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January 24, 2019

The Journey To Harvard. Become Small, So You Can Grow

Harvard University
Harvard University

It’s sort of difficult to explain my journey, mentally and physically, to Harvard. The number of people who’ve walked the two-year journey with me and those who’ve pushed me along the way are not only giving themselves hi-fives that I finally went and completed my course but that I’m motivated to get a few more Kenyans to go. That’s a story for another day, but I’m hoping that next year there will be more than one Kenyan in a room of 64.

My journey to HBS began with an e-mail from Gladys Boss Shollei in 2011. Back then, she worked with the IIEC and we’d worked together on the new voter registration drive and the 2010 referendum. We still laugh about the fact that I liked her on sight. Finally someone who talked as fast as I do took no prisoners and made quick decisions – oh joy. She disappeared from my life after the referendum for awhile and when I next heard from her she had copied me on an e-mail to The Harvard Business School – introducing me in glowing terms to Professor Jan Hammond. In the spirit of “dealing with e-mails as they come” I promptly wrote back to Professor Hammond expressing interest in the leadership program. Little did I know that she was serious about getting me to Harvard and nor was I ready for the constant push and shove I would get from Mrs Shollei to go. When my invitation letter finally arrived earlier this year, the only thing Gladys said was “start reading girl”. It was a given that I was going.

I toyed with the idea for about a year and then finally got a smack across the back of my head at a meeting with John Ngumi. I had come up with every excuse under heaven as to why I was yet to apply and go, and as Mr Ngumi prodded and pushed as Gladys Shollei so often did, I played my final trump card. I told John things had changed since that first e-mail from Professor Hammond, I now had a baby – Nduku simply couldn’t be left alone. John then said something to me that made me slightly mad and yet inspired me at the same time.

Firstly he said, “for heaven’s sake stop using your child as a crutch, either take her with you or leave her with your mother, but go.” Just as I was getting ready to complain about the inconvenience either way, Mr Ngumi raised one hand to silence me and continued…” you’re sitting around here swinging your legs, looking for the next thing and not figuring where to go. You’re having to bend a lot because you’ve hit the ceiling and now you’re treading water. It is time for you to become small, so you can grow again. Go to Harvard, sit in the same room as people who have done more than you have, who have achieved more than you can ever imagine, learn from them and then charter your way forward. You will not find them here – sorry. You’re not doing yourself, your daughter or this nation any favours by staying as you are. You need to grow and you can only do that if you become small again.” Profound and direct – as only John can be. Needless to say, I put the ball in motion.

When I finally checked the dates and saw the fees, I almost choked. Neither Gladys nor John were very bothered about it – they made it clear I had about a year to find the 9000 dollars and I should get on with it. You have to love my friends – they will give me a hand-up, they will cheer and applaud, but they refuse to “baby” me and I am grateful.

The only way to tell the rest of the story is to thank the people who made this amazing time at The Harvard Business School possible. I need to start with Gina Din Kariuki. I went to her to see advice on how I could raise the money and she simply figured I’d have to work for it. I asked if her people could send a little more work my way since I had to actively raise the money for my course – I wasn’t going to take a bank loan and I refused to take it out of my savings. I needed to make extra money. Gina Din communications and Phat, had me working non-stop for most of last year. All I remember about those months is how much my feet hurt and frayed my nerves were from countless MC gigs. I can’t thank them enough for helping me make some extra income.

A big thank you as well to the Chief Justice Willy Mutunga who put me in-touch with Maurice Makoloo at the Ford Foundation. I was looking for partial sponsorship for the same (a girl can only do so many gigs to raise money). Somewhere between Harvard’s systems and the Ford Foundation’s rigorous vetting process we were time-barred and I never got the sponsorship, but the fact that they stayed on my case almost to the last week before I left and did their best to see if I could get the funding still has me choked up. Mr Makoloo I’m due back in a year and I hope you’re still open to sponsoring me.

My board and my bosses at Radio Africa remain my motivation and my biggest cheer-leaders. There isn’t enough room on this page to tell you about my HRM Kathy Kageni–Oganga-who was clear about why I needed the time off and constantly checked on my progress. My CEO who ensured my air-ticket was paid for and the time off signed off. The amazing Rachel Mwendia who organised everything so my workload wouldn’t suffer as I dealt with the heavy reading that preceded the actual travel. Harvard try to kill you with work, reading and assignments from the moment they accept you.

My financial controller Robert Kibutiri is the person who touched base with Harvard and arranged for the necessary bank transfers. Effortlessly.

A lot of the people who find out I paid for the course myself ask “why didn’t Radio Africa sponsor you.” Firstly, I don’t mind paying for my own education – it’s an investment I’m making in myself. It’s my career and it’s my life – I’m in-charge of it and proudly so. Secondly, Radio Africa is the only place in media, where I am allowed to dream big and do big things – ask Churchill. If you don’t know the value of that, then this conversation is not for you.

I must thank the consular team at US Embassy – not for the VISA, that one is neither here or there. Bless you for taking my calls, listening to my endless questions about the VISA application process, getting me an expedited appointment and getting my passport to me in record time – without once sounding exhausted with me or breaking a sweat. I’m still stunned. Safaricom, thank you for ensuring I was connected and stayed connected and more so for texting to find out if I was okay. Cute. To Emma Ndambiri at Kenya Airways Sarit Centre and the entire team – thank you for taking me there and back in comfort.

What did I learn in Harvard? A lot more than I bargained for. It’s not just about the learning environment or the material, it’s also about the caliber of people you met and interact with. If you’re a type a personality looking to put some wind beneath your wings – you couldn’t be more at home or learn more than from being in the single most competitive, creative, mentally stimulating and challenging environment in the world – Harvard. It’s everything it’s said to be and more. Thank you Gladys Shollei for the push, and John, yes, I now know what you meant when you said, “you must become small to grow again.” I’m small, I’m growing and I’m once again, a work in progress and it feels good.

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