Celestine: With CEIBS Africa from the Very Beginning

Volume 2, 2019

By Charmaine N Clarke

In July 2007, when Celestine Kumahor was offered a job to work for the CEIBS Africa project, she was sceptical. She had seen other educational institutions enter the African market only to fail, leaving behind disappointed clients who had nothing to show for the money they had spent. She refused to accept the job until she could verify that CEIBS was really all that its website claimed it to be. “For me, the key question was: how different was CEIBS from all the others that had come to our country in the past?” she explains during a recent interview with TheLINK. She got her answer after working on a number of CEIBS info sessions organized to introduce the school to the Ghanaian market, and then spending two weeks at the school’s flagship Shanghai campus in September 2008. She eventually realized that CEIBS was all its website promised, and more. Almost 11 years later, after a series of roles that have evolved with the steady growth of what is now CEIBS Accra, one of the school’s five campuses across the world, Celestine is still convinced she made the right decision to be a part of the CEIBS story.

Why should I work for CEIBS?

CEIBS Honorary (European) President Professor Pedro Nueno was the one who first recognized the role that Celestine could play at CEIBS Africa. As with all foreign institutions trying to expand into Ghana, CEIBS had to get approval and support from the country’s government. They also needed on-the-ground support and advice on how to successfully navigate a new market. A local law firm was hired but, with no event marketing expertise, it subcontracted some of its tasks to a local company — Royal Protocol Services — where Celestine worked as an Events Manager. As she went about her tasks, which ranged from a project launch to facilitating meetings between CEIBS and the then Ghanaian president, Celestine sometimes worked alongside Prof Nueno. He asked then Executive Director of CEIBS Africa, Professor Kwaku Atuahene-Gima, to have her join the team.

Surprised by the job offer and still not exactly clear what CEIBS was, Celestine began researching the school. She also asked to be involved in all future CEIBS activities in Ghana so she could get a better understanding of the company and its objectives in Africa. She learned a lot while organizing info sessions to introduce CEIBS to the local market.

“During these sessions, I realised that what CEIBS was offering to our local market was something unique. Learning about CEIBS’ vision and mission, how it helped nurture Chinese business leaders, and its role in the transformation of the Chinese economy, I felt it would be great for me to be a part of it,” she explains. “And with CEIBS being new in Ghana, I thought it was a great opportunity to challenge myself by joining this noble institution and to be a part of its history.”

It took her three weeks to decide she may be interested. But she needed hard evidence before making a commitment. “I wanted to see for myself if what I saw on the internet really did exist,” she says. “And if I was going to be a CEIBS Marketing Executive I needed to know the product in order to sell it.” Within a month after she was first approached, the school provided her with an invitation letter to apply for a visa to China. That visit convinced her to finally sign the employment contract. 

“Seeing the Shanghai campus really changed my entire view about CEIBS,” she recalls. “I had loved what I saw on the internet. But seeing the actual structures, meeting all the great people that I met and being able to understand in-depth what CEIBS was about was what moved me to fully accept the offer and be part of what CEIBS was doing in Africa.” She officially joined CEIBS on September 15, 2008.

Growing with CEIBS

Over the last decade, her role at CEIBS has matched the school’s development in Africa. She initially began as a Programme Marketing Executive which meant she was responsible for enrolling students in the EMBA and other programmes being offered by CEIBS in Africa. It also meant formulating effective promotional sales initiatives in not just Ghana but other locations across the continent. On the logistical side, she was also responsible for booking teaching venues and making arrangements for faculty flights and accommodations. In 2011, she was promoted to Admissions & Events Manager. This meant that in addition to driving sales in Africa she also worked closely with key corporate clients, provided support to applicants during the admission process and kept in contact throughout their studies to handle any problems they had, supervised class coordinators to ensure consistent course quality, and had overall responsibility for all graduation ceremonies and events in and outside of Ghana. In 2016 she was promoted to her current role, Head of Programmes & Events/Facility, managing a team of nine including six external vendors. She has the weighty task of ensuring that goals are met for all the programmes now offered by CEIBS Africa: Global Executive MBA (GEMBA), Advanced Management Programme (AMP), Women Entrepreneurship & Leadership for Africa (WELA), Owner Director Programme (ODP), Company Specific Programmes (CSPs) and other Executive Education programmes. Among these goals is ensuring that students are satisfied or, as Celestine puts it, making sure they “are given a world-class experience at all times”. A big part of this is ensuring her team is motivated so they can provide consistently high-quality services as they execute CEIBS’ vision and mission. Their hard work has paid off. Over the past three years, students’ evaluation scores have been between 4 and 4.3 out of 5.

Read on for excerpts from an exclusive interview with Celestine.

How did you react when Prof Kwaku Atuahene-Gima approached you, back in 2007, about a job with CEIBS?

I was busy working at a CEIBS event and I didn’t know who he was. So when he approached me I said, ‘Sorry, sir, I'm busy at the moment. If you want to talk to me, it has to be after I have finished my work.’ He insisted that he needed to speak with me, so I gave him my business card and asked him to contact me if it was something important.

Right after the programme ended that evening, he called and introduced himself as the Executive Director of the company that I had just helped with its launch, with meeting the President of Ghana, and also with organizing visits with some key personnel in the country. So we started from there. I wasn't looking for a job so I asked him what made his offer so different from the job that I was already doing. 

