No matter where you are from there is always an opportunity for you to grow says Christelle Mombo-Zigah. Born and raised in France by Congolese parents, Christelle moved to the USA 12 years ago with a master’s degree in International Economics from La Sorbonne University.
A lifelong learner , she recently graduated with an executive MBA (Stanford LEAD) at Stanford GSB and her dream is to become an executive in her tech company . She speaks French, English, and Spanish. Christelle learned Swedish and Arabic in college and is now learning Portuguese.
FUN FACT : What is a fun fact about your country or your parents’ country of birth?
Country of birth: France. Food is the best and you don’t gain weight because you are always on the move.
Parents country of origin: We are a very creative and resilient people, We went through the worst from of colonization under Leopold II, and we were still able to produce some of the best music in the world (Congolese Rumba), we have great fashion sense (sapeurs) and amazing painters (Cheri Samba, Burozi, Cherin Cherin etc).
[00:00:00] Paula: Welcome to “Chatting With The Experts”. This is a podcast for immigrant women from Africa, and the Caribbean, who have relocated to the UK, the US, Canada, Australia. Or the first-generation in the country that they are living, no even second generation. Which means they have a grandparent or grandparents who came from Africa or the Caribbean. In this podcast we talk about so many things. We talk about our struggles, but we also talk about how we’ve impacted the countries that we live in and the communities that we live in. And we love highlighting the triumphs that we have undergone, and we have experienced. At the same time we like to share resources with our fellow immigrant sister, so that we can all grow from it. Today I have a fantastic guest. She is a fellow African sister. Her name is Christelle Mombo-Zigah, who now lives and works in California. And I’ll tell you a little bit about her, just a little bit about her. But then I will let her tell you more about herself. She was actually born and raised in France to Congolese parents. She spent her formative years in France and has a master’s degree in international economics from ” La Sorbonne”. And she recently graduated from Stanford, which is the “Stanford GSB”, which is also known as “Stanford Lead Executive MBA”. There’s a lot more about her. She also works at Cisco system. And there’s so much more about her that she hasn’t even said, or I can’t even see. So welcome to “Chatting With The Experts” and Christelle just tell the listening audience all about yourself.
[00:01:53] Christelle: Absolutely. Well Paula, first of all, thank you very much for inviting me to share my personal story, and to share more about myself as well. I definitely would like to start, by thinking also the other listeners who will learn more about who I am. So, as you said, my name is Christelle Mombo-Zigah, and I was born and raised in France, to Congolese, DRC parents, so ex Zaire. There are two Congo’s in Africa and I’m part of the Congo Kinshasa part. I am a wife, I am a mother of two beautiful and magical black daughters. I am a global leader with 15 years of experience in growing global markets, transforming businesses and advocating for customers. I spent all my formative years in France. So I actually moved to the United States 12 years ago. You said it well, I have a master’s degree in international economists from “La Sorbonne University”. And I graduated very recently from “Stanford Graduate School of Business” through the lead executive MBA program.
[00:03:17] Paula: I told you guys you’d be impressed by Christelle. I was so impressed that I searched her out on LinkedIn. I was like this young woman; she is so young needs to be heard because she’s got so much to share. One thing I found out from her or about her, is that she speaks multiple languages. She tells me she’s great at four, but she actually speaks six two of which she’s not that comfortable with, but I’m sure she’s 50 times a hundred times better than I am. So let’s talk about that and why you speak those languages.
[00:03:57] Christelle: Sure. So that’s a very interesting question. I do speak French, it’s my native tongue, obviously native language. I learned English and Spanish at school, and I used both languages in my regular career. And where I live in California, there is a huge Hispanic speaking population, and I love to practice my Spanish with them as well. I studied in Sweden and that’s where I learned Swedish. So I took six months of Swedish and because I did not continue to practice it, and it’s not necessarily a language, which is spoken that much around the world. So I can say that I still know a few words, but I don’t speak it fluently at all. And when I was in college in “La Sorbonne”, I actually took some Arabic. And so I decided to study Arabic, because first I grew up with a multicultural group of people and a lot of them were from North Africa and there were speaking Arabic. And I was always very much intrigued and curious about what they were saying. And I really loved the language and I also got exposed to the writing and learn how to write Arabic. Again unfortunately I took only one year, so I did not pursue, and I haven’t been practicing it so I forgot pretty much everything. I also am currently learning Portuguese, one, because it’s very close to Spanish and I do have a passion for Latin American culture. Two, because as much as I’m learning about the history of Congo DRC and where my parents are actually from, and they are from that Congo region. Portugal was the first country to colonize this area and to colonize Congo. There are still a lot of words, linguistically speaking from Portuguese, which are being used in some of the Congolese dialects in the Congo. So that’s one of the reasons why I’m very much intrigued in learning Portuguese as well. So I do speak fluently three languages. I can understand Portuguese and Italian because they are very close to French and Spanish. And then I took some classes to study Swedish and Arabic. But I’m just passionate about connecting with people and learning their languages, I think it’s the best. There is nothing as good as learning from someone’s culture by starting with learning more about their language.
