Decoding Open Capital’s Magic: From Market Strategy to Employee Satisfaction with Co-founder Annie Roberts and Head of HR Damaris Lilech

Shortlist
7 min readAug 16, 2023
Shortlist Partners Simon Desjardins and Uday Broca with Annie and Damaris

As part of a new Africa leadership series, we’re speaking with a range of pioneering senior executives and founders to learn new perspectives on how talent is shaping leading organisations across the continent. Last week, our managing partner, Uday Broca and co-founder Simon Desjardins met with one of the founders of Open Capital Advisors (OCA) Annie Roberts, and OCA’s Head of People Damaris Lilech. We wanted to explore what differentiates Open Capital from other management consulting firms operating in Africa, and how their approach to hiring aligns with their values and culture.

Simon Desjardins (Shortlist): Annie, what can you tell us about the founding story of OCA?

Annie Roberts (Open Capital): The origin of our venture can’t be explained without referring to the global context of 2010, when the financial crisis was in full swing, and most parts of the world, including the United States, Europe, Latin America, and China, were facing an economic downturn. However, Africa, particularly East Africa and Kenya, presented a unique growth opportunity. My co-founder, Andreas, an ex-investment banker from Credit Suisse and Citigroup and later at IFC in Nairobi, was frustrated with the fact that many promising and impactful businesses were too large for IFC to invest in, and we knew companies needed more than just capital alone. From an investor standpoint, we actually estimated back in 2010 that there was about $500 million of capital on the sidelines [capital ready to invest in Africa but unable to find opportunities], which, when I say that number in 2023, it doesn’t sound like very much, because last year we saw $3.5 billion moving into the continent. This scenario set the stage for OCA’’s establishment.

Simon: Now almost 14 years into your journey, can you give us a sense of just some of OCA’s metrics in terms of markets, team size, sector focus?

Annie: Open Capital Advisors currently has over 150 staff members. Our largest team is based at our headquarters in Nairobi, with approximately 90 members. We also have teams in Uganda (around 25–30 members), Zambia (5–6 members), and West Africa (around 30 members spread across Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal). Nathalie Gogue-Ebo, who was recently elected as our fourth partner, leads our West African team. In terms of accomplishments, we’ve completed over 1,200 engagements across Africa and assisted our clients in raising cumulatively over $1.3 billion. Although we’ve worked on larger transactions, our primary focus remains on mid-market deals, helping companies raise between $1 million and $10 million.

Uday Broca (Shortlist): We hear you’ve been developing a “Gender Smart” practice area. Can you tell us a bit about what that is?

Annie: Our “Gender Smart” approach focuses on ensuring businesses benefit from gender-sensitive strategies. An example is when we assisted a bank to analyse their loan extensions by gender. We discovered that women, despite having similar asset sizes to men, typically requested smaller loans. This wasn’t due to the bank’s unwillingness to extend larger loans, but rather that female applicants weren’t advised on the appropriate amount to request. By addressing this gap, the bank could guide female entrepreneurs to make informed loan requests, aligning with their business needs. This not only benefits the bank but also enables women to grow their businesses. For us, the “Gender Smart” approach is about ensuring that products, services, and technologies are designed in a gender-sensitive manner to equalise opportunities and improve business results.

Simon: We work with nearly every reputed management consultancy operating in Africa today, and we know how different they actually are, despite a tendency for candidates to assume they’re all the same. For candidates considering a career in management consulting, or existing consultants who may not be familiar with OCA, how would you summarise your differentiation in the market?

Annie: We distinguish ourselves in the market through seven core values that drive our vision and practices. First and foremost, we prioritise Impact by focusing on projects that yield positive results, adopting clear guidelines on the industries we align with, and implementing proactive strategies to support critical projects to advance economies across the continent. Our emphasis on Work-life Balance ensures that our partners can pursue personal interests, such as horseback riding. We value Flexibility, offering adaptable office hours and international work locations, a benefit not often found in larger firms. Responsibility and Learning Culture are central to our ethos; being a medium-sized firm allows every member to shape its direction, promoting an environment that encourages feedback and continuous growth. Our Capital Market Expertise combines deep market knowledge with top-notch consulting, helping clients successfully navigate growth for their ventures. With an exclusive Focus on Africa, we have physical presence in seven markets, leveraging our broad experience across more than 25 countries on the continent. Finally, we are committed to Investing in Future Leaders, prioritising the recruitment and development of young African leaders, infusing learning and leadership throughout all levels of the firm.

