If things had gone his way, Imran Manji would be a doctor. It’s hard to see why not. For one, he speaks like one. With short, pithy, rapid bursts. Another, he carries his charisma with languid coolness, moving like a Zen master, a picture of serenity at the centre of the storm.
Perhaps that is why he is just what the doctor ordered for Uber East Africa—a ride-hailing firm—their talisman, and prophet. But if he comes across as happy-go-lucky, underneath that is a serious work ethic and smart analyst who carries his convictions by example. Like supporting Manchester United, his major character flaw. “I prioritise watching Man U,” he says, smiling through the pain.
In his theatre of dreams, he gushes about his two- and three-year-old toddlers. At the rooftop of the Riverfront Building in Riverside, I ask him what he looks forward to most over the weekend, and he stares into the distance. “Listening to Cocomelon and Disney,” he says. “Fantastic music.” He flashes another smile, this time though, there is no pain. It’s a treat.
Did you always know you wanted to be a CEO?
No, when I was young, I wanted to be a doctor. And then I ended up in business. I went down the path of law and economics, which set me up for management consulting and then a business career.
What’s the most boring part about being a CEO?
The part I enjoy the least is doing some of the forecasts we have to do, which are 12 a year. Setting the strategy is fun, but every month we have to explain what is happening in the economy and how that affects the business.
What has being a leader taught you about yourself?
Authenticity. I have strengths and weaknesses and do my best to help the team grow.
Does one ever fully know who they are?
I think it is a constant learning process. There is a lot I have learned since I started at Uber, and I am constantly evolving, learning new strategies and tools, and experimenting to see what is the best solution. That means it is also interactive learning.
What’s it like being you?
Hard question to answer. I am very big and focused on work which demands a fair few hours and commitment. But I also have a young family, and I try to balance the two by getting home before bedtime to create some dedicated time with the family. I have a two and a three-year-old, sometimes rough nights, but on weekends I look forward to spending time with them.
Which is easier, running a business or a family?
Haha! It all depends on the team you have with you. If you have a great spouse, you don’t have to do everything. If you are surrounded by skilled people, then it is a pleasure doing both, cognisant of the challenges involved.
How are you raising your children different from how you were raised?
It was a different world back then, the days of tapes and VHS. Now it is content on demand. The world has become so small, and you are constantly exposed to what other people are doing, but you must stay grounded, and true to yourself. Stick to your core beliefs and try and do the right thing.
What do you remember most about your childhood?
I was very blessed. I had a tight family unit with annual holidays to the beach. We’d go to Mombasa and spend quality time.
What was your childhood nickname?
I had one in high school where they called me ‘Biscuits’ because of House of Manji.
How did that affect your relationship with biscuits?
Haha! It didn’t affect it at all, haha!
What remains unchanged about you since childhood?
My love of reading. I always had a book in my hands since childhood. I'd go out for dinner with my parents and just read. One time I was in Las Vegas and I had this habit of reading while walking. I was following my parents around in this gigantic casino looking for a restaurant to have dinner when I realised I was following the wrong people. I retraced my steps to the last place I was with them, until they found me reading, 25 minutes later, haha!
What’s one book you read that changed the way you think?
There are several, but Atomic Habits by James Clear has been revelatory. Small changes have a compounding effect, that’s true in your personal and professional life.
What is one habit you struggle with?
I hate the gym. I love playing football, squash and paddle tennis, but I struggle with gyms. But as you age, resistance training becomes important, so I am forcing myself to get into that habit through willpower and then go into autopilot.
What’s your favourite thing about you?
That’s an impossible question to answer. I try to do good, and ask myself, when you look back, what are you proud of? What have you done that has positively changed the lives of people, even if it’s small? That’s the ethics that guide my life.
What lights you up about what you do?
It’s an exciting industry. It’s data-driven and tangible—you are having a direct impact on thousands of people every day. We launched audio recording, an emergency dispatch system for security and medical response that can keep someone safe. We even have tow trucks to get our clients to their destinations safely. That’s real impact, and making a difference.
What do you dream about now?
About family. Being the best father, best sibling, spouse, and son. Providing for my family and ensuring I raise good children with values.
Are you a better husband or a better father?