[00:06:33] Paula: Absolutely. Learning the language is the best way to actually understand where people are coming from. Because we know we are all very similar, but when we don’t understand the language and it’s hard sometimes to see that connection. So I’m so happy that you realize that so early in life. Cause I think you’re so young. I mean, you were telling me something different, but guys, when you see her, you’ll say, oh, she’s 28, if not 26. Anyway that aside. So tell me what was your reason for getting all of these degrees? I know for the most part, African parents, and parents from the Caribbean, love to push formal education. And some of us can, you know, are great at that and others, are not. You’re obviously a genius. So tell us about that.
[00:07:28] Christelle: Well, as you said African parents, definitely my parents were behind me and pushing me to get the highest degree of education I could. My dad actually left Congo DRC in the seventies to pursue his PhD in linguistics and he studied also at “La Sorbonne”. So it was very interesting for me to follow his steps and to go to “La Sorbonne” as well when I was in France. So having a higher education was definitely part of our upbringing. We had to learn, we had to work 10 times harder than our French white counterparts just to be valued at the same level. So that’s really something which was ingrained in my education, and that’s the reason why I pursued my master’s degree. And most recently went back to study again and graduated from one of the most prestigious business schools in the world. I love learning, I think that it opens my mind to different possibilities to new world. I think that working in technology also requires you to upgrade your skill sets. So when you work in tech, and not necessarily only in tech, you need to be a lifelong learner anyway. I studied international economists, international business. And most recently I went back to study again, business at “Stanford Graduate School Of Business” to refresh of my past learnings, to feel a little bit more relevant and up-to-date. And to apply some of my newest learning in my role today. So that’s the reason why. It’s a cultural thing, it was definitely a push from my parents and an inspiration from my dad, knowing that that’s how it got to leave Congo to move to France. And this is also the way I am raising my two daughters who are below the age of five. I’m telling them already at their age about the power of education. And I still believe that you can grow up and move from an additional level or level up through education. I still believe that. And yeah that’s the reason why I decided to continue to pursue additional studies, and get to the highest level. And I’m continuing to learn I’m still taking additional classes on the side. I do also focus a lot on personal development. So I love to read a lot of books from “Brenna Brown” as an example, or “Adam Grant”, just to continue to develop myself personally and intellectually as well.
[00:10:31] Paula: I love it. Personal development is also added to your suite of unlimited skills. And I know you’re very ambitious. I mean, I just picked that up from talking with you. Prior to this, as I said, I looked at your profile on LinkedIn and I was like, “yep”, I want to speak to this young woman, and you haven’t disappointed me. So I noticed that you’re described as the ambidextrous leader, why?
[00:11:01] Christelle: That’s a very interesting question. So why, I was raised by African parents, and I was born left-handed. And in the eighties, so I am a millennial. But in the eighties, it was still not a good thing to be left-handed. So I was actually at a very early age, forced to use my right hand, and especially as I learned how to write. So that’s how I developed ambidexterity. I now use both of my hands the same way. I definitely write more with the right one. So that’s something which is very particular to who I am as an individual. From a leadership perspective, I realized, and especially after going back to Stanford, that I was also an ambidextrous leader. And for me, it means, being able to not only focus on the exploration phase of developing a new idea or solving a new problem, the exploration and ideation phase. It also means to be able to be very good at executing. So I feel that, and I have demonstrated throughout my career that I am very good at explore rating new ways of doing things and transforming the business in general. But I am very good also at executing on some of the strategies that I put in place. So that’s really where the ambidextrous leadership is coming from as a definition.
[00:12:46] Paula: Yep, and then I picked that up. I love that you had that in your profile on LinkedIn, because it made me also think too that when I look at your career, you’ve bought than what people, regardless left brain and right brain. You cross both sides of the brain just to put it mildly. Because when we look a young woman, like you, who went back to school to do their executive MBA in Stanford, even though you had already done international economics at an prestigious university tells me that you think way beyond now, you think ahead and you think of the future, not just for yourself, but also for people who look like you.
