analytical mind and the ability to be detail-oriented is all from my background as an engineer and a scientist. I am able to spot an issue from 20 miles away,” she says.
Little wonder that Miriam is not your typical behind-the-computer finance person.
“I solve problems: commercial problems with my clients, with my teams. And I think that is because of my background, and all of the curiosity and love for analytics,” she says.
It is this character trait combined with not being afraid to learn new things that saw Miriam, take on diverse roles during her career.
“I think it is because I am not intimidated by problem solving, and I am also vulnerable and humble enough to say I really don't know. That’s the secret sauce I've used throughout my career,” she explains.
Miriam’s career in finance kicked off when she decided to go back to school and complete an MBA at Cornell University’s Johnson School of Management. That was when she realised the myriad opportunities outside the engineering discipline.
After working in investment banking at Solomon Smith Barney and underwriting at GE, she landed a leading role in mergers and acquisitions at McCann (owned by Interpublic Group of Companies) in New York
During her years at McCann, Miriam had the opportunity to do a stint in financial planning and analysis (FP&A) in the UK for two years with oversight for Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA).
“When I went back to New York, I decided I wanted to shift my career away from corporate oversight to managing and running agencies which is more hands-on. I've been supporting finance and commercial functions in marketing and communications agencies since 2011. I have had the opportunity to support media buying, creative, data and tech agencies in different geographies including Mumbai, Warsaw, Manila and the experience and learnings has made me the all-round professional that I am today," she says.
During her career Miriam has had to broaden out to meet the needs of the changing landscape.
"With the changes in technology and big data, the changing needs of the consumer, Covid (which changed the ways we work), and the competitive landscape, the role of the CFO has changed since I joined the profession. Today’s CFO is broader and more diverse. The numbers and the financial oversight are a given, but the role also mandates a strategic thinker with a holistic grasp of the entire business who actively partners with the CEO to drive the strategic agenda," she explains.
Despite her international postings, Miriam has always wanted to return to Africa.
"My spouse is Kenyan, so when the opportunity arose, I put my name in the ring for the WPP Scangroup CFO role. That’s how I arrived here,” she says.
As the CFO for WPP ScanGroup, Miriam oversees all markets across the continent with a finance team spread across Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Zambia
“We are in a rebuilding mode for the team. I believe in surrounding myself with smart people and empowering them. I believe that is key to every successful leader -having people around you who can challenge you, stretch you, without them feeling they have to agree with you all the time," she says.
"I believe my team should be able to give me feedback without any fear. I am big on a healthy culture and every member having a sense of belonging and being able to critique freely. It's like the owner of the house versus a visitor. The owner can look at the cobwebs in the ceiling and freely say you know what, that looks messy. That is the place I want my team to be – to feel like the owners of the house, not visitors," she adds.
Post-mortems and growth
Reflecting on her journey across continents and companies, Miriam recalls how she has taken the ups and downs in her stride.
“It is the big moments that lead us to introspect and grow. I call them post-mortems,” she explains.
For Miriam, these big moments include losing her mom to ovarian cancer and overseeing company restructurings.
“You have to lay off people and these are people who have mortgages and families and who you have gotten to know well. Then you have to differentiate between your personal feelings and what you have to do in the best interest of the company,” she says.
It is balancing the feelings in your heart and your brain. That balance is key for every successful leader.
Intentional and impactful
Miriam is justifiably proud of the legacy she has built over two decades in finance.
“As I look back, I can also say that I've opened doors and mentored people. I am proud of the opportunity I have had to support companies across the world, the deep relationships that I have built- in most of the markets I have worked. Today I can call on those people to pick their brains. I'm also at a place now where I'm able to truly and intentionally be impactful, especially to young women,’’ she says.
"When the prior generation of grandmothers/mothers were growing up in Uganda, for most families, the men were taken to school, and the women were typically not. That history has formed a lasting impact on me. I believe in elevating the African girl child. If you educate a girl, you not only change a village but you empower a nation,” she adds.
This for Miriam is a true measure of success: Where her passion meets her career and her calling.