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


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