When I first interacted with Dorothy Ooko, her effortless leadership demeanour was the first thing I noticed. Then, there was an aura of calm friendliness. She owned the space from the moment she walked in.
She, along with a team of PR executives and social media influencers was out on an excursion arranged by Google to Mlango Farm in Ngecha Village, Limuru, as she championed evolving features on the Google platform.
As we took off from Westlands, where the Google offices in Nairobi are located, a tall, smiling lady sat next to me on the van, her hair cropped short, dyed blonde- in what has become her signature look over the last few years. She was dressed in yoga pants and a purple t-shirt, ready for the physically engaging day ahead.
It turns out that physical exercise is something this Google Africa Head of Communications and Public Affairs adores. She says so as we speak on the phone a month later, diving into a conversation about what drives her and who she really is, behind the title.
“I have always loved exercise- working out religiously since I was 18 years old. Physical fitness is something that has been dear to me and something that I use not only for my wellness but to cope with some of life’s ups and downs.”
Dorothy was brought up in Nairobi, and she jokes that she is the ultimate city girl. On the van to the farm, she laughs heartily, and often.
“I was an A-student, and I had to be,” she says about her time at Pangani Girls High School, where she pursued her ‘O’ Levels and later Alliance Girls High School where she did her ‘A’ Levels.
“I had teachers who were keen on seeing me maintain the right path, and they often warned me against bad company. Then, back home, I was the firstborn in a family of four children, and I had an example to set.”
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One particular teacher would not let her drop French as a language and pushed her to take on more units than most students, in order to fully explore her potential.
But she didn’t feel the pressure to be perfect, it was just something that she decided to do, as she describes herself as independent and highly driven.
“My mum worked for an airline, and this allowed me to travel as she would often take me with her when there were family packages. These were usually short stays, but they opened up my mind to the endless possibilities that life had to offer,” she says.
Her parents split when her father went to the US and started another life there, and her mother remarried.
Then, she applied and went to Université de Haute Bretagne in France- and this, she says, was a pivotal experience for her, transforming the way she felt about race.
“It was the first time that I realised that I am black, and what that may mean. Having to learn to navigate living in France, going into key offices and interacting with different people awakened me to the fact that different races may be treated differently.”
She says she worked hard to perfect her French, and when she returned to Kenya, she turned her attention to teaching as a career.
“I am a teacher first and foremost. I was teaching high school students French, and by the time I made my transition to the tech industry, I was an assistant professor at USIU.”
Dorothy is a trained teacher. She went to Kenyatta University where she pursued a Bachelor of Education, in French language and Literature. She also has a Master of Arts in French language and Literature from the same university, and an MBA in Strategic Management from USIU.
Her career progression has been steady and exploratory, as she has never been one to get too comfortable. Other than chasing knowledge and information persistently, she is aggressive in seeing positive change in the projects that she is involved in.
“At the time (a) position at Nokia opened up, they needed someone who could speak French. I hadn’t gotten into communications yet, but with French being my speciality, the most important requirement had been met,” she says about getting into the communications and public relations space when she joined the telecommunications company as a Communications Manager for East and Central Africa.
She then underwent training and certifications for Communications and PR and was ready to dive into the field despite critics worrying that she would not be able to hack it.
“When I made the decision to leave USIU, my colleagues were concerned about how I would handle the career change, and they even offered to hold my position for me to return should I ever need to.”
But it was all systems go onto the new role, and after learning the communications bit of it all, she was proving new colleagues who might have wondered if she would survive in the corporate world wrong.
“A major milestone was my advocacy for the removal of VAT on mobile phones, so as to increase their penetration in the market. At the time, we didn’t have a policy person for East and Central Africa, which was my focus region,” she says.
“There was a need to give more Africans access to smartphones to increase their interaction with the internet. The cost of smartphones was limited by how many people actually had access to them. When the smartphones landed, we saw how much they were costing and so I thought, why don’t we lobby in Cameroon, Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda, and have VAT removed to make them more affordable and increase internet penetration?”
It was outside her job description, but she was relentless, and the fruits of her efforts can be seen to date.
In 2021, she broke down her VAT on mobile phone advocacy down in an interview with Fuzu, a recruitment firm.
“I knew that the Permanent Secretary for Information and Communication (2005 - 2013), Dr. Bitange Ndemo valued technology and so I reached out to him and shared my proposal,” she said.
Dorothy added: “He advised that I rally the media to get more attention from the public and other stakeholders. Dr Ndemo was monumental in supporting the proposal. With the support of my country director, we worked with other phone manufacturers such as LG to join us in the lobbying and it was covered passionately in the media.”
“In June 2008 when the Minister of Finance, who at the time was our President H. E. Uhuru Kenyatta read the budget, and we all tuned in and listened carefully. Finally, he announced the zero-rating of mobile phones in Kenya. Oh my, it was such an incredible win. Six months later, we saw a huge uptake in smartphones as they were now affordable to Kenyans.”
We also talk about Dorothy’s passion for tech. She points out some of the emerging issues in the industry, highlighting artificial intelligence as one of the subjects the industry should keep its eye on.
“People need to pay attention to AI and how it is evolving, how it’s affecting news and media. How can publishers use AI to enhance the work that they do?” she poses.
“AI has multiple uses, whether it’s in detecting issues on websites or it is being used to enhance the interaction between you and your audience. Businesses can take up and execute AI models that have been tried before.”
She says that another emerging issue in tech is breaking down that fear that many people have - the fear of technology. She says if they can be educated on how to use it, and if tech can be demystified, that will open up new opportunities for the industry.
Now at Google, Dorothy is a busy woman, whose days are characterised by back-to-back meetings and engagements.
“I get home and sit down on the carpet, quietly,” she says about unwinding.
“It is about being centred, still, and living in that moment. Not thinking about that day or the future, but being completely present. I practice deep breathing and take an hour just to do that,” she says and agrees that it is something like meditation.
She also has a close relationship with God, and her mornings before work and exercise see her reading the bible and having reflective moments in prayer.
Dorothy laughs that hearty laughter when I ask about her love life, and she reflects on a 2014 interview with Parents Magazine where she spoke about marriage and divorce.
“How do you feel now? Are you still a romantic?” I probe.
“I am definitely still a romantic. But I would say that I am very happy with myself. I’m an extrovert, introvert and in my job, I am very extroverted. I need space to come to me. At the moment I’m husband-free by choice, but if the right one comes, they can meet me up here.”