Patrick Gatonga: The ultimate frontier man
By Judith Mwobobia | July 26th 2020
There are two kinds of men; the impetuous and the precautious. Patrick Gatonga falls in the latter category. When I ask him if he is a feminist, he looks at me warily. His eyes spell caution, as though afraid to step into a minefield. I can’t quite see his full expression. He dons a surgical mask that covers half his face. So it could be a smile, or a smirk, lurking behind the surgical mask. “Depends on your definition of a feminist?” he answers. “My feminism means equal opportunities for men and women,” I respond. To this, he visibly relaxes, leaning back in his seat. I see his eyes crinkle in a smile. “Then I am a feminist,” he says.
It is not yet 9 am in the morning when we meet in his office. After introductions are made, devoid of the customary handshake (let’s thank Covid-19 for that), he profusely apologises for the 10-minute delay. Putting out small and big fires is a prerequisite of his job.
Trim-built and with an open demeanour, and in a blue three-piece suit, Patrick looks more like an advertising agency’s marketing executