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Dr. Nataliey Bitature on Leadership, Gender Bias and Empowerment

This episode features Dr. Nataliey Bitature, the Chief of Staff at the Simba Group, an East African group of companies spanning hospitality, energy, telecom, real estate and a foundation, where she oversees operations, impact and partnerships across these sectors within Uganda. She is also the founder of Musana Carts, a social enterprise building solar-powered street food vending carts and HER, an online mentorship platform with over 3000 young African women. Nataliey has been recognised as a business leader and innovator by Forbes 30 Under 30, the World Bank, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and World Economic Forum. She serves as a director on several boards including the boards of Uganda Property Holdings Ltd, the Makerere Innovation and Incubation Centre, Start-up Hub, Capital Solutions Social Innovation Fund, Save the Children Africa’s advisory board and the Quinn Abenakyo Foundation.

Nataliey speaks about her experience overcoming gender bias and her experience in leadership as a C-suite executive in a predominantly male arena. She also speaks about the role critical thinking has played in her leadership style and her proudest moments at the Simba Group.

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**The transcript below has been generated through software, and may contain errors. Viewpoints with Brenda is designed to be heard. We strongly recommend that you listen to the episode for context and speech emphasis before quoting the text below in print.

BN: Nataliey, welcome to Viewpoints I’m very excited to have you.

Dr. NB (01:24): Thank you for having me, Brenda. I’m excited to be here.

BN: You’re arguably one of the youngest C-Suite, female executives in Uganda. I wanted to ask you if there are any moments in your career that have surprised you in terms of how you were treated by people generally, in the workplace and elsewhere, given that you have a famous last name and you’re female?

Dr. NB (01:46): Where can I begin? I’ve had a lot of those moments. There are good moments and there are bad ones. I think earlier in my career when I was younger, my father used to put me in a lot of leadership positions. He wanted to, as he’d say, throw me in the deep end, and I’d figure it out. A lot of the time I was the only woman in a room or the youngest in a room by quite a bit. On a good day I was ignored. On a bad day, they’d make fun of me, or they wouldn’t listen to what I was saying. I actually had some men walk into my office, and I had a marketing manager sitting there who was a man. They completely like turned away from me, pulled the chairs from my desk to face him and say “Hello, boss. So now we’ve come to you to talk about this“. I remember being so shocked. Coming from my family — I’m the oldest in my family and just the way my dad has always treated me and taken me to work with him and never made me feel “less than” because I’m a woman – it was a really big wakeup call when I was in the working world, and he wasn’t there to protect me.

I came with this sense of entitlement, like I now have this title, I’m the responsible one, I’m really trying and doing my best. But the respect and the understanding doesn’t come automatically. I had a lot of moments like that where people just assumed I was a secretary or assumed that was in the wrong place, or I didn’t know what I was talking about or fought against what I was saying. I had to sort of learn to take it in my stride and just keep doing the work and let the work speak for itself. It made me learn to work harder and to show what I’m doing and to show the value that I bring, and that’s something I try to teach young women now because we all still struggle with this. As much as we’re making progress, there’s still so much progress to be made. There’s so much that can happen.

Now that I’m a bit older, and I think also the PR has really helped, because now when I enter rooms most of the time, someone there has already heard of me – and not heard of me as Bitature’s daughter but have heard of my work or what I’ve done. By the time I get there, I’m not starting as an underdog or being ignored or being made fun of, it’s usually that someone has advocated for me or suggested that I should be there or invited me to these different rooms. Now, I have these really wonderful moments where ladies just come up to me and tell me something they learned from one of my videos, or something that I said that inspired them or something in their lives that they’ve changed because of what they heard about me. Those are the moments that I live for now and which make me so happy and make me keep going because I know there are so many more women who need to hear these messages. There are more women who need to be inspired to make the changes in their life so they can also be an inspiration to the women around them.

BN (04:22): In certain circumstances, there’s still this mentality, as you’ve mentioned, of an old boy network and in the C-Suite, it’s obviously very prevalent in most companies. People often wonder about differences between how men and women lead – what in your experience has been those differences.

