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Paving New Paths and Advocating For Food Security With Amandla

In my early days of college, I thought I was going to become an investment banker. It was 2008, right before the financial crisis hit – a time when it was assumed that any minority woman from a target recruiting school that was good at math was likely going to become an investment banker.

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That didn’t quite pan out how I anticipated. I was born in Nairobi, Kenya, and I did quite a bit of traveling at a young age. My family decided to move to Wisconsin in my adolescent years, and I often traveled the globe with my late father.

As grateful as I am that I had the opportunity to travel so much, I always figured I’d move back to the African continent, and I trusted that eventually my desire to be in my home country would merge with my professional passions.

My junior year of college at Yale, I attended a McKinsey info session with one objective in mind – to take advantage of the free shrimp that was promised (when you’re a college student, anything beyond dining hall food is a luxury). I left inspired by how McKinsey talked about leadership: as something that one could learn and get better at. It was not simply about charisma.

The rest is history – after college, I officially started with McKinsey and moved to Minneapolis. Though I remained there for two years, my heart remained in Africa, in my home. Before going to graduate school, I felt like my experience would be incomplete without testing what my McKinsey life could be on the continent. I moved to the Lagos office as a business analyst, never having visited Nigeria. That year remains the most fun I’ve had at work.

After graduate school, I came back to the firm and moved home to Kenya as an associate. As an early engagement manager, I did a project in agriculture that completely changed my life.

Mind you, I was very skeptical at first—after all, I knew next to nothing about agriculture. Yet, I decided to take the leap and jump into a new professional challenge, leading a project in four months that had already been in process for six years. But I’m so happy I did. The passion, coaching and mentorship of my clients and my team was invaluable. I am still in touch with my lead client from that project. Now, I co-lead the agriculture practice in Africa as well as our global food security service line.

I've always described myself as somebody with a public-sector heart and a private-sector mind. So to be in a position to bring the best of McKinsey to a problem in my country was such a gift.

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Another huge moment in my career came during the COVID-19 pandemic. I was in charge of the COVID-19 economic research for Africa as the project manager. I had hundreds of conversations with clients globally at every level who were keen to know what the impact of COVID-19 would be for Africa.

That was an opportunity to bring together my grad school background in economics and my love for helping the continent figure out a way forward. It was a pivotal moment in which I saw the power of McKinsey as a platform for change. I realized how powerful it is to be able to frame the problem, doing the relevant analysis (there was no data at the time around the economic impact of the crisis on the continent), and doing it in a way that would allow important leaders to make decisions impacting millions.

All of this passionate work provides numerous opportunities for me to ask myself how I can be better. In fact, last year I received challenging feedback that completely transformed my work: my evaluator told me that as great as my work was, I needed to be more intentional about the opportunities I was creating for the firm as a whole, not just for myself. I needed to find a balance between supporting my work and laying strong foundations for future talent.

That mission has been amplified through my work with the McKinsey Black Network (MBN), which, when I first got to the firm in Minneapolis, was called BCSS. The community was exceptional, because I truly felt that it was my sweet spot to be myself and find leadership advice that was specifically tailored to my experience. This experience obviously changed a bit when I began my work in Africa, since the MBN network is basically the default affiliation community here.

Even so, there’s something I’ve noticed about the MBN community in Africa: though the majority of our clients and consultants are Black, we don’t have a lot of Black partners. To put it into perspective, the Johannesburg office is about 30 years old, but it just elected its first black South African partner two years ago.

The history of race in South Africa is very complex. That tells you that we still have a way to go – even in Africa – in terms of electing Black partners.

I'm the first Black partner elected in the Kenya office, and we've been going for seven years. My hope across the continent is that we will have many, many more Black partners following the example of the Lagos office—they have done a phenomenal job electing Black partners.

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I've had people in my office come up to me and say, “I never thought I would see a Black Kenyan partner during my time in the Nairobi office, and now you've made it. I can see you, and I believe it's possible.” I hope that over the next several years, we can continue to make these strides to show people what’s possible, and I think a huge way we can do this is by continuing to invest in our MBN community and events.

With all that said, my new role as partner has me thinking a lot about my early days at McKinsey and how I would navigate things differently had I known then what I know now. And I think one of the first things I’d tell myself (and any incoming McKinsey leader) is that the firm is an amazing place to really push for what you want. There’s a saying that goes, “it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.” While this can be interpreted in a variety of ways, I've always let it inspire me to be persistent in what I want and to have enough faith in myself to not hesitate. This is what has taken me to where I am now.

My second piece of advice is two-fold: know your limits and know how to ask for help. I have not always done a good job of setting boundaries for myself and holding firm to them. I have learned the painful way (many late nights, and some long weekends) that if you respect those boundaries, other people will respect them. As soon as you break that boundary, it’s a slippery slope into allowing other people to break them as well.

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But part of respecting your own boundaries entails knowing where your capacity to do something ends and where another person's begins. Don’t suffer in silence. If you need help, know that there’s someone out there at the firm who has tried to think about an aspect of what you’ve done before—and chances are, they can help you navigate it.

These pieces of advice are things I’m carrying with me into my future as I continue advocating for food security. As we start 2023, the world is facing the largest food crisis in modern history – the threat of a global recession on the heels of COVID-19 is depressing incomes of many, climate shocks and conflict are impacting food supply, and about 830 million people go to bed hungry every night. Many countries in Africa are amongst the most impacted.

For the last five years, I’ve dedicated my work to improving the lives and livelihoods of farmers and consumers dealing with these shocks. And I am convinced that this is where I need to continue to be – we have a lot of work to do. As co-lead of our global food security initiative, I am really excited to figure out what new tools, approaches, and assets we are going to use to help our clients face this enormous challenge ahead of us.