[00:13:36] Christelle: Absolutely. It’s very important for me, and it took me a while to really define what my purpose is in life. And I know that I want to inspire the next generation of leaders and give a voice to the voiceless. So that’s my purpose. Working and living in the Silicon Valley, working in the tech industry, you have to be forward-looking, because it is an extremely fast-paced environment. Being an ambidextrous leader has definitely helped me, as you said, using both my right and left brain, and always think a step forward. Always think about what is going to come next. Always also think in terms of continual improvement. I like to transform and challenge the status quo. I think that rules have been created by human beings and they are here to be results. They are here to be challenged. They are here to be developed over time to adapt to the world we live in. So yes, definitely, I usually describe myself as a futurist, because my orientation is always toward the future. Which is very interesting because I’m also very much passionate about history. Because I believe that you need to know about your history and the history of the world through multiple angles and perspectives. I don’t only think about history as the history told and the road by the conquerors. But really also about history, how it was experienced by the “conquerees” if I can say so. So I really like to think about history as the foundation of, as a starting point and then see how we can move past and improve the world, improve people’s situations and experiences over time.
[00:15:52] Paula: Yes, because I mean, history can guide us in the direction in which to go on, not to go. Knowing that mistakes were made in the past. We don’t need to recreate those mistakes. We don’t need to make them again. We can learn from them. You can improve on them, but not make them again.
[00:16:12] Christelle: Absolutely.
[00:16:14] Paula: You said something that really touched me. You said that you feel your mission is to inspire the next generation leaders. And so that they in turn can be an inspiration to others. I know you’re not just talking about women, you’re talking about women of color. You’re talking about women of color, both in the Western world and even in the non-Western world where they live. Because you can’t be what you can’t see, and you don’t know what you don’t know. So can you just expand a little bit on that.
[00:16:48] Christelle: Absolutely. So for me, just knowing who I am, where I’m from. And when I think about the history of the Congo and the history of my family, I know that Congo went through a lot of things. It went through, first of all, a history of the deportation through the slave trade. And the Portuguese were there in the beginning to start the slave trades from the back Congo. It went through a history of the population through the colonization from Leopold to the king of Belgium. And it’s still going through illegal wars, and it’s still going through illegal trades, where our resources are just being stolen right in front of the population. And the population doesn’t even take advantage of how rich the country is. So knowing where I’m from and knowing that, you know, even in Europe and in France life was not always easy. And I will tell more in my memoir. I’m actually writing a memoir as we speak. I don’t know when it is going to be ready, but that we’ll talk more about some of the things that I went through in my childhood. So I’ll just want to show other people looking like me, and I’m not only talking about women or black women, but people from the diaspora. People from coming from different backgrounds. I want to show them, no matter where you’re from and no matter where you start, there is still an opportunity for you to grow, to develop yourself and to get to where you want to go. I am not where, yet where I want to be. And as you said, I’m extremely ambitious. I do want to reach out, you know and join the C-suite level. So I want to become an executive in a tech company. This tech company might be mine at some point, if I decide to launch my own, but that’s where I want to go. So I’m not there yet. But in the meantime, I still want to show others that you can get to where you want to go, if you stay focused, follow your dreams, study hard, work hard, and be, if you are able to continue to learn through your lifetime. I personally left France in my mid-twenties. So I am not twenties, and you can do the math. I told you that it was 12 years, as it had been 12 years since I moved to the US. I left France because I went through a few instances and episodes of discrimination, when I was looking for an internship, when I was looking for a job, even a summer job. I was seeing that I was not necessarily, or I would not be given the same opportunities as my counterparts. So that’s one of the reasons why I left France. And today I want to inspire any other future leaders who sees that they are going through the same hardships and the same challenges, and trying to grow personally and professionally, that you can decide to explore other places in the world and grow in other places. And that’s what I did when I moved to the United States. I was pretty aware of how diverse the country was. I was pretty aware and I could see from a representation perspective, I could see that women, men looking like me had access to higher positions of power at the corporate level. So those were definitely an inspiration for me. And if I want to continue to inspire others, that’s exactly also where I want to get. I want to get to those high level of powers in the, at the corporate level to inspire others.
[00:21:14] Paula: That’s awesome. That’s awesome. I love your ambition and love the fact that you said, don’t limit yourself to where you were born or where you live explore because the opportunities are waiting you that you may never know about if you don’t move out. Taking the first step is very important. And so talking about changes, we have within the last two years undergone extra ordinary changes with the pandemic. And we seem to be moving out of it. And I know, you know, you are futuristic, you think ahead. So, how would you say the pandemic has affected you job wise? Work-wise? And yeah, let’s just start there.
