Journey From The Factory Floor To The Boardroom
As the CEO of one of Ghana’s largest telecommunications companies, Lucy Quist is regarded as among Africa’s most influential business women.
But it’s been a long journey from working on the assembly line at the Ford factory in Dagenham, to becoming the first Ghanaian woman to lead a multinational telecoms company as CEO of Airtel Ghana.
Quist was born to Ghanaian parents in north west London, where she lived until she was seven when her family moved to Nigeria. Her father’s job as an engineer meant that they moved again within a couple of years – this time to Ghana.
The move to Africa was an eye-opening one for the young Quist. She recalls:
“You experience first-hand what it’s like for people to live on much lower economic means, which for me transferred into a strong sense of responsibility. I decided that whatever career choices I made, they would have to take me to a position of leadership where I could make a difference in people’s lives.”
After some years in Ghana, Quist came back to the UK to go to university. However, despite being born in London she wasn’t immediately entitled to a grant because of her time spent living abroad. So she was forced to find employment on the production line at the Ford plant in Dagenham, which only served to fuel her growing enthusiasm for a career in engineering.
“I was trained in how to operate the machines, but you’re not trained to fix them,” she says.
“When a machine broke down, an engineer came out to fix it. I saw from a practical perspective what the life of an engineer could be like. Every time I saw an engineer come out and fix one of the machines, it made me more determined. I said to myself, ‘that should be me. So I’ve got to go and get my degree and sort that out’.”
While working at Ford, she discovered that they offered a student bursary to a select number of universities, including Cambridge and Oxford. But it was at the University of East London (UEL) that Quist chose to study electrical and electronic engineering.
Part of the student bursary included work placements at Ford, so in her placement year and every summer through- out the three-year course, she found herself back there. But she was no longer on the production line – she was now working in the engineering department.
Quist eventually graduated from UEL in 1999 with a first class honours degree and returned to work at Ford, where she stayed for another five years. But even during her undergraduate study, she knew that she wanted more.
She chose to do an MBA at INSEAD in France, one of the world’s top business schools. Part way through her studies there, Quist knew that she wanted to work in Africa.
“When you study global economic and political structures, you realise that regions are the way they are deliberately,” she says.
“It is not accidental that some parts of the world are poorer than others.”
On leaving INSEAD in 2005, she came back to the UK and worked in investment banking at RBS, and through them got a job in Ghana with telecommunications company Millicom, leading their business development across Africa.
Over the next few years, her career took her all over the continent moving from Ghana to Rwanda, to Chad, to the DRC – all this while being a wife and a mother to two children.
In 2011 she became Director of Vodafone in Ghana. But how did someone with an engineering degree end up being a CEO involved in marketing and business development? Quist has an explanation.
“Engineering is such a rigorous discipline if you are taught it properly, as I was at UEL. You learn to take anything new that you don’t understand, break it down, understand it, and put it back together again. And that has been my approach to business.”
This approach has clearly worked. In 2014 she became CEO of Airtel – one of Ghana’s largest telecommunications companies. In 2016, BBC’s Power Women series ranked her as one of the top business women driving transformational change in Africa, and earlier this year she was voted Most Influential Business Person on social media on the continent.
But has she experienced any obstacles being a black woman in a male-dominated industry?
“People’s biases play out, and they have perceptions of what they think you’re capable of, what you can achieve and where you can go.
“But fundamentally, I operate in a sphere that says that other people’s biases are not my problem.”