In March 2019, I got elected to the Board of Directors of Kanisa Regulated Non-Withdrawable Deposit Taking Savings and Credit Cooperative Society (53rd Non-WDT SACCO in Kenya by the size of total assets) managing a portfolio of close to 500 million shillings in total assets belonging to over 3,300 members. Since then, I have served as Vice Chairperson and am currently in the last year of my three-year term, which got extended by a year due to the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is my second opportunity to sit on a board, with the first having been as National Youth Representative on the Kenya Scouts Association Board between 2012 and 2015.

At 31, I was among the youngest of the nine Directors, and this got me thinking about how many young people of my age or younger have access to opportunities like this to contribute to making major decisions that affect not just them but the lives of thousands and possibly millions of others. One of the people that quickly came to mind is my good friend, Victor Atipagah from Ghana who in 2018 was elected the youngest-ever Chairperson of the Africa Scout Committee of the World Organization of the Scout Movement at the age of 33.

In his words:

My initial reflection upon being declared Chairperson was mixed with excitement and doubt knowing that this was going to my legacy, yet I may not do everything perfectly. I however decided that I would give my best to prepare myself and my team to achieve our goals for the three-year term. As a young leader, I knew I had to earn respect and support from colleagues, so I made sure I was always ready in leading my meetings and build consensus whilst making sure everyone understands clearly what each meeting’s objectives were and how we needed to approach them. I was also deliberate to check in with the team to identify ways to support each other and to make everyone feel part of the decision-making process. Gradually we worked well together in respect and achieved a lot of our targets.

A challenge I battled with was to eliminate the feeling of self-doubt, of being able to handle the huge responsibility which it didn’t take time to do but eventually mastered. My biggest low was sometimes seeing the disconnect between the decisions we made at the board level and their implementation at the grassroots which we had very little influence over despite our decisions. Resource inadequacy to fully execute the programmes we decided on was also disappointing. Nevertheless, I am happy that we made significant leaps in terms of enhancing the governance of the organization and improving the image of the movement as a stable and progressive organization. It also makes me proud that as the youngest ever Chairperson, I successfully led an intergenerational team of colleagues through the difficult period of the COVID-19 pandemic. This just proves that indeed, young people can lead.

Victor Atipagah
Victor Atipaga speaking at the closing ceremony of the 18th Africa Scout Conference (https://africa.scoutconference.org) at which he ended his mandate as Chairperson of the Africa Scout Committee

The 2021 Board Diversity and Inclusion Report by the Kenya Institute of Management (page 16) decries that “Although there is plenty of progress in gender diversity and inclusion, unfortunately, it has remained challenging to break down roadblocks of age bias and prejudice in board recruitment. This can be attributed to negative bias, unconscious or otherwise; a lack of opportunity for employers to access key talent and skills; inadequate retraining programmes and retention; or policy support requirements. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) 2018 report on age and board composition showed that the average age of independent directors serving on Standard and Poor (S&P), (500 largest U.S. publicly traded companies) boards had risen to 63 years, up from 61 years in 2007. The report also revealed that younger people, especially millennials, were underrepresented on corporate boards, with only 6% of S&P 500 board seats being held by directors aged 50 or below. Another Board Governance and Research Report by Barret and Lukomnik, 2017, funded by Responsibility Research Center Institute (IRRCI) established that the average age of all boards was 62.4. Our examination of this parameter revealed that the average age of the boards in Kenya was 47.6 years, which was progress from 55.8 years in 2017.”

Despite young people making up the world’s biggest demographic group and at least 50% of the workforce, they’re missing out in the boardrooms. These reports suggest that the low numbers of young people on boards may be due to greater scrutiny of younger director candidates and their dismissal as inexperienced, unpracticed or unseasoned. Young people however bring fresh perspectives, ideas, and strategies that are invaluable insight in an increasingly digital world.

