Priscilla Gathungu on danger of the corner office


Priscilla Gathungu the CEO of Java House Africa. PHOTO | COURTESY

A chain with an ‘L’ pendant dangles from Priscilla Gathungu’s (or PG’s) neck. L is for Liam, her son.

But it could also stand for many other things that she represents or represent her currently: luck, liberty, limitless, liberated, lighthearted, or even leading, seeing as she is the new Group CEO of Java House Africa, their first female leader.

It has been a long journey, starting as a Human Resource Director nine years ago.

“Nobody gives serendipity the credit it deserves,” she says of her new role.

“You work hard, but so do many other people. Luck plays a great role in these things. Somebody set you on that path, even if you didn’t know it for yourself.”

Or maybe the L stands for Lucidity.

You were talking about ageing, noting how we have lived longer than we will live in the future. It’s quite sobering, to be honest.

It is. We’re truly in midlife. It can’t be more midlife than it is now. In these mid-40s, the road ahead is shorter than the road we have done.

We’re dying…

[Chuckles] No, no. It’s not that. It is [the realisation] that we are free! We don’t have those constraints we had because of worrying about many things.

Now there is a lightness and freedom to try different things. Of course, it comes with mortality [awareness] and tough questions such as, ‘what happens to our children?’

But we are also lighter for life, having shed off baggage and picked up lessons to give us the confidence to brave challenges ahead.

We don’t feel the need to be anyone other than ourselves.  We are a lot more sure about certain things. One of the greatest gifts that have come at this age for me is decisiveness.

I don’t hold back on decision-making. And if it is the wrong decision, I’m at peace with it.

But you have gone through the wringer to get here, no?

Yeah, maybe. [Pause] Whatever it took to get here, it’s a good space. And to think how unsure I was ten years ago, how much I cared about what people thought of me.

What’s the hardest decision you’ve made so far?

The decision to parent alone. Forget how society might view that, but just deciding to bring someone into this world, someone who had no part in this decision-making…you make that call without being fully aware of the ramifications of that decision will be for them.

Some studies show that children raised by single parents fare worse than those in a nuclear family.

Oh no! How do you explain Obama [former US President Barack Obama] then? Or Jay Z. Or Bono. Alicia Keys? Even Samuel L. Jackson.

Single parents have raised many successful Africans, but we don’t know their stories, perhaps because we see single-parenthood as a failure.

But back to being a single child. We take for granted how having a sibling offers an inbuilt friend from birth. Children who don’t have siblings have to build a community around themselves.

Is there guilt there for you?

Hhm, there could be. However, it’s not enough to reverse the decision.

You mentioned that you are not averse to risks. How close have you ever flown to the sun, enough to risk having the wax on your wings melt off?

Generally, my threshold for fear is higher than most, and maybe I should be more fearful. I keep pushing for the things I want, and my team at work always asks, ‘are you sure we’re doing this?’

I see that same trait in my son. He is overconfident and never has reservations or hesitations. He thinks he can do anything. It worries his teacher, so much that she suggested I help him tone it down.

Of course, I worry about him because overconfidence, the lack of fear, can be destructive. The right amount of fear keeps you rational.

Where does your courage come from?

My parents. Growing up, they gave me a very long leash. I didn’t grow up in a box. My dad was studious, shy, almost reclusive, and cerebral.

My mom was the life of the party, always pushing the boundaries. I didn’t take her extrovertedness; my younger brother did. I took after dad.

My son falls in between this genetic pool, and I worry because he struggles with discipline. He will pull the covers to his bed and say, yes, ‘I have spread the bed.’ [Laughs]

What did you study?

Are you asking in a roundabout way if I went to school? [Laughter] I did go to school, Biko. I went to school over there, [points at Loreto, Msongari].

For university, I went to the US and did a Bachelor’s degree in business, and organisation management. My Master’s degree, was an MBA, in strategic management.

But along the way, I floundered….remember that discipline thing? I was finding myself, I went to medicine school, and I was like, ‘arrg, not for me’.

In business school, I discovered I had the gift to see stories in numbers. I can look at numbers and tell a story. Or I can read a situation and make out a number from it.

I like numbers because emotions can’t stand the glare of numbers. Numbers are facts and facts don’t change. Emotions, on the other hand, change a lot. That appeals to me because I’m very functional and less emotive.

So you’re pragmatic?

Extremely. Feelings are not facts. So, if you tell me the reason why your store is underperforming is because of a feeling, I’m like, ‘no, don’t tell me about your feelings, show me the numbers’, what are the numbers telling you? Numbers always tell a story, man.

What have been the biggest beacons of your life thus far?

First is my parents. As I said, I had no leash. I was allowed to explore paths. You know, the 1995 Beijing conference [on gender equality] was a turning point.

I was in high school and witnessed this rebellion unfold. That generation of women who were witnesses like me are in leadership now.

Their mothers were considered women who ‘misbehaved’. My mom was one of them, but she decided not to conform to what her husband, her in-laws, and society, in general, dictated she should be.

By doing this, she chose a path that would empower her daughter. She sent me abroad to school, something no one from her family had done. Those doors she was opening were never an option for her.

Another beacon was my father. He got me started reading newspapers as young as nursery school. On my way to school, he’d make me read the ‘ Daily Nation’ out loud.

The other beacon is education which informed a big part of who I am. The last beacon is community. I don’t have a circle of friends, I have a triangle of friends who I need, especially as a single parent.

Are you going to talk about marriage as a beacon?

[Laughs loudly] Are you mad? I told you we won’t talk about that! [Still laughing] And why is a marriage that ended many years ago important? Why does it reflect the moment?

