UNIMA product Kumilonje Dzabala-Gernhardt lauded by her employer German neobank N26 as an inspiration

Very few Malawians know of Kumilonje Gernhardt — née Dzabala — who is currently the junior technical delivery manager for German neobank named N26, known as Number 26 until July 2016.
Founded in Munich in 2013, N26 is headquartered in Berlin, Germany and operates in various member states of the Single Euro Payments Area (SEPA) — providing a free basic current account and a debit card.
Kumilonje Dzabala-Gernhardt — who trends as Kumi amongst her work colleagues and friends — is in the heart of the N26 operations as recently she was profiled in an article in the company’s employee magazine, InsideN26.
In the article, Kumi discusses her childhood in Malawi, her time at Chancellor College of the University of Malawi (UNIMA) and studies in Russia and Berlin and what her love of her current role at N26.
In sharing the report published through N26.com.

— N26’s digital public relations specialist, Vanessa Guerriero said they “believe that Kumi’s story can serve as an inspiration to current students and citizens of Malawi”.

“This is because your country has actively shaped the life and career of Kumi and so many other individuals and we’d like to invite you to share this exciting story by publishing this article.”
The preamble to the interview with Kumi highlights that her career has taken many twists and turns — from a career in journalism to the technical delivery manager at N26.
“If you spend any time at all with Kumi Gernhart, you’ll quickly understand how much she values relationships. Building connection and thinking deeply about others — not only their needs, but how to understand and communicate with them — is her raison d’être.
Kumi is quoted as saying: “I feel that there are two ways to get to know people. You can go to a club and have a very nice time, or you can get to know people through their complaints and their suffering.
“Because then you really know the things they care about, and how to talk to different people in different circumstances.”
Kumi studied English, Literature and Philosophy at Chancellor College before completing her Master’s in International Journalism and Communication at the Freie Universität (FU) in Berlin, Germany.
She joined N26 starting out in customer support but now she is its junior technical delivery manager at N26.
Kumi explains that she was raised in Blantyre in a family that was and is quite academic, saying “growing up in Malawi, if you really want to make it, education is the way”.
“My mother’s a pharmacist, my father is an engineer, and also I was raised by my grandmother, who was working in the field of women’s rights. But while most of my family is very scientific, I always loved stories and helping people, so it very much seemed like my path in life was toward the humanities rather than the sciences.”
She said as “someone who just loves to absorb information”, she chose to study English, Literature and Philosophy at Chanco and upon graduation, she was hired as a reporter, editor, and producer Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC).
“I mainly worked in radio, but also in TV and a bit online. Then, I did some journalism courses with Deutsche Welle to figure out what I wanted to do. At this point, I felt that I understood journalism and wanted to do something more.
“So I began applying for some Master’s programs and I got accepted to the Masters program for International Journalism and Global Communications — a dual Master’s at Freie University that took place in both St. Petersburg [Russia] and Berlin.
On stories that impacted her studying abroad, Kumi said it was the friendships that stuck with her the most, saying “outside of that, I took a class on logic and fallacies. We had discussions about the history of Malawi, the politics of Malawi, and so much more.
“My undergrad taught me how to think, how to argue, how to ask the right questions, how to provide a well-reasoned argument. It really taught me a kind of critical thinking that I’ve needed throughout my life.
“Today, if someone asks me a question about why I’m saying what I’m saying, I’m able to see it not as a threat but as a challenge to do more.”
Asked if the idea of rational thinking and developing coherent arguments is what drove her toward journalism, Kumi answered in affirmative, saying: “Honestly, I thought if the news and media stories were provided in this way and tried to be as balanced as possible, then it would make a difference.
“Lawyers have to pass a bar, doctors have to pass their medical exams, yet you don’t really have this with journalism, and I think that’s a shame. It’s so important, because information dissemination, the information that people get and the decisions they make based on that information, changes the world.
“There’s a real ethics missing in journalism. And I really believe that in order to change something, you have to understand what’s going on. So I went to school for journalism to do that, with the goal of giving people two-sided, ethical, and fair information. Those were my youthful dreams, anyway!”
She further explained her experiences at the Freie Universität, saying because the program took place in two countries, she arrived in St. Petersburg first and spent the winter there.