Some also attribute their absence in corporate boardrooms to having the wrong mindset about corporate governance or the lack of clarity and focus. Others have been accused of not developing a supportive network to propel them into corporate leadership or the lack of due diligence in finding directorship opportunities that are a good fit and that would allow them to thrive.

It is true that getting on a board is hard work, and takes commitment and focus, and that being on a board requires that one keep up the effort and, certainly, disprove the stereotype that young people are lazy and feel entitled. But does it mean that there aren’t young people with the competencies, skills and attitudes needed to contribute to and drive the corporate agenda? And if they’re there, which I believe they are, how can boardrooms be made more accessible for them to play their part in the decision-making? What potential impact could their involvement have on organizational performance?

Organizations across all sectors need to show stronger commitment to board diversity and inclusion, particularly through strategies that champion and advance youth participation in decision-making processes including but not limited to executive training programmes for young people to prepare them for board roles. Deliberately creating more opportunities for young people to join boards through youth-friendly policies or expansion of board sizes. Organizations need to consider skills acquired through non-formal education and not just focus on judging the competencies of young people through academic qualifications only. Mentorship and role modelling by more experienced directors would also help to prepare and induct young people into board roles. Involving young people in board committees could be a great way to prepare them for substantive board roles by giving them a space to build their skills while learning how organizations are run.

To make boardrooms more friendly and accessible for young people, there is a need to demystify them as meeting venues to discuss and decide on different agenda topics in the spirit of mutual respect for all. This will help break the stereotype that many young people perceive boardrooms as restrictive adult-led spaces where they can’t engage freely. Additionally, experienced directors should act as mentors and role models for others who may not be immediately familiar with the board structure and practices through a buddy system that facilitates mutual learning and support.

Victor Atipagah

Organizations that embrace the involvement of young people in corporate governance stand to reap greatly from their knowledge and fresh perspectives that can make services, events, or decisions more relevant, appropriate, and effective. Since they’re more tech-savvy, creative, innovative, and often adopt leadership styles that are more inclusive and collaborative, young people greatly impact an organization’s ability to attract and retain staff and customers (particularly millennials). With a little guidance and mentorship, young people can produce some of the best directors that help organizations into their next phases of innovation, growth and sustainability.

Young people on the other hand need to prepare themselves for these opportunities so that when they come, they’ll be ready to make their mark through effective contributions. This starts with identifying areas of passion that they’d be willing to commit to and contribute to making a difference. Learning about corporate governance and management and finding mentors to walk with them will put them ahead in the race for board recruitment. Building strong professional and social networks are key to building a profile and enhancing access to board recruitment opportunities. Developing own enterprises and initiatives is also a great way to learn hands-on management, develop skills and gain experience in an area of interest.

The greatest impediment to young people finding a place to contribute to boards I’d say is preparedness to engage and articulate issues very well. From the onset, many of us are from communities where we think we should not speak among others who are not our peers so even though we may have something worthwhile to say we refrain. Young people need to be ready and confident in their ability to make good inputs to an important decision.

Victor Atipagah

More than half of the world’s population is under the age of 30. Millennials are the largest generation in the world’s workforce and will soon be the largest investor base. Organizations are feeling the need for more tech-savvy directors to face innovations that could disrupt markets. This is a big opportunity to transform corporate governance.

With the understanding that age diversity and inclusivity significantly affect organizational performance, decision-making, and productivity, organizations need to be more intentional in creating conducive environments that attract and retain young talent on boards, not just from a representational perspective but with the full realization of the great value young people add to corporate governance and decision-making processes.

Nelson Opany is the Vice Chairperson at Kanisa Regulated Non-WDT SACCO Society; Board Chairman at NelBen Foundation; and a Member, the Resource Mobilization and Partnerships Committee of the Public Relations Society of Kenya Council.

This article was published on pages 36-37 of the 60th edition of SACCO Star Magazine by KUSCCO and online at www.saccostar.com

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