Read the french version here.
Serge Ntamack was born in Cameroon and spent his early years in different cities in the country, courtesy of his parents, who moved from city to city due to the nature of their job as bankers.
He decided to be a lawyer at quite a young age because of his love for justice and interest in travelling. Despite pushback from his parents, the dream came through, and his career as a corporate lawyer has taken him to several countries and generally helped him live his dream.
After studying law for his first degree and International trade law for his postgraduate degree, he has been working professionally since 1998.
Of his 24+ years of practising, 14+ years went into handling compliance and legal affairs for Microsoft in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and Africa (MEA).
It might seem Microsoft had the best of Serge, but the multinational tech corporation is not the only big name on Serge's list of impact. United Nations (UN) in Geneva and some African governments are also on the list. Serge has also played advisory roles for African governments like Mali and Senegal.
His thirst for exploring made him try his hands at Intellectual Property in banking, cybersecurity, and compliance in manufacturing, among others. These days, he's handling cheques to startups, sitting on startups' advisory boards, and looking for the next African unicorn that would make his angel investments worth it.
Serge, a professional corporate lawyer and tech policy expert spoke with Techpoint Africa and shared pointers for anyone looking to get into the legal space and how startups can navigate the African regulatory landscape.
You can watch the full video for the complete experience.
Here's a refined and brief version of the interview.
Kolawole Oluwanifemi(KO): Tell us about your background.
Serge Ntamack (SN): Growing up, I could not stay in any part of Cameroon for too long, because my parents moved around a lot due to their banking career. During that time, I picked up a lot of interest in reading, politics, foreign cultures and justice.
When it was time to choose a career, my parents (especially my mum) were opposed to me becoming a lawyer. They wanted me to become a doctor or an engineer. So in deviance, I became less interested in physics and more interested in literature. They were very disappointed.
I got my law degree in Cameroon after attending three Cameroonian universities. During that period, I gained some exposure to Cameroonian cultures. Shortly after getting my degree, I started working.
I worked in a bank as a legal associate before working for the African Intellectual Property Organization(AIPO) for three and a half years. Thereafter, I attended the University of Pretoria, South Africa, for my postgraduate degree under a scholarship. Then I spent six months in Switzerland, where I interned at the World Trade Organization.
KO: How did you get these scholarships?
SN: I'd say luck, hard work and the ability to seize opportunities. In 1998 when I started working as a banker, things were done manually; the Internet was accessible only to a very few in Africa, and equally expensive.
When I started my role at AIPO around early 2000, I was given a computer with Internet access, and I decided to maximise my opportunity by applying for postgraduate studies in Africa and Europe. I applied to about twenty universities and was selected for about seven of them. I chose the University of Pretoria admission, which came as a scholarship.
KO: What made the difference?
SN: The first was my profile. I was a professional already with more than half a year's experience in an international organisation. The second was that I’m bilingual. This has been an advantage for me throughout my career, the ability to speak both French and English, especially working in Africa.
Thirdly, I prepared for the interviews and the application process quite seriously. I actually researched extensively.
KO: Did your mom eventually come to terms with your profession?
SN: Yes. She's passed away, unfortunately, but I think she was proud of me when I started working and travelling for work. Interestingly, she dreamt of being a lawyer herself when she was young. But she had to change the course of her professional career.
She understood why I didn't want to be a doctor eventually. We used to spend hours on the phone talking about statutes and legal records. She became quite interested in it.
KO: What lessons have you learnt from travelling wide and practising corporate law?
SN: I have travelled around the world to different countries and have been to about 75% of African countries. I have also lived in different countries in Africa and Europe. The university I attended in Amsterdam had students from all around the world.
I have also travelled wide and experienced different legal systems by virtue of being a lawyer. Our legal systems are largely affected by our colonial histories. In all, I have learnt a lot about different people and their cultures.
Again, I have worked at the UN, Geneva, and that gave me unique exposure before coming back to work in my continent.
KO: Can you give us a glimpse of your career journey between 1998 and 2021?
SN: In Cameroon, you can practice as a corporate lawyer without being called to the bar.
After university, I didn't apply to be called to the bar, so I worked as a corporate lawyer in a bank doing basic advising on employment and contract laws. Then I moved to Geneva for a while before I came back to Africa in the wake of the Internet explosion.
When I moved back, I accepted a role in a production company in Senegal, starting an export business to West African/ECOWAS countries. My duties were a hybrid of regulatory, external relations, legal and PR-related than my usual corporate law. That role prepared me for my future roles.
About three years later, I got an offer from the institution that gave me my master's scholarship for a role in Mali as a government advisor on International Trade matters, and I accepted. Thereafter, an offer for the role at Microsoft, which, honestly, I didn't apply for, came through. After about nine rounds of virtual interviews, I got accepted and came back to Cameroon for work.
In Microsoft, I worked in Cameroon, Francophone Africa, and Nigeria before getting promoted to oversee the entire Sub-Saharan Africa. It was more of a project management role with the basic duty of ensuring that Microsoft was compliant with intellectual property.
After then, I worked as a legal director and public policy expert for Microsoft Francophone Africa. There, I had to wear my corporate lawyer hat once again. Thereafter, I moved to Middle East Africa and back to Sub-Saharan Africa, all for Microsoft.
