To stretch out the $20 she arrived with in the United States in 1998 to attend college in Massachusetts, Ninon Marapachi slept on a pillowcase stuffed with her clothes and didn’t tell even her best friend that she was washing dishes in a Mount Holyoke campus cafeteria. “I didn’t want to be anyone’s pity case,” she said.
That drive helped her land an internship at Merrill Lynch. Now she oversees a team that decides which hedge funds should be offered to Merrill Lynch’s $1.9 trillion client base. The position gives her tremendous clout in the mostly white-male world of asset management.
It’s all a very long way from Tanzania, where she grew up in a house without running water, electricity, windows or doors. Her ticket out was a scholarship to a high school in Norway whose selection process was an eye-opener in itself. “It was my first meeting ever with a room full of Caucasians,” she recalled. After an introductory economics class, she tabled her plans to become a doctor.
She works today to make sure teenagers from poor New York families get a shot at the same breaks she got and serves on the board of the organization that brought her to the U.S., Sponsors for Educational Opportunity. In the meantime, she figures there are plenty more opportunities ahead. “People say to me, ‘Oh, you ought to run for president of Tanzania,'” she said. “I’m not ready for that.”
Ninon Marapachi is a Tanzanian trailblazer whose career in finance is an inspiring story.
At only 32, she is the managing director of a $20 billion (Sh32 trillion) Hedge Fund called Merrill Lynch of the Bank of America-Global Wealth and Investment Management, in New York.
She manages a 10-member team that is charged with sourcing, structuring, negotiating and managing the Fund that is nearly twice Tanzania’s budget for the current financial year.
She shared her success story in an email interview with The Citizen on Saturday:
QUESTION: Tell us the story of how you find yourself where you are
ANSWER: I became competitive from my early school days and was determined to get what I set my eyes on.
I believed everything was possible but most importantly I set and worked towards achieving my goals along the way.
I studied at Muhimbili Primary School and Jangwani Secondary School and finished among the top 10 candidates countrywide.
That would land me an international scholarship from one of a handful of high schools known as United World Colleges.
I attended the Red Cross Nordic United World College (RCNUWC) in Flekke, Norway, to pursue international baccalaureate diploma.
My goal was to move to a university in the US even though my parents were unable to pay the fees. I thus needed another scholarship but that required that I must be among outstanding international students.
Thankfully I managed and got offers from various schools. Mouth Holyoke College (MHC) was my first choice. I was required to pay only about $1,500 (Sh2.4 million) out of a total cost per year of $33,000 (Sh52.8 million).
Before I left Tanzania, I wanted to be a doctor, just because at that time, any child who was smart was somehow moulded to think that she/he would want to be a doctor, or an engineer.
However, after Norway I found a new love, Economics. It was fascinating. From that point onward, I knew that Economics would be in my future.
On the first week at MHC, I attended a career information session.
That is when I heard about the financial industry and Wall Street to be specific and I knew I wanted to pursue the greatest thing about it.
The next thing was to find a route that would get me there. The biggest challenge was that the financial industry was dominated by whites and primarily males; I was neither of the two but did not let that dissuade me.
Later a search would lead me to Sponsors for Educational Opportunities (SEO), a career programme that recruits college students of colour, trains and places them in large Wall Street, consulting firms.
SEO usually admits third year college students but I ignored that requirement and applied as a first year; I did not get in.
I applied again in second year, I was invited for an interview and eventually they accepted me, recognising that I was never going to give up. I was placed at Merrill Lynch.
The motto that I got from SEO that differentiated me from other non-SEO interns that year was “do your work better, faster and always ask for more” – we were also asked to be at least 15 minutes early to every meeting.
I followed the guidelines religiously.
I started full time job with Merrill Lynch in July 2002, as an analyst, made director (started leading a team) in 2007 – the trip that takes many at least a decade.
Q: As the director of the hedge fund, what do you find the most challenging?
The limited presence of women generally – almost absence of black women in the hedge fund industry and the fact that the field is dominated by white males.
Q: What can you say about working and living abroad?
A: Working and living in New York City specifically-I love the energy level in the city, it is a fast-paced environment, and one always learns something from people around.
I also love the fact that the city never sleeps as you can find a restaurant open at 4 am in the morning.
But everyone is so aggressive, survival is for the fittest; so one has to always find ways to elevate their game, which can be exhausting.
Winters can be brutal and messy with snow all over the map; going out of the house can be a production. And life is very expensive.
Q: You are a motivational speaker; do you think it really matters?
A: Yes, extremely. When I hear someone enthusiastic and optimistic, it boosts my energy level and my own optimism – driving me to aim higher. I want to create that effect on others.
Q: What do we need to succeed (especially women) in Tanzania?
A: Have a goal, develop a plan and execute it — the world is full of ideas. Execution is what rewards people and what differentiate “talkers” from “doers”.
Understand your competition and always aim to be on top by continuing to innovate in whatever you do. Try to do your best in everything you do, and don’t waste time. Spend your time wisely.
Q: What are your dreams?
To create an institution that will focus on education for Tanzanian children — primary goal is to help prepare our nation to be competitive in the future.
I’m currently serving on the board of SEO: the organisation that invested in me back in 2001 to scale the ladder in the financial industry.