Summayya Hassan-Athmani has shattered the glass ceiling effect rising to the upper rungs of the Kenyan corporate ladder. Carrying the torch for all future female leaders in the country and sitting at the peak of a major corporation she is truly an inspiration. Recently confirmed as the Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of the National Oil Corporation of Kenya, the multi-faceted Sumayya tackles the juggling act of being a mother, wife, CEO and active philanthropist with her trademark calm efficiency. Eat Out’s Mikul Shah finds out more.
You have recently been quite a prominent feature on the media?
If I had it my way I would only appear in the media once every three years; but it is a focal part of my job to get our brand out there especially since we recently went through a brand transformation.
You were initially the company secretary and lawyer for National Oil, what prompted you to delve into another aspect of the company?
I was trained as a lawyer and during the first few years at the company my main focus was on the law aspect; but I gradually rose through the ranks working in different areas and broadening my skill base. During that time an opportunity presented itself to go to Oxford Business School in the UK to study advanced Management. That was the catalyst to my transformation into the managerial sphere of National Oil.
Most of your tertiary education was in the United Kingdom, how do you gage your experience there; what did you miss most about home, the food?
Looking at it from an educational point of view, the courses we did were very relevant and cutting edge equipping us with the skills and tools that we could implement at our chosen field. As a student I enjoyed the diversity that only universities can immerse you in and I believe it does make you into a wholesome individual. At Oxford I was an executive student and we had a creative chef who spoilt us most days of the week with his theme nights take on catering. On the other hand when you are away from home you do miss the little things you take for granted like tea leaves and spices.
Are you open to trying out new and different types of cuisine, what have you tried recently?
I have always been curious about different types of cuisines and am always up to trying new things. My family is always on the lookout for new restaurants around the city, and whenever I go to a restaurant I try to order something I have not tried on the menu. I was recently in Japan and some of the cuisine there tested my culinary threshold (raw jelly-fish), but I do enjoy Japanese cuisine on the whole especially teppanyaki.
Are you a good cook and what are your favourite things to cook?
(Laughs) Yes, I would like to think that I am. I tend to cook more of Swahili dishes so a lot of coconut and spices involved. Recently there is a Moroccan soup called harira that I have making for the family and it has proved to be a hit.
Where are your favourite places to eat out; business lunches or leisure?
Most of my business lunches tend to be at the Mandhari restaurant at the Serena; not only because of its proximity to my offices but because of their consistently brilliant service. I usually don’t have plenty of time during these lunches so their efficient service is commendable. Zen Gardens is great for the family and the relaxing ambiance is always welcome after the hectic week. Some time ago my children dragged me to the KFC, the long lines there put me off; I am not going to queue for fried chicken.
What are your prominent childhood memories regarding food?
I have beautiful memories of Ramadthan because of the sense of community that surrounds food. Food is a big part of our cultural heritage and it is more prominent during the Holy month of Ramadthan acting as a binding tool for families and communities to come together and break their fast.
You are actively involved in various philanthropic projects, what drives you to give back to the community?
My faith plays a big role in shaping my values and character; we are taught to share our blessings with others less fortunate, whether it is your time, knowledge or money. I am currently involved in the Greenhouse for Schools project which I believe can counter the food challenges in some of the arid areas in our country. Children who can learn to grow their own food will learn to be self-sufficient and therefore feel empowered. Another organisation close to my heart is the Pearls of Hope which is currently overseeing projects in Garissa.
How do you manage to balance your various roles as a head of a corporation and a home-maker?
Sometimes I feel there are not enough hours in the day to tackle my various responsibilities, but as a home-maker I have to prioritise and ensure I have set aside time for my family and also my faith. My position enables me to represent the multiple faces of our population and constitution, and being able to inspire other young women is a fantastic privilege.