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‘Why I left Wall Street perks and glamour’

Barclays Bank head of strategy Musyoka Moses Muthui. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NMG
Barclays Bank head of strategy Musyoka Moses Muthui. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NMG 

In 1995, Musyoka Moses Muthui stood next to his mother as she pleaded with a teacher at Mutonguni Primary School in Kitui to allow him to sit for his KCPE exams despite the fees arrears.

In 2014, he was graduating with a Master’s degree from London School of Economics and one year later, after 26 interviews, he found himself in Wall Street, New York as a the only black person on a floor of over 200 investment bankers.

He was working with Barclays Capital, handling as much Sh850 billion in acquisition transactions. A black wolf of Wall Street. Now he’s back home, at Barclays Bank Kenya #ticker:BBK as head of strategy.

To meet JACKSON BIKO, he shows up with a red fidget spinner at dusitD2’s Zing Bar on an overcast Saturday morning where, during the interview, his gizmo whirrs furiously between his fingers, an apt, if not precise analogy of the workings of his mind and intellect.

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From Wall Street to Waiyaki Way. How is that going?

Look, (sighs) It’s two different worlds altogether. New York is a bubble, high-octane. You need some form of insanity to survive on Wall Street. I have had to readjust myself from 90-hour weeks to 60.

Financial markets are not as sophisticated here. We are anywhere between 20 to 30 years behind Wall Street when you think about asset classes, financial markets infrastructure and complexity of the products. So coming from that level, to adjust to a job which is in a fairly standard vanilla market and making sense out of it is another challenge.

What’s exciting though is Nairobi is more human. You can strike a conversation at the parking lot, walk into people’s offices. It’s collegial.

Some might ask; why would that fish, Moses, come to this small pond?

This fish–pond analogy is a bit baffling. Home ground is always a big pond. For me, it’s about family and friends and connecting back to the continent. Look, there’s just so much more sophistication Wall Street can get so innovation will continue but not at the speed at which is about to happen in this market. There’s a long runway, we haven’t even taken off yet Wall Street is cruising. I know what the dream is, I know where we are headed.

So what would you say was your biggest motivation to come back home?

(Long pause) I don’t think I could fit in Wall Street. There’s a pedigree. You’re the only black guy in an investment bank of 200 guys, most of them from the rich East Coast states of the US, guys who buy a silk Salvatore tie for Sh80,000 and that for them is normal. The philosophy is, how do we then drive capitalism on the way up, and socialism on the way down? It’s a philosophy I couldn’t connect with. I didn’t want to be in that environment for a very long time.

Lastly, I went to get experience that would allow me to navigate the next 10, 15 years and I got that. I mean, I worked on deals from my desk in excess of what Centum #ticker:ICDC has done for the last two years in this market— and that was a junior investment banker, not the top-shelve guys.

How did that experience change you as a person and a businessman?

Question is; ‘who have I always been’? I have always held dear to me values like passion, humility and having the ability to build your talents, to apply your brains to solve problems. Those things drove me from very early enough.

But I will admit that over time in that environment where I handled a credit card of Sh3 million to entertain clients, first-class plane tickets, limo rides every night while working late, that kind of thing clouds your humility.

You start thinking of yourself as invisible. You become highly competitive and you begin to lose the touch of consensus and building relationships. I started seeing a disconnect from the person that I was seven years ago when I was living in this country.

Were you ever made to feel aware of being African despite your triumphs?

(Pause) Yes, more so in New York than when I worked in London as associate director. In London, people are very introverted. You’ll be with Biko for a year, and Biko can’t stand you but you’ll never figure it out. In New York, you’re on an escalator and some guy shouts, “black guy, move!”

I found the society in New York to be more open about race and it will take decades to get it resolved. There were cliques where I worked and they were like “we’ll tolerate you but you don’t belong.” The company policy didn’t allow but you know there’s policy and then there’s realism.

After handling those colossal amounts of money, tell me something you’ve learnt about money.

Money is just about degrees of freedom, the rest is just about adding numbers. Money gives you the freedom to control your options and live deliberately. But of course handling corporate money gives you perspective. Getting Sh160 billion for a company overnight, it just tells you that it’s relative and for that company, it’s the ticket to survival.

What do you feel now when you wake up?

(Silence) You know Biko, I still practice career ahead of things like family. That passion comes from a very deep personal point of view, and that’s my fuel. If it wasn’t deeply personal, I’d have no fuel to wake up in the morning to do what I do for Barclays Bank. It’s just that. If it doesn’t come from somewhere very authentic, then you’re running without fuel.

You are 35 years now, describe Moses at 40.

(Long pause) At 40, I’m potentially having more fun with myself. I haven’t had time to have fun and enjoy life, at 40 I will have to. So I’ll probably head back to London and watch Bon Jovi concert. I want to run a bank at 40 in the continent or without and also be a serious business leader. I will want to balance my life.

God forbid that you don’t reach 40, touch wood, what would be your greatest regret?

(Long pause) I don’t think any. I’ve seen people driving so hard to self-actualise and blowing up. But my biggest regret would have been if Wall Street got into my head that I lost myself. But I think that was tested then, the biggest test of my life.

Forget business and work and all that. What makes you tick when you want unwind?

Honestly Biko, I don’t think I’ve found my alter egos. I don’t cook, I don’t read, I drink occasionally. I mean, I’m not the kind of guy who says it’s 5 pm! Maybe it’s time to discover what my alter ego is.

Do you miss Wall Street perks?

It’s inherent of human nature to miss the fine things. However, I came from having nothing and so I am never afraid of losing it all. I am also very elastic. The other day I was running late for a flight and I asked the driver to pull over and flag down a boda boda which got me to the main gate and then I cabbed from there. The driver later called the office, and I’ve not heard enough of it from my team.

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