Carole Wainaina: My Marriage Never Failed, It Ended

Carole Wainaina talks about the offspring of ambition; how ambition finally eats them for lunch (as you probably would have guessed.)

Carole Wainaina Africa50 Chief Operating Officer. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NMG 

IN SUMMARY

  • Carole Wainaina talks to JACKSON BIKO about her meteoric career—13 years at Coca-Cola (as chief of staff, group human resources director, and president of Coca-Cola Foundation), two-decade stints in senior positions in multinational corporations in Turkey, the US, the UK, the Netherlands and finally assistant secretary-general for human resources of the UN. She talks about how that has balanced out her life as a wife and a mother.

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Behind the wall-to-wall sliding doors of a well-heeled condo in a leafy Kitisuru, Nairobi, a vicious cold bites. The uninviting swimming pool behind these glass doors looks like a sad wet dog that will not be let back in the house. On contrast, inside the house is a tastefully done living room and cozy. Seated before a charming fireplace, cracking with young tongues of flames, Carole Wainaina, the chief operating officer of Africa50, warms up the room with stories about her life, a day after the third Africa50 forum. You probably know what Africa50 does. It is owned by 25 African countries, two central banks and the African Development Bank. In the forum, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced that Kenya will double its contribution to the fund to Sh10.07 billion. But in all sincerity, who wants to hear about infrastructure development on a cold Saturday? Or even talk about it. Thankfully not Carole.

So she talks to JACKSON BIKO about her meteoric career—13 years at Coca-Cola (as chief of staff, group human resources director, and president of Coca-Cola Foundation), two-decade stints in senior positions in multinational corporations in Turkey, the US, the UK, the Netherlands and finally assistant secretary-general for human resources of the UN. She talks about how that has balanced out her life as a wife and a mother.

She talks about the offspring of ambition; how ambition finally eats them for lunch (as you probably would have guessed.) She talks about ‘balcony moments’, marriage, academic papers and their place in the corporate world and the things that have centred and uncentred her.

From where she sits in her massive settee, she sometimes seems to sink, to her very gills, under the weight of her words; words which warm, suck, calm, surprise, excite but mostly edify.

***

Are you water or fire?

(Pause) If I'm fire, I'm a spark, but broadly speaking I think that in life, I'm water. (Pause) I flow towards the things that call me, the challenges that need me, and when things are stuck, I come and help things flow. If I was fire I'd be burning a lot of things along the way. I’m a facilitator, I help people rise to their better self when they can't see it in the dance.

After all this illustrious career what do you find yourself trying to crack now, personally and professionally?

I would like to see business and private sector play a bigger role in solving the big social issues in the world. When I was 49, I had a health challenge and for the first time in a while, I took a long time off work. I called it my “balcony moment” where you get off the dancing floor and look at it from below. You reflect on your life. I asked myself what vehicle would be of best usage for the world. I looked at the causes I care about—youth, women, Africa, and leadership and I kept hoping that something would come that intersects those things.

The UN came calling soon after and it touched on these causes. I saw how big leaders make decisions around the world. Then Africa50 came along and it was a good fit. It keeps proving the moral and it is the right vehicle to impact the world.

When you look at your résumé, who do you think got the best of you?

(Pause) Very good question. I think KWS {Kenya Wildlife Service} where I was Richard Leakey’s special assistant. I was young and fearless. I was in my early 20s dealing with permanent secretaries, donors and ministers, some of whom could not even understand why I was in the room. I had a fearless leader who was prepared to break the eggs to make the omelette. Being young and fearless, I did not even think there could be reasons why we could not do what we were supposed to do. That job really launched me into leadership.

You have mentioned “young and fearless” a few times. Now that you have grown older, what has replaced “fearless” at this stage?

Fear turns to courage and courage is a heart thing, an enduring thing. Fearless means I tried many things. Fear is a mental construct, while courage is a construct of the heart because it comes from wisdom, having tried something. In my youth, I was too invested in my own opinions. I should have been more open to listening and cautious about the fact that I was speaking to older people. Now? (Pause) I am wise and courageous. (Pause) I'm real.

