Phyllis Wakiaga: The daddy's girl walking in mom's shoes - VIDEO

Tony Blair Institute of Global Change Senior Advisor Phyllis Wakiaga poses for a picture after the interview on April 5, 2024. Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

Once I read, “a man who has a good handshake can do any goddamned thing he wants. I'm not saying he will; I'm saying he can. People remember him; they listen to him. Men like this are followed.” Grip, shake, release. The art of the handshake.

This is not how Phyllis Wakiaga has built her career, but who’s to say it’s not? She knows how to shake hands, kiss babies and work the room.

Formerly the CEO of Kenya Association of Manufacturers and now Senior Advisor (Global) at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, hers has been a career of milestones rather than monuments.

Stance and posture combine to suggest a cerebral, not feline intelligence. You can tell from her handshake, which is firm; unlike her demeanour which is shy and reticent. Especially when she talks about her husband, children, and parents, you can see her blush, self-editing replies to my questions, moving pieces on this chessboard.

She is the kind of girl who gets you thinking that you know exactly what kind of girl she is. And even when she offers me her hand again, she not so as much as shakes it, as she wrests it. Grip, shake, release. And long after she released my hand, she never really let me go. Because a good handshake? Now that’s subtle business.

What’s the one piece of advice that got you here?

Believe in yourself.

What’s that like?

It’s been an interesting over 40 years of my life getting to dream big, to achieve big things, to enjoy life and have the ups and downs.

How do you enjoy life?

I do things that make me happy. I like spending time with family. I have four children and a husband. I love travelling with them and cooking for them…

What’s your signature meal?

I love making chapati and mandazi. I make an amazing chicken stew that is Caribbean style—I got the recipe from my sister-in-law from Haiti.

Do you remember the first time you met your husband? Who made the move?

Yes, I do, very vividly. We met through a mutual friend. My friend and I were roommates in campus when we met for lunch. We were sat in a restaurant and he approached me.

What’s the one thing that struck you about him?

The peace he gives you. He is those calm, collected people who give you a certain peace around them. He is solid—we’ve been together for 20 years.

What’s the secret to your marriage?

[Chuckles] We are good friends. He makes me laugh, we are very close and talk about everything. And we are just real with each other.

Tony Blair Institute of Global Change Senior Advisor Phyllis Wakiaga. Francis Nderitu | NMG

Are you easy as a mother or a wife?

Mother. I am the one who allows the children to do everything, the one they navigate around. I am the good cop. My firstborn is a girl, she’s 18. This week was surreal for me as I took my daughter to get her national ID. I actually have an adult in the house, haha!

How has that been?

It’s been good because it has brought out the best in me. It’s made me focused, for my family and folks when they were alive. It has made me think of the endgame and passing the baton because we won’t be here forever.

What do you miss about your childhood?

Playing, and just having no cares in the world. I played a lot as a child, playing kati at Avenue Park Estate where we lived. Or shake, drawing the entire street and playing the whole day.

What’s your favourite childhood memory?

Travelling. Especially to the village, in Kisii. Stopping in Nakuru, Kericho and getting to shags (rural home) and hanging out with family.

Phyllis Wakiaga: The daddy's girl walking in mom's shoes

What was your nickname then?

Phyllis. Some call me Kemi, from my middle name, Kemunto.

What remains unchanged about ‘Kemi’ since childhood?

My optimism and my to-do attitude. I have always been very positive and optimistic.

Where did you get that from?

My parents and my family always encouraged us and let us know that we can conquer the world, you can get whatever you strive to get in life. My late mother is a PhD holder—she was a doctor of psychology. My dad was an engineer.

Sounds like quite the successful family. How does that pan out for you?

It sets the bar. My mother broke the proverbial ceiling. She was the first woman to go to university in her village, and the next person went 20 years later. My dad allowed her to be, and to pursue her career; there is a time she had to go do her Masters in Canada for two years and he took care of us. That thing of just creating limitless boundaries, knowing you can achieve what you want in life.

And you have brothers and sisters?

Yes, brothers, a younger and older one.

Are you the middle child who never got attention?

I did! I am the only girl, so I was daddy’s girl.

What’s your favourite memory of your parents?

Just spending time. Their generation made more time than we did, they would drop us at school, help with homework, get home at 4 pm, have tea, travel together and have conversations.

Speaking of, you seem to be quite busy and I get the feeling ‘Quality Time’ is your love language. So how do you make time?

[Chuckles] Wow so you’ve studied me already? Haha! Yes, quality time is my love language so because of that I am very deliberate about where I spend my energy. I am very disciplined about waking up early and allocating my time to the things and people that matter to me.

Weekends I try to religiously keep for family, and maybe weekday evenings. Daytimes I am busy with advisory work, board meetings, and a mentorship institution called Career Sight. I am deliberate in the time I allocate to things.

Do you have a family ritual?

We do devotions mostly, everyone takes turns and we go to church every Saturday together. I am an SDA.

There goes the stereotype…

Haha! I thought I was helping!

How do people show you love?

