Why US tech billionaire took up job as ambassador to Kenya

Meg Whitman

Ms Margaret “Meg” Whitman, the US Ambassador to Kenya.

Photo credit: Joan Pereruan | Nation Media Group

When United States President Joe Biden announced the nomination of Margaret “Meg” Whitman as the Ambassador to Kenya last December, one question must have lingered in many minds across the world: why would a Silicon Valley billionaire with a storied career as a corporate executive and board member of some of the world’s top multinationals take up this role?

It was an inevitable introductory question as the Sunday Nation team settled down for an exclusive interview with Ms Whitman—the first since her arrival last month—at the American embassy in Nairobi.

Perhaps undergirded by decades of experience as a corporate leader and awareness of her new role as a diplomat, 66-year-old Ms Whitman calmly tackles even the most uncomfortable of questions and has a vivid recollection of events, people and places. She speaks with authority and dresses the part.

Her real-time net worth on Forbes is indicated as $3.1 billion (Sh373 billion), ranking her among the richest women in the United States.

Forbes data indicate that in 2021, the year she was nominated to be the ambassador to Kenya, her peak net worth was $5.8 billion. This usually fluctuates depending on various factors, including stock markets.

Back to the question: What convinced the billionaire, most known for steering multinational e-Commerce giant eBay to astronomical growth and for leading Hewlett-Packard among other high-profile corporate positions, to take up a US government job in  Nairobi?

Influential global role

“So, I was called by the President of the United States (President Joe Biden) and he asked whether I would be willing to be an ambassador. And the next sentence was, ‘We want you to go to Kenya.’ And I said, ‘Okay, tell me why. Tell me more’,” she says.

Ms Whitman says that in her conversation with President Biden, he explained the influential global role Africa would play in the next decades, especially given its burgeoning population.

“And he said, ‘Kenya is one of the most important countries in Africa, and so I’d really like you to take up a post there. The other thing that I think would be a good fit for you and the United States is that Kenya is the East Africa leader in technology; with Safaricom, M-Pesa (a mobile money service) and the start-up community’,” says Ms Whitman, who has been inducted to the US Business Hall of Fame.

In picking her, the president believed that having an American ambassador with such vast experience, especially in technology—given Kenya’s prominent role on the continent—would be important.

She told the President: “Okay, I’m game.”

But being a daughter, wife, mother and grandmother, it was not a decision she would make on her own. So, what did those closest to her think about this? Throughout the interview, the significance of her family, especially in some of the most important decisions in her personal and professional career, stands out.

Her two sons—Griff Harsh and Will Harsh —encouraged her to take up the ambassadorial job because “life is about experiences and we think it would be a great experience.” It did not matter that she had never been a diplomat before and her husband, Dr Griffith R Harsh, a renowned neurosurgeon in the United States, decided to come with her to Nairobi.

“As it turns out, American medical licences are good in just three countries outside the US. Kenya is one of them. And so, he is now trying to decide what he will do as he gets settled in Kenya,” she tells Sunday Nation about a man whose unwavering support alongside that of her mother is acknowledged throughout Ms Whitman’s book, The Power of Many.

She goes on: “It turns out that households don’t run themselves. And so, just getting the household set up, learning how to use M-Pesa, understanding how we get around and where to go, I have had no time. So, that has fallen to him.”

Besides, Ms Whitman had to resign from the board of General Motors, Procter & Gamble, and Teach for America among others, to satisfy the requirements for her appointment. Ambassadorial duties, she says, require the relinquishing of all such positions.

Even though she had been to Kenya before in 2018 during a two-week visit that also included travelling to Tanzania as a member of the board of trustees of The Nature Conservancy, a US-headquartered global environmental organisation, this time it was different.

Ms Whitman’s nomination was considered by the US Senate and confirmed on July 14 this year. She came to Kenya on August 1 to take over from Kyle McCarter. It was not until August 5 that President Uhuru Kenyatta, whose term ended this month, received her credentials. Significantly, it was just four days to one of Kenya’s most closely contested elections.

Take on general election

With that, she was thrust headlong into the General Election. She admits that she had been researching a lot about Kenyan politics, but a lot was new. Ms Whitman’s conclusion is that the election was “remarkable”.

“Democracy has prevailed here,” she says. “The outcome was ultimately contested, but in an appropriate, non-violent way—right to the Supreme Court that adjudicated and the candidates accepted the results. And I think it was a shining moment for Kenya.”

She goes on: “Kenyans should be very proud of the process that took place here. It was, I think, a model even for East Africa and all of Africa and, frankly, a model for the world.”

She was an observer on Election Day and her experience at Nairobi Primary School is stuck in her mind. She marvelled at the calmness and organisation of the voting—though she thought the ballot papers were “very long and many ”.

Ms Whitman says that the US had no preferred candidate in the election: “The US was very clear that this was a Kenyan election by Kenyans for Kenyans. We are here only to be supportive if we can be in terms of transparency and as election observers. But we did not have a preferred candidate.”