How was your initial CEIBS role as a Programme Marketing Executive different from being an Events Manager at Royal Protocol Services?

As an Events Manager my job was local, and we worked a lot with the government. I also had the opportunity to organize a lot of international events, meet a lot of great people, travel. But it wasn't the same as working with an educational institution that would have, as I later realized, such impact. That was something that made the CEIBS opportunity unique for me, as well as the fact that it was a multinational institution. Of course, I was also excited about being part of the pioneering CEIBS Africa group!

My expectation was that I was going to grow, as an individual, and build a career that was different from what I had been doing before I was asked to join CEIBS. I also hoped that I would be able to, with the little experience I had acquired at the time, contribute to this new institution that had come to Africa. I was expecting to learn from all of CEIBS’ great faculty who had expertise in various fields. And, also, to be able to meet and work with great people from across different cultures, cultures that could also contribute positively to my life and my job. These were the things I was expecting. And, to be honest, over the last 10 years I have experienced most of them. 

What were the expectations that were not met?

In the early stages I did expect that [as CEIBS had already been successfully operating in China for many years] we would have the right strategies in place. But we really had to do everything ourselves. Though I had a great network, my background was in accounting and events; I did not have a marketing background. I had expected that the resources and structure would be there to help me get my work done smoothly. But that was something that was missing at the time. You had to just get it done yourself, and you had to find the right way of getting it done. It was one of my biggest challenges at CEIBS because, in addition to our limited resources, our target market was a very small percentage of the total African market. But it was also exciting because I was able to grow, I was able to learn and become better.

I remember, in 2010, being told to lead a team of four to develop a strategy for the marketing of our programmes in three countries: Ghana, Nigeria, and the Ivory Coast. Ivory Coast is a French-speaking country and I had absolutely no knowledge of French or the market. And I had targets to meet! Luckily, when I visited the Shanghai campus in 2008, a number of the school’s faculty took me through some of CEIBS’ unique selling points that we could use in branding and selling the programme. So even though we had a very lean budget, I was able to come up with a strategy. Our target was to recruit 30 EMBA students. We had 200 potential applicants and in the end 41 enrolled. I was very proud of our team.

What are some of the other proud moments of your career with CEIBS?

I always say that one day when the history of CEIBS Africa is written, I am sure my name will be part of it. My proudest moment was being able to penetrate the local market in 2009, with our limited resources, and exceed our targets. These students were very senior executives, people that had more than a decade-and-a-half experience on the job. And to have 45 of them enrolled [five later dropped out for various reasons such as moving to another country or company] made me feel that I had a lot more than I originally thought I could offer my country and my continent. That makes me feel so proud.

Even today some of these first students, as well as those from cohorts enrolled between 2010 and 2013, will say I was the reason they did the programme. They say they have never regretted the decision because it has made them a better leader, or the China element has opened so many doors for them. For me, this is heart-warming; I’m happy any time I hear the stories from these alumni.

I was very proud when we managed to exceed our targets for CEIBS Africa’s first ever class, those who enrolled as the EMBA 2009 cohort. Within six months we had 26 students signed up, more than 50% of our target. My network helped a lot in meeting my goals. When I arrived in Ghana on September 17, 2008, after my trip to see the Shanghai campus, I already had my first student, Samuel Okyeret. He met me at the airport with his application form. After the CEIBS faculty’s marketing advice I had started working immediately while I was still in Shanghai.    

What is one of the biggest lessons you have learned during your past 10 years with CEIBS?

You need the right people to help you achieve your goals, especially when resources are limited. Good people are hard to find, but working at CEIBS I would say they have come to me. Our students and alumni would even recruit other students for me! They would call me up on the weekend and tell me about someone I should meet. And before I would even start talking to these potential students, the person who had recommended them would have already done more than 50% of the ‘selling’ for me; I just needed to ‘close the deal’. This was because CEIBS presented a very unique programme that was practical, that was transformational. This was a programme that was able to teach our clients how to be creative leaders, how to be confident in everything they do; how to look at things in an innovative way and do them differently. Because of this, they also believed in CEIBS and they were happy to help us find suitable students.

These are just a few examples of why my career at CEIBS has been such an amazing one!

Celestine’s CEIBS Wish List:

A. I hope that the CEIBS Africa Alumni Chapter will become more integrated with the school’s other chapters around the world. I especially want to see more interaction between the other members of the school’s 22,000-member alumni network and all the CEIBS Africa EMBA cohorts.  

B. Even though here in Africa we have a limited target group for our programmes, I hope the CEIBS brand will become a household name in the near future. To do this, we need to continue to improve in everything we do: how we sell our programmes, how we communicate with our students, and how we deliver our programmes.

C. I also want every member of the CEIBS Africa team to fully be a part of the bigger picture. They need to experience what it is that we have on our main campus and all the other campuses. I have had the opportunity and it really transformed me; I was able to feel and understand what it is that I am being employed to do. So if we can have that opportunity given to staff that are recruited, have them visit the main campus for a few days and interact with their colleagues, I think that could help enhance how we present the CEIBS brand here in Africa.