Dr. NB (04:41): I find this such a fascinating topic. I’m so glad I live in a time where there’s now studies and people actively looking into this that every week on my LinkedIn, I see something new about it because we are so different. What annoys me is that the system was built by men for men. We are the ones disrupting the system. Actually, yesterday I saw a friend of mine Liz Ntungira in Kenya talking about “Break the Bias” for Women’s Day. She said one of the challenges she’s had in her career, (because she’s very successful as a woman in Kenya) is she’s always described as the stubborn one, the hardheaded one, the disruptor, the difficult one, the problematic one. And she says that we as women have to stop being labeled and we should not feel bad about this. The system was not designed for us. So of course, we’re going to disrupt it, of course, we’re going to be the difficult ones trying to break it and change it. It doesn’t mean we are difficult as individuals, or there’s something wrong with us. And I really love that. Because the truth is, the system is not designed for us.

Women lead in such a different way – we’re so much more compassionate, we’re more multifaceted, we can handle more things, absorb different types of information at the same time, and synthesize it. Men are very good at focusing on one task in front of them at a time. But it’s just that our brains are different. There’s science behind it, and with experience and time there are studies showing the differences. Women are less risk averse; women are more inclusive; women are able to motivate the team and keep morale going in a different way. And I don’t just mean in a maternalistic way. Not all women are maternal. And it’s not that we are treating people like our children, a lot of us don’t have children. But we are more inclusive in the way that we gather the staff and look out for them, notice the small things.

Something I’m always talking about is emotional intelligence, and being able to manage yourself, but also to understand other people. There is now science that shows how much our emotions are part of every day, instead of labeling women as emotional, and saying emotion should not be in the workplace. We are all human beings, emotions are driving us in so many ways, if we pretend they’re not there, we’re hurting ourselves, not doing a service to ourselves and our companies.

I think there are so many skills that women have just because we are forced to do emotional labor from when we are younger. We are more skilled at managing that. Once we’re in the workplace, we’re more attentive, we’re more understanding, we’re more loyal, we understand how to manage people in a different way from men. At the end of the day, all companies are run by people, by other human beings. There’s so much that men can learn from us. There’s so much adjustment that needs to be made in the way we approach leadership, in the way we approach management, in the way that we see these things perceive them the stigmas that need to be removed. This is all going to happen with more women in higher level positions, setting examples, changing the things, opening the doors, as we all move forward.

BN (07:27): And you spoke about this briefly about overcoming gender related bias. How have you personally overcome any gender related roadblocks in your career?

Dr. NB (07:38): Now I’m like a bulldozer – I have a fighting spirit. The thing is, you have to be a fighter. These are the only women who survive by the way, if you look at the women at the C-Suite level, they’re all fighters. You’re not going to keep any of us quiet in a meeting. But that’s the only way we’ve reached there. And it makes me feel like it’s unfair for introverts, firstly, or for women who are not outspoken naturally. I think I’ve become more outspoken I had to become more of a fighter than is in my nature, just because of the situation I was in. It’s something I’m always teaching young women. I say to women, there’s no such thing as shy. Don’t let anyone convince you, you’re shy — you have to outgrow that because otherwise you won’t get anywhere. You have to speak up, you have to fight for your rights, you have to advocate for yourself and unfortunately, this is not something we’re taught from a young age. If anything, as women, we’re taught to be quiet, don’t be seen, don’t be heard, be out of the way be on the sidelines. It’s so counterintuitive when you’re older to learn how to speak up to push yourself. Now, I encourage all the women who I help with their CVs — you have to brag, you have to put your points out there, the facts on top and you have to advocate for yourself. Because if you don’t, who is going to do it for you? How are people supposed to know what you’re about? It makes me feel uncomfortable, but the value is so much. Now I don’t even feel guilty. Yes, these are all my accomplishments, these are my awards, you lead with that because it’s going to help me. It’s going to help me get that client or that contract or that opportunity. It’s going to open more doors for other women. I had to learn how to move past that and it’s really helped.

