Former lecturer turned communications manager, Dorothy Ooko, cuts a tranquil figure. Ironically, as the region’s communications force for one of the world’s biggest online company, Google, she can be incredibly guarded and modest regarding her personal career and life’s journey in general. ESTHER AKELLO picks her brains on how she managed to integrate her divergent career paths seamlessly, overcoming society’s expectations and building self-awareness.
Securing an interview with Dorothy Ooko is not an easy task. First she is busy. As Google Communication Manager for East and Francophone Africa Dorothy is in charge of the external communication and dissemination of information of the world’s biggest online company, within the region.
A daunting task no doubt especially since eight countries – Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Cote d’Ivore, Senegal, Mali and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) look up to her for direction. Secondly she is not given to profile interviews.
A woman of measured words yet oozing of magnetic confidence and self-assuredness, Dorothy does not believe in limiting oneself, or giving people a reason to do so either. So much so that the assistant professor (who declines to be addressed by the title and only reveals it in passing during the interview) will not even reveal her age.
“It is amazing how we let so many things define us. For instance, being (un)married or having children or not. Unto themselves, these things are not wrong, but never underestimate society’s knack to judge an individual and their abilities based on these dynamics,” she says.
Though not a new name in the Kenyan tech scene (she was the former communications manager at the now defunct mobile communications company Nokia), even fewer know Dorothy for something else: her long-standing teaching career, a profession she looks back on with so much pride that she cannot help but sum up her current corporate career into that one word: teaching.
“I have been a teacher for the longest time having lectured in several universities and institutions. Public Relations is in itself also a form of teaching as one is tasked with sharing and trying to get people to understand what one’s company is about. Google, and how I define my work really, is putting businesses online and teaching them how to flourish in that space, even more so players in the informal sector. In developed countries, people rarely leave the house to look for plumbers, salons or shops. They simply look them up online and make appointments,” she expounds.
One, however, may wonder; what would make a passionate teacher transition from the classroom to the corporate scene?
An equal chance…
While her knack for languages may have put her on her teaching path (she is also fluent in Spanish and Portuguese in addition to, as a rule of thumb, learning the basic national language of any foreign country she visits), Dorothy attributes her prowess in successfully navigating her different career paths to hard work and fate.
“In hindsight, I realise that no experience is wasted. Everything works together to form one beautiful tapestry,” she says.
Dorothy undertook her diploma studies at Universite de Haute Bretagne in France before returning home to pursue her Bachelors of Arts degree in Literature at Kenyatta University, even as she worked at her first teaching post at Mukumu Girls High School. She undertook her Masters in French partly in France and at Kenyatta University where she also taught.
Thereafter, she joined USIU and for almost a decade, practiced as an assistant professor of French as she did her second Masters in Business Strategic Management. But even with all her academic achievements, Dorothy still felt discontented.
“Teaching is wonderful and truth be told, most teachers are passionate about it. After a while, however, you realise that you may have very little to show for it. So I ended up doing everything to make ends meet. When I was not at the university, I was teaching at another institution. If I took a holiday, it was because I was acting as an interpreter at a conference. Finally, I realised that I wanted my professional narrative to change,” she says candidly adding, “Kenyans are a driven and hard working lot. If one pushes oneself, their effort will pay off.”
True to her words, in 2007, and after what she terms as many rejections by many organisations, she secured a job as Nokia’s Communications Manager East and Southern Africa.
The former French lecturer believes her one saving grace was the fact that a non-Kenyan interviewed her because according to Dorothy, she looked the least qualified for the job, at least on paper “One of the reasons the recruiter was having a hard time recruiting a candidate was the fact none of them spoke French.
However, when he saw my resume, he said my French background was enough. He emphasised that unlike fluent French, he could teach me Public Relations within three months, if I was willing to learn. That is how, I got the job” says Dorothy.
The transition was not without its challenges. Many colleagues from both her former and new workplace doubted Dorothy could ride the wave. USIU even kept her teaching position open. But Dorothy rose to the occasion.
“I asked questions without shame or fear and was an eager student. That really helped me in grasping the demands of my role,” she says.
Her tenure will be remembered for the successful government lobbying for the removal of VAT on mobile phones, so as to increase their penetration in the market.
“In Kenya, employers can sometimes get caught up on side shows such as experience, age, gender and papers so much so that they fail to see that passion and potential are pointers to great employees. A passionate individual is willing to learn,” argues Dorothy.
In 2011, Google came calling and she has never looked back. According to Dorothy, one of Google Africa’s prized campaigns is to get more Africans and businesses online.
To that effect, the company is running the Pan-African Digital Skills Training for Africa campaign, which aims to help and encourage one million young Africans to increase their brand visibility online and the optimisation of their various digital platforms and personal sites with little to nil budgets.
Recently, Google also started running campaigns to encourage increased local digital content. “One of the biggest online challenges we have in Africa is limited local content. Africans need to put up content that is relevant to them online.
For instance, it is difficult to find a tutorial for, say, How to cook Mchicha, because people have not put it online,” she explains.
An unconventional woman…
Unafraid to march to the beat of her own drum, Dorothy admits some of her personal life decisions have left some around her uncomfortable.
Having divorced just seven years into her marriage, Dorothy admits she is a romantic at heart and would like to get married again someday.
“I would like to spend my years with a companion. Getting a divorce was not easy, especially when you come to the realisation that there is no hope in saving the marriage. Judgment often swiftly comes when people only see the ‘you walked out’ part. Rarely do they acknowledge that this is not something you just wake up to; it’s a long, agonising decision,” she says.
Dorothy is also a big supporter of mindfulness. She is passionate about mindful meditation, which emphasises living life in the present.
A lifestyle that she says even her fellow born-again Christians had a hard time accepting at first.
“People tend to think meditation is this evil thing where people are channeling malevolent spirits. Hardly! We exercise to keep our bodies active and pray to keep our spirits strong.
We rarely do anything for the mind, which is always on even when we sleep! Mindful meditation focusses on taking time to center and anchor one’s thoughts through breathing and focussing on the present moment non-judgmentally,” she expounds while explaining how she got into the programme, Search Inside Yourself, which she also teaches at Google.
“Google developed the Search Inside Yourself programme after an engineer, Chade-Meng Tan, who was working on a Google search engine programme realised it had answers to everything except as to who one was. It is from this experience that he realised a need to reinforce the emotional intelligence competencies of employees,” explains Dorothy.
A big proponent of personal happiness, Dorothy divides her pleasure time between football (Manchester United is her team of choice), working out, salsa dancing, cooking and reading.
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