Nonetheless, there appear to have been shuttle diplomacy by Western envoys during the post-election period. On August 18, for example, Ms Whitman was in a team that included Delaware Senator Chris Coons, which separately met with Mr Kenyatta, Kenya Kwanza Alliance’s William Ruto (then President-elect) and Mr Raila Odinga of Azimio La Umoja-One Kenya Coalition Party.

What was this all about? She says Mr Coons was the reason the meetings happened.

“As you probably know, Senator Coons has a long history with Africa and a long history in Kenya. He did his first year of college at the University of Nairobi. And he speaks quite fluent Swahili.

“So, he knew all three (Mr Kenyatta, Mr Ruto and Mr Odinga) and he actually arranged these meetings. They (the neetings) were really about checking in with his friends and talking about where we were in the election and encouraging what was already underway—which was a peaceful resolution to the challenge at the Supreme Court,” says Ms Whitman.

But did the US and other global powers fear Mr Kenyatta would cling to power and frustrate a peaceful transition? The envoy says she never had such doubts, given her interactions with him.

“I would say we were quite confident,” she says. “When I met with President Kenyatta as I presented my credentials, I said, ‘I have every confidence that this election will go as you all hope it will: violence-free, a peaceful transfer of power.’ And that’s exactly what happened. And I, in the US embassy, had confidence that this would go smoothly. And it did.”

Visa backlog

Ms Whitman’s management style celebrates competence and teamwork. Early in her tenure, she has had to confront some long-standing challenges at the embassy that she says she is confident she will resolve.

The backlog in handling visa applications of Kenyans has resulted in long waiting times, and has been top on her agenda after complaints from those who had been forced to reschedule or cancel their travel plans.

As part of the efforts to streamline operations, the American embassy recently waived interview requirements for some categories of visa renewal applications. She says she recently spent a few hours working with the teams processing the visas and, after some training, helped to take applicants’ fingerprints.

“I’m not trained to do the interviews (like the consular officials) but anyone can do finger-printing,” she says, laughing.

The embassy now has a new “very experienced” consul-general, she says, and the ambassador hopes that the appointment, plus the recent repeal of a requirement for visa interviews for some categories, will eventually help clear the backlog and improve the US visa application experience.

If she still sticks to her worldview when she wrote her 2010 book, The Power of Many, she will be slow on parties and showy treats for embassy staff. While emerging tech companies indulged in parties, she writes, eBay was focused on spending only on the necessities and paying its staff well.

“Beyond vetoing fluff and excess, I was determined to make sure eBay remained a lean, efficient company in other ways, too,” she wrote.

So what drove her as a pioneer woman corporate executive often breaking the proverbial glass ceiling?

Because of her career choices, Ms Whitman has at times worked in set-ups where she was the only woman in the room, but she is grateful for the mentorship from her mother and her early workplace influences for building in her the spirit to fight on.

“From the earliest day, my mother told my brother, my sister and me: ‘You can do anything you want.’ And I amazingly believed her. There was no reason to believe her, but she was very persuasive and confident. And she said, ‘Don’t let people tell you you can’t do it. You figure it out,’” says Ms Whitman.

She adds; “I landed the US ambassador job. I’m not a career diplomat. I’ve never done this before. So, at first, you’re thinking, ‘Hmm, how am I going to do this?’ And then you figure it out. And so, my advice to men and women is: Give yourself a little latitude to figure it out.”

America has previously sent some colourful and controversial envoys to Nairobi, so what should Kenya expect during her term? She says democracy and transparency remain important and she will also focus on economic development—particularly small and medium enterprises.

“How to take this digital environment and make it work for small- to medium businesses is a real passion of mine,” she says, saluting President Ruto for also focusing on enterprise in his manifesto.

“What Kenyans have to build on are things like the penetration of M-Pesa. I’m not sure that Kenyans realise how impressive this is. In Silicon Valley, we all knew about M-Pesa and were amazed at the penetration and how it had lifted people out of poverty and now everyone in Kenya is banked,” says Ms Whitman.

Her assessment of Kenya’s technology scene is that it is at its infancy but has tremendous potential.

“I think it’s very vibrant, but maybe at the beginning of the cycle,” she says. “What you need to create an even more vibrant tech scene is some large companies: Safaricom, now Google is here, Microsoft,among others. What they are doing is bringing in young tech workers and training them.”

Such an environment with many skilled people helps create start-ups.

“Then you need an investment community: venture capital. And venture capital is alive and well in Kenya. In fact, if you adjust for the size of GDP of the country, Kenya has the biggest venture capital sector on the continent of Africa,” she says.

Ms Whitman emphasises the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) for long-term gains.

“You need some very good universities who are training computer scientists, mechanical engineers, civil engineers in Stem. I would encourage the leading universities here to think about investing in training more Stem students,” she says.

Ms Whitman, who is often listed as one of the most influential women in the world, particularly points out that “unless girls major in Stem and go through high school with a good maths and science background, you’re not going to have the women to take the jobs in technology.”

Food security

During her tenure in Kenya, she says she will also focus on food security. Ms Whitman is perturbed by the humanitarian crisis caused by the drought in north-eastern Kenya and the Horn of Africa that is “perhaps the largest in the world right now”.

