Up&Ap: Nikki Summers on landing a corporate job at 19 years and rising to lead Sage East Africa operations


Few people are fortunate enough to join the corporate world immediately after school at the relatively ‘tender’ age of just 19 years. But that’s just what she did, joining Sun Microsytems in 2000 as a Marketing Consultant and staying with the IT firm for another 5 years. In January 2008, she moved to Sage Pastel and has remained loyal to the brand since then, and currently leads the operations of the integrated accounting, payroll, and payment systems provider in East Africa. But it’s not always been a walk in the park – she’s working in a predominantly male-controlled industry with no mentors to look forward to as a young woman. Here’s the story of Nikki Summers, the East Africa Regional Director for Sage, as she talks about career journey, setting up Sage’s East Africa regional office and her challenges and successes along the way. Read on…       

 QUESTION: Who is Nikki Summers? 

NIKKI SUMMERS: I entered the industry in 2000, starting as a marketing consultant at Sun Microsystems, later becoming marketing manager at Africa Legend and Systems Fusion. I joined Sage Pastel International in January 2008 to take charge of marketing in Africa, together with channel partners in 52 countries.

My next challenge was to establish the East Africa regional office, with a focus on business development and customer retention focused on the Sage Pastel mid-tier ERP application – Pastel Evolution before taking up my next challenge which was to head our cloud-based start-up solution as the Sage One director for East and West Africa. I am now very excited to take up the new challenge that lies ahead as the regional director for East Africa representing the full Sage product stack. 

Q: You have been in the IT industry all your professional life. Despite the general perception that it is a man’s industry, how has the experience been for you and have there been challenges you faced because you’re a woman? 

NS: When I started out, there weren’t many women represented at a senior level in the ICT industry and I was often the only woman on steering committees and business forums. It wasn’t always easy, given a lack of female mentors and role models that you could turn to for advise, but I was lucky to work at progressive companies. I’m encouraged to see that there are more women represented in senior managerial and board roles in Kenya.

As an employer, Sage takes a strong stand about diversity and equality, and it has given me a platform to lead. More and more companies see diversity as a strength, so we’re seeing gender bias in the workplace slowly change for the better.

Q: Tell us about Sage; what is the relationship between Sage Pastel and Sage? Give us a brief background on the two brands and your work in the country? 

NS: Sage started as a small business in the UK 30 years ago and grew into a multinational, FTSE 100 group through organic and acquisitive growth. One of the companies it bought was Softline, a South African software group that was a leader in the African accounting market with a product called Pastel. After the acquisition, we kept the Pastel product name because it was such a strong brand, but we also have unified all our businesses and products behind the Sage brand. 

Nikki Summers stands next to a Sage logo. She’s represented the brand in various roles in Africa since 2008.

Today, Sage is the market and technology leader for integrated accounting, payroll, and payment systems, supporting the ambition of entrepreneurs and business builders. We have more than 13,000 Sage colleagues in 23 countries work with a thriving global community of over 3 million entrepreneurs, business owners, tradespeople, accountants, partners, and developers to champion the success of business builders everywhere.

Q: Before taking up the role of East Africa regional director you were the director for SageOne in East and West Africa. What’s the distinction between the two roles?

NS: My new role is to grow the Sage business in East Africa across all product and service lines, from Sage One, our startup solution on accounting and payroll all the way to our Enterprise solution- SageX3. As the Director for Sage One in East and West Africa, I was responsible for growing the market share for Sage One, our online accounting and payroll solution for small businesses.

Q: Since you took over leadership of Sage operations in this market, what would you say are your greatest challenges and achievements? How have you dealt with the challenges? 

I have always looked at challenges as opportunities because they area good breeding ground for innovation and the development of new solutions.I don’t think you will speak to any leader that doesn’t face challenges what sets leaders apart is how they embrace the challenges.

Greatest achievement? My greatest achievement has been establishing the Sage East Africa regional office and seeing it grow from a 3 person business to a company that today employs over 25 staff and is constantly growing. An even great achievement has been playing a role in growing the market share that Sage has in East Africa. With the new Sage customer for life philosophy, I believe we can make even greater strides in this market.

Q: What sets Sage apart from competition? What keeps Sage clients coming back?

NK: This refers to our customer retention strategy as Sage. At Sage, everything we do starts and finishes with building customers for life by offering them choice, support, expertise and innovation. Customer for life means three things: helping you run your business, putting you in control, and giving you choices. What’s more, we ensure that our products are tailored to local business conditions and invest in building local skills and a local channel. We don’t lock our customers in, we don’t force them to migrate to new versions of our software before they are ready, and we provide world-class support.

Q: In the recent IDC CIO Summit held in Nairobi, You’re quoted as having said “We can’t set up annual classroom seminars and expect to keep up anymore” even though sage was a sponsor of the IDC CIO series. Is this not contradictory? 

NS: We see classroom sessions and industry events as an important part of the learning process – the opportunity to network with peers and learn from experts is always invaluable. But it’s not enough to set aside a few days a year for training and development in a world where each of us must embrace the need for continuous learning. There is a time for formal training and seminars, but we also need develop a culture that ensures that learning takes place every day. In a fast-paced environment we need to keep learning and experimenting every day to remain relevant. 

Q: What industries are you focusing on to grow your market share in Kenya and the region? What have been some of the challenges arising from this process? 

NS: We serve millions of entrepreneurs in businesses of all sizes right across the globe and in every industry vertical you can think of – from manufacturing and distribution, to services businesses like hospitality and consulting, to transport and logistics, healthcare and the public sector.

We have to ensure that we understand the market and reach every customer, working with business partners and independent software vendors who know the East African market and who have vertical industry expertise to aid in our growth process.

Q: Who has been your greatest inspiration in your personal and professional life, and why?

NS: I draw my inspiration from the many mentors that I have had at different times in my career – dynamic leaders that have impacted my life at various stages. I took my first corporate job when I was 19 and I had different mentors from then onwards. As I became more experienced, I met more people who offered me counsel, taught me and helped me get better at what I do. These different perspective have shaped my life into what it is today.

Q: Finally and related to the second question, are you involved in or supporting any projects / initiatives aimed at encouraging girls to take up IT or stem careers? If yes, which ones are you currently engaged in as a person or as Sage?    

NS: We do not currently have a project specifically dedicated to helping girls in STEM careers. However, the Sage Foundation in the East Africa region is investing in helping children to further their education. The Sage Foundation provides grants that create social, economic and entrepreneurial opportunities for the young and disadvantaged as well as grants to match colleague charitable donations and fundraising efforts.