Clare Akamanzi: “I am serious, but not as tough as people assume”
Clare Akamanzi is the bright, motivated and driven young Chief Operating Officer of Rwanda Development Board. Lulu Jemimah approached her for The Rwanda Focus with a few questions about aspects of her personal and professional life. Excerpts:
Give us a glimpse into your childhood.
I was born in a family of six, the fourth child but the first girl. I actually survived by being a tomboy – my brothers never bullied me although I fought a lot with the brother that I followed. I was always serious and treated my brothers like an equal or as if I were older, which they thought was over-imposing. Yet I still had to be a role model to my two sisters.
Do you think this influenced your adult decisions?
This helped me be assertive and I think I still am. My position as a middle child has also enabled me to interact with anyone older or younger and remain a responsible citizen.
What subjects were you good at in school and which gave you headache?
In primary I did well in all the subjects and was the best in my class. In secondary I liked English and math, did well in chemistry but hated physics. I also loved literature, economics and commerce; anything really but physics.
What do you know now that 16-year-old Clare could have benefited from?
(Smiling) Not to sweat the small stuff! As a teenager you worry about short-term, small things like ‘what are they going to think about me?’ When you grow older you realise there are bigger things like developing a character, building relationships with other people, discipline, good health and investing the best you can of yourself in what you decide to do.
What did you want to be as a child?
(Laughing) Like any child I wanted to be a doctor, engineer then lawyer. At some point though, I settled on law. My uncle was a Chief Magistrate and I always liked how he brought justice to people. When I studied law my father thought it was my uncle’s influence although I have always wanted to be a leader in society, working for people and was always a prefect in every school I attended. In Makerere University I was the speaker of Mary Stuart Hall and the Guild Minister of Academic Affairs in 2002.
What happened to the lawyer dream, then?
My first degree was in law but I did a master’s in Trade and Investment Policy and my passion since has been business promotion. I enjoy the dynamics of how investment transforms the nation. I also think it suits my character – very outgoing. But the law I studied also applies to almost everything I do in life and how I deal with it.
Who was the most influential person in your life?
(Grinning) My daddy! Both my parents actually! My dad was a role model academic-wise. Whenever I would get my school report I would run to him excitedly to see his reaction and he would carry and turn me around. He made you like school, while my mother was the disciplinarian.
Later in life I was influenced by the story of returning home. We used to follow the news and the role that President Kagame played – leading a war only at 33 years and the country at a young age. Very inspiring to be part of this now.
I have also had opportunities to work with different women. At 18, I worked for Minister of Gender Inyumba. A father of a friend took us to do work for her and she insisted we attend the Ingando, the solidarity camp. I learnt a lot about our history and political science which I found extremely interesting.
Another person was Valentine Rugwabiza who was the Ambassador of Rwanda to Geneva and the person I worked with for my first job. We had never met when she spotted me and decided to guide me. I joined the embassy and became a diplomat.
My father would be excited at my school reports saying ‘she beat all the boys’ and I would insist ‘and the girls too.’
You must get this a lot, but what are some of the challenges a woman in your position faces?
You’re right, people ask but I don’t think there is anything specific to me as a woman. A lot of opportunities are awarded women in Rwanda and very few times have I found myself in a meeting of say ten and think I am the only woman. It has happened and even then it will only hit me if someone addresses the meeting as ‘gentlemen and lady’.
I remember my father would be excited at my school reports saying ‘she beat all the boys’ and I would insist ‘and the girls too.’ For me they were both equal competitors.
Do you think your position intimidates men – or people in general?
To some extent, yes. I get comments to that effect and I think it shouldn’t, but people give a lot of value and recognition to what you do rather than who you are and how you interact with the world. What you do is not really who you are and people should judge me on my character and personality, not what I do.
What do you make of women who feel a need to play down their achievements and intelligence to attract men?
I think it’s wrong. First of all there are two things. One, ambition and professionalism. Everyone – man or woman – should aspire to be the best and pursue that relentlessly. Two, personal relationships should be separated from this but you should be yourself because at the end of the day people always know who you are. Men should like you for those qualities including intelligence. Although there is also wisdom in humility; it is not wise to adopt a wrong attitude and you need to learn how to relate with people at different levels whether they are older or younger.
What is your typical day like?
First thing I do is check news online with a quick catch up from Twitter alerts. I then check what lies ahead, confirm this and catch up with the team. Half my day is spent in meetings with investors and team members. I then catch up on my paper work that needs analytical time.
I know I should do sports more but I do go to the gym or take walks which I really like. I am also a member of Maisha spa.
Before I leave office I write out a to-do list for the next day and before bed I check the news again.
What is your biggest achievement to date?
I think what I am most proud of is helping my parents own their own home, with combined efforts of my siblings. For RDB it’s being a member of the team that has worked on improving Rwanda’s investment climate and investment values. What I look forward to the most is seeing RDB continue to grow and become a big catalyst for rapid economic growth for the country. It gives us all national pride.
What would you want to be remembered for as your contribution to Rwanda?
I want to be remembered as somebody who has contributed to Rwanda’s vision and gave it my 100%, and who has also groomed other Rwandans, especially younger ones, to be part of the journey.
What is the biggest misconception people have before they meet you?
People think I am tougher than I am and are surprised at how outgoing and social I can be. I am serious but not as tough as people assume.
What is your guilty pleasure?
I am a shopaholic. Actually it’s shoes; I honestly have more shoes than I need.