Agnes Gathaiya’s life is full of colour. Her office is a mish-mash of light green, luminous green, blue hues, a touch of yellow, orange, light green, fading green… There are artboards which she doodles on, a Sankofa on the wall and is that a gourd too?
She walks for the interview wearing a red Ankara sleeve jacket, with shades of maroon and black—and lipstick. She never wears lipstick, but today she does.
Leadership, however, sometimes can be grey. Washed out and exhausting. Probably because it plays to our worst, most basic human fears: uncertainty, impermanence, loneliness.
She’s walked that journey, learned her way around it and with the warmest smile, paints a canvas of a lifelong sojourner, searching for something, this Google Country Director of Eastern Africa.
It is here in her office in Nairobi’s Westlands, overlooking the expressway, and as the day turns yellow, that she remembers she has a book she hasn’t finished reading and confesses about her bad habit with chips and potatoes, a guilty pleasure that she feels no guilt about.
What time did you wake up this morning?
I usually wake up between 4.30 am and 5 am. I don’t have an alarm clock. The first thing I do when I wake up is pray. Then I start thinking about the critical things I must cover. Once I have that list, my day starts, and it goes very easily after that.
Are you into the gym or any form of physical exercise?
No ha ha! It’s not a habit I have picked but I know it is something I must start doing. I just haven’t gotten around it.
What’s the most interesting thing about you?[Whispers] Wow, I’m such a boring person. But I endeavour to live a steady state life. That is a life without spikes. For the things I can control, I try to endure so that there are no high, highs or low, lows. I love a steady-state life because it is very predictable.
Like the concept of equanimity?
Well yeah. Don’t get me wrong, I get very happy but I also get very sad but to a large extent I prefer not to have spikes. Just a content, predictable life.
Are you a planner or spontaneous?
I am a planner. With predictability comes planning. So really taking control of the things you can control and ensuring to the largest extent possible you can foresee the outcomes.
Do you read a lot?
I do. I am trying to finish Viola Davis’s book [Finding Me: A Memoir]. Usually, I read a book for two or three days and then I am done.
But it’s been a busy week, so this is the third week. I like reading and getting as much information and content about everything in the world. I read anything—magazines, blogs, online…
What’s the last thing you read that left an impact on you?
The Cabinet paper. Two things popped out. The first is that there are excellent plans to shift Kenya. If those plans are executed, then we will be good. I travel a lot and most countries I have visited are having the same challenges as Kenya. There are good plans and if we execute them, we will emerge successfully.
The second thing was a small paragraph about the climate summit which about 30,000 people had registered. I was thinking, how many hotels do we have to accommodate all these people? It’s exciting—especially because I farm. But where are we going to put all these people [chuckles]. Is that how you expected me to answer this?
Free world… Aside from work, travel, what is one place that really calls you?
So I have a daughter and she is at that age where she can appreciate that travel is a good investment. Our favourite place to go is Diani, which rivals anywhere I have been in the world. There is nothing like Diani worldwide. That is our go-to place.
We also never go to a place twice. The criteria is that there must be a beach and/or excellent culture and heritage. The last trip we went to was to Malaysia, which has many different ethnicities, all significant culturally.
Airbnb or hotel?
Airbnb always. Hotels are quite restrictive, especially if you are travelling for a long time. For almost the same value, you can get an apartment somewhere that is convenient.
What happens in your me-time?
My family is just my daughter and I. She is in boarding school. And so [long pause] I get a lot of me-time. My perfect day is simple: I get to the office, work, leave by 6.30 pm, have dinner and watch something.
But I think most of the time the TV is watching me [chuckles] which is when I pick up something to read. I have to finish that Viola book. And sleep early…
By 9 pm?
Yes! And weekends I hang out with my friends who are very few. Countable on one hand. We will have brunch—so many restaurants opening up in Nairobi and we can’t catch up! That is my typical weekend.
What’s missing in your life right now?
Oh my, nothing!
Is there something new you’ve been thinking of trying lately?
