ISIS NYONG’O IS A PROLIFIC CITIZEN OF THE WORLD AND A NEWLY ENGAGED WOMAN. Isis Nyong’o has always been known as an achiever. Google her name and what pops up is Forbes, MTV. Stanford, Harvard, the Wall Street Journal, Top 40 under 40, Africa’s 20 youngest power women…the list goes on.
As Vice President of inMobi, the world’s largest mobile advertising company, Isis heads operations for the entire African continent. When she is not doing all of these and saving the world, Isis is pretty much a regular, Kenyan-American chick.
When she arrived at Tribe Hotel for our interview, we were pleased to see that Isis was not alone. Named after an Egyptian goddess, it was fitting that her companion was a dark-skinned Adonis. The tall drink of water who accompanied her was fiance Christopher Madison. They met earlier this year when Chris moved to Kenya to open an ad agency.
Isis says “Less than one week after he arrived, we were at a friend’s party and saw each other across the room. We got introduced and as they say, the rest is history.” Their wedding plans are still in the works and it will be a destination wedding. “We have quite a large number of family and friends who will be coming in from the States so this will be the best way to cater for all of them.”
Has it been difficult for Chris to adapt to life in Kenya? “He has lived in Asia, South America and all over the States so moving to Kenya was not a big deal,” explains Isis. They both spent their formative years as global citizens. In her experience. “I was lucky to be raised by worldly parents who exposed my three brothers and I to a wide array of cultures. I move easily between worlds, not just between Africa and the US, but across socioeconomic, ethnic, generational, and whichever social lines we insist on drawing.”
Isis’ mother, an American of Russian descent, and her dad the late Professor Aggrey Nyong’o, met on campus in the US.
Their academic discipline and work ethic helped shape Isis and all her brothers. We were not allowed to watch television. ”We had to figure out how to entertain ourselves. My mom is a pediatrician so she always gave us a lot of freedom to be creative. She encouraged us to colour outside the lines and taught us that, we could be anything we wanted.
” In spite of her background, Isis was in no way insulated from the realities of life. “As a public health expert my mom dedicated most of her career to serving underprivileged communities in Kenya and the US. As kids, we spent a lot of time running around Kibera and the poorer neighbourhoods of Detroit while she worked at her clinics. I grew up with no illusion of what my family had including the best education possible.”
To date Isis actively supports various education charities in Kenya and Tanzania. She loves visiting the village and says “Can you believe when I go there they still call me a mzungu?!” The fact that she does not speak Luo doesn’t help! “We went to visit Mama Sarah Obama. Her village is like 30 minutes from mine. We asked her if the girls, Sasha and Malia can speak Luo. She said to us, sadly, ‘No! All they know is “nade (how are you,) ber (I’m fine) and ero kamano (thank you).” ‘I laughed because they have only been to Kenya once and they know as much Luo as I do!”
When she first saw Obama speak at the Democratic Convention, Isis was deeply moved. “I cried. To think that he could be president and he came from the exact same background as me, I mean how crazy is that! What really impressed me about Obama is that he stayed true to who he was in spite of incredible pressure. They say he is a Black man, but the reality is he was raised by a white family. He refused to remove that from the dialogue just to fit in. I thought that was really powerful.”
Ironically, Isis felt that Kenya was much more accepting of her dual identity. “It was after attending Hillcrest School, and
I went back to the States at 16, that I realized people thought I was Black! Here people could immediately see I was “point 5″ – there is a category, but in the States it was nonexistent. Every time I’d go to the supermarket with my mom they would ring us up separately because they assumed we were not together.
Other people couldn’t understand how we were related to our white relatives! I found it so strange! They think in terms of Black or White. I felt like mixed people were invisible.” She adds being a member of the Black community; you are expected to fulfill certain ideals. Like I was at this party in D.C with my Kenyan friends. I have two left feet but I got up and started dancing. My friends took me aside and said ‘in Kenya everybody knows you’re half white. But in America no-one understands that you’re mixed. So you just can’t do that.’ It was funny of course but it underscores the difference in perspective there. I feel like you have to fight to be an individual.”
According to Isis, while Kenya has the complexities of tribe, South Africa has its own story too. “I interviewed many white men over 45 who grew up under apartheid. These are people who would have a very hard time reporting to me. In the end the team of 10 worked out really well in terms of gender balance and ethnicity.”
Her highlight in South Africa was when she met Oprah a couple of years ago. “I was invited to her school to speak to the girls about leadership. She was hiding when we spoke then she came out afterwards.” How did it feel to meet Oprah? “She really is like how she is on television. For the few minutes she talked to me, I really could tell her mind was completely on me. She really lives in the moment.”
