Thursday, May 23, 2019

Onwards: Interview with Amandla Ooko-Ombaka (part 2)


If you haven't yet checked out part 1 of this interview - find it here!

I’ve always been impressed by Amandla’s boundless energy – in the face of adversity when most of us would shy away, she boldly looks a problem in the face and says ‘try me’.

Amandla is a young Kenyan woman who describes herself as having ‘a public sector heart, a private sector mind, and a passion for getting things done.’ She is interested in spending her most productive years doing her part to help Kenya become the thriving democracy her father envisioned, and being a fierce and loyal supporter of all her friends who’re trying to change the world. If she were to choose three words to describe herself they would be: caring, hardworking AF, and persistent.

She also confesses that she has an unhealthy obsession with gummy bears, and her happy place is Watamu on the Kenyan coast – she just needs coconut water, a book, and the sound of the ocean waves to be at peace.

She believes that in life, she has to be her own biggest cheerleader and hype herself up – hence the boundless energy! If she won’t do it – who else will? As she puts it:

“There are too many enemies of progress in life for me to be in my own way. Also, more practically, if going to get out of bed at all (and some days I just stay in bed and phone in because I’m human), I better put my best high-heeled foot forward and SLAY.”

Among some of Amandla’s innumerable successes, two stand out. The first was her siblings’ graduation. She made them both promises that she would do her absolute best to make sure they had access to all the opportunities they would have had to complete their college educations had their parents been alive. Watching both of them graduate with honours (and as mini-celebrities) from school has easily been the proudest moment of her life!

The second happened more recently – the agriculture strategy she led has formally moved forward for implementation. Her team and her gave everything to the project, and the potential for it to impact millions of farmers and >25% of the GDP of the country is humbling. As she puts it, “it’s not a slam dunk yet because the proof is in implementation, but we’ve supported this process as far as we can without being in government. Maybe it’s a sign that I should be in government 🤣"

Amandla is a role model and inspiration to many, so it was only natural that I ask who hers have been! She listed a few who, as she put it, serve inspiration for breakfast:

  • My grandma is the real OG. Her steadfastness, shade throwing, and zero tolerance for anything but our best has been a rock for our family and the many women and men she gave life to
  • My mom, if I can be half the woman she was...I’m done. Also, I was born 5 days after her wedding in her 30s, and she went back to work two months after. She constantly showed us that it was possible to have what you prioritised in life
  • My younger sister who takes self-care, wellness and treating her body and mind with such kindness. She also wakes up like clockwork everyday around 5am to work out without an alarm, and is in the office by 7am. #Lifegoals
  • The Council of Stateswomen...they are the real squad. And thriving right now in our 30s as a collective. I love these women

Reflecting a bit on being a role model and the learnings that emerged, Amandla shared the following, and commented that living her life the best way she knows how can be an example to anyone at all is all the more reason to keep grabbing life by the horns:
  • Listen and ask good questions - I never try to make decisions or pretend to know what is best for anyone else. I can only offer my relevant lived experience and a sound board for folks to work things out.
  • Women in particular that I try and mentor are much harder on themselves than the guys in general, and are less willing to take a big bet on themselves. Some of the jobs I see guys apply for (one particularly intrepid young Lagosian man I met wanted to apply directly to be a Partner at McKinsey from undergrad - usually a position one is qualified for about 6 years after graduate school)... I want all my ladies out there to have even half the boldness. We are often qualified many times over... be your own best cheerleader / hype woman.

 The 4 most important principles Amandla believes a leader should live by: 
  1. Integrity and a firm moral code: I need to be able to level up with myself every day and be accountable to the team I am serving. One of my professors, Clay Christensen, always says it is easier to stick to your values 100% of the time than 98% of the time. And it’s so true... how often have you done one small thing and told yourself only this once, and then all of a sudden you can’t remember the last time you didn’t eat a packet of gummy bears a day?
  2. Authenticity: Leadership is not a role or title I can put on and take off when it suits me. It is something I have to practice and live by every day, it’s the only way to get better.
  3. Servant leadership: My father epitomised this for me, particularly in public service. It’s not about me. It’s about the people I am serving and the work that has to be done.
  4. Empathy: Human beings are complex. Everyone comes to work or school or the grocery store with their own burdens to bear. If I can’t connect on some fundamental level with each person I interact with, how can I do service to the challenges that keep them awake at night? My sister likes to joke that she wishes she could just deal with soil samples all day, they don’t talk back 🤣. But even then, to be a leader in her environmental research she has to connect with and see things from the perspective of the earth, literally
The best advice Amandla’s ever been given is 1) Ask for forgiveness, not permission. Just do it if you can stand by your decision, and the rest will follow and 2) Have a voice, don’t be a brand.