What would you tell your 32-year-old self in retrospect?

(Pause) I was very ambitious at 32. I had two young children when I was offered my first expatriation to go to work for Coca-Cola. I moved to London with my two children, leaving my husband in Kenya. I was very instrumental in influencing, strategy, making sure we had the right organisation and the right people. At some point, I was just doing too much. My 32-year-old self was too focused on one aspect of my life, which was my career.

My career was growing so exponentially, almost more than anything else I did. I did not have any ‘balcony moments’. I would just jump on to the next bus, take my children with me and go. It was a real struggle. I felt like I was not a great mother, not a great employee, not a great wife.

I didn't even have time to do other social things. Funnily enough, everybody thought I was a shining star. I was the youngest of all the group leadership team, yet I was feeling inadequate.

I ended up with a daughter with depression and still struggles up to today. She would say that at a young age, we were absent from her life. Her trauma of loneliness has been the source of her depression. I was ridden with guilt and I think that was my first existential crisis. Did I really want to be a career person? Could I still be a great mother and wife? If so what would that look like?

I woke up one morning and the feeling of not being good enough was so huge. I decided to get some help. So I would say to my 32-year-old self to spend a little more time understanding what is important to me.

Can you be a great professional and a great parent? How did you then attain that equilibrium of work/life balance?

By nature, I am not about balance. I am a bit of an extreme kind of person. I do not subscribe to the work-life balance philosophy but to the work-life integration. Sometimes your work is your life, and some of your life is work. It is a big triangle. Having children, a husband and being a wife and a mother all have a space in this triangle.

The perspective that changed for me is work is not my life; I have a life, of which work is a big part of. From time to time, I had to look at how much space it was taking in my life and whether or not I was happy with that and what was suffering at that time.

Of course, there's high season and low season in life. For women, it is always going to be a challenge. Life is about trade-offs.

You fill your cup with many things but what's the most important right now?

(Long pause) Coaching and mentoring people. I get the most energy and joy from conversations.

Which area of your life continues to be a struggle?

Self-care. I grew up Catholic and with an ethos of “it is better to give than it is to receive.” This may work when the demands of your life match your time and energy. But I found myself with more demands than time and energy yet I had not developed the mindset that I too could ask for and accept help.

I learnt another lesson the hard way. After seasons of trying to be a good mother, wife, leader, reliable colleague and friend, I would find myself with medical issues related to stress and burnout.

I am getting better at asking for help, recharging along the journey and not waiting for the car to run out of gas and stop. I also learnt that “No” is a perfectly acceptable answer.

Who do you lean on? Because everybody seems to be leaning on you.

I wouldn't say I'm very religious in the sense of going to church and observing rules and stuff like that, but I have always believed in God and know there's a higher power that looks after me. Meditation has actually been a very transformational thing for me. It grounds me.

We get lost because of the noise in our heads and we distract ourselves with mobile phones and televisions because we never want to be quiet. We cannot stand to be alone with our thoughts. I have learnt to be okay to be alone with my thoughts. I've got more discipline about self-care. I take time out, read a lot, take holidays. I like to go to beautiful places and chill out. (Laughs)

There is always an emphasis on going back to school to get better papers to advance in the corporate world. However, look at you; you seem to have climbed up to the top with just an undergraduate degree (Business Administration - University of Southern Queensland in Australia.) Does that say anything about education and papers?

I do not believe that you need a Master’s degree or postgraduate degree unless you wanted to, or to specialise in technical issues. But a degree is a ticket to the party. When you get in you still have to dance. Then the best dancers are the ones who make it in life.

When there were too many people at the door, we decided to up the ticket price and now a person needs a Master’s degree. It is not that the Master’s degree holders are any better than those with Bachelor’s. Life unfolds. The things I learnt in university are not the things I use in my work today.

I think I might have asked most things, is there something I’m forgetting?

