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Profiles

Uber boss on riding up at 32

Brian Njao, lead for Uber, settles in a low chair in the new Tea Room Yao, a modern tea salon at Nairobi's Kenrail Towers. He joined Uber in 2018. So far, he has launched UberBoda to increase product offerings and expand into the low-cost market segment of the Kenyan economy. Brian, a geek at heart, is enthusiastic about the positive technology disruption ongoing in Africa, a space he has played in for a few years now.

Before Uber, he worked at Rendeavour, the largest private mixed-use master developer in sub-Saharan Africa as the Head of Project Finance at Tatu City (subsidiary).

He studied Bachelor of Science in Actuarial Science at the University of Nairobi and did a Postgraduate Degree in Financial Strategy from the University of Oxford in the UK. Brian also has an Executive Certificate in Real Estate from the University of Oxford.

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If you could know the truth, the actual truth, to one question, what question would you ask?

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It’s deep. Very deep. (Pause) What’s my oath? What’s my main purpose? I always feel like if I know it early enough, it will help. But I think not knowing gives one the adventure of being able to try many things. But also knowing the general path, may help narrow down what one does in life.

If you had one superpower, and ability to walk through walls, to be invisible, to read minds, to just make money by staring at a sheet of papers, stuff like that, what would that be?

Power to influence. We live in a world where everyone aims to grow. But we need it to be harmonious, to influence people in one positive direction, regardless of the path one is taking.

What do you think is your strength as a man?

Hmm. That’s a tough one. (Chuckles) I’ve never thought of it. (Pause) Understanding. It’s something that I’ve grown to learn that people are different.

And your weakness?

If I say I don’t have any weaknesses would be a lie. (Chuckles) Being an analytical person makes me want everything to be perfect.

How important or useful is a Master's degree from Oxford University?

At the time of getting the Master’s degree, I’d been working for Tatu City for six years and I was looking to amplify my analytical skills.

I was looking for an avenue to learn more from different fields globally.

What I liked about the course was it was modular, meaning I could still work, but every two months I'd have to be in the UK for about two weeks.

Uber Kenya country manager Brian Njao

Uber Kenya country manager Brian Njao during the photo session at the tech firm's Riverside offices on March 13, 2020. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

You are 32 years old now, what did you dream of when you were 25?

My dream was to retire at 30. Great ambitions, I know. (Laughs). I had this vision that by that time I’ll have figured out some angle or some sector on the economy that requires my intervention that will take me to the next level.

What do you fear now?

I fear things staying the same because that means that I'm not growing as a person.

What point in your life did you have or experience the greatest turmoil and what lessons did you learn from it?

My father passed away when I was 12. I was raised by my mom. For years, I tried to figure out why this was happening to me so early in life.

But this also brings the realisation of what my mom has done for me. My work ethic comes from her. She was always working and I remember telling her much later that she should work smart.

Last year, she called me at around 8pm and asked me ‘why are you in the office, I thought people work smart and not hard.’ (Laughs)

Where did you get the greatest male influence in your life?

From my uncles. We’re a close family. We try to have Sunday lunch as much as possible. And we hold many family gatherings.

What do you find yourself struggling with at this stage of your life?

Finding time to relax. Given my schedule and the demands of my role at Uber, I have to intentionally find time to relax, meet my family obligations, meet friends and it does reduce the number of time you have for each.

But I think everyone is struggling with this.

Do you have an idea of what kind of father you want to be, based on your interactions and influence of your uncles growing up?

I want to be a present father. Historically, being present as a father meant providing for the family. But I think being present should go beyond that. A father should be part and parcel of their children's lives; being there for homework, offering guidance and things like that.

What has surprised you about being an adult?

When we grow up, we always assume life is black and white. Things are good and bad. Things should go this way or that way.

Then as you grow older, you realise this world is sort of a shade of grey, things are mixed up. Things you thought should be the norm aren't be the norm. I have learned to be more open to what people are going through, to what the world is about and that things don't necessarily have to go a certain way.

If humans are cities, what city would you be?

Aah. Nice one. London.

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