Caroline Njuguna: When daddy's girl joins the C-suite

Caroline Njuguna studied Computer Science but now runs PATH, a global public health non-profit as a country director and doubles as the East African regional director.

It is not bewildering to her after a career spanning from Safaricom as an engineer, an ICT manager at Goal Global, an international humanitarian response agency and at Christian Aid as a regional ICT manager.

“When the position fell vacant I was considered for it but I hesitated because of biases that we have as individuals,” she says, “but a mentor said, the difference between men and women was that a man wouldn’t have hesitated, they’d take it and figure out how to do it. So I took it.”

So her maxim currently is ‘to strive for progress, not perfection.”


How is it being a firstborn?

We are five siblings and that comes with pressure. I like to think we're three generations. My parents are pretty young.

The first three of us are sort of in the same age bracket, and then when I was in Form 3 my sister was born, and then when I was getting married, our last born was born.

So my brother is more or less in the same age group as my daughter who is nine.


I know. As the firstborn, my dad would always tell me growing up that if you flop everybody else behind you fails, eh?

So I just wanted to make sure I ticked all the boxes. I was careful. I think it's what I've carried into my adulthood but it's evolved. It's better now because I realise that things don't always go as planned.

So, [as a firstborn] you strive for progress, not perfection. But it played out so beautifully. I mean, you never think of how such things shape your life, but because of that experience, I relate to different age groups. I'll sit down with a 17-year-old and have a good laugh and conversation. I think it started at the family level.

Has your life ever taken a wild spin?

Gosh! When my mom was diagnosed with cancer, immediately after I cleared high school, it dawned on me that 'Oh my God, everything that my mom was is falling on me'.

As a child, growing up you see your dad as a superman, you think he can handle everything. But even at that age, I could tell that as great a man as he is, he was vulnerable.

I would see him struggling in some areas and often wondered how I can help him.

For instance, my teenage brothers were a bit problematic, so I had to step in. Before her sickness, I had this grand life plan.

But I realised at times there's no perfection in life, things don't go as planned. The harsh reality made me grow up more. Thank God she's still alive, 23 years later.

Wow. What kind of cancer was that?

Breast cancer. Caught very early. Do you know what saved her?


We’re very controlling, very assertive, my mum and I. So she had this lump and hopped from hospital to hospital, but the doctors kept telling her dismissively that it was nothing to worry about, that she had a clogged milk duct.

By then, she was breastfeeding my now 22-year-old sister. She did mammograms and was given a clean bill of health.

But then she said ‘it’s my body, let’s go to the theatre, get this lump off’. That is the only way they found out that it was cancer.

Even dad had dismissed her concerns, saying ‘you’ve listened to so many stories from your women groups’. But listening to herself and being assertive is what saved her.

She’s a strong cancer champion. She usually tells people that it’s okay to contradict doctors ‘because, at the end of the day, it’s your body’. Mom is 57 years old now.

That’s very young!

I know. She had me at 19. When we walk, I don’t introduce her as my mom. She is like my sister. And I think dad figured out early on that I would not have that [traditional] mother-child-daughter relationship, so he stepped in. Like my first sex talk was with him.

Tell me about your dad.

Oh, he's so knowledgeable. When he was at the University of Nairobi he was a student leader. That says a lot also in terms of some of the attributes I've gotten from him.

You can talk to my dad about virtually anything and he will contribute. He was in the first group that did computer and mathematics.

He's very warm. He's with it. Like he's somebody I'd invite and he'll have a conversation with my friends, and everybody is like, 'my goodness your dad is so with it.' So he's really shaped a lot of my life perspectives and decisions; from career to the choice of partner.


Caroline Njuguna is the country director of PATH, a global public health non-profit. FILE PHOTO | COURTESY

So you married your father?

[Laughs] To some extent, yes. I think every girl, especially if she has had a good relationship with her dad, wants to marry their dad.

Sure, mothers can do all the mentoring, but what ticks is how a dad influences his daughter. With my dad, I had an open relationship.

Besides offering invaluable advice, he would also tell me about his shortcomings. From an early age, he kept telling me, ‘you don’t judge a man by how much he earns or how he looks.’

He would also say, ‘you know the higher you go the better you need, so don’t make your decision very early.’ They’re good buddies with my hubby.

What do you envision for your 40s?

A lot. I’m being very modest when I say that the things I thought I’d do in my 40s, most of them have come a bit earlier, which I’m very grateful for.

I keep telling my mentees that in every phase of life, success is defined very differently. When I get to my 40th, I want to have mentored and supported 40 girls.

I’m 37 and unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll meet that mark. I’m almost halfway and I was thinking the other day that perhaps I need to partner with others now that I can’t do this on my own. I have a passion for girls.

What has surprised you about leadership and career?

Well, I wouldn't call it a surprise, because like I said, all my life I've always hung around older people. I'd hear a lot from them in terms of leadership and life.

So I think it's just that affirmation of what they'd share. But what has surprised me is just the biases. You hear people saying this and that and it sounds cliche until you experience it.

At times you'll step into spaces and are immediately confronted with age bias. The assumption, especially when you're working with the government is that age is a key denominator for leadership.

And some of them will tell you to your face, 'Oh, you're quite young to be a director.' There is also gender bias which I tend to ignore.

I chose to venture into the not-so-common territories if only to make it easier for the next girl. Hopefully, with my mentoring plan, she will be well prepared.

What's your extravagance?

Wow. You have tough questions, I don't like you. [Chuckles] I'm working on a project with dad, and I mentioned to mom that when it's over, I'll pay for him a holiday.

She was like, 'You know, the thing is, I'll also benefit from that since he can't go alone, yeah?' I'll treat him, just spoil him. Initially, my husband was a bit uneasy with my relationship with my dad because I'd ask him something, and I'd still consult my dad.

But I think he's overcome it, especially now that he's a father of girls he has seen and appreciates it.

What is the secret to happiness?

Contentment. Just knowing what is enough. You know it's an art. (Sighs) I'm sighing because somebody was telling me a story of a fisherman and his minimalist goal.

So there was this white guy who kept observing what the fisherman does every day. He asked him, 'So what's your plan for today? Why don't you spend more time fishing and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat?' The fisherman asked, 'And then?'

'With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats until eventually, you would have a whole fleet of fishing boats,' the white man answered. 'And then?' the fisherman asked... Then make more money and buy an island.' And then?'

Maybe you’ve heard this story. It’s about knowing your limits. Not to say you stop being ambitious, but just to know it's okay to stop and pause and pat yourself on the back. Extend yourself some grace.

What's your most important possession now?

My family. My children, number one, of course, my partner. I've engaged with women who've made it, or we perceive they've made it and most of them talk about the cost of making it; family, marriage.

I think careers have an expiry date. What will you fall back on? Your family. When you hit life’s challenges, it's just family that comes through, never your title or how much money you make.

Money is like a guest, it comes today and leaves tomorrow. So it should never be the one that drives you or shapes your character.

What are your biggest hurdles at this stage of your life?

Parenting. Maybe because it has no manual. And no matter what you do, there's no assured outcome. So you just put in the effort.

I read somewhere that if you spoil your children, you end up raising grandchildren, but if you do it right you will spoil your grandchildren.

It's a balance of being a parent and a friend. I listened to someone in their 60s talk about success and it was about the kind of children they have raised.


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