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Soko Women Interview Series: Isis Nyong'o Madison

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Showcasing inspiring women who embody the values, drive, and style of a “Soko Woman”- women who are “fashioning a better world.”

This month we sit down with Isis Nyong’o Madison, an inspiration to our team as a woman in technology who is doing it all. Beautiful, intelligent, with Kenyan and American roots, Isis has a vision for the continent. A graduate of Stanford and Harvard Business School, Isis moved back to Nairobi to steer mobile content and strategy for companies including MTV, Google, and InMobi. We ask Isis about what drives such a power woman, about her cousin Lupita, and about being a new mom.

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Home base: Nairobi, Kenya

Ella Peinovich: In an interview with Lupita on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, he mentions your relation and references your Forbes acclaim as one of the “Top 20 Youngest Power Women in Africa” asking: “What does she [you] do? To which Lupita replies: “Something to do with technology, she is just like amazing!
Please clarify for less technology savvy persons what exactly your do? And what makes you so “amazing”?

Isis Nyong’o Madison: Funny enough, since then there has been a running joke that I am the Chandler in our family. I would describe myself as a generalist that has a track record of building and scaling businesses from scratch as a General Manager or a Managing Director. 

You are a global woman, American and Kenyan, with a world-class education. You could have worked anywhere in the world yet you chose to move back to Kenya. Why Kenya? What does Africa and/or Kenya have that you find so appealing?

I have always been very passionate about Africa in general, in terms of building a career and life here. It’s this inner belief in Africa’s potential that has led me, in a self-fulfilling way, to build a fantastic career here. It has involved a few leaps of faith, and not being too worried that it did not ‘look’ like the right move to others if something felt like the right option for my own personal growth.  I learnt early on to listen critically to what other people said and draw my own conclusions. While still at Harvard, I received this advice from a career officer: “It sounds like you really want to go to Africa, however you may want to consider what does that do to your options to come back to the US. The longer you stay outside of the US, the harder it is to come back”. I reflected on that and concluded that it didn’t resonate with me as I didn’t want to not do something because of what may or may not happen in the future. I sure am glad I didn’t listen.

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You had a Focus on Africa before the Dialogue about the Continent really Changed, tell us more about the state of the continent when you came back to Kenya. 

The Africa story now is all about the sexiness and appeal of Africa, with headlines like Africa Rising (Economist, 2011). This was not the story when I first came back in 2002; the atmosphere was very different then. Everybody I knew encouraged me to stay in the US, saying, “There are no jobs.” and“You’re crazy to come back”. However, my  older brother had moved back to build the animation industry so this gave me the courage to try it out for myself.

Did you find that you stumbled into the Tech field, or was that where the job opportunities were at the time?

When I returned to Kenya in 2002, I actively ‘tarmacked, interviewing in wide sectors and networked for a job,. I stumbled upon a tech start-up in the online jobs sector, MyJobsEye, which was way ahead of it’s time. I joined as Head of Marketing and it was a great experience as I learned how to creatively solve problems on a shoestring budget. 

Were you recruited by the corporations you later worked for? 

I networked into my jobs at MTV and Google. I’ve never  worked harder for a job than when I pursued my a role at MTV. I saw in the press that they were launching in Africa and figured that they must be building a team. I actively chased them over a 5-month period, finding inroads through my networks. As soon as I landed an initial call with Alex Okosi (who still heads up MTV in Africa and is a great friend until today), I flew to London on my own dime (which was a big financial gamble as I was still a student) to meet him and he hired me on the spot. I learned then to never give up on something you feel is a right fit for you.

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Were there any challenges you faced as a tech leader in Kenya? How did you overcome them? What are the main obstacles you have had to overcome to get to where you are? 

The main challenge I’ve faced in my career is being too early. Since I’ve worked with the world’s most innovative entertainment and tech companies, the products and services we were building were often too early for the market. I recently heard a global tech leader whose names escapes me that, “Being too early is the same as being wrong”.  I’m not entirely sure I agree with that but it does require a great deal of patience and resources to stay the course.

At MTV I was in a sales role and sold sponsorship packages to youth-oriented brands to connect with the youth. It may be hard to believe now but in 2005 many mobile operators were not marketing to the youth since “young people had no money”. We were selling a vision of a Pan-African music platform, trying to convince advertisers and TV broadcasters  that the youth were an important segment of the market. For example, we spend endless hours trying to convince skeptical decision makers that the youth in Kenya would want to watch Nigerian music videos and vice versa. In a few short years, we were proved right with the rapid spread of Nigerian music and film across Africa to the point where we now have Naija nights and Nigerian presenters on radio in Kenya (thought it looks like we may have been wrong about the ‘vice versa’ part!). A second example from my work at Google involved increasing Youtube adoption in Africa. It took many years of improving the ecosystem but now it’s very fulfilling to see how much content from Kenya is being uploaded and how easy it is to watch these videos from the comfort of one’s own home.