As VP, one would think Isis is inundated with offers. She is. “I have consistently declined higher paying jobs that didn’t meet my other needs for challenging work, responsibility and personal growth. I did this even when others thought a certain company wasn’t ‘worthy’ of a Stanford or Harvard graduate. This approach has led to a deeply rewarding career.
We all need to continue growing where we are or to explore other paths.” This explains why the Ivy League graduate opted to move back home 10 years ago. She attributes her love for the continent to her father. “He was a remarkable man. His premature departure was a significant loss for Kenya and for Africa. He was deeply devoted to his work and was instrumental in developing advances in pathology at Nairobi Hospital. I still meet young doctors who were his students and a big regret of mine is never seeing him lecture. I miss his offbeat humor, distinctive laugh and spending time together. I think my love of travel, curiosity about other cultures, academic and professional discipline and healthy lifestyle have their genesis in him.
” She loves to travel, but hates to fly; “I am afraid of flying but I fly all the time. I drive in spite of my strong fear of accidents. As you know, my dad died in a car accident, and before that I was involved in a terrible car crash as a teenager in Michigan. Someone hit us and I got out to try flag someone down on the road and get help. Then this driver came along, knocked me down and crushed me under his car.” She narrowly escaped paralysis and her long convalescence didn’t crush her spirit. “It would have been easy to sink into depression. I was able to take it a step at a time. Sure enough, today I am fine.”
Isis also gives credit to her strong support system. “I have a network of people I reach out to when I have need for guidance.”
Her philosophy is to leverage each life experience in order to grow. Never comfortable with public speaking, she recalls how her business school professors drilled them. “We were called at random and we had to be prepared.” Working at MTV Base in a tough sales job pitching to unwilling prospects, Isis honed her skills even further. Today, on TV, radio or the podium, she never actually relishes being in the limelight but to her it is all in a day’s work. “I try to clear my mind and get really Zen before each session. I am a functional speaker and I can communicate but I would like to get really good at it. I think building confidence and trying things always helps. A lot of people don’t do things out of fear.” This attitude is encapsulated in her favourite quote, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate but that we are powerful beyond measure.”
Her fiance describes her as a “very centered, very grounded woman.” Isis confides that she is a lot more balanced than she was in the past. “I feel that way now. Some years ago I would work excessively hard, sleeping four hours a night. I look back and think, what was that all about?” She has never given any less than 100% but has had to pull back in certain areas.confidence. “There were a few people much more senior than me and they were asking, ’Are you sure you can do this? Can you actually handle this?’ The offer had already come.
Then doubt just set in.” But the kind words of a friend close to her age and experience helped her realise their hidden agenda. “I will tell you that they were all men. My friend told me ‘If you thought you were up to the task up until this point then of course you can do it!’ And she was right.”
“I am very professionally driven so I can get into a lot of detail sometimes. It’s part of my personality but I think it’s also my weakness. I am learning to step back a bit.”
Being a woman in leadership came naturally when you look at her predecessors. “My mother was one of the only two women in her medical school, one of two in the whole university. She is very stable and always expected us to work really hard. I don’t know any other way.”
Her brothers epitomize this mindset of excellence. Tavier is a professor at NYU in the performance arts, Omondi is a physician and Kwame is a 2-D animator. She is close to her cousins too. “I never had a sister so my cousins are my sisters!”
Listening to music has always been one of her favourite pastimes. After her time at MTV, Isis’ perspective on music changed forever. “I developed a deep appreciation for the complex nature of the music industry. The high level of production that goes into music today distorts the actual sound of artistes. Hearing them perform live is the closest we can get to their true talent. One memorable concert was Sade Live in San Francisco 12 years ago – she sounded better live than recorded. More recently, watching Coldplay perform at Soccer City in Johannesburg with my team last year was incredible. My all-time favorite is UK-band Everything But The Girl who sadly, don’t perform live anymore.”
IN HER OWN WORDS
Do you have any pets?
Three dogs. We call them the Hell-Hounds (collectively)
Your favourite meal or dessert that you enjoy cooking for your guests?
I wouldn’t do that to my guests – cooking, that is. I do love to eat especially Mexican food, banana bread, creative salads and fruit.
Are you vegetarian?
I am a recovered vegetarian after 8 years of shunning meat. I personally feel healthier incorporating meat into my diet but in moderation
I’ve rarely met a sport I didn’t like playing. I do yoga and I enjoy swimming, running as well as team sports including hockey and volleyball
My borthers hogged all the musical and artistic genes. Do people still have hobbies in the time of Facebook?
Most memorable destination?
Istanbul. Not just in terms of physical beauty. The people there seem to enjoy life a lot
Favourite line from a song?
“Know when to hold and when to fold”, The Gambler, Kenny Rogers
Drum Magazine, November 2012
WORDS: TRICIA WANJALA
MAKE-UP: TRICIA WANJALA
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