By being authentic, real and vulnerable.

Being a CEO for all those years, does it make it easier to read people?

I have learned that it makes me more forgiving of people and tolerant. Sometimes as a leader you become accommodative and build on people’s strengths. If you are able to capitalise on that, you bring out the best in them and that is great for the organisation.

You seem very self-assured, what is one insecurity that you have?

Not being in control of everything. There is a side of me that is a control freak, and you learn you can’t be in control of every aspect, like life and death.

What have you learned about life from your children?

Wow. That life is a canvas and you have an opportunity to design it to what you want it to be.

Did you have to take a break to have your children and, can one have it all?

I did not take a break. I got children, worked in hectic jobs, did two Masters concurrently, and did my PhD; but I slowed down during some seasons. I did my full maternity leave and slowed down significantly as my children grew up; but never a period off work. I got my last born in July and started my PhD in September. Can one have it all? You can, but not at the same time.

What fuels your ambition? What are you trying to gain…or run away from?

I have a thirst for knowledge. I love knowing things and I am always reading new ideas, trying to learn new skills.

When is it enough?

When you say it is. Every individual has their capacity, there are also seasons where you slow down. You don’t have to rush through everything, and keep going until you can’t.

What do you need more of in your life?

Ask again, haha! Urm, time to have fun and travel. Free time to do more things with family and get more experiences.

What’s one place you really want to go?

Cairo, Egypt. I want to see the pyramids, and Egypt has such a great history that I want to see.

Inshallah. Of all your wins, which is most fulfilling?

My ability to keep going and to keep building and reaching greater heights, whether it is, in personal life, or career. That’s strength.

What’s the kindest thing someone has ever told you?

[Long pause] [chuckle] Your questions! I guess it is “I love you.”

How do you define success now?

It’s understanding your purpose in life and working toward it and achieving it and living a God-centred life.

Is there an experience that significantly shaped you and you thought this was God?

My life in totality. I am a big dreamer and I have had big dreams; and just seeing may of them come to fruition is really just the hand of God.

What is something you long believed to be true but with time you realised isn’t?

[Long pause] That politics can be a force for good. I believe it can, if well utilised.

What matters more than you thought it would?

Time. It’s limited. You can’t add to it. As you grow older, you realise it is real; and time flies.

What have you learned to spend less time on as you grow older?

Worrying about things as it does not add value. You know the serenity prayer? Lord grant me the strength to accept the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. We spend a lot of time on things we can’t change; keep moving to the next thing if you can’t change what you can’t change.

Are you a mom-warrior or worrier?

I am a mom who travels a lot. I can be away for over a month, and I learned over time not to be a worrier. When I had my first child, I would go and wake her up to check if she is breathing. She had such a terrible time trying to sleep. I thought whether or not I police her, if God wants her to live, she will. So, whether or not I worry, it is useless. I let go.

What’s your superpower?

My kindness.

Lately what have you become good at saying no to?

Wow. I have become good at saying no because I have learned over time that no is a complete sentence. I say no to things that don’t sit right with me, appointments that don’t work for my schedule and lifestyle. I turn down a lot more things now than before.

What are two things you hold true in your life?

That hard work and commitment pays off. And that God really matters.

What’s your favourite part about you?

That I don’t take things personally. I rarely hold grudges and I am very optimistic.

And the most boring part?

I actually find it fun to read some boring industrial policy documents. I love researching and reading documents and books.

Let me guess…is teaching a part of your sunset days?

It must be! Haha!

What do you think your billboard will say about you?

Two things: been there and conquered it all. And my favourite saying: “Strong women, let’s know them, let’s be them, let’s raise them.”

Money talks, what does yours say?

Money is a means to an end not an end in itself. I am not big on accumulating wealth but using money to make my life and family’s life better. And knowing that I won’t get anywhere with it when all is said and done.

What is an item you bought for less than Sh10,000 that you use often?

My air pods. I am big on music and I am constantly on virtual meetings.

What’s the soundtrack of your life right now?

[Long pause] Fast Car by Tracy Chapman. It takes me through how life is a journey and that you can make it if you want to, even when you go through tough situations.

What’s the last book you read that significantly challenged the way you think?

Steve Covey: Live Life in Crescendo: Your Most Important Work is Always ahead of You.

What’s a weekend hack that you know that could make my weekends better?

Take a Sabbath break. I don’t do anything on Saturday, I completely shut down. It could be any day of the week for you, where you reset completely. It reenergises you and clears your mind. Take a full break for a day and do nothing. Cater for your soul.

What is one thing you have finally come to terms with?

[Long pause] Interesting. That I will keep giving it my all. I am one of those people who will always lay it down on the line, it is hardwired in me.

What are you thanking yourself for?

For being kind to myself, prioritising me when I needed to.

What are you apologising to yourself for?

For going too fast sometimes and rushing through life. I was very ambitious, and I wanted to move quickly and get these things done. I should have done them, but slower, there was no hurry.

Who do you know that I should know?

My two brothers, Wyclef and Edmond. They are really cool.

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