BN (09:10): And one of the things I’ve come to learn about you as obviously, as I follow you and listen to you speak and even when we speak privately is just that you are a critical thinker. And there’s always something new you’ve learned or there’s always some different perspective, you’re always pushing people to think in a different perspective. So how has critical thinking contributed to your leadership role at Simba? And how would you encourage people generally to improve on their critical thinking skills?

Dr. NB (09:39): That is a very good observation. I think that this is something we’re lacking as a workforce in Africa generally. Our education system is letting us down there. Because critical thinking is so crucial. You know, we live in times where things are changing all the time. What you learn in any industry right now is going to be completely irrelevant in five to 10 years, the science will have changed the techniques would have changed, innovation is happening so fast. We can’t be learning facts anymore. We all live in an age of Google anything you need to know you Google it. You don’t need to be cramming facts. What’s important is how you absorb those facts, how you can analyze, how you research how you take in information, and you can change it into something else, you can see it in a whole other way.

Personally, I work across six different sectors, every day. I can’t be an expert in everything. I can’t know the details, the technical stuff, I don’t have any kind of technical qualification. My only skill set is my ability to think and see things across the board, to see those connections to overcome the problems to be solution oriented. I think that has helped me so much to move in any sector and it’s helped my confidence because it means I can work in any sector. But that is so important.

No matter what job you have any job in this day and age, we’re in 2022 now, all kids should be learning this, all workers should be learning this, it’s not too late. And it’s still useful, it’s still needed. Because things are moving so fast, you have to be able to connect the dots, to think outside the box, to be able to overcome the problems that happen along your day, we have to move away from this mentality of “oh, Boss, this happened. I didn’t do it. Oh, this happened. I don’t know what to do”. You have to be able to solve these problems, to fix things to make decisions on the go. These are the soft skills. These are the things that I think are more crucial. Anyone can learn anything technical these days, you can go on YouTube and become an engineer, you can understand everything, you might not get the certification, but you figure it out. I have an accountant here who is doing all our renovations in the hotel. His qualification is in accounting. But he reads he learns he watches videos; he figures out how to do anything, he’s become a whole mini engineer on his own because he has that ability to think critically, to be problem oriented. He looks at the challenge and looks at all the different options, how can I solve it? How can I use the resources that I have to figure out how to make this change.

I think this is something we have to practice in workplaces, we have to create an environment where people are not afraid to fail, where people can ask questions. Because this environment that we have, where you’re given instructions, and you’re just supposed to follow them cannot work — that works in an industrial age, in the agricultural times. It works if we were 100 years ago, if we were still clerks working for the colonialists, where we just had to follow instructions by rote. But right now, it doesn’t work. There is no industry, there is no company where you’re just giving people instructions. And they can just follow them blindly. People need to be empowered to think critically, to ask questions to change things, give them a task, and let them figure out how to solve it in their own way. It doesn’t have to be done the way you would have done it, it needs to be done the way they can do it, they will come up with something different. No matter the level of seniority of a person, someone who does something day in day out has more experience in it than their supervisor who is now at a management level, the way they used to do it three years ago is not the way they’re doing it now. We need to create these environments and these cultures where we encourage people to think critically, we encourage them to try different options to come up with different solutions, to fail to ask questions, and to not be ashamed or punished for it.

BN (13:15): Yeah. I agree with you. And to be honest, I feel like since I left the Ugandan workforce and moved abroad, I think the biggest skill I’ve learned over the last couple of years or the last decade (I can’t believe it’s almost 10) has been critical thinking you know, and no one transaction is going to be the same. You have to unlearn and relearn with everything that comes your way. So, pivoting to Simba, I know you’ve spoken about this, but I wanted you to tell the story. What inspired you to join the family business? 

Dr. NB (13:49): No, I can’t say I was inspired. It was always a given. Let me not lie. 

BN (13:57): How did you join the family business?