Haha! If you ask my wife, she will say father. I am a decent, above-average husband. I think after having children I have become a better father, and the reality is just the time. I wish I had more time and energy to devote to becoming a better husband, but sometimes you are just tired with no energy to go for a date night, but I do want to be a better husband as well.
Can one have it all?
We all have challenges in our lives. Nobody has everything. We can all do our best. I came across The Wheel of Life on YouTube where you rank yourself on relationships, career and money, and health. It helps you visualise what areas of life you are not doing well, and focus on those.
Is there a special treat you do just for yourself?
I don’t get a lot of me-time. Sometimes I’d read a book or watch a YouTube video. But I always prioritise watching Manchester United, haha! I will always make time for Man U.
How’s your heart considering the number of losses your team has accrued?
Haha! Everything in life is cyclic. You go through good times, and hard times, as we are doing right now. You stick with your team.
How did you land on Man U?
An elder brother. He had a Ryan Giggs shirt and a soccer skills book. He said we are Man U fans, so we are Man U fans. He took me to see a game at Old Trafford and that just sealed it. We are very close.
How do people show you love?
Quality time. When we are having dinner, we put our phones away so we can focus on each other. I’d have breakfast with my brother, just the two of us, no distractions.
How do you quieten your mind?
Most of my days are spent taking meetings, so it could be hard to focus on one thing when you have burning fires to quell. I prioritise and keep a couple of hours in the morning for focused time, and during the day I do the menial tasks and switch to focused tasks at night.
Do you have a special memory of your brother?
He is just a year older than I am. We were raised similarly, and we had gone to a lodge, playing the game Taboo against my parents. We wiped the floor with them. We had such a good connection that we would just say one word and the other would know what it meant, haha! After a couple of hours, my parents decided to split the teams, haha!
What’s the secret to life?
Living it without regrets. Make the best decision you can with the information you have at that moment. I don’t believe in looking back, look to learn, not with regrets. Look forward and be positive. I also try and put myself in someone else’s shoes, personally and professionally. What do they want? What do they care about? We have one life, when you look back, what impact have you had on the world?
What’s on your bucket list?
Travel. I am waiting for the children to get older. I am also angling for a couple of different skills like skipping rope.
Airbnb or hotel?
Now hotel. Before the children, Airbnb.
Beach or bush?
Beach. Every year we go to Diani. It is 40 minutes away, and that’s unbeatable. Plus, it's within the country so your phone works. And with the wind whistling to the palm trees as I am reading a book. Ah.
What’s your superpower?
I can stay very calm in most situations, thinking calmly and rationally to get to the best decision in that time.
Do you have an item for less than Sh10,000 that you use often?
I was arguing with my wife about this. I wanted a little pen knife and I was trying to convince her it was going to be the best thing ever. Ever since I bought it, I have used it pretty much daily, tightening screws, replacing batteries, opening packets, ah I love it. It’s in my pocket every time. It cost $14.
What does she say now?
It’s one of the few times I can tell her ‘I told you so!’ Haha!
Do you remember the first time you saw your wife?
It was on a hike in Phoenix, US, in the mountains before sunrise. I was with my cousin and she was friends with my cousin. The hike finished after dark, and we had dinner that night as a group. I didn’t let the opportunity pass though.
What do you think your wife loves most about you?
I am calm. We are a good balance. She is very action-oriented, and I am a counterweight in slowing it down and thinking through. A good balance.
What’s something difficult you go through that not many get to see?
The amount of work that goes on in the backend. The role I have means that I fill in the gaps when somebody is on leave or we are under-resourced. There is a quantity of work that is not seen in this position.
What’s the best compliment you’ve received?
A friend of mine who was leaving once told me, “Thank you for being you.”
What is a weekend hack you know that can make my weekends better?
Be deliberate. I will pick one thing and do it. Could be anything, whether it is taking my children to play football or going to see my parents, and when I accomplish that I will deem that day to be a success.
What’s your weekend soundtrack?
It’s fantastic. Disney and cocomelon. Haha!
Are you happy?
Yes. Happiness is about expectations and gratitude. When you feel grateful for what you have, you tend to be happy. If you expect that life will give you everything, you will be unhappy. I am grateful.
Who do you know that I should know?
Your questions are not easy today [chuckles].
What would the doctor you could have been told the CEO you are now?
That life is short. You need to make the most of it. Health is not guaranteed. Live life how you want to, with things that are important to you. Tomorrow is not a guarantee.