The other day I was talking to young YouTubers. Happy young people, creating, expressing and showing up as themselves. I was so amazed. How are you happy, passionate, and driven at your age doing exactly what you are passionate about?
There were musicians, guys making clothes, jewellery designers, spoken word artists…name it. When I was growing up, good honourable careers were to be a nurse, teacher, banker et al. And if you were a little more intelligent you could be a doctor, lawyer or accountant.
If you strayed from that space, you became an exemplar: ‘Don’t be like so and so.’ Many adults, my personal friends—and myself included, did careers. And we are still doing careers.
Now, late in life, a lot of us are doing careers and what we have always been passionate about. So many wasted years. I am passionate about farming. Even now, I farm, and when I retire, I will go full-time into farming.
Imagine if I started at 22 or 23? I have CEO friends who today the hottest thing to attend is when they are deejaying. Imagine if society allowed us – how different the world would be. Forgive my long answer.
Forgiven. What else is on your bucket list?
I am driven by a couple of things. The first is just to ensure I leave the space I occupy better. The day I decide to stop working at Google, I want to know Google is better because I was there.
My job is to create an environment that helps my colleagues to soar. How can I help? Where are you stuck? What do you need me to do? And how do I ensure I release my child as a good person who can contribute to society?
That’s what keeps me up. I am nearing retirement and I can’t wait to pack my things and move to the village, to live a quieter life, slow-paced life and bring my experience there. That’s a big list, more of a basin list haha!
You seem to be very constrained. What’s the craziest thing you’ve done?
The way I managed my career. I worked at a job for 14 years and just resigned. I didn’t know where I was going. Cold turkey. I had no fallback plan.
I did that with a small baby and a brand-new mortgage. [chuckles]. Thankfully, I landed on my feet. I had gotten so comfortable in the job, and I would have retired there and it could have been an okay life, but I wanted to find out what more is out there.
What’s the soundtrack of your life right now?[whispers] I am not a music person but let me call my daughter and ask haha! I read things more.
If you aren’t at work or home what other third place are you most likely to be?
At one of my very few friends’ houses.
Is it that lonely at the top?
I am a member of an organisation called YPO. Young President Organisation—a global organisation for CEOs and leaders. [long pause]. The way it works is that in Kenya we are about 140 members, and once you are a member you are equal to all the 140.
They have events every month that allow us to network. Even within YPO, we are organised into forums with seven to nine people, who become your ride-or-die. Literally. I have been a member for about five years and we meet monthly for five hours and we celebrate and talk.
It is very lonely being a leader but when you have other leaders you can speak to—not just about work, but everything, it gets easier. For instance, when my daughter was going to boarding school, by the end of that meeting I knew it was not only a good decision but that it was going to work.
They support you and understand you. In the forum, I joined some of the members who have been walking together for 25 years. Before YPO, I could have said leadership is a lonely journey, but now it is just exciting and fun.
Speaking of fun, when you think of the weekend what food comes to mind?
Nyama choma and chips. And by the way, nyama choma just needs to be eaten by itself, with salt. But I can’t live without chips.
Ooohh God. That is one food I cannot live without. I eat chips a lot. Since childhood, I have loved chips. I even grow potatoes.
What was your nickname growing up?
What remains unchanged about you since childhood?
I have always been cautious. Even my crazy decision was contemplated for a long while.
Your office is also very colourful. What colour is your life?
Orange. It is brilliant, yummy and warm.
What’s the best compliment you’ve received?
Thank you. Especially from people who I have worked with, because it means you did something right.
What never fails to make Aggy laugh?
Being asked to dance. Every time someone asks me, I just laugh. Haha!
What is the dumbest thing you’ve spent money on?
My friend and I decided to open a children’s salon. Whoa. We burnt money. The idea was amazing. We had executed it great and we had traffic of customers coming in but we didn’t do our due diligence about where we were being hosted.
What’s your superpower?
Who do you know that I should know?
My daughter. She is a good person. She works hard.