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African banker Mwangi kicks off Dyson speaker series

James Mwangi
Robert Barker/University Photography
James Mwangi, CEO and managing director of Equity Group Holdings and executive chairman of Equity Group Foundation, delivers the inaugural Our Business Is a Better World lecture.

James Mwangi detailed the journey of African bank Equity Group Holdings – a banking conglomerate with the largest customer base on the African continent – to inaugurate the Dyson School’s new Our Business Is a Better World speaker series Sept. 22 in Warren Hall.

The Equity bank story originated in Kenya, where 20 years ago only 3.8 percent of its citizens had bank accounts, and only 13 percent of them were women. Equity took off by targeting women in Kenya, Mwangi said, and was built on a philosophy of “democratizing financial access … and using corporate infrastructure to do good for society.”

Founded in 1993, Equity’s “phase one” – the first 10 years of its business model –  was defined by sustainability. Rebranding was crucial for Mwangi and the bank’s sustainable future. Rather than remain a secure place for people to keep money, Mwangi wondered aloud, “what if we branded ourselves, not just as a bank, but differentiated ourselves by the way we treat people ... that is being a human place to bank,” emphasizing respect for and the dignity of Equity’s customers.  

In that first decade, Equity surged from 66th to 18th among Kenyan banks in terms of customer base and market capitalization.

In its second phase, Mwangi focused on financial inclusion by working closely with microbusinesses and small enterprises to encourage people to create their own wealth. By 2014, Equity ranked first among banks in Kenya.

In its third and current phase, Equity’s focus has shifted toward creating a greater social impact by expanding to six African countries, on its way to a dozen. When analyzing the massive growth, Mwangi said Equity had “touched the threshold of customers,” serving about 10 million people and reaching $4 billion U.S. in assets.

As a finance and social brand, Equity is not only increasing access to financial services, but also improving education in Kenya and other African nations. Equity offers scholarships and mentoring in leadership to impoverished youth and secondary and higher education students to foster the next generation of leaders. Mwangi also discussed Equitel, Equity’s mobile banking system, which is striving to reach nearly 60 percent of Africa to further transform African society.

Mwangi – the parent of a Dyson School student – said Equity is driven by its society-oriented “banking cause.” He was named EY Global Entrepreneur of the Year and Forbes Africa Person of the Year in 2012 and First Class Chief of the Order of the Burning Spear – the highest award given by the president of Kenya to a civilian.

Michelle Yang ’18 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

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