KO: Corporate law or litigation? Your honest opinion on which is the best law career to choose.
SN: I will give you a lawyer's response: it depends on your interest. I prefer corporate advisory, it gives me many opportunities to know people, cultures, etc. I like the fact that the boundaries are really fluid.
Litigation is also good. A good lawyer should have some litigation experience. My litigation experience is very limited, I think it's too hard. If one is interested in it, I'd advise them to go for it.
KO: What interests and skills gave you an advantage in your career?
SN: Be open to change, be able to adapt to new roles, multitask and be agile. These skills have helped me as I worked in different industries.
Secondly, you have to be disciplined and focused if you want to offer your client a quality job.
Thirdly, be thoughtful and analytical. This will help you offer expert corporate law advice to people.
Fourthly, you must read wide, have a curious mind and, more importantly, be ever ready to learn.
KO: How would you describe corporate law in tech compared to finance, manufacturing, government, and every other industry you’ve worked in?
SN: Working in these sectors has given me insights into how the world operates. In banking, I learnt how to review loan agreements. In government, I learnt how the world operates and how to make it work for you.
In manufacturing, I learnt how to achieve optimal operations, and how to make your products seen and easily accessible to your customers all the time. In I.T (Microsoft), I have learnt how Intellectual Property works. The main thing is to improve your adaptability and be ahead of the curve.
KO: What other skills did you have to learn to become exceptional in your career?
SN: Firstly, I needed to learn about Microsoft and the products they offer. I also needed to learn and take up leadership courses to improve my leadership and human relations skills.
I think it is also important to have a degree in business or some background knowledge in finance. I have taken some finance certification courses.
Lastly, when you have years of expertise, startups may approach you for mentoring. Here, you need to be able to give strategic advice.
KO: What are the current trends in corporate law and tech that we have to keep up with?
SN: The African tech ecosystem is still developing, and tech founders need corporate lawyers to navigate the process of understanding and drafting employment contracts, contracts between founders and Investors, e.t.c.
Today, corporate lawyers also have to deal with data privacy. With the rise of cloud computing in big tech companies (including Microsoft), your data can be transferred by servers across the world. There is also the issue of cybersecurity law because your information can be hacked.
Lawyers must also learn to communicate. In today's world, you must talk about what you do if not, no one will know. Connect with people, ask for, and share, opinions precisely and concisely. Be solution-oriented.
KO: How can tech companies and innovators navigate regulations in Africa?
SN: Firstly, a lot of progress has been made in making Africa an attractive environment for businesses to operate. Some countries have laws and incentives for startups, others are in the process of enacting their Startup Acts.
However, in terms of investment, I think that there is always friction between the private sector and the government. While the former wants more freedom, the latter wants stability, growth, and job creation for the country. Governments should think through and understand the advantages of startups.
Again, most technologies operate independently of humans. For instance, that a company has a data centre that is, in fact, a large building doesn't necessarily mean it has many people working there. It is just an empty warehouse housing large servers. Governments need to encourage capital investments that bring about technological improvement and actual jobs. In reality, Startups and small businesses employ more people, so governments should invest more in them.
KO: What other interests do you have outside of practising corporate law?
SN: I love to read. In Nigeria, I was part of a book club. I also love to travel. I recently visited Cabo Verde, an island off the coast of Senegal. I love Jazz. I'm currently learning how to play the guitar.
I absolutely love spending quality time with people, discussing and learning things. Technology is making us spend so much time on our devices, making us forget to spend time physically and connect with other people. We are slowly losing our humanity and the emotional connections we Africans are known for. We should learn to use technology properly. It is just a means, not an end.
KO: How do you maintain a work-life balance?
SN: I don't believe one can have a work-life balance. There will always be an attempt, but it is not achievable.
I try to spend quality time with people I care about, most importantly, my two kids. I travel a lot, but in the short time I spend with them, I try to make a lot of connections.
I'm also using technology to learn things. It makes learning easier. For instance, I'm using an online tool to learn how to play the guitar.
Finally, I try to deeply appreciate life and the opportunities I have had, for instance, working at Microsoft. I routinely have deep reflections on my journey so far because it gives me a sense of what is important.
KO: How do you stay productive?
SN: I schedule many things on my calendar, including private things like learning the guitar, swimming, and reading.
I also try to be disciplined and have structure because it is easy to get distracted by the amount of information you are privy to as a lawyer.
Again, I am trying to spend time with at least one person every week and learn something valuable from them. I think this is important because once you stop learning, your life will no longer be valuable.
KO: After 28 years of practising law, what are your plans for the future?
SN: I'm very open about my future, and I think I love consulting. My wealth of expertise is valuable for companies that want to operate in Africa, especially I.T companies that want to understand and navigate the regulatory landscape. I have a project to write a paper summary on regulatory challenges Startups face in Africa and proffer some recommendations.
I also love mentoring startups and being a business angel investor. I hope to invest in the next unicorn, most likely in Africa and make money from it.
I'm still open to working as a corporate lawyer. I believe corporations have the ability to improve and upgrade things because of their size.