In essence, Open Capital Advisors combines impactful work, work-life balance, flexibility, a strong learning culture, capital market expertise, a deep commitment to Africa, and a focus on nurturing the next generation of business leaders.

Uday: So the last point that you were mentioning about creating future leaders, do you have any examples of that?

Annie: Yes, we have many, in fact. We’ve seen team members rise from analyst roles right up to Principal positions, exemplifying our internal growth potential. A significant percentage of our leadership team started in junior roles and have climbed the ranks internally. Moreover, our alumni have taken on pivotal roles outside the firm; for instance, one now serves as the Deputy CFO of a major publicly traded company in Kenya and many have pursued opportunities across the continent, strengthening Pan-African connections, which we believe is vital for Africa’s future growth and collaboration.

Damaris Lilech (Open Capital): I agree with Annie and I’ve already seen this emphasis on nurturing future leaders and entrepreneurship as a very recent addition to the team. Many of our alumni have become successful entrepreneurs, and our network plays influential roles in various capacities like investors and entrepreneurs. We prioritise flexibility and try hard to accommodate individual needs, allowing staff to adjust their work capacity, even for personal reasons like helping family businesses. This open conversation about encouraging ‘side hustles’ and other commitments is unique in our market. We’ve also tailored our approach to employee well-being to fit specific cultural contexts, ensuring it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.

Moreover, our performance management system stands out. Instead of solely relying on manager feedback, we adopt a 360-degree approach, ensuring a balanced perspective on an individual’s performance. Feedback doesn’t just highlight areas of improvement but also guides individuals on potential career paths that might suit them better. This holistic approach makes us a distinctive and supportive workplace.

Simon: Damaris, was there one particular element of this that attracted you to join OCA?

Damaris: Oh, yeah. I think OCA met me at my “season”.

Simon: I love that term, and I think it speaks volumes about how OCA’s culture is differentiated. Can you say more about this?

Damaris: In our careers, there are distinct “seasons” or phases that we go through, each with its priorities. As a newcomer, your focus differs from when you’re midway, like at my current age of 50, where I’m contemplating the duration of my full-time employment. Having the space to discuss post-retirement roles, such as board positions, was significant for me. Joining Open Capital Advisors (OCA) marked another vibrant season, with its growth trajectory and the chance to be part of an impactful story. Working alongside a young, energetic team at OCA has been refreshing, with their innovative ideas and research, like the unique focus on work-life balance.

Simon: How do you approach hiring at OCA, in terms of the kind of key characteristics you look for?

Damaris: our hiring approach prioritises alignment with our mission above all. While technical expertise is vital, we’re unique in that we welcome career switchers, capitalising on their distinct skills and then training them in areas they might lack. Moreover, we emphasise a coaching mindset; even when hiring senior roles, we gauge their readiness to nurture and guide junior team members. Innovative thinking and the courage to question existing methods are also key attributes we seek. Our interview process is notably inclusive, involving team members from various levels, allowing candidates to not only be assessed but also assess us, ensuring mutual compatibility.

Annie: I completely agree with Damaris. I’d only add that whenever we interview anyone, we’re looking for future partners and we apply that lens even to recruiting at the analyst level. It’s a longer timeline, but it’s the sort of thing where it’s like, could I see this person joining our partnership? And that’s a really important mindset approach, I think, but also just recognizing that this is professional services, and that many people will come for two or three years, and that’s totally fine. But we want everybody to have that potential, if that makes sense. And that’s where we’re still the most capacity constrained. But I think we will be successful by bringing that up internally and having even more team members grow with us as the firm itself grows.

Simon: Last question: We’re wondering if there are any current trends that are top of mind for you that might be of particular interest to prospective talent looking to work at OCA.

Annie: I’m particularly excited about a few trends. Firstly, climate finance and carbon finance are gaining momentum. Our goal is to democratise access, especially for carbon project developers, to ensure they get a fair deal and genuinely impact Africa positively. We’re weaving our climate finance expertise into various sectors, given its transformative potential. With EU regulations, this trend has seen a rapid uptick recently and will likely continue for years. Secondly, the rise of intra-African trade is another trend to watch; it’s about African countries bolstering mutual ties and benefits. Lastly, the surge in blended finance, especially with new investors in Africa, is truly promising for the continent’s future.

Damaris: I’m really excited about the growing trend of African talent, both locally and from the diaspora, expressing a desire to return to Africa and contribute to impactful changes. We’re noticing highly-skilled individuals who, after gaining experience or education elsewhere, are keen on being part of Africa’s transformative journey. This movement is not only enriching the talent pool but also fostering diverse teams, which was evident from our recent discussions.

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