Where do you seek inspiration for your work? 
I have had a lot of global exposure and these experiences have given me the perspective that there are many different ways of living and things do not need to be a specific way – so I don’t give that much weight to the status quo. This inspires me to be curious and bring to my work a fusion of many possibilities. I also draw inspiration from other people and the insights they share.  

You have your own Wikipedia page, what is not included that you wish people knew about you? 
On the business front I have founded a strategic advisory group, Asphalt & Ink. We work on bespoke engagements with clients ranging from corporations to foundations.. And of course, that I am a mother to Juno Grey Madison, born earlier this year.

As mentioned, you have since added to your personal resume, now a wife and mother. Can you give advice to other women who are trying to do it all: have a career and a family? 
It’s all so new for me so I’d rather gain advice from other women! What I can share, as I think about the next step, is that I aim to shape my life more holistically, not to have too sharp of lines between my personal and professional life, but to be a bit more blended and nuanced. It is a gradual process I have been trying to achieve over time, and admittedly not something that everyone can achieve. It really depends on the position you are in and the job choices one has.

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Do you see yourself stepping back into a CEO position?
I highly value having some control over my destiny and while it is possible to achieve this in more formalized structures, I am choosing to go down a more entrepreneurial route.      

What is your position on Women in the Workplace? 
I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot lately.  Overall, I strongly believe that most work environments need to be more conducive to women’s success. This is an important and multifaceted topic but I can share one example of what a more women-friendly world would look like. Since childrearing is still the main ‘other job’ of working women, if onsite crèches (childcare facilities) were the norm at work instead of an exception, this would help to alleviate the cost and stress of managing childcare for mums. In my case, I have made a conscious decision to make my career more Kenyan focused to reduce my travel and be more present in my family’s life. I feel very grateful that my career has previously allowed me to travel to some amazing places. However, at this stage it is a real consideration to have my professional life compatible with my home life.  

What does your typical day look like?
Each day is different. As I continue to get the hang of motherhood while seguing back into work, the days can include everything from mom-and-baby yoga classes to high-level strategy meetings. I’m deeply appreciative of the flexibility I have and can’t remember when I last learned so many new things at once. 

What is your personal style? 
My style is contemporary, yet worldly; I like jewelry that looks like it can be from anywhere in the world. My personal style is still evolving. As a new mom I now prioritize comfort in my clothing and shoes. With a busy schedule, getting ready quickly is imperative therefore my daily routine consists of getting ready in under 30 minutes (and it can be as quick as 5 minutes!). Therefore, I love my accessories. Between bangles and bags, I wear a lot of hand-made designer accessories made in Kenya to fit my comfortable, on-the-go style. 

Favorite Piece from Soko? 
I love the necklaces, the Lulu Bone Necklace and Pira Bone Earrings set is beautiful. I recently had a Mother’s Day splurge buying earrings for my mom and friends who are new moms – and this included the Drop Bone Earrings (dipped) and the Brass Fringe Earrings. The drop bone earrings I see as very versatile, it goes with black or white and any color, it is lightweight and it hangs nicely with my long neck. The Brass Fringe is also very nice to mix with my other Brass jewelry. It fits into my range of jewelry, currently consisting of very large and bold pieces coupled with smaller, more subtle ones.

Now that I know that Soko delivers in Nairobi, I am in trouble!

Any advice for aspiring tech entrepreneurs? 
It is important for one to build a track record and stay the course. There are not that many quick wins and there is a lot to be said for building something, either your own company or within another company and showing commitment to it. What I have observe at the moment is that only about 10% of entrepreneurs move beyond the idea stage to build compelling products that are then commercialized.

What is next for Technology in Africa? 
The rapid adoption of smart-phones is one of the most significant tech trends.  in urban Africa today. While only 20% of Africans are online up to 50% of urban dwellers are online regularly thanks to the decrease in cost for smartphones, other basic Internet capable phones and data packages. This trend will continue and we’ll see a proliferation of great online services such as Soko.

Any parting words? 
Kenya is increasingly on the global map and, in addition to Lupita, we have other young stars such Ory Okolloh and Binyavanga Wainaina who were recently listed among the “Top 100 Most Influential People in the World” by Time magazine. That’s huge! There’s never been a better time to be young and ambitious in Africa so I encourage the global audience to come visit and urge the local audience to really take stock and pursue your dreams. 

Looking for more inspiration? Read the stories of other Soko Women here:
-Marieme Jamme (Technology)
-Swati Argade (Ethical Fashion)

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