Amandla plans everything to a T so she can orient herself in ‘this crazy thing called life’, but does mention that some of the most memorable and fun experiences of her life were unplanned (note to self!):
“Moving to Lagos for work when I was 23 without having visited West Africa before, the most magical and spontaneous 10 hr date I’ve ever been on with a very good looking man I dated for a while, randomly entering a dance competition on Saint Patrick’s day in Addis Ababa (even more random) and winning my favourite piece of art ever...”
Let’s just say Amandla got a sudden million dollars, hers to do with as she pleases, no questions asked. What would be the top 3 to 5 things she would prioritise and why?
  1. Immediately put half of it into an investment vehicle so it keeps working for me
  2. Pay off any big debts of the family members and friends who took us into their homes when our parents died, and shared what they had
  3. Take my extended family on an awesome vacation to Watamu
  4. Revive the spirit of the Education Trust that my mother tried to start. It doesn’t have to be my own organization or anything. Perhaps a scholarship at Kenya High School in her name to educate more female scientists and doctors from high school to grad school, and some sort of fellowship in my fathers name for young Kenyans who want to run for office and need mentorship, coaching, and strategic advice on running campaigns
  5. All the rest I’d donate to the Katiba Institute, a non-profit to help implement our constitution and empower all Kenyans to know their constitutional rights
If she was invited to give a TED talk, what would it be about? I’d take the TED-style talk I gave in grad school to the next level… “Yes, African: Breaking through mental barriers to Africa development”. 

While no single narrative defines the continent, countries in Africa share similar barriers to reaching our visions of prosperity. I’ split these barriers into two broad categories – hardware and software. Hardware is as all the ‘technical’ stuff that we know how to address e.g., utilities. More than 60% of Sub-Saharan Africans lack access to electricity. The grossly simplified answer to this challenge is to build more power plants.

Software is a more nuanced concept. It is an attitude, a state of heart and mind. Software is the attitude that led Kenyan bankers to dream and launch M-Akiba, the world’s first e-Treasury bill that allows ordinary citizens to purchase government bonds directly from their mobile phones, imagine that…

You have to wait for the TED talk to get all the goodies, but I used the talk to lay out 3 ways to break through these “software” barriers…

What are the top 3 books she recommends to others?
  1. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: heart-breaking, a fiction novel, but an incredible call to action to know where we come from
  2. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby: he wrote this entire book by blinking one letter at a time
  3. Immunity to Change by Robert Kegan: it’s holding up a mirror to why we continue to make decisions not in our best interests. Essential reading for leading teams

Amandla believes her biggest source of strength comes from her belief in God – many events in her life could have had wildly different outcomes, and she believes that there definitely is a higher power looking out for her. She struggles with institutionalised religion a lot because of how it is so often corrupted by people to do pure evil (from her own experience in intolerant Christian Churches, Nadia Murad’s experience as a Yazidi with extremist Islam). But her current Pastor Pete Odera (see a snippet of an old interview she did with him here during one of her summer internships: https://vimeo.com/133440516) is teaching her to question and believe at the same time.

Also, it helps just knowing that most things in life are surmountable, as long as you’re alive. Amandla has an incredible family and group of friends who’ve lived through a lot together.

Does Amandla have any success rituals she swears by?
Getting really razor focused, and being honest with myself - if I really prepped for it (did all the studying, got in all my long runs while training for my marathon...), I trust that the practice will kick in. If I haven’t put in the work, I hope for luck but level set my expectations.

Depending on the time of day and how much time I have before the moment, I’ll go for a run, meditate, or blast Beyoncé’s Formation and Flawless on repeat.

If she could have a dinner party and invite any three people, dead or alive, who would they be?
Mom, Dad and my Aunt Barb who I hope are all really proud of the young adults that my siblings and I have become. It would be a dinner full of love, hugs and real talk


Monday, May 20, 2019

Onwards: Interview with Amandla Ooko-Ombaka (part 1)

Amandla Ooko-Ombaka. Where do I start? Those who know her know that she’s a force of nature, a whirlwind of energy and inspiration, and an amazing colleague. I love being surrounded by amazing women at work who’re intelligent and hardworking, and Amandla is certainly one of those. Is it any wonder that I decided an interview with her HAD to be done? Amandla, to me, truly embodies the values of resilience, persistence, and hard-work. After reading this, I hope you’ll see why!


When speaking about her family and growing up, Amandla uses the words ‘full of laughter, travel, SO MANY COUSINS (40 first cousins!), and lots of activities’.

The laughter and travel she attributes to her dad, who was the ‘most serious jester’. Growing up a daddy’s girl, she witnessed his seriousness at work, as an MP in Kenya’s first multiparty election in the nineties – she’d drive upcountry with him quite often while he was campaigning.

By day, however, he was a lawyer willing to take on the ruling party of the day. Case in point? He represented Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai in her landmark case against Kenya Times Media Trust, and the Ominde clan in the Ouko murder trial. He faced a number of attempts on his life in his line of work, upto and including his final big project – co-leading the team that wrote the current Kenyan constitution. However, to his credit, he managed to prevent these stresses from invading his home environment, coming home, throwing his kids on his back and belting out an old school Luo rhyme about a donkey reaching Yala, tickling them till they cried.