Because the past always has a bearing on the present. Surely, it must have informed something about who you are today. You must have learned valuable lessons and insights.

Yeah, I learned not to talk about it. [Laughter]

What do you struggle with now?

[Pause] I was recently invited to talk to a group of women, and someone asked me, ‘who are the women who paved [the way] for you?’

I struggle with this preconceived notion that there has to be a woman or women that paved the way for other women.

Other than my mom, no other woman paved the way for me. There were women, but they were not there to do it.

On the contrary, I had a lot of male supporters like my dad and former bosses who paved the way for me, men who created an empowering environment to stretch my ability to learn.

I struggle with the concept of paving the way. I think you chart your own path. But you should be courageous and give yourself the licence to be yourself.

When I think of mentorship, I don’t see it through the lens of its traditional definition because mentorship comes in many ways. One thing that keeps you going is learning, and you learn from different people.

It doesn’t have to be somebody older and has made it. I mean, I learn from the wait staff every day. We shouldn’t box this mentorship concept.

So, when people ask me to be their mentor, I’m like, ‘in what?’ The only thing I can give you is to tell you you have the licence to be or not to be.

Everybody has a different path, man. And we have to be courageous to live our own. Success as somebody else is difficult.

What does success as PG look like?

(Laughter) What is it with these questions? [Pause] I don’t care about legacy and other things people care about.

Success for me is when I am content with what I’ve done when I feel that I’ve given my all and done what I’m supposed to do.

Success is that I’ve raised a kind child. Success is helping people who need help. [Pause] You know what, part of the problem with this ‘success conversation’ is that we all want to be eagles, we all want to soar.

But we all can’t soar. There are ducks, and then there are eagles. And if you are a duck, be the best bloody duck you can be. Be the best quaker.

Make peace with the fact that you will never fly, and it’s okay. And if you’re an eagle, be the best. Soar as high as you can.

I take it that you are an eagle?

Let’s just say I eat meat. [Chuckles]

If you were to apologise to one person who would that be?

[Hard long stare] Wow….wow [Looks away, lowers voice]. Possibly my younger self. For not realising my potential. I made too many excuses.

I appeased people too much. But I lived a good life…I think I did everything one should do in their younger ages, the much youth and the moment allowed me. [Pause] That is a fantastic question, Biko.

You were in the US for 15 years, why did you come back?

My mom was sick…and, I was at a point in my life when…when I was transitioning. But I am grateful to that country; it gave me an education and my first career.

What do you fear now as an eagle?

[Laughs] Maybe it’s not fear any more. I worry - like any parent - about my child’s future. I worry about my health and success, which is quite scary because there is this constant need to top it.

Jay Z said something I like; Excellence is being able to perform at a high level, over and over again. Maintaining success is hard.

I once climbed Mt Kenya and thought, ‘Oh, kumbe I can do this.’ So last year I climbed Mt Kilimanjaro, and it is the hardest thing I’ve done. But that was a success until someone suggested we climb Mt Meru and I was like, ‘no, I’m done with mountains’.

Was the person who came down those mountains the same one who went up? I hear mountains change people.

You climbed Mt Kenya before, and did it change you?

Yeah, it reminded me that I’m black and that black folk shouldn’t do white folk's things.

[Laughter] You know that African saying; if you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go with people? Climbing these mountains puts that saying in perspective because the people you take with you on a journey like that are important.

Yes, you hike your own hike, but the team you are with is crucial. Build a team you want to go to war with.

Lowest point in your life.

Really? You don’t get bored of this? [Laughing]

Actually, I don’t. I really love them.

[Pause] Losing my parents. Yeah, that was pretty low. My dad died 21 years ago, and my mom died in August 2012. My dad’s death particularly hit me hard because I was much younger.

My mom’s death wasn’t easier either, but I was much older. My dad and I were kindred spirits, we are the type who read the “Economist” and “Newsweek” and bore people in a club by pulling stats on why the South African economy is declining by 1.3 percent.

What reminds you of your father now?

Statistics. Geo-politics, world politics. Books, and movies that have subtitles. We are just boring people. I remember watching films like Doctor Zhivago, a 1965 epic historical romance film based on the 1957 novel by Boris Pasternak. Or Lawrence of Arabia.

I was only ten years old. [Pause] Recalling these classics reminds me of my dad and makes me so sad.

What would you ask him if he showed up today? Just one question.

I think it’s more of what I’d tell him. I’d show him a Kindle and tell him, ‘dad, this gadget can carry 700 books. You can carry all these books everywhere!’ He would not believe me. [Laughs].

He was a booky. He’d read loads of books, newspapers and magazines….[Cranes her neck] Biko, your notes…your handwriting is really terrible. And no, I’m not telling you what my weaknesses are.

How can you even read what I’ve written upside down and from so far away?

I’m a woman. We come like this. [Laughter]

Okay, no weakness question, but tell me about the proverbial corner office you find yourself in now. What surprised you the most when you arrived there?

I think the social angle of it. You are expected to be very social and have these coffees and teas. Remember I’m a bit of an introvert. But you know you can tailor a position to who you are.

You can still do some of those things but with your own personality. The danger of the corner office is thinking that you deserve it.

We keep forgetting about serendipity. Nobody gives serendipity the credit it deserves. You work hard but so do many other people, and so you have to remember that luck played a role in your landing there.

Somebody put you on that path. Even if you didn’t know it for yourself, somebody set you on a path. In life, there is always the fork; some choose to go left, others right.

We all interpret information differently. And if I took right, that could have been where serendipity was sitting. And you took left, and she had gone off on that day so she wasn’t on that side.

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