Dr. NB (14:02): No one aspires to join their family business. If anything, you have moments where you’re like, how did I end up here? I have little fantasies. I used to talk to one of my friends who’s also in her family business and ask her “don’t you ever just like dream about having a job? Imagine that. A 9 to 5, A steady salary, you go home, and nothing is your problem”. It’s a whole other wild ride. That’s the truth.

I thought about leaving at a point. I wanted to actually get work experience out of the family business. When I moved for my masters, I gave away everything I said goodbye to everyone. I said, you know what, I’ll be back in five years. Let me go work in other countries learn something new. And then I’ll come back and just because of how it played out with Musana and Uganda and coming back, it worked out. Now that I look back, this was always the way it was meant to happen. And I don’t think If I had had a job, I’m sure I’ve learned other things been on a different path, but I wouldn’t have been able to grow as much as I’ve grown as fast as I have. The amount of time I could put in a family business, the opportunities that I get – because when it’s your family business, you don’t have any sort of confidentiality issues you’re allowed into every room, because what are you going to do to with your family business secrets, you’re not going to share them or sell them out. I think even from when I was younger, being able to sit in as my dad’s assistant into meetings, because I was his daughter, even high-level meetings, even private sector meetings, things that are not our business, I was able to sit there and learn.

I was actually telling my younger brother this the other day, because I got to sit in on a lot of meetings where I learned so much not just from my father, but from his peers, because I was just sitting there taking notes as his assistant to follow up. My brother with his big degrees and what he’s asking, “you want me to go back and be an assistant”. I’ve told him he has no idea how much he will absorb just because of access. I think that’s an advantage I had. Because I could go places with my dad, I got to see what he gets to do, how he does it, meet people that he does it with, just by being like a fly on the wall, quiet there in the corner. I got to absorb so much, and it helped me to be more ambitious because I know something exists. You know, you can only dream as far as you’ve seen. You see a nice house on YouTube, you’re like, wow, I want a house like that. But if you’ve never seen a house like that, you don’t even know that you want it. So being exposed to high level meetings, high level, businesspeople opportunities, how they negotiate how they handle contracts, how board meetings would run, it took my mind to a whole other level of this is what life can be like, from when I was younger. It helped me to aspire to that and work my way to that much faster. That’s the advantage of being in a family business. Of course, there are so many other challenges, but you have to look at the opportunities and the bright side otherwise, you will drown in the challenges because there is no off button. There is no day off. There’s no leave, there’s no — you know, when people have like those automatic emails that say, sorry, I’m away on leave for 10 days, if you need something, you can go to this person. There are no days off in the year, but you just have to love it and get on with it because it comes with so many more benefits. That’s how I’ve learned to see it.

BN (17:24): You spoke briefly about Musana. For me, I feel like that was a little foresight on your part, to get into like the sort of green energy and solar business, what inspired Musana, and where is it now and what’s happening with it.

Dr. NB (17:39): So Musana kind of happened by accident. When I went to do my master’s, I was studying social entrepreneurship. And we entered a social entrepreneurship competition, a student competition for fun. Personally, I didn’t even want to do the competition. I was so busy with conferences and classes and parties and things, but my roommates really insisted we have to at least try. And then we tried. And then we won the first round. And it was like, this was not in my plans. I didn’t want to start another business. I was just traumatized from starting my first business in Uganda. I had been working with my family, I thought this was a break. It kind of just grew organically and we just kept going with it. 

Now Musana has grown to the point where we’ve changed even the strategy. We’re a b2b company. So more than selling carts to individual vendors, we now have different partnerships with companies where they buy like several carts at a time for different projects for different industries. It’s really interesting and it’s changed so much. What I like about Musana is it’s so different from my family businesses because I get to experience like the startup road, and like how that journey goes in a different way. And to do something completely separate in our industry we were never going to work in otherwise. The CEO now is a cousin of mine, who started as an intern for Musana. He used to just come and help me on busy days at events. He understood the business, he understood the vendors. And he grew with time, the busier I was with other projects, he kept stepping up and showing up and doing things and having ideas and managing partnerships. So now he runs it most of the time. I do check ins with him, I make sure it’s going well send opportunities. And I’m happy with the track that it’s on because I think this is more sustainable and, in this way, it has more impact and can grow in areas that I didn’t think it could grow. So that’s the beauty of having partners and seeing how opportunities pop up and you just see us and Okay, let’s figure it out.

