Former Managing Director, Nicon and the incumbent Secretary-General, African Insurance Organisation, Prisca Soares, talks about her career and other related matters
Have you always worked in the insurance industry?
At the time I went to the university, the academic year usually began in September and I recall that I took up a holiday job. During that time, I was a contract artiste with Radio Nigeria and I participated in a youth programme. I also worked with Voice of Nigeria (German Service). After I graduated from the university, I sought for a job in the Foreign Service but they didn’t want interpreters at that time. Thereafter, an offer came from NICON Insurance Limited. I had learnt that they were recruiting graduate trainees, so I discussed it with one of our professors and went to see what it was about. I liked it and here I am today.
What is your work history?
As an insurance practitioner, I hold a bachelor’s degree (combined honours) in French and German from the University of Ibadan. Prior to that, I had my secondary education at Queens’ College, Yaba, Lagos, and also attended Saint Mary’s Convent. I am an Associate of the Chartered Insurance Institute (ACII) of London. I have been in insurance since 1977, having joined NICON as a graduate trainee.
How would you describe your tenure while you were at the helm of affairs at NICON?
I must say that it was a turbulent period. In the beginning, it was quite tough because you might remember, I was the acting MD and a lot of people didn’t think that the Federal Government could appoint a woman to the office. Many were interested in the job and it was something that was thrown open. We all went through an interview process and around that time, I got a bit of bad blood without knowing why it was so. A lot of things happened but the dust settled after I finally got appointed. NICON used to be the insurer of government business and even before government decided to privatise it, the management of the company had gone on a commercialisation process, taking us out of the civil service mode. By that time anyway, there had been a lot of competition as other companies were doing our kind of business; so, there were challenges but in all, we learnt to be more customer-focused and we were able to leave our mark.
You are the incumbent Secretary- General of the African Insurance Organisation, and the first woman to occupy the position. What is different about your new role since your appointment in 2007?
The role is different in the sense that it is a different organisation from where I had previously served and its membership is from 47 African countries, so I am dealing with diverse people and cultures. We have organised conferences in several countries and I have also learnt to work together with them. However, the challenge there was that when I first came in, the financial situation was rather poor but it has improved tremendously. The goal is to make the organisation relevant to members, so we have always organised international conferences, seminars, insurance forums and capacity building programmes in micro-insurance.
What are some of the things that you remember from your childhood?
I vividly remember being brought up by very strict parents. Discipline was seriously enforced in our home but while there was discipline, there was also a lot of love, warmth and affection in our household. We were taught to respect people; not just our elders, but to see everybody as one that ought to be respected. Even if the person is a housemaid for instance, my parents ensured that we did not feel superior to that person. I also remember that we were taught a lot of values which have really helped me along the way in life.
How challenging is it for you as a woman, working in a seemingly male–dominated field. Do you feel intimidated sometimes?
I am certainly not intimidated as I have been doing this for a long time. When I first got into insurance, there were not many women in high positions. With the benefit of hindsight, I think I was fortunate with my superiors in my younger days in insurance. They threw a lot of challenges my way and gave me opportunities to grow as well. I don’t feel intimidated on the job but the point to be made here is that I don’t know why it is usually more difficult for a woman to hold high positions. Sometimes, you don’t have enough cooperation from your subordinates, maybe because of gender issues. As a woman, there is always that quest for you to achieve and make your mark in the corporate world. I have not really thought about this but two things happened: Shortly after I became the first female executive director at NICON, I was on my way to the office one day when a member of staff congratulated me and said, “Now, there is a voice for us as women.’’ Another incident was when I was the first female managing director and an insurance organisation put together an event. In his remarks, a past president of the organisation said, “Everybody has been congratulating Prisca but I am not going to congratulate her until she has finished the job.’’ There and then, it dawned on me that I had been saddled with a huge responsibility. Hence, I needed to do the job well. Otherwise, I might ruin the chances of other women. I think when it comes to career, there is always much more pressure on women to perform. People always want to see what you’ve got to offer and the stuff that you are made of. It’s very tough.
How do you unwind when you are not working?
In my leisure time, I try to watch a lot of television. I love reading magazines, especially when I am travelling and I listen to music. Those are some of the things that I do. Sometimes, I hang out with some friends and we catch up on old times.
You were raised as a Catholic. How has it shaped you into the kind of woman that you are today?
I would say yes because I was brought up by strict Catholic parents; they brought me up to go to church but you know that some people might go to church and not take away anything from there, but I think that the value that I got in terms of the Catholic and Christian upbringing is to do unto others what you want them to do unto you. For me, I am actively involved in church activities. I served as the President of Catholic Women Organisation, Holy Cross Cathedral, from 2006 to 2011. His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI also conferred me with a papal medal in 2009, so I feel humbled. One of the things that my faith has taught me is that as an individual, you should always respect people and treat them well. I think those were part of the morals and values that I was taught. You should go to church, listen to the sermon and let it have an impact on you; it is about loving God and your neighbour. These are some of the things that have helped to shape me as I go on in life.
You cut the picture of a simple person. What informs your fashion choices?
The way that God made me, I am blessed with a good and fit frame. The way I was brought up, I don’t really go after hard core fashion trends but I like to look good. I remember that my mother used to dress us up gaily when we were kids, so we would always dress nicely, not necessarily in an ostentatious manner though. I like simple things. At work, you would always find me in corporate wears. When I am not working and just want to be in a relaxed mood, my fashion choices are comfortable still.
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