“It was the coldest place I’d ever been, and the first time I’d seen snow! I tried to not have too many preconceptions, which was good, because it helped me be more open.
“One thing I remember thinking was that there was no conversation about anything going on in the southern hemisphere. It was all western journalism — not just no African journalism, but also no Asian journalism, no South American journalism, and so on.
“When I mentioned this to my professor, he encouraged me to gather some information on this topic and present it to our class. I feel that it’s not enough to say, ‘You’re not doing this’ — it’s better to say, ‘here’s what I see is missing, and here’s what I want to do about it’ — because then you’re progressing, rather than just criticizing.”
In Russia, despite having “a language that was different, the food was different, even the alphabet was different”, she still “made some very good friends there”.
“My Russian colleagues were so generous, took me everywhere I needed to go, and really took care of me. When I arrived in Berlin for my second semester, I found Germans to be much more self-sufficient and individualistic.
“That said, I had an easier time at FU. My program was very diverse — we had people from all different backgrounds and cultures. Also, the school has such a rich history — I’m so honored and proud to have gone there.
“I did my thesis there as well: a comparison of the British media’s coverage of the migrant crisis in Europe and the migrant crisis in South Africa at the time that nobody was talking about.”
What led her to her first job at N26 was that when she finished her university studies she didn’t intend to stay in Germany, “but when you graduate from a German university, you can stay here for a year and a half and look for a job”.
“So, I decided I would stay here for six months, get a random job to pay my bills, and then go back home. I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll get a job in customer service, no big deal’. Well, it is a big deal — they work very hard!
“But I really wanted to learn about people, and customer support was the best way to do that. Then, my plans changed — I met a guy, and we got married! So, I decided to stay in Berlin, and eventually got the job at N26.
“I was in customer support for three months, after which I joined a special task force for account takeovers. This was my first move toward tech because it was about understanding what fraudsters do to manipulate our technology to create accounts. I really enjoyed this, but eventually I wanted a new challenge.
The new challenge she chose was to do a bootcamp and become a web developer. “I used my development budget and got my certification. I love coding and have so many ideas for personal projects.
“But I also love people and felt that I had gathered a lot of experience helping them. I was worried that by becoming a developer, I would be wasting years of experience.
“Then, by a stroke of luck, the position for a junior technical delivery manager opened up. I got the position, and here I am! Every day, I learn more about technology, but also working with different stakeholders. It’s both the technical side and the communication side — I really like that balance.”
Her role at N26 is basically focused on IT solutions in line with the company’s compliance and regulatory requirements and Kumi said: “Right now, we’re looking at identity and access management, making sure that we have all the technology we need, that the processes are aligned with our regulatory obligations, compliance obligations, and so on.
“I have such a great team lead who is so supportive and always challenges me to do more. You see, I’m not afraid of a challenge and I’m not afraid of problems, as long as we’re moving toward a solution.
“I’m someone who wants to hear the bad news and then I want to figure out how to get out of it. Also, as a technical delivery manager, your stakeholders are quite diverse – you have legal, compliance, and web developers, who all have different things that they care about.
“It’s a bit like being on a tightrope but mentally, I think it’s very healthy — and I’m never bored!”
She told N26.com that the lessons that she applies to her work which she learnt from university is “first, the respect for a diverse team”, saying: “University taught me how to communicate with different people — I don’t get offended easily, and I’m quick to apologize if I offend somebody.
“I’m also able to explain my point of view and hear the point of view of others in a way that feels safe. I tell my colleagues, ‘I am happiest communicating this way. Can you tell me how to best communicate with you so that we can get the job done?’
“I believe in creating a very positive work environment and I really try to understand people I’m working with — ask them questions about themselves, get to know them, and understand how best to help them get the job done.
“I guess I’m really still on this mission to help people and make them feel heard,” said Titilayo Kumilonje Dzabala-Gernhardt, the proud product of  Chancellor College.

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Alice
Alice
1 month ago

Very proud of you Kumi, keep inspiring!!

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