She says she will also put emphasis on conservation.

“What Kenya has done around community conservancies is extraordinary. You know, the national parks, I think, comprise around two to three per cent of Kenyan lands. If you add all the community conservancies, it could go up to 12 per cent of Kenya—and I am being conservative. And, obviously, tourism is a big source of foreign exchange and a big part of the economy,” she says.

Speaking of the economy, it is widely acknowledged that Kenya-US trade relations are lopsided in favour of the superpower. The trade window facilitated by Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) has been among the key areas to bridge that gap. It first opened in 2000 and extended in 2015, but stares at an uncertain future when it expires in 2025.

“Kenya has benefitted, I think quite dramatically, under Agoa. They are one of the biggest beneficiaries of Agoa, particularly in apparel exports. We have seen apparel exports from Kenya to the US go up dramatically in the context of Agoa,” she says, hoping that there will be conversations about maintaining this momentum.

Investment Partnership

There is also the USA-Kenya Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations that started during the tenure of former President Donald Trump. Ms Whitman says the FTA has been binned by the Biden administration in favour of the United States-Kenya Strategic Trade and Investment Partnership (STIP) launched in July.

While Mr Trump wanted to negotiate a bilateral trade deal, the STIP was described as “the new roadmap” to support African regional economic integration.

“When new administrations come in, sometimes policies change. And so, what we now have in place is the United States-Kenya Strategic Trade and Investment Partnership that was negotiated by our United States trade representative and (Trade Cabinet Secretary) Betty Maina in the Kenyan government. And this is an important first step to ultimately perhaps even more cooperation,” says Ms Whitman.

She adds: “One of the things that I’d very much like to see is exports from Kenya to the US improve significantly. It’s important for Kenya because of the foreign exchange reserves and the opportunity for American companies to import to Kenya.”

During Mr Kenyatta’s administration from 2013, and his predecessor Mwai Kibaki since 2003, there has been a rise in Chinese investments and trade with the Asian giant. Chinese firms, mostly state-backed, have been involved in various mega projects, including construction of the Standard Gauge Railway and the Nairobi Expressway. Is the US worried about China’s growing influence?

 “Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken was very clear when he was here in October 2021 that we didn’t want to say to Kenyans ‘you can’t do business with China’ but give Kenyans an opportunity to do more business with Americans. And so, we definitely are interested in making sure there is a level playing field for American companies and making sure that American companies understand the opportunity in Kenya,’” she says.

Ms Whitman notes: “I was the CEO of a Fortune 50 company. And I think many big American companies don’t understand the opportunity in Kenya. When you sit in America, you are thinking about Asia, Europe, Latin America – because they are so close to us – but the opportunity in Africa and in Kenya is great.”

The American embassy has also been under fire for its travel advisories over the years. Under Ms Whitman, two that warned American citizens against travelling to Kisumu on key dates around the presidential election—the announcement of the results and the Supreme Court verdict—have stirred debate.

“Our first job as the embassy and [for me] as the US ambassador is to make sure that Americans and embassy personnel are safe. And this is true not only for Kenya but for every country in the world: safety of Americans and embassy personnel is number one. We had no information that you didn’t have, but our second biggest installation outside of Nairobi is Kisumu,” she says, adding that the precaution could have been informed by “some violence in previous elections”.

 Says Ms Whitman: “I have no real latitude about whether to issue those warnings or not. They are really required by the United States government in these kinds of circumstances. Fortunately, Kisumu was perfect. There was no violence there, and so we were happy about that.”

US Supreme Court

She explains that even though she did not have a lot of latitude on the decision to issue those warnings, “as we go forward, we’ll try to think about these as carefully as we can.”

We held the interview three months after the US Supreme Court overturned the Roe v Wade judgment, effectively removing many liberties for women on abortion. Will that affect the US government’s funding of reproductive health rights in Kenya? Ms Whitman says a categorical “no”.

“President Biden has been very clear that in the US, he will continue to support women’s rights to choose,” says Ms Whitman. “The State Department and the mission in Nairobi will not change policies on that.”

Presidential ambition?

Having been previously listed by some publications as one of the people most likely to be America’s first woman president, she is categorical during our interview that she would not consider getting into the race for the White House.

“I ran for governor of California (in 2010). As you know, I lost [to Jerry Brown]. And I sort of did my turn at elective politics. So, you will not see me run again,” she says.

Ms Whitman has visited a few places outside Nairobi, most recently Kisumu, but hopes to travel more. And true to her love for the outdoors, she has already been to Ngong Hills and Mt Longonot for a hike. She has also visited the Amboseli National Park and the Maasai Mara.

“But that’s just the beginning of my travel. I want to get out to places beyond Nairobi. Nairobi is very important, but I want to make sure I get out to towns and villages across Kenya.”

We had to wind up our interview exactly when our scheduled hour with her ran out. She was rushing to address a gathering of women in technology hosted by the embassy.

Dorcas Odumbe contributed to this article with additional interview questions