Dr Laila Macharia is a child of the world, sort of. She was raised in Kenya, Namibia and Somalia. She schooled in the US at the University of Oregon and Cornell University and got a doctorate in law from Stanford University. Her past experience includes serving as a Senior Regional Advisor for USAID-East Africa, Head of the Africa Initiative at the Global Fund for Women (now in San Francisco) and as a Corporate Attorney at Clifford Chance in New York City.
Now she runs — as CEO and co-founder — Africa Digital Media Group, an innovative social enterprise that grooms the next generation digital professionals and creative entrepreneurs through training and mentorship.
She met JACKSON BIKO in their offices in the CBD.
What’s the one question you’re hoping that I absolutely won’t ask?
(Pause). I think I’m OK. Let’s see how bad it can get.
I love your optimism. What decisions have you made lately that had the greatest impact on your life?
(Pause). That’s not easy to answer. I’ve taken a bit of a break from the public domain and it’s been a few years. There is a lot I’m seeing in the public realm that I think needs intervention. I think leadership asks you to step out and do your part, sometimes your voice could be the voice that is missing and that can change the course of events. I want to come back in whatever form that it takes.
What kind of teenager were you?
Problematic. (Laughs). I think there was a lot of expectations for me. We were three in the family, I being the first born. We are all very close as with the parents as well. I was very creative. So, I was writing already. I used to write plays. I had a lot of creativity at the time and there wasn’t much outlet in our society for that. Eventually, I found my way as many creatives do in the end.
If you were to pick an element in your teenage that you would want to employ in adulthood, what would that be?
Definitely creating space for diverse voices and for people to bring their ideas to life. This is across the board. I still feel as a society we are not creating enough space for people to bring unique voices into the day-scores. Those voices are needed. Whatever I was doing at that time, I would not have framed it that way obviously. But the idea of truth telling, growth … I think is really important for me for the development of both personal and societal.
Do you find life’s purpose to be a moving target?
(Sighs). That’s a great question. Definitely purpose evolves with different stages of life and definitely as one learns more, not just about the world but about themselves. So, my purpose as a teenager and now would be very different. But I have always, I hear from my parents, always wanted to make a difference. To do things that move the needle. There are many ways to make a difference.
What season are you in right now as a human, an habitant of the planet earth?
Season of impact which has to do more with planting, creating the environment or a platform for things to grow. I feel like I have resources. I think I have learnt a few things, made some mistakes and learnt from them.
If you were to meet your 32- year-old self, what would you tell her?
It’s going to be OK. (Laughs). And that there are different routes to a destination. And trying to stay away from saying, it’s never that serious because it can be.
Would you consider leading in a political space if the opportunity arose?
I don’t think so. I feel there is lots of impact to be done from the business side. I’ve always been interested in public space; how are we bettering the lives of people and how can we mobilise our resources to do that? How can we influence? I don’t feel that running for a political office is necessarily the one you need to have a big impact.
What do you do for play?
I read, I have friends and family and I do a lot of creative writing. I used to act and sing but now there is no time for it. Maybe one day I’ll go back to that.
Which of your two children takes after your creative/ artistic side?
My son, he’s five. I have a boy and a girl. He’s a radically original thinker, smart as a whip with a musical ear and a gift for many languages.
As a progressive female leader of note, and a mother with a son, are you plugged into the conversation of how boys are being raised now?
Yes. I would like him to have good relationships eventually and you start that now. I would like him to be a man of character and also to make a good contribution [to society]. My take on this boy-child issue- and I think about it a lot. There’s actually a book called The Boy Crisis that has influenced me in this path. Our boys are in crisis and as a strong feminist, some people really get irritated when you say that because they think the work for women has not yet been done. That may be people are saying there is a crisis because they are threatened by the progress women are making. In a previous age, gender relations were tied to the kind of economies we had at that time. Now that we’ve moved into a knowledge economy where the brains matter more than brawn, this is what has displaced a lot of men.
This culture doesn’t know how to grapple with the new roles for men. We need men to be leaders in other ways; artists, techs … Because women and men are now negotiating in the same market place, it calls for all of us to then get a role that is liberating and much more authentic because now men can be who they really were all along which is a broad spectrum in the way their personalities manifest. The old chauvinism also trapped men and gave them a very small arena of options. Because, if you are such a brainy guy, did it mean then you are not male enough? So, we really need to liberate everybody and this as an opportunity for people to be more authentic to find more space and to contribute in a way that comes more naturally to them in their particular personality.
So practically, how do you impact this on your son as he grows?
I think the real emphasis is freedom. Letting him flourish and manifest into really who he is without overly prescribing what it has to look like. So, we want character, we want a kind person. We want him to be as bright as he can be and as learned and all of those things and creative. The pressure we are putting on our boys and girls is quite tragic. We put them into boxes way too early. All kinds of boxes, not just gender.
What do you fear for yourself most?
That’s an easy one. I fear that time is wasting. That I won’t have taken my resources and used them to make an impact the way that I could. That I have dilly dallied, that I’ll leave a lot of value on the table and that also includes my voice.
If it’s all to end today at midday, a wrap for everybody living on this planet, what would be your greatest regret?
That I didn’t see our children grow up and see how that ends. I think that will be a global fear. I think for me really what’s left to do is more creative expression. So, I have started making sure that now we move into authenticity and we really start getting my voice and the voices that I’m trying to nurture out.
You are known to be a ferocious reader of books. Please recommend your top books.
The Thinking Person's Guide to God by Harpur; Becoming Modern by Inkeles; Third World to First by Lee Kuan Yew; The Boy Crisis or any of Warren Farrell's books; Plan B or anything by Anne Lamott and The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker.