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Why I Swapped Chasing Profits for Social Good

After high school, Atibo Onen wanted to get into medicine, but she’d seen how much time her parents spent with their patients, so she studied Finance instead and went off to work for BMW South Africa, Colgate Palmolive, and Fiat-Chrysler — starting a career as a voice actor in between. While working in these companies, she yearned for more meaningful work that dealt with people, not products, so she found her way into One Acre Fund as the Global Financial Controller. In this interview, Atibo speaks about how a revenue officer inspired her journey into the organization and how she’s impacting agriculture.

Atibo Onen - Finance

What do you do at One Acre Fund?
I’m One Acre Fund’s Global Financial Controller, leading the Financial Reporting and Compliance (FRC) department. In my role, I oversee three teams: Financial Accounting, which oversees all our financial transactions; Reporting and Compliance, which is responsible for tax compliance and preparing financial statements for auditing; and Payables, which oversees transactions relating to vendors, suppliers, and farmers. My job is to ensure we capture and produce accurate and timely financial data, especially expenditure and revenue, to ensure the organization makes decisions that support the best return on investment (ROI). 

What did you do before joining One Acre Fund?
I was the financial controller for Fiat-Chrysler Automotive. I was there for just over two years before joining One Acre Fund. Until now, I’ve built my professional career in the for-profit sector — at BMW South Africa, Colgate Palmolive, and Fiat-Chrysler — and One Acre Fund is my first nonprofit. 

Did you have to make any trade-offs when deciding on this job, given the uncertainty of the times?
My only hesitation was my daughter. Taking the job meant uprooting her life from South Africa, where we lived, and moving her to Rwanda with me. I needed her to understand that my career perspective had changed and that working for an organization whose mission I was in tune with mattered. Much as I've been able to study and build a career, I do have family members who rely on farming as a means to survive, so our (One Acre Fund) output and the benefits others derive from the organization define true empowerment for entire communities. So, I sat her down and asked her permission before I embarked on my interview because I knew if I had her blessing, I’d be comfortable following through. I’m giving this job my all because Africa is agriculture, and that is our way forward.

You came on board at a time when a lot of us here are working virtually. How has that been for you?
It has been different but not difficult. My manager, Ayanda Mngadi, did an incredible job of creating an onboarding path for me. I’ve also had immense support from my teammates, who have been generous and made me feel like family even though I haven’t physically met some of them. I also have an onboarding buddy, Charlotte Lammertyn, with whom I have regular calls to check-in and ask questions.

Ayanda in Kigali

Ayanda Mngadi, our Chief Financial Officer, meeting with colleagues in our Kigali office.

Let’s talk about your profession; how did you get into finance?
My parents, and the fact that I’ve always excelled in math and business. My father's a doctor, my mother's a nurse, and none of them wanted us to go into medicine; they wanted us to pursue other careers. Growing up, I was in awe of doctors, especially seeing my parents sacrifice their family time for long hours with patients. It seemed like a lot to ask of someone, so I opted for Finance instead. I’ve always been fascinated by startups and the motivation around the products companies create, which steered me towards commerce. I envisioned myself going into organizations and helping them resolve their biggest business challenges. It makes me happy when I can improve processes to deliver results more efficiently.

That sounds like something an entrepreneur would say.
I am one actually; I am a voice artist. It is something I stumbled on by accident but which, happily, feeds my need for creativity and is financially rewarding. Around 2005, a friend recommended me to their parent, a producer, for a voiceover project, but it wasn’t until years later that I gave it my full attention. I’m fortunate that I've interacted with many talented people on different projects, which has given me the exposure to refine my skills to work independently.

What challenge/s have you faced as a woman with a career in the finance industry, and how did you overcome them to get where you are?
The biggest one is creating a work-life balance. Finance is probably one of the most rigorous professions because it needs one to put in long hours, and the expectation is to have all hands on deck. Because you must deliver results with little to no room for shifting deadlines, it's easy to push your other priorities aside. Work has its own fulfillment, but we need to be more open and transparent with our managers and teammates to build support systems to allow the work-life balance we need.

What message would you like to share with women who are just beginning their careers in finance?
First, have a certain level of curiosity and be willing to step out of your comfort zone. Put yourself out there, ask questions, and be involved; do not withdraw into the background just because you cannot find your space. Many women have amazing ideas, but, more often than not, they're not brave enough to express, defend and own them. The moment you get over your fear or stand up to a challenge, it will drive you to springboard and learn from others. 

Secondly, strive to be better in your chosen area. Train and develop yourself continuously, whether that is through formally educating yourself or through apprenticeship. Identify someone who can walk your journey with you, who will give you constructive criticism and allow you to build your skills. Learning is a continuous process, and you need to surround yourself with people who will add value to you. For women at the top of their careers, reach out and help set others on the growth path. There can be immense satisfaction in mentoring, nudging, and pulling up.

Did you ever doubt your decision to move to a nonprofit?
I had lots of time to think about my re-careering and evolve for my new role. About four years ago, while at Colgate, I visited the Kenya Revenue Authority offices to deal with a tax audit issue. As the commissioner looked at our financials, he made an interesting observation: ‘Your organization makes a healthy profit, but once your parent company begins remitting funds abroad, you suddenly start making losses. Seeing as the Kenya entity is a subsidiary of the parent company, isn’t that sort of like a mother taking food from her child?’ His remarks painted the nature of for-profit teams: it's shareholders and profits first, followed by reducing costs and overheads to keep the book bottom-line robust. This stayed with me for a long time and joining One Acre Fund resulted from those thoughts.

What do you like most about working at One Acre Fund, and how does the role align with your values?
I love that I have a blank slate to come in with ideas, make changes, implement them and own the results. I’ve learned that while process-driven organizations succeed, when we focus on ownership and accountability, the impact we create becomes deliberate and much more fulfilling.

If you're sitting here a year from now celebrating what a great year it has been, what did you achieve?
One, I grew my knowledge of the organization and mastered my role such that my judgment on important decisions is trusted. Two, I’m an exemplary team leader who enables my team to drive our shared vision of empowering farmers. Lastly, I am a pioneer who searches for and provides opportunities for myself and others to innovate, grow and improve.

Atibo Onen - Finance - Scaling Mount Kilimanjaro

Speaking of achievements, here's Atibo conquering Mount Kilimanjaro!


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