[00:21:57] Christelle: Oh my God. It was a paradigm shift for me. It was a traumatic experience for me, to be honest with you. So when the pandemic started and when the whole shelter in place and shut down policies started to be implemented. I had just come back from maternity leave amongst prior to the shutdown. So I had my six months old daughter, newborn, well not newborn, but baby, with me who I was in, I had intended to put to a daycare. Well, actually I had my mom with me the first month. But after the first month she was supposed to go to daycare when the whole pandemic started. So I found myself having to work full time with two daughters at home under the age of four. I found myself also getting back to the full house responsibilities, since I had no longer access to the cleaning ladies who were helping me, because no one was getting in the house. So it was definitely a highly disruptive experience. It was also a learning and growing opportunity. And actually for both my husband and myself at the very beginning of the pandemic, we decided to be extremely forgiving with each others, and to always assume good intent. So that’s, you know, when the whole thing started and I don’t wanna, I don’t want to joke on my mom, but my mom is a Congolese French woman, she doesn’t speak English. She was here to help me the first month transitioning back to work. And when it started and she saw everything which was a happening and people going, being sent to hospital and not being able to have family around. She told me I’m not staying in this country, you know, I don’t speak English, I am over 65. I might be part of the most vulnerable population, so I’m not taking any chances and sayonara, I have to leave. So she left and I do understand, and I was definitely in favor of her protecting herself and her health. So it was just my husband and I and our two girls. So yes, we decided to be forgiving, to always assume good intent. We knew how hard it would be, we were not expecting it to last for two years, for sure. But from a learning opportunity perspective, we learned to better prioritize. And as much as growing up and being a professional for me, work was a priority. You know, work was my life and my life was my work. But I realized that family needed to be a priority. I realized at this, during this episode of my life, that I also had to let go of perfection. I love things to be organized. I love things to be extremely clean around me. And again, having a full-time job, being a full-time mom, being a full-time housewife, being a full-time everything I just needed to let go of making sure that my house was smelling bleach every day, as an example. So I definitely let go of perfection and we also learn to do a better job dividing house chores. I actually wrote an article about women’s self-advocacy, which is available on LinkedIn. And I’m a big proponent of making sure that you help your wife or significant other to, to realize herself or himself. And we definitely agreed on subcontracting again at the first opportunity when things were reopening. So very disruptive. Lastly, what I learned during the pandemic was also that I had to focus on self care, and that I had to focus on self-love. And my husband was a real inspiration for me. While I was trying to find my new cadence in that dynamic. I saw my husband starting to work out every single morning for a whole year, and he’s still doing it. Personally, maybe because I was going through other things and I had additional responsibilities as well, but it really took me a year and a few additional, extra pounds, extra pounds in the process to jump on the bandwagon and to start working out. So really starting to take care of myself, to care of my body, to care of my mental health as well. I started to meditate, I started to pray more, I started a gratitude journal. So on a daily basis, I had to write something about, you know, the little thing that I had in life and for which I was grateful and I’m still grateful for. So I really learned a lot about self love and self care also during the pandemic on top of doing a better job at communicating with my husband and let go of perfection.
[00:27:39] Paula: So, what I’m hearing from you is that you, you emerged a better person overall. You’re taking care of yourself, better self love, self care. Your relationship with your husband got better, because he had such close proximity without any external help. You had no option but to say, okay, you’re there, I’m here, we’re going to make this work. I love it. I love it. Well, we’re coming to the end of this. It’s been a fantastic interview, getting to know you even better. But I want you to share with our listeners, my listeners, our listeners, let’s make it our listeners, because they listening to both you and I. Some fun facts about some fun facts, when you’re talking about self-care and self-love yeah, let’s laugh a bit. A fun fact about your country of birth or even your parents’ country of birth, let’s talk about that.
[00:28:32] Christelle: Sure. So I’m going to start with my country of birth, which is France. And fun facts, it’s not fun it’s serious, food is the best food in the world. You have a lot of varieties between the heavily creamy cuisine in the North of France. And I was actually born in the North of France into Gowdy. So you have the heavily creamy cuisine in the North. You have the Mediterranean influence in theS outh and a lot of, you know, more sophisticated and new cuisine in the Paris area. So about France food is the best in the world. That’s not a fun fact, it’s just the fact. About my parents country of origin, Congo DRC, what I love about Congolese people. And by the way, disclaimer, I have not gone yet. I have not even gone or been in Africa yet. So I have to say it because I want to remain authentic. But what I love about Congolese people and the one that I know, and the one that I get approximate with, is the fact that we ask people, we are extremely creative, and we are extremely resilient. And as I said, in the beginning, we went through the worst form of deportation through the slave trade. The population under Leopold II under the colonization. And we are still going through a lot of, you know, episodes of illegal wars and illegal trade. But I see the Congolese peoples still producing some of the best music in the world. And I’m talking about the Congolese Roomba. I also see the Congolese having such a great sense of fashion. And you all knew about the Sapeurs. I don’t know if there is an English translation, but we called them the Sapeurs. And something that I discovered, as I love to get my inspiration, I love to connect with different things. So on the artistic level, something that I recently learned is the fact that we also have amazing painters in Congo, DRC. Such as “Cheri Samba” and “Burozi” and “Cherin Cherin” or “Cherin Cherin”. I don’t know how to pronounce it. But I’m very much impressed and very proud of how creative and resilience we are as Congolese people. So that would be my fun fact for Congo, which is my parents country of origin.
