In her world, ‘I can’ certainly sounds better than ‘I can’t’. In fact, Barbara Gonzalez has no talent for bowing to the inevitable, neither does the word impossible exist in her vocabulary.
It was late in the day, exactly a year ago, as she prepared to go home after a normal working day in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, when Gonzalez’s boss brusquely asked her to arrange a meeting with President Yoweri Museveni.
The Ugandan president was in town for the Uganda-Tanzania Business Summit, looking to crunch numbers with captains of industry and look for opportunity in the neighbouring East African country.
Arranging a meeting with any head of state is never easy. There is protocol and diplomatic etiquette to be observed and even the best laid plans can die at the stroke of one bureaucrat’s pen.
There is also the small issue of a visiting head of state’s generally large and menacing security entourage, which is understandably resistant to anyone getting even a sniff of the prized asset they are paid to protect. One does not simply ambush a visiting President with hopes of getting a chance meeting. Doing so would be simply suicide.
So, what was a then 29-year-old Barbara Gonzalez to do? She could perhaps tell her boss that a meeting with Uganda’s Number One citizen was impossible. But one does not walk up to Mohammed Dewji and tell him to buzz off. Estimated to be worth $1.5 billion by Forbes magazine, Dewji is Africa’s youngest billionaire. He is a man who has done the impossible and so, quite obviously, also expects the impossible from his lieutenants.
Gonzalez needed to pull off the impossible and she had certainly not learnt how to cope with such a situation in the lecture halls of Manhattanville College, where she had graduated Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts Degree (Honors) in Economics and Political Science. She certainly had not learnt how to “steal” a President in the hallowed hallways of the London School of Economics where she bagged a Master of Science in Development Management.
No, this needed a different set of skills. Luckily, she had those in abundance.
“I remember this one time when President Museveni was in Tanzania, my boss then said, ‘I want to meet Museveni’. I had to make it happen,” says Gonzalez.
Barely 24 hours after he demanded that meeting, Dewji was smiling as he shook hands with Museveni and cameras snapped all around them at Serena Hotel, a five-star facility overlooking the Indian Ocean. The over 2000 people who pressed like on that picture on Twitter had no idea how it had come about.
Dewji had put faith in Gonzalez and she had delivered.
Now, less than a year later, he has done it again. This time, he has asked Gonzalez to be the Chief Executive Officer at Tanzania’s 20-time Premier League champions Simba Sporting Club. At just 30, she became the first ever woman to hold this CEO position in the country’s top-flight league.
Interestingly, it is a role that Gonzalez turned down only a year ago.
“At that stage I felt I’d not ticked all the boxes; I didn’t think I was ready,” Gonzalez, who grew up in Masaki under the Kinondoni District, says.
To make up for that, she went out of her way to interview candidates for the job that ended up landing on the lap of former Platinum Stars and Orlando Pirates administrator, Senzo Mbatha, a South African national.
“I was adamant on not taking the role at that point,” she adds.
But if there is a role that the youthful leader was born for, it is this one. Growing up under the roof of a football-mad father, the beautiful game runs in her veins.
In fact, she played football during her teenage years at school, starting off as a left-back before switching to right back.
“My dad was a huge Arsenal fan. I grew up when Arsenal’s Invincibles were doing well,” she recalls.
The Invincibles was a name given to the Arsenal team which won the 2003-04 English Premier League after going 38 matches unbeaten. They won 26 games and drew 12.
Even when she moved to London, after a spell in the United States, all she wanted was to watch her beloved Gunners in action.
“I never had interest in going to a Chelsea or Tottenham game,” she says.
Her brother, Jose-Luis Gonzalez, remembers their early years. These were the years during which he saw, first-hand, not only a football fanatic but a potential leader as well.
“From a young age she has always been extremely determined to succeed. She always trusted her own abilities to succeed. She is very organised and respected in the community. She is going to be a fantastic CEO for Simba,” he says.
Of course, he knew she was a natural-born leader and would someday sit at the tip of a boardroom table and make major corporate decisions. But it never occurred to him that it would be in a game she grew to love as a young girl.
“I always knew she’d become CEO someday, but never thought it would be in football. When she started getting involved at Simba, I realised she was onto something. She’d tell me she’s talking to Arsenal and then FIFA and I knew she was destined from something great,” a calm-sounding Jose-Luis adds.
The elder Gonzalez instilled a sense of discipline and drive in his children that one can only find in sport, where one always must fight not only for himself but for the next man as well.
“My parents made sure sport was a part of us, they believed it promoted discipline. It shaped us. I was also on the swimming team,” Gonzalez says.
Her late dad, she says, was an all-round mentor, guiding her in personal, professional, and spiritual matters.
“He helped me make all my major life decisions. He was an extremely structured and disciplined man,” she says.
It is that drive, that passion, that discipline that the Kariakoo-based club, famously known as “Wekundu wa msimbazi”, now wants to harness. After three consecutive championship triumphs, their dominance on the pitch is unquestionable. If they are to be as successful beyond Tanzania’s borders, they know that the need to be equally dominant in the boardroom as well.
“My task is to increase revenue, create efficiencies, build a brand outside the country – and make a lot of positive noise outside the country. The club also needs results on the pitch, and I need to grow the brand. I want to do well,” Gonzalez says as she plainly spells out her mission.
Simba official Mulamu Nghambi knows and identifies with her ambitious vision. For the past four years Gonzalez has been a board member at Simba, cultivating links with such global giants as with Arsenal Liverpool and Juventus. Now that she is at the helm, the club expects more of the same and even more.
“She has the capacity to do a very great job,” says Nghambi. “She has been a board member for the past four years, pioneering the transformation of Simba. We wanted someone who has the kind of experience she has.”
With the backing of a board that boasts many years of combined experience in football, he believes Gonzalez’s job will be made easy.
“We are here to guide her and ensure things are happening in the right direction. Our main goal is to become champions of Africa and for us to do that we need to win the Premier League and the FA Cup in Tanzania. We also want to be CECAFA Champions. We have a young CEO and a young team, and we are confident they’ll manage to move the club to the next level.”
From the International School of Tanganyika to the London School of Economics Manhattanville College, Gonzalez’s education cannot be questioned. Her CV is nothing to sneeze at either. She is the Head of the Mo Dewji Foundation, and has worked as a consultant and analyst at Deloitte Consulting Limited. She has interned at the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, the United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime and Peace Women: Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom.
However, she knows that she will still need to impress some tough-to-please fanatics for whom those glittery achievements are in great fields but not one where it matters the most: football.
“There’s been people who have always been naysayers, but I know I’m 120% capable. What people don’t know is that I’ve been working behind the scenes and I’ve delivered beyond my team’s expectations,” she says.
While her role behind the scenes brought a lot of gains to Simba, Gonzalez must step out into the spotlight now and lead from the front.
For Anita Kundy, a former workmate and friend who has seen the new Simba boss at her inspiring best, this will not be a problem. It was only a few weeks ago that she sent everyone at her wedding reaching for the tissue paper when she gave an emotional speech.
“We met six years ago at Deloitte where we worked together, and she’s been a sister to me and many others. Very caring and concerned about the welfare of those close to her. When I had to get someone to speak at my wedding, it couldn’t be anyone else other than her. Her speech was quite moving.
“It came as no surprise when she was appointed Simba CEO, she has great leadership qualities and is the right person for the job. She has been working tirelessly behind the scenes and finally her work is being recognised.
“So, I’ve no doubt she will excel,” she says.
As the football world watches in eager anticipation, a calm Gonzalez looks poised to, once again, accomplish the seemingly impossible.
By Mthokozisi Dube