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Activist Ory Okolloh Mwangi: Women can’t expect their work to “speak for itself”

  • Leah Fessler
By Leah Fessler

Reporter, Quartz at Work

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

“Africans, we need to get better at telling our stories,” Ory Okolloh Mwangi declared in a 2007 TED talk. Known as the “Kenyan pundit,” Mwangi has devoted her career to doing just that.

During the violent aftermath of the 2007 Kenyan elections, readers came to her blog for updates and to share information. The experience inspired Mwangi to help found the open-source platform Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili, crowd-sourced data to map eyewitness reports about violent outbreaks during the fallout from the election. ”I always tell people that I am most proud of the fact that the Ushahidi story has provided an inspiration to other techies in Kenya and Africa as an example of the kind of talent the continent holds,” she wrote in a blog post in 2010. “But [it is] also a reminder that we have just scratched the surface.”

“Life is too short to play-act if you don’t have to.”

With the goal of further improving Africa’s technological prowess, Mwangi became Google’s policy manager for sub-Saharan Africa. Through this role, she helped to increase internet access and promote more homegrown content, particularly from the government and small businesses. Today, she’s director of investments for Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm. Although she’s a strong believer in the importance of investing in local African businesses, she’s quick to note that countries need better policies and leadership—not just entrepreneurship—to succeed in the long term. “There is growth in Africa, but Africans are not growing,” Mwangi said at a Quartz summit in 2015, citing persistent, fundamental problems of subpar education and infrastructure as being the biggest hurdles to change.

In an interview with Quartz, Mwangi reflected on the work ethic that’s propelled her success—and how she knows when it’s time to quit a job and move on.

1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?

The role of public service and public institutions—our generation and those coming after us are more inclined to workarounds, which are short­-term solutions at best and don’t scale at worst.

2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?

Consistency and persistence ­over time. You learn that showing up and doing what needs to be done is half of it—the other half is doing what the young ones call “the grind.”

3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?

Equal pay for equal work.

“I wish I had not believed that my work would speak for itself.”
4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?

I wish I had known how to “manage up.” I wish I had not believed that my work would speak for itself; the working world requires a bit more than that.

5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?

When I have struggled to balance things. I am personally passionate and anal about non­-negotiables. If those needs aren’t met, I quit. Life is too short to play-act if you don’t have to.

6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?

I try to be as helpful as possible and anticipate needs, but I’ve also gotten better about asking for help and learning from them.

“You can and should do it all, no matter what anyone says.”

7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

From my paternal grandfather: “You can and should do it all, no matter what anyone says.” He was right.

8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…

Be empathetic.

Bonus Questions:

The mountain I’m willing to die on… is that sweet wine is disgusting.

I wish people would stop asking me… who is looking after my children when I travel. It’s not like I left them in some forest or something (and no one ever asks fathers that).

Everyone should own… a ridiculous amount of books.

This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.

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