Dr. James Mwangi, Managing Director and CEO of Equity Group Holdings and Executive Chairman of the Equity Group Foundation is featured in this fireside chat with Harvard Business School Professor Caroline Elkins, as part of Africa.com’s webinar series Crisis Management for African Business Leaders. The session examines the COVID-19 crisis for Kenya and East Africa, and the changes that COVID-19 might accelerate for businesses and philanthropies. Among specific themes to be discussed is the balance between a company’s ethos and its ethical compass during crisis, and the leadership required to navigate the two.
Dr. James Mwangi is one of Africa’s most renowned thought leaders, a disruptive entrepreneur and philanthropist. As a champion of social economic transformation, James believes that individuals and societies have the potential to solve their socioeconomic challenges if they are given the opportunity and access to resources.
Raised by a hard-working widowed mother, Grace, among 7 siblings, James experienced at an early age the daily struggles to make a livelihood in his family and village. This inspired him to better his circumstances and be the first in his village to attend university. He became determined to strive for financial inclusion by providing access to opportunities and empowering those around him to transform their lives. With this purpose in mind, James left a lucrative job in a leading bank, in 1991, to join Equity Building Society, a technically insolvent financial institution, ranked position 66 out of 66, that had been threatened with closure by the regulator. He was driven by the vision of Equity to advocate for formal financial access to the 96% of Kenyan population excluded and previously condemned as un-bankable.
James has led Equity to become a publicly listed and integrated banking and financial services group upholding global corporate governance standards. Under his leadership, the Group has made investments in banking, investment, fintech, insurance, telecoms and health, accelerating growth across Africa and building a client base of over 14 million in 6 countries (Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda) with a representative office in Ethiopia with a total asset base of over USD 7.5 billion. It is the largest financial company by market capitalization in Eastern and Central Africa and under his leadership has achieved numerous accolades.
Driven by the commitment to scale up shared prosperity and social impact interventions that transform lives and livelihoods, James initiated the establishment of Equity Group Foundation (EGF), the social arm of Equity Group, in 2008. EGF implements innovative programs that leverage on the infrastructure of the bank, achieving a higher social return on investment. Serving as the Executive Chairman of EGF, he has shaped notable programs and has to date, mobilized the support of like-minded partners to commit USD 445 million for social impact.
James has served on boards and in advisory roles at the Global Advisory Council for VISA Inc., the Global Advisory Council for Mastercard, the Clinton Global Initiative, the G8 New Alliance For Food Security And Nutrition, President Barack Obama’s Initiative for Global Development, the G20 Advisory Board of Agriculture and Initiative for Global Development, and The Global Agenda Council on New Economic Thinking of the World Economic Forum. He has been instrumental in shaping global development policies by serving on the UN Advisory Groups on Inclusive Finance as well as on Global Sustainability and has also served as an external advisor on a high-level panel on inclusive finance to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Additionally, he is on the Economic Advisory Board to the President of IFC (International Finance Corporation), the Advisory Network to the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, the Nairobi Advisory Board of Columbia Global Centres, Yale University President’s Council on International Activities, the Inaugural Board of African Leadership Academy and has been Chair of the Steering Committee of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) Regional Leadership Center, East Africa. He is a member of UNDP’s (United Nations Development Programme) African Influencers for Development (AI4Dev), private sector AfroChampions initiative, and a board member of Sustainable Development Goals Center for Africa (SDGC/A).
James became the Founding Chair of Kenya’s Vision 2030 Delivery Board from 2007 to 2019; a period of rapid growth that saw Kenya’s GDP rise from USD 10 billion to USD 100 billion. The bold initiative of which he was a key contributor is on track to achieve its aim of transforming Kenya into a newly industrialized, middle-income country providing a higher quality of life to all its citizens by 2030 in a clean and secure environment. He was appointed as a member of the Presidential National Task Force on the Kenya COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund and is Chair of its Health Committee.
James holds 5 honorary doctorate degrees and is the current Chancellor of Meru University College of Science and Technology in Kenya. He is a frequent guest lecturer at Stanford, Columbia, MIT, Harvard, IESE-Strathmore, and Lagos Business School, where Equity Group has been the focus of over 30 case studies in leading global institutions.
A lifelong philanthropist, James has put both his family resources and professional assets in service for the betterment of humanity. Some of his family’s notable contributions include USD 4 million in donations to support the COVID-19 Response in Kenya, Rwanda and DRC, USD 1 million to set up a business incubation center at Meru University of Science and Technology, USD 500,000 to his local village school, Nyagatugu Secondary School, and USD 300,000 each to both the African Leadership Academy, South Africa and Church House in Uganda, besides other numerous development projects and humanitarian initiatives.
Caroline Elkins is Professor of History and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, Visiting Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and an Affiliate Professor at Harvard Law School. She is also the founding director of Harvard’s Center for African Studies. She received her A.B., summa cum laude, from Princeton University and her M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University.
Her book, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (Henry Holt, 2005) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 2006. It was also one of The Economist’s Best Books for 2005, an Editor’s Choice for The New York Times, a Waterstone’s Best Writer for 2005, and a finalist for the Lionel Gelber Prize for nonfiction. Her next book, Logics of Violence: A History of the British Empire will be published by Knopf in 2021. In addition, Elkins is the author of HBS case studies, including Kenya Railways, Edita (Egypt), and Agility (UAE/Africa).
Elkins and her work have been profiled in newspapers and magazines around the world, including Newsweek, Time Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, Le Monde, The Guardian, and The Boston Globe, as well on various television and radio programs including Charlie Rose, CNN, Al Jazeera, BBC World News, NPR’s All Things Considered and Talk of the Nation, and BBC World Radio One and Radio Four. She is a contributor to the New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, The Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post, and The New Republic. She and her research were the subjects of a BBC documentary titled “Kenya: White Terror,” which won the International Red Cross Award at the Monte Carlos Film Festival. More recently, her research served as the basis for the Mau Mau reparations case, for which Elkins was also expert witness. The case ended with an historic settlement for the claimants.
At Harvard Elkins was selected as a Walter Channing Cabot Fellow, elected as a member of the Faculty Council for Arts and Sciences, and inducted as an honorary member of the University’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter. She has also held numerous other fellowships and awards including those from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Scholars (Burkhardt Fellowship), Fulbright, the Social Science Research Council, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study (2003-04; 2012-13). In addition, she serves on private and public boards including the Equity Group Foundation International Board and the Harambee Advisory Board, and also advises domestic and international companies on a range of African business strategies and topics, including corporate social responsibility.