An uncompromising and no-nonsense interview with the one we nickname the Cameroonian Margaret Thatcher: Valérie Neim, CEO of CCPC, a microfinance company that is not experiencing the crisis.
Valérie Neim, 36, studied in England, where she obtained a license in management and business management from South Bank University in London, before landing at ABSA bank (Santander). And already, the future entrepreneur rubs shoulders with decision-makers. However, she does not rest on her achievements and decides to improve her training.
At the start of 2000, she left London for a very small town an hour and a half from the capital. She stayed there for a little over two years and obtained her master’s degree in management information system. After a stint in the Siemens group where she works as a computer consultant in charge of large clients, she is struck by the fact that the majority of employees are men. Soon to be 30, Valérie Neim wishes to make a turning point in her life and contribute for Africa. In Europe, she knows she is replaceable. But there is no question for her to return to the country without real added value.
Head to the prestigious Oxford School, where the business woman at heart will do an MBA in Entrepreneurship. She will even receive the Entrepreneurship Award from her class (2007). Valérie Neim realizes that she has found her way. After a brief experience in consulting, she is ready to return. In 2008, once back in Cameroon, the young woman made the decisive encounter with Jean-Luc Konan, an Ivorian banker.
Newly appointed managing director of UBA Africa bank, the businessman wants her on his team to develop the Nigerian bank in the francophone zone. Valérie Neim’s real professional life can begin. The latter is taking one of the biggest risks of her career. After only one hour of interview, she accepted the challenge launched by Jean-Luc Konan and flew almost immediately to Lagos, Nigeria, then to Gabon where she held the position of director of key accounts in 2009. Another one times, the 30-something is responsible for managing the finances of decision-makers, presidents, ministers, ambassadors.
While Valérie Neim is enjoying great professional success, the experience is more difficult on a personal level. She is criticized for her youth, but especially for being a woman. However, this strong head does not let itself be intimidated and decides to make this problem a force. During her three years in the Gabonese industry, which is 100% male, she strives to recruit women.
She needs to prove that women can do the same or better than men, who are more prone to give in to embezzlement – a scourge in the banking sector today in Africa – according to the entrepreneur. When she decided to take over CCPC, a family business specializing in micro-financing and support for VSEs and SMEs, in September 2011, Valérie relied on female salaried workers: a revolution in Cameroon, which will participate in the growth of the company.
“We increased the capital from 100 million CFA Francs to 1 billion”
What convinced you to take over the declining CCPC business?
It was not so much the family bond that appealed to me, but rather the potential of the company, and the challenge. When I returned to Cameroon, I discovered a small business of thirty people in the midst of professional chaos, without any method or organization.
I was lucky enough to meet a Canadian living in Cameroon, specializing in the development of family businesses, who helped me to rethink and work on the entire CCPC deployment strategy. Everything had to be changed. I then focused on the recruitment and training part. In 5 years, the company has grown from 30 to 150 permanent and 50 temporary people. We increased the capital from 100 million CFA Francs to 1 billion, from 6 to 11 branches. Most importantly, I turned the tide by creating a team made up of 90% women.
“My challenge is to give the young African woman the place she deserves in the company”.
This staff composed mainly of women is one of the keys to CCPC’s success: why this choice?
It just happened naturally. I don’t know if this is unique to Cameroon, but I didn’t realize how discriminated against women were. I have witnessed in interviews issues related to children, marital status, as if these criteria would interfere with the skills or credibility of women in the corporate world.
I also wanted to recruit women… young. They are the first to be confronted with discrimination insofar as their family situation has to be constructed. What scares companies. My challenge is to give the young African woman the place she deserves in the company, so that she can believe in herself. I want to eliminate the clichés surrounding “sofa promotion”. And promote skills. Today I only hire women between the ages of 22 and 28. It’s a great achievement for me.
Besides the feminization of the team, what are the recipes that have contributed to the growth of the company? Managerial methods? We nickname you the iron lady of Cameroon …
In terms of management, the method that I imposed and which has borne fruit is rigor. If there is one thing Africa has it is human resources, youth, but if there is one thing Africa does not have, it is discipline. We have skills, but no interpersonal skills, especially with regard to punctuality.
What qualities do you think are essential for success in this industry, and what advice would you give to women aspiring to become entrepreneurs?
There is one piece of advice that seems obvious but essential: professionalism. Women must not give in to gender stereotypes in order to advance in their careers… Another principle that is close to my heart and that I want to pass on: kaizen. A Japanese method based on continuous improvement. There is always room for improvement. Kaisen is really what Africa needs. When you look at most African countries and companies based in Africa, you realize that you are not moving fast enough. Our standards for success are limited. We rely on our achievements. If a business is running, is profitable, we will not seek to go further. It’s not enough to be first in Cameroon, then you have to aim for Africa, then the world!
“Women also have the skills to create companies”!
Exactly, how far do you still want to go with CCPC?
I am passionate about development, less about personal than collective success. Michelle Obama said a phrase that speaks to me: “Success is not measured by the amount of money you make, but by the impact you have on people’s lives.” Whether we like it or not, we are part of a society and it is only by having an impact on it that we create meaning.
Beyond CCPC, I would like to better contribute to the development of female youth. When you look at the statistics, there are very few women in entrepreneurship, let alone young women. Systematically, women who leave school go looking for work, while they also have the skills to create companies.
Not long ago, the 6th edition of Promote, the Yaoundé international business, SME and partnership fair, brought together many companies in Cameroon and the sub-region. We are talking about 1,500 companies. And it’s fascinating to see the craft skills, techniques and other know-how etc. of each other, especially women, such as cocoa processing. But the latter do not know where to start to make a business. I would like to accompany them!