No you haven't asked everything. You haven’t asked about my marriage.

I thought of that but your body language wasn’t right for that question, you would have taken me round and around in circles. But now that we are talking about it, what’s the situation?

Taken you round and round. (Laughs) Well. (Pause) When I talk to women I find it's important to tell them the whole story because people think I am successful because I had different opportunities than they had, I worked maybe harder than they did or that there is a formula that I used. Then they discount themselves if they have challenges that they think I did not have.

Initially, I used to edit my life as we all do and give snippets that are comfortable for people to think about and repeat. I discovered that I was denying them the whole gift because they needed to see themselves and some of my vulnerabilities and failures in themselves for them to feel that ‘if she is just as screwed up as we are...’

If she’s messed up then we all have hope! I like that.

Yes. Trying to sustain a marriage, bringing up two children in an expatriation, climbing up...I think those things have been real challenges to overcome.

I somehow thought I could sustain a marriage long distance, I could not. I am sure it is not the only reason the marriage failed. When you don't grow with your spouse, you grow apart because you're having different experiences. When you live apart from each other for long stretches of time, you don’t have the most important conversation, the “how was your day?” conversation.

I always tell people that even if you are away, call. When you do not, things change quickly and at some point, you will be two different people, overtaken by experiences.

There is also courage in loving someone enough to let him or her go. In saying, ‘this marriage might be optically good for onlookers but it isn’t for us.’ I always say my marriage never failed, my marriage ended.

These are important conversations of sacrifice and challenges wives face in raising children while wanting more for themselves in the workplace. Also for men to have conversations of money and how to control women who earn more.

Control is a strong word.

Yes it is. But obviously women grew up wanting more than what their mothers had. I am sure my brothers wanted somebody like my mother who would stay at home. Men grew up wanting to be providers and thinking that is the highest contribution.

Therefore, when that job is taken away or threatened or mixed up, they're like ‘so what other value do I add to this relationship? Choice of partner for women and men is a big deal. Have money discussions early and when it happens, have a shift in mindset.

How does it feel to date after marriage at this stage in your life?

(Laughs) I have not done a good job of dating and I am not actually asked out much. There are not too many people trying to date me.

That’s hard to believe.

(Laughs) It is true. I have many male friends but none has converted into dating or arrived with the ambition of trying to get me into a long-term relationship. In addition, if they have tried, I failed to notice.

(Laughs) Of course, I would like to be with someone, but I work in different countries all the time. I was living in New York for four years, and then I moved to Casablanca. It can be a lonely life when you're in a new city all by yourself. There is always the warmth of knowing there is somebody in the home.

Here's a theory. That as men climb up the ladder their dating pool widens, but as women go up theirs shrink. True or false?

It is perspective. I think it is more true than not. However, there is also [tongue-in-cheek] the opinion that men can date anyone.

That's not true. We have taste.

(Laughs) Okay. Broadly speaking. Women generally want to date up, but men can marry down and so the pool is bigger that way. I think. Of course, it's true that if you're unreasonably successful, and unfortunately the world's measure for success is still money and earning potential, there would be less people for you to go up.

I'd be happy to date a successful artist who is very comfortable with himself, earns whatever he earns. For me, it is about a man being extremely comfortable with himself so he is not looking for me to fill the gap.

Of all your triumphs, which one do you look back on with pride?

My children, Wambui (23) and Kamau (21). They have grown up to be amazing human beings...of course I am biased. (Chuckles) They are creative, curious, witty and open to growth. They express themselves beautifully through their art. Wambui is a writer and Kamau a multifaceted artist—film-maker, photographer and musician. They are highly socially-conscious and comfortable to be vulnerable.

They may not think I have been the best mother—understandably —but I cannot think of anything that I will reflect on, on my deathbed that would fill me with more love and fulfilment. It is also the gift that keeps giving.

What makes you really laugh aloud?

(Pause) Humour... like watching Trevor Noah. (Pause) But I think babies make me laugh out loud, they are special.

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