Gwen Kinisu: Overcoming childhood trauma

Gwen Kinisu is the CEO of Prudential Life Assurance. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

“Yes, like Gwen Stefani, but I was Gwen before Gwen Stefani was a thing,” Gwen Kinisu says when you ask her about her first name.

Had she not taken the path of insurance and banking Gwen would have been a nun. She was raised by her late grandmother, a staunch Catholic who taught her to pray using the rosary before she could read and write.

But then life took a different tangent; Bsc (IBA) Business, USIU, Global Executive MBA and a journey of 15 years to the corner office at Prudential Life Assurance where she is the CEO. Not a bad run, so far.

She’s worked her tail off but she’s now trying not to work too hard at the expense of family, a recurring theme in her conversation. “I think it would be a shame if at the end of my life, everything else has worked but my family isn’t okay.”

What questions are you asking yourself in this season of your life?

Where should I put my time investments? Will it count? I want the time I spend with the people who've been sent my way to help them grow because I believe that part of my assignment is growth.

Assignment in life or...?

Assignment in life. I believe that if you pass through my hands, you should be able at the end of your time to see that there was progress. So whether it's my family, close friends, or colleagues, it is existential that my time with you should count for something.

Gwen Kinisu is the CEO of Prudential Life Assurance. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

That's the big question I'm at and it's becoming more apparent to me and maybe more urgent as I get older. At the height of Covid-19, I lost people, as I'm sure you have.

I kept noticing how suddenly people in my phone book are not there [alive] anymore. That makes you think a lot.

What's been the best seed you sowed in life?

Without a doubt my children. My son is 11 and my daughter is 7. I've worked hard to balance work and home life. I don't have a life outside of that. I think it would be such a shame if at the end of my life, everything else has worked out but my family is not okay. So I try very much to incorporate them in a lot of what I do.

And them turning okay means growing into people who can handle themselves in the face of adversity, tap into opportunities and stand on their own two feet. That's my desire for them.

From where do you tap your greatest strengths?

God. That's my biggest flex. I spent my early years with my grandmother. She was my biggest influence in life and introduced me to God, to Church, and to the rosary.

I learned how to pray the rosary before I learned how to read and write and everything else. I can't tell you the last time I was in church but I'm a spiritual person.

I was a Catholic parishioner for a long time. I went to a Catholic high school and at some point even considered becoming a nun. I was seriously into the church. But now I just follow the scripture. All these come from my grandmother.

You were raised by your grandmother, where were your parents?

I don't want to talk about that if you don't mind.

Sure. Of course.

What I'll tell you though is that I was raised by a village. Besides my grandma, there were other members of the extended family. So I'm lucky that I had such great parental input from so many different stakeholders.


Stakeholders. I grew up in Nairobi. In fact, when people ask me where my shags(the village where one hails from) I laugh and say Ngong. I didn't grow up in Ngong but before she (grandmother) got unwell she used to live in Ngong. So that was the place we all used to go like our family meet-up place.

Gwen Kinisu is the CEO of Prudential Life Assurance. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

Did you have a good childhood?

Hmm. [Nods]

What made it good?

Uuhm, so I had very little growing up. And I think what's great about that is that it's made me very pragmatic and sensitive to what's real. Even today, I seek out people who are real as opposed to superficial, and that stems from my upbringing.

I once interviewed this guy who grew up in abject poverty and he said that even though he is successful in his career, he finds that he can identify patterns in his behaviour that he can link to the trauma of poverty. It was fascinating. You were raised with very little. How has that impacted you in your adulthood?

Interesting. From a value perspective, I'm very grateful for the values she taught me including hard work. She had a stall in the market where after school I'd go and help her count her coins and do my homework.

Just watching her gave me a sense of accountability and a sense of what working hard looks like. But she also cared deeply about people and helped however she could.

So when you ask me how growing up with little has affected me I think that nurtured me to be careful with finances. Mark you, I'm not stingy, I'm just careful with money.

Gwen Kinisu is the CEO of Prudential Life Assurance. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

I'm big on self-awareness and believe in going back to your childhood and addressing your trauma. And so one of the decisions I made, maybe five years ago, was to say money is not an end in and of itself, it's a tool.

I asked myself 'how do I live my life without being fearful of poverty, but also not becoming frivolous?' So I'm pragmatic. I'm happy I don't spend too much, but then I don't deny myself. Does that make sense?

Right. What makes you insecure?

Not having a plan. As I grow older I'm coming to terms with the fact that, what did you say earlier, the chips will fall where they will, right?

And that gives you a lot of calm and grace to accept outcomes [out of your control]. And so for me when even as I do that, I always ask myself, 'so what's the plan'? If I have a plan I've built enough self-confidence to know that I can execute the plan.

You're 41, what’s the plan for the 40s?

Oh (chuckles) I didn't see that one coming. Right now it's family. I want to be more present. When I'm home I shouldn't be working so hard because for a long time, I've always been on the laptop, on calls, and stuff. I also want to take better care of my health. I don't want to retire and then suddenly I'm in shock.

When were you most fearful in life?

(Pause) When I was pregnant with my second child, everything that could go wrong went wrong. I had eclampsia and high blood pressure. My blood pressure was so bad that my eyesight was permanently distorted. I had to get stronger lenses for my spectacles.

And so my greatest fear at that point was when at some point the doctor called my husband and said 'you've gotta choose, it's the mother or the baby, you may not have the choice of both'. I remember I kept thinking, 'I'm going into that maternity ward and may not come out [alive]. Is my son going to be raised by other people?' That was a scary time.

Have you made any surprising discoveries lately, eureka moments? Like oh my God, I didn't know that.

[Chuckles) Recently I heard a statement that I liked. It says that unconditional love is toxic. (Chuckles). The argument is that unconditional love is toxic because if you tell someone ‘I love you unconditionally’ then it means they can only show up as their worst selves to you and not do the same for other people who are not unconditionally loving them.

And why would you do that to yourself or to anybody? And the example given is that as a mom, you're unconditionally your children's mom. You're unconditionally a parent, it's a fact, right? But you can have moments where you're like who is this child? Why are they behaving so horribly? I found that thought-provoking.

What book would you recommend to your 31-year-old self?

Two actually. The first is Ego Is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday. It’s a really good book that anybody coming or is in, leadership should read. What I love is that it looks at ego in different ways: before you become a leader, when you're a leader, and when you're at the pinnacle. The second one is Think Like a Monk by Jay Shetty.

Are you happy?

I am. I'm grateful. I think happiness is fleeting. I might break my leg going down the staircase and my happiness will go. But I will still remain grateful.

I don't chase happiness as a thing anymore. When my daughter designs a card for me like this one [at the back of her phone] I’m grateful because she could be a brat and entitled or selfish but she isn’t.

What are you least proud of in your life?

When my grandma got gravely ill I could have spent more time with her before she passed on. But I didn't because I was busy with work. I did not get the opportunity to say goodbye. I did not get the opportunity for her to share in what she had invested in. I'm not proud of that.

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