Charity Kabango may not have all the answers, but she knows how to find them.
“There’s a part of me that’s always been a problem solver,” Kabango, BESc’05, BA’05, said. It’s a skill she further honed pursuing her engineering degree at Western, while also earning a BA in international and comparative studies at Huron University College.
Today, she leverages both backgrounds as co-founder and director of Entrepreneurial Solutions Partners, helping African entrepreneurs grow their businesses. She’ll share aspects of her journey Thursday, March 17, as guest speaker at the Lynda Shaw Memorial Lecture.
The distinguished lecture series honours the memory of Lynda Shaw, a third-year mechanical engineering student at Western who was murdered near Highway 401 in 1990.
Kabango’s message will focus on pursuing authentic leadership.
“It is not enough to just show up and lead,” she said. “We must show up in a way that makes space for other people, and I think the way we do that is showing up as ourselves. Being authentic and true to ourselves makes room for somebody who doesn’t look or sound like our traditional ideas of leadership.”
Following her own truth is what guided Kabango to her current role, serving the communities of Africa.
Return to her roots
Having excelled at math and science throughout public school, engineering seemed the most practical choice for Kabango. Born to immigrant parents, she was keen to “get a good, stable job.” By graduation, she found it at the General Motors CAMI Assembly plant in Ingersoll, Ont.
As a quality process engineer and technical electrical specialist, Kabango worked at the end of the assembly line, where the cars rolled out for final inspection.
“It was everybody’s dream job; the pinnacle,” Kabango said. “And I hated it. There was no joy for me there.”
“That’s when I had a real pull to go home.”
‘Home,’ for Kabango, is Rwanda; the birthplace of her parents, who, as children, fled the violence that swept the area in the early 60s. They met in Uganda, where Kabango was born, before moving to London, Ont., where they built a “peaceful, joyful life,” for their family.
“I wasn’t even born in Rwanda, but I knew deep in my DNA it was another home I wanted to connect with and contribute to.”
My connection to Rwanda is on a cellular level.-Charity Kabango
From engineer to entrepreneur
Following her instincts, Kabango left CAMI to work as a consultant for Transfer of Knowledge through Expatriate Nationals (TOKTEN), on a short-term stint through a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
“My poor parents,” Kabango said. “I left a full-time job with a pension and good benefits for a six-month contract, with no possibility of extension.”
It was a move that changed her life.
“I just fell in love with home, and first and foremost, I fell in love with Rwanda,” Kabango said. “I thought, if I can contribute in some small way to all the things that are happening here, I will be fulfilled and feel joy.”
Working for TOKTEN, Kabango developed a three-year strategic operating plan for Rwanda’s information and communications technology (ICT) park. Working alongside industry partners, articulating the business model and defining resource requirements lit a spark in Kabango.
“Something clicked in terms of seeing the potential impact of local, indigenous, small businesses and their ability to create jobs for people while creating solutions to local problems, becoming a catalyst for prosperity. I knew if I could support them, it would be a significant way to contribute to the development of Rwanda, and more broadly, the continent.”
After earning her master’s in engineering and public policy, she co-founded her company, defining herself as an “entrepreneur serving entrepreneurs.”
Kabango and her team provide consulting and strategy advisory services to development partners and work directly with entrepreneurs to scale their businesses through incubators and accelerator programs.
“My work centres on determining the particular needs of small businesses in a specific country, in a specific sector and designing offerings that really meet those needs,” she said.
As Kabango works with Rwandan businesses to help them access capital and technological assistance, she applies the same tenacity she’s always shown in seeking out solutions.
“One of the many tools I got out of engineering is the sense that I may not know about something, but I can figure it out. And I get to go figure it out with really brilliant people.”
Breaking the bias
Many of Kabango’s clients work in the hospitality and tourism industry; a growing sector with Rwanda recently being named the sixth safest country in the world, and the safest country in Africa for solo travellers.
“It’s beautiful and clean, and just a wonderful place to visit,” Kabango said. It’s also a nation on the rise, with one of the fastest growing economies in Africa.
“When people think of Rwanda they often think first and foremost of genocide,” Kabango said. “It’s an important part of our history and nothing to skim over, but there’s also this wonderful story of development and success.
“By 2015, the country had managed to bring a million people were brought out of abject poverty – that’s changing people’s lives.”
And some of the biggest changemakers in Rwanda are women.
“Rwanda is a wonderful example of women in leadership, changing the game,” Kabango said. “In parliament, there’s over 60 per cent women – and that’s without any quotas.
“At the entrepreneurial level you see the same thing. There are barriers, just like anywhere else, balancing the demands and the expectations of home, but I think there’s a shift happening,” she said.
Kabango’s proud to lead a company where women make up 50 per cent of the team, and 69 per cent hold leadership roles. She’s also found fulfillment, doing work that aligns with her values and vision.
“I still get a thrill from solving a problem and the type of problem I solve every day can be quite different,” Kabango said.
“Managing a team of 60 people, it could be an HR problem, or it might be figuring out a new design for program, or it might be sales. No day is the same. It’s the joy of being an entrepreneur.”
The 2022 Lynda Shaw Memorial Lecture with Charity Kabango takes place online Thursday, March 17, from 12:30-1:30 p.m. Attendees are asked to register in advance.