BN (19:34): It’s amazing. And for everyone who’s listening Musana Carts is a solar powered street food vending carts. I think it’s so innovative and it really solves a problem. Are there any moments in the history of Simba Group that I’ve made you particularly proud?

Dr. NB (19:54): I think when Skyz Hotel opened, that was a big one. I think it happened so fast and I was so stressed, and I was working so much, I didn’t even take a moment to like, take it in. The day the hotel opened was New Year’s. I remember I knew it was going to be a crazy day, but from the moment I arrived at the hotel, I didn’t sit, I didn’t drink water. I didn’t take a moment or a breath for like 16 hours. I remember it was like 4am that night, I was standing at the reception, and all of a sudden, I realized my back is killing me and I didn’t really understand why. I sat on the floor like, okay, the day is done, now we have to be planning for tomorrow. It all happened so fast. It had taken so much because I was part of the construction team, and then understanding all the brand standards for Marriott – there were so many hurdles, so many things we had to go through, all the training, the recruitment, the onboarding. I had never been part of a project so big, the scale of it.  I think it’s only maybe a year ago, I took a moment standing on one of the rooftops of Skyz. And I was like, wow, you know, it’s actually functioning. There’s no emergency, there’s no fire, people know what they’re doing, guests are happy – we actually did it. From this construction site that we walked on how many years ago, that was all dust and chaos, and this is not working, we have to import this, we have to break this, we have to try this. 

You have to take a moment. I learned that and I remember to take a moment to appreciate how far you’ve come. Because when you’re always in the hustle and the grind, you’re always looking for the next challenge, the next problem. You’re trying to foresee this, okay, now we have to do this. Now we have to do that. When you run a business, there’s no such thing as like an easy day or a good day or like, everything just went perfectly, and we can relax. There’s always something you can be planning for; you can be doing better. 

I’ve also learned you have to for your own team morale, you have to stop and thank people you have to get people to stop and say “you know what, guys, you did a great job. Valentine’s Day was a success”. Or “you know what we got through New Year’s well done for this. Yes, there were these problems, these challenges. But we did this much, we made this much. We succeeded in this area, this is new, this went well”, and appreciate it. Stop and smell the roses. Because otherwise, life is all struggle and hustle and go, go, go. You will never appreciate what you’ve done. You never pat yourself on the back. And it’s not just for you. It’s for everyone. So that’s something that I had to learn to do. Because I don’t think my parents do it very often. 

I think the monument at Skyz for my mum was the first time I’ve seen my parents actually stop and be grateful for what they have and sort of appreciate how far they’ve come from where they’ve come. They tend to be let’s keep going. Let’s keep going what else this project that project. It was nice to see. And they did that before the hotel opened. I didn’t get it at the time. I thought it was more about them. But I can understand because once the hotel opened, it just became even crazier. Like there was so much more stress. 

For me now, I try to put that in practice, where I get the whole team and we thank each other, and we acknowledge what we’ve done, and we stop to smell the roses and be grateful for how far we’ve come.

BN (23:01): Wow. I mean, it’s been It’s always such an experience for me. I’ve always really enjoyed because I feel like I learned something every time. I’d like to thank you for coming on. Natalie hosts her own podcast with her father, Patrick Bitature called Uncommon Perspectives. If you want to find Natalie, she’s on Facebook. She’s on Instagram. She’s on Twitter. And I just want to thank you, Natalie, for coming on. It’s always nice speaking to you,

Dr. NB (23:28): Thank you so much for having me. I enjoyed this. This was interesting questions. I don’t get these often. 

BN (23:34): Thank you again for coming on.

Dr. NB (23:37): I appreciate it. Brenda, have a good rest of your day.

BN (23:40): Thank you, you too.  

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