[00:31:13] Paula: And, you know, knowing them as Africans, they will say, “and that’s where you are from as well”.
[00:31:18] Christelle: That’s where I’m from. You know, you don’t need to be, I don’t need to have been born there. I don’t need to have visited it. I know where I’m from. And I’m proud of my rich heritage.
[00:31:30] Paula: Absolutely. Well our listeners can’t see, but behind me, there’s a work of art that I got from Nigeria. And in my house, we have a lot of paintings from Nigeria by various artists. And I’m so proud of it and that we hardly they have European art in our house, and that’s my choice. Because it represents us, and I mean, a lot of work is not, has not been appreciated, and it’s up to us to make that happen. So if you go to a lot of my friend’s houses, even mine, African or Nigerian art work are up for all to see and all to admire, because we admire it. My daughter has reminded me, mom, what about the Caribbean artists? I got to get better at that. I got to put some up too as well.
[00:32:21] Christelle: I love it. Beautiful.
[00:32:26] Paula: And so as we’re wrapping up, is there anything you’d love me to have asked and I haven’t asked you? Something else you want to share about yourself or even about France or about, you know, your parents’ country?
[00:32:37] Christelle: I think we spent a lot of time definitely talking about it. I would invite some of the listeners who want to pursue the conversation and, I love to network. I love to share ideas. So don’t hesitate, I’m available on Likedln. I’m trying to be very active when I have time. But definitely I’ll definitely look forward to hearing from you and sharing ideas and sharing also your own experience as members of our beautiful diaspora.
[00:33:10] Paula: Lovely. So the best way for our listeners to contact you would be on LinkedIn.
[00:33:15] Christelle: It will be on LinkedIn. I am still working on my personal website, which is a work in progress. And that’s something that I’m going to have to subcontract as well. Because it’s taking a lot of my time and that’s not my forte. But yes, at the moment it’s linkedln, soon it’s going to be my personal website. Something that I didn’t say is that coming again from parents who were very, very big on education. And my dad was specialized in linguistics and I decided during the pandemic to go back to writing. And I said, this is an activity that I really love to do growing up. And that I stopped because my parents told me at some point you won’t make any money as a writer, so get some, find something else, another occupation. But during the pandemic, I started writing again, and I’m writing three children’s books. One is currently being revised, so being published very soon. And the two others are being illustrated. And as I said, I’m also writing my memoir, because I want to inspire the next generation leaders and give a voice to the voiceless. I want to make sure that other people can see themselves in the story that I have to tell and to share with the rest of the world.
[00:34:36] Paula: Thank you and so folks, this was the incredible Christelle Mombo-Zigah that I mentioned at the beginning, that she impressed me so much that I was on LinkedIn and I reached out to her and said, let’s connect. And she honored me by saying, yes, that’s why we are talking here today. So if you just heard anything in this conversation that makes you want to contact her. She’s given you her contact information, you can reach out to her on LinkedIn, just as I did. And if you’d love to hear this again, you can head over to either “Apple podcasts”, “Google podcasts”, “Spotify”, or anywhere else you listen to podcasts and follow us, and also click subscribe. And if you are an immigrant woman from Africa or the Caribbean, or you have parents or grandparents from these two regions of the world, please reach out to me on LinkedIn or better still on my website, which is “www.chattingwiththeexperts.com/contact us”, and let’s chat. I always get back to people whether you reach out to me on my website, or LinkedIn, I will get back to you. Thank you so much, Christelle, I loved everything I heard about you, and I know you have so much more to even share in your memoir that’s going to be released at sometime in the future, but I know pretty soon. Thank you.
[00:36:10] Christelle: Thank you for having me. It was such a pleasure talking to you. And it’s such a pleasure being able to share my experience and be an inspiration for anyone who resonates with what I’ve shared and what I’ve said.