Microsoft SA CFO Welela Dawit on being a mission-driven financial leader in Africa.
Welela Dawit, originally from Eritrea, was born in Ethiopia, but moved to the US when the family was about three and a half and her parents worked for international agencies.
“I was lucky to have the parents I have,” she says. “They travelled a lot and showed me the world very early on. That’s equipped me with the emotional intelligence that I need to be a leader as well as being adaptable and having reference points from life experiences to figure out how to navigate whatever situations I find myself in.”
Her parents planted a bug of curiosity, desire for travel and being adventurous, something which has shaped her outlook both personally and professionally.
Passion for people development
Welela says she is deeply passionate about people development, particularly in Africa and this was something she was able to delve into during her tenure at General Electric (GE). An Economics graduate, she joined the multinational after completing her studies and with her talent catching the eye of the right people, she was put through the Financial Management Program (FMP).
After her experience on FMP, she then joined GE’s Corporate Audit Staff, a global leadership development programme that focused on financial and compliance audits and business advisory assignments for GE’s businesses. “The programme was very demanding, but it was worth it, because it gave me tremendous business acumen and helped me build both hard and soft skills that have been useful throughout my career.”
The programme exposed her to a number of different leadership scenarios, which helped her learn how to navigate ambiguity and be accountable for the development of her team members.
She successfully completed this and other leadership development programmes and at 27, she was offered an opportunity to move to Kenya and became one of the youngest finance executives in the company.
Taking up her role in Kenya was a full circle moment, because it gave her the opportunity to make a mark back in her native East Africa as the Financial Planning and Analysis Leader for GE Africa. GE was focused on establishing its presence in emerging markets as the company’s solutions could help solve some of the region’s biggest infrastructure challenges.
“We knew that we needed to start building a pipeline of finance talent, who would eventually take on the roles that we needed to support our businesses,” she says. “The fastest way we could think of accelerating it was launching this programme. This was a prime opportunity to launch the Financial Management Program for Africa.”
As the only person who had done the programme, she was responsible for establishing it. “I structured the programme, landing assignments and rotations across the region, and working with my HR team to plan how many people we would need from each country. To recruit candidates, I conducted screening assessments and interviews to determine who would teach classes.”
It was very important to her to ensure the standard they experienced was world class, as she never wanted them to feel less than because they were from Africa. “If anything, I pushed them harder, and I demanded more, because I didn’t want the world to ever see them as being less than, when in reality, I think the talent that comes out of that part of the world is 10 times more resilient, 10 times more creative, and you’re 10 times more resourceful – because you have to be. That’s just how it is. Plus we had smarts. And then we taught them and managed their programme experience so they could develop and get amazing jobs. They were extraordinary.”
More than 75 African professionals graduated from the programme during her tenure. “Many of those alumni now hold positions at firms in Africa, Europe and the United States. They’re doing very well for themselves. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished with these individuals, because it has changed their lives for the better and allowed them to reach their full potential. We’ve got good results from our investment in them, which is something I always keep in mind when thinking about my legacy.”
In early 2021, the opportunity to join Microsoft came up after 15 years at GE. She had been living between Kenya and Nigeria for her last 10 years there, and had risen up the ranks to take up the role of CFO, GE Africa. She says, “Microsoft was an opportunity that aligned very much with my interests and aspirations. My purpose and mission are very important to me, so it was critical for me to work for a company whose values matched my own.”
She says the role has all the components of a CFO role that she loves – where it’s highly commercial, focused on growing market share and building a pipeline, revenue-focused, with an operational element to it as well.
“I like to refer to my previous CFO experience as being much more traditional and ’analogue’,” she says. “My current role is more impactful and strategic from a financial perspective – meaning that I am personally more focused on commercial growth and operational excellence. Microsoft has digitally transformed the role of finance in the company and because of this, I have capacity to focus on impact.
“I still have balance sheet and P&L responsibility at the end of the day, however, I don’t have the burden of process, because of the digital technology and tools that we have in place. Instead I get to focus on the commercial side of the business and partner with our commercial leaders – which is the fun stuff and what I truly love to do.”
Leading the world of modern finance
She considers herself very fortunate to be a finance leader at a time of massive digital transformation. The company has a mission of sharing its own ’Modern Finance’ journey, which means leveraging the power of technology, AI, machine learning and the cloud to streamline processes with the aim of shortening the distance between data and action.
She explains, “This frees up time for finance professionals to do what they’re best at: analysing data to provide valuable insights and driving business impact and strategy based on those insights. For example, budgets are typically a very painful and manual process that takes enormous capacity and time. But Microsoft leverages machine learning, which allows a budget to be produced in a matter of days with a handful of people working the process, versus hundreds of finance resources spending weeks on it.”
She says when thinking about the future of finance, it’s clear that CFOs have to be digitally savvy. “So I’m spending a lot of time now talking with our customers about this, because we actually offer these tools. As a CFO myself, I know the pain points other CFOs are dealing with. It is more effective for me to have these conversations, as I can speak to it authentically because I am able to experience the value of digital transformation. I operate differently as a CFO today versus how I used to operate – I am able to be a true business partner to our commercial leaders rather than getting bogged down by process and activity.”
She’s also quite focused on how Microsoft can make their solutions relevant to different industries. “The best way to do this is to listen to our customers and understand their needs and challenges, and from there, help them understand what is possible and chart the journey alongside them.”
A powerful penchant for African art
When she’s not working, Welela enjoys travelling and spending time with family and friends. She also loves fashion and supporting African designers, but her biggest passion is collecting art. She describes herself as an avid art collector and is deeply passionate about collecting modern and contemporary African art.
“I find that it brings me joy, it brings me peace. It’s something beautiful to look at, and collecting art is something that over the last 10 years has become a huge, huge passion of mine. In addition to buying pieces from galleries and at auctions, I attend art fairs in many different cities across the world.”