Huge thanks to Mkurugenzi, the original publisher of this beautiful post about our founder and Executive Director, Dr. Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg.
She is definitely a force to recon with. You can feel her amazing nature, brilliance and clarity in thought throughout the conversation.
Dr. Wanjiru is the Executive director at Akili Dada, a leadership incubator investing in the next generation of African Women that was founded 8 years ago, creating space and permission for young women to pursue their dreams and passion. The focus of Akili Dada is in no particular field but in what Wanjiru calls, “what the women are passionate about because there is nothing more beautiful in the world than someone who is pursuing her passion.” According to Wanjiru, she wants to see women rising in their various disciplines and doing what they love to do with so much passion mainly because it is what they are interested in and not what society expects of them.
Wanjiru’s motivation for helping other women excel was inspired by the fact that there are people who took risks and invested in her and her education through most parts of her life. In her definition of Mentors, Role Models and Investors, she holds investors at the top of the pyramid, people she believes helped her excel and become who she is, a situation she defines as “the generosity of strangers, people who did not know me but who invested in me anyway”. She holds a Ph.D. and Masters degree in Political Science from the University of Minnesota and a Bachelor’s degree in Politics from Whitman College. Her research mainly focuses around women’s issues, power and politics in Kenya.
At a younger age, Wanjiru had women who cared deeply and looked out for her and so did she find at a later age. One of the reasons she truly cares about investing in other women. There were men too, people who were ready to put their reputation on the line for her and her ventures.
One such woman that Wanjiru is inspired by is the very well known Ory Okollo who recently joined Omidyar Network as the Director of Investments, who has taught Wanjiru a lot on what it means to stand up and be in support of other women (this goes to the contrary of popular articles out there that keep spelling out that women thrive on pulling each other down).
So, do you think its different because you are a woman? “Well, I have never been a man! But there are real structures of discrimination against women in this country and in the global society as a whole.” She mentions this while giving a mention to the offensive articles by the Business Daily over the past week; where in one, the newspaper by the Nation Media Group went to state why it is a problem to have too many women in leadership, declaring that women are “beautiful, colorful, delicate creatures” As she says this with much concern, she went ahead to state, “I am yet to see a story by BD that states that it is a big problem to have too many men at the top” She calls this “A real war on women!”
Society has put limitations on women excelling in education and professionally when it comes to social structures. It is deemed that women who are too qualified find it hard to make it in marriage and societal standings. “If you excel too much, you are going to send out all the idiots and the people that will be attracted to you will definitely be solid minds. Not getting married is not a death sentence!” Wanjiru got married to Dr. Isaac Rutenberg at the age of 26 when she was in the middle of doing her Ph.D and Isaac had to move to the state Wanjiru was in then, Minnesota. They have both moved through different locations for each other before finally settling in Kenya. “It didnt scare Isaac that I was doing my Ph.D then and my only issue was whether I was going to be able to focus and finish my Ph.D while starting a household. You really can walk and chew gum at the same time.” Inspired by Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg who states that “The most import career decision a woman makes is the man she marries.” If you marry the wrong man, he will pull you down.
Wanjiru not only promotes herself in business, but she does her husband too. She says she carries her husband’s business cards and whenever she meets people that she thinks should meet Isaac, she hands them his card. She sure is a real partner. He does the same for her, “you need to carry each other up.”
“I owe my success to so many people, not just one person. I am the product of investments by strangers as well as people who knew me. I do not believe in “self made” people. This idea fails to see the fact that humanity is interconnected and as a result, makes it harder for these people to see the obligation to help others.” This was Wanjiru’s response to who she owes her success to. “My work with Akili Dada is my walk of faith. Preach the gospel always and occasionally use words.”
Most of the Cabinet secretaries recently appointed by the president studied abroad. So did Wanjiru. Did this make a difference and if she had a choice would she study in Kenya all through? Is the Kenyan Education system good enough? “Studying abroad influenced a lot of how I think now but fairly, the early 90s were a lost decade for Kenya and there was a lot of under investment in education, particularly higher education. This is not necessarily what is going on now. There is increased investment in higher education now. This said, a diversity of experience is required for anyone. Either abroad or locally.” On why she moved back, Wanjiru said “there are massive opportunities in Kenya now and in East Africa and looking at the ability to drive impact, you have the ability to have more impact here in Kenya. There is more to life than making more money.”
“My greatest role models and mentors are: Ory Okollo who has amazing ways of opening doors for people, the late Prof. Wangari Maathai for her moral courage, Boniface Mwangi who i consider the Wangari Maathai of our generation and his courage to stand up for what is right and what needs to happen. The Chief Justice, Dr. Willy Mutunga for his courage and really how lonely it must be for him to be where he is. Peter Nduati, CEO Resolution Health who has put his reputation on the line for me and invested in the work that i do. Wanja Muhongo who runs Uhai who has always tried to help me understand that people should stop trying to be liked and focus more on the impact. There are so many other people locally.
For a Ph.D in political science, reading books is not one of Wanjiru’s favorite activities. This is also mainly because she is dyslexic. She has many other ways of acquiring knowledge. That said, her favorite book kinds are: Nervous Condition, Audre Lorde is her all time favorite theorist, Wambui Mwangi’s books on gender ethnic diversity, Keguro Macharia’s books and she is definitely addicted to Harlequin Romance novels of which she reads 2-3 a week.
Wanjiru has received many awards through her lifetime of work but as she says, “the award is not the work, dont confuse the two. The awards are a bleep in time but the work the award recognizes is the commitment of a lifetime and these are two different things. That is what I am focused on. The awards sweeten the journey but I would still do this without the awards.”
Wanjiru is already looking at winding down on her leadership at the organization and handing it down to the next leader and her greatest legacy is wanting to be remembered as someone who ‘did it with heart’. This is with a message to the young people to do what they are really passionate about. “Life is not a popularity contest. Its nice to be liked but thats not the point. Leadership is different from rulership. Lets focus on the impact”.