There is a sense of a “take no prisoners” attitude about Angela Gahagan when I meet her for this profile interview. The MTN Business managing executive is sitting, impeccably dressed, at the company’s boardroom table.
It’s not a carefully cultivated image that many women in the telecommunications industry have developed, but a product of the strength of character she has developed since her youth.
“I learnt to be fiercely independent when I was very young,” she says.
Born in Abingdon, Berkshire in south-east England, her father was a member of the Royal Air Force, which meant the family moved between several European countries when she was young.
After a few years of travelling, Gahagan and her two sisters were sent to boarding school back in the UK.
“Holidays were hardest — not being at school, because during holidays my friends were in far away places. Social networking would have been great for us and would have made life easier,” she says.
Gahagan appears to have always had a sense of purpose and her discovery of Africa was no different. She came to SA to get married, and although she won’t elaborate on the relationship, she will offer this: “Needless to say, the marriage didn’t last. But my love affair with SA and Africa did.”
She says the continent holds a special place in her heart. “There is nowhere else in the world where you can set your mind to something and actually achieve it. Here, if you have an idea, it can be heard and even acted on,” she says.
In spite of the many countries she has seen and lived in, and despite her broad English accent, she says she will always feel at home in Africa.
Gahagan is one of those rare specimens in the telecommunications industry: a woman in a male-dominated field.
“Its an unforgiving industry,” she says. “It’s filled with true intellectuals that don’t suffer fools gladly. It’s why it’s such a successful industry.”
But Gahagan doesn’t even try to hide behind gender. “It is a highly competitive environment, and you have to be resilient. You need to be on your game and show what you are capable of, no matter who you are.”
The MTN Business managing executive has climbed the ranks in the industry, from the early days of UUNet, where she started out as a customer service executive, to later heading up Verizon, UUNet’s successor, before it was acquired by MTN.
However, telecoms isn’t where Gahagan got the start in her career. “I first worked in a bank. And I still love numbers. I think in any business you need to understand the impact you will have, and numbers help to do that.”
From banking she moved into healthcare, working with customers at Medscheme. “It’s really where I found out I liked to solve problems,” she says.
She says the medical industry is not an easy place to be, especially because healthcare is often a grudge purchase.
Despite moving from one industry to another, Gahagan says she found her true passion when she entered telecoms.
I find it hard to steer her away from talking about work and towards her personal life. She is clearly protective of her life away from the office.
But she says both aspects hold equal sway in making her the person she is.
“I have always warned people about living only for work, or only for home. You can gain valuable insight from both aspects of life,” she says. “You need to embrace both, but believe in neither.”
While she is telling me this, her daughter calls and her face lights up. Her daughter has applied to study at an advertising school and has been given an interview. Her son has followed in his mother’s early footsteps and has taken up a financial career.
Gahagan is about to start another phase of her life – she’s getting married in October. “My children and my partner are what keep me grounded,” she says. “Of course, I experienced guilt over being career woman and being a mother. But the kids say they are more complete because of my career. It allowed me to allow them to be complete people,” she says.
Through both work and home life, Gahagan says the one thing she has learnt about herself is that she loves to grow things. “Not necessarily in the gardening sense, but more like turning dreams into reality,” she says. “I am the person that buys the house labelled as a ‘renovator’s dream’ in the paper.”
She says working with her partner on renovating homes gives her a sense of accomplishment she doesn’t get anywhere else. “I do the dreaming, and he does the work,” she says a little tongue in cheek.
As for the prim and proper outfit she wears to our interview, I can almost picture her covered in paint splodges and dust, grinning widely as she admires a freshly painted wall. — Candice Jones, TechCentral