The cousins and activities she attribute to her mum who ‘didn’t play’ – according to her, family and excellence (including applying yourself fully to everything you tried) were non-negotiable. Amandla remembers many a Saturday afternoon at her grandma’s house playing around with her cousins – but only after cleaning the house in the morning, hopping on a matatu to town for her dance classes, and finishing her math homework!

For the first few years of their childhoods (Amandla has a younger sister and brother), their mum was the head of the OBGYN department at Kenyatta National Hospital. If Amandla wanted to go to dance class while mum was at work – well, she found her own way there. Her mum was very clear, she and her husband had a driver, Amandla did not 😉

Her parents were very supportive. There were no expectations of their kids having to follow in their professional footsteps. Amandla dropped Biology after standard 8 – so that ruled out medicine. She fell in love with Physics and Mathematics in high school – so that ruled out law. However, she’s clear on the fact that she still wants to run for office one day like her dad (and those of us who know her know she’d be great at it!) – she remembers writing an essay in standard 2 saying that she wanted to be the President of Kenya. True to their expectations, her parents would often remind her of this audacious (or so she says…) dream by asking her what she was doing to prepare – that too, was a job!

Baby Amandla started off at Madari Kindergarten (I’m an alumna too!!), before becoming a proud Msongari girl then heading to Brookhouse for her O-levels. She left Kenya at 15 for boarding school in the UK to do IB. She’s always been a self-professed nerd – she latched onto Maths in high school, which turned into Economics and Mathematics at Yale University for her undergrad, which then led to Development Economics and an MBA at Harvard for grad school (note to young readers out there: Maths is good! And not something to be afraid of.).

Amandla describes her Yale experience as life-changing. Her dad passed away just before she started IB and her mum just before she applied to college. Many people told her she should move home after IB and reset her expectations – after all, college abroad was too expensive. She was terrified about the application process itself; her mum had read and edited every important essay she’d ever written so far – how was she going to apply without her? How was she going to even afford college? What about her two younger siblings? Their parents had always said that their education was the only thing that couldn’t be taken away from them – what sort of example would she be setting for her siblings if she compromised then?

And so, she didn’t. Going to college so far away from home provided a hard shot of realism for Amandla. It was the first time she truly struggled at school; her freshman year grades needed an academic intervention. She was grieving, and not dealing with it very well. On top of that, it was very clear that there was always someone more (...insert word here!) than her in her classes.

To compound issues, while she was on full academic financial aid, her room and board were taxed. She lived off Ramen noodles for weeks at a time and volunteered for all kinds of ‘free Psychology studies’ to make ends meet – in between her two on-campus jobs.

Amandla was looking for full-time employment when the 2008 financial crisis hit; all of a sudden, the jobs that she had been setting up for herself since freshman year that would pay her enough to help her siblings through college evaporated. Companies courting her to join investment banks couldn’t guarantee visas for her to stay after school.

At this point, Amandla leaned hard into the incredible support network of her college friends – a particular group of three other African women she met at Yale, who call themselves the ‘Council of Stateswomen’ – and applied for every single scholarship and fellowship opportunity available. She stayed in the computer lab for four days straight once because her laptop broke and she couldn’t afford to fix it before applications were due (it was much cheaper to fix in a town four hours away by bus – but she didn’t have the fare or the eight hours to spend not working on applications).

Luckily, everything worked out at the end. When looking back at 21-year old Amandla, she is incredibly proud of the strong and resourceful woman that Yale helped her become. She’s also extremely grateful for the eye-opening experiences it provided. As part of a Yale delegation, she was an election monitor for the 2007 Kenyan elections. They were in Kibera when Raila Odinga arrived with Fred Gumo and couldn’t find his name on the voters’ register… a rock hit the window above her head soon after this news spread – but she tells us that’s a story for another day. She knows many Kenyans smarter and harder working than her, who similarly lost their parents while quite young, but did not have access to the opportunities that Yale afforded her.

Currently, Amandla is an Engagement Manager at McKinsey’s Nairobi office, affiliated with the Agriculture and Food practices – a role she simultaneously describes as the ‘most exhilarating and stressful job’ she’s ever had. Her job is to hold the complex spiderweb of a project together, and make sure that her team delivers the best answer possible for some of the most complex problems faced by their clients.

This team includes the 3-4 analysts and associates she directly coaches and supervises, 2-3 partners who provide deep expertise, and countless other incredible McKinsey gurus in research, analytics, visual graphics, etc., that help deliver for clients.

Recent problems she’s worked on include 1) writing a national agriculture strategy for an African government and 2) helping a global food manufacturer figure out how to triple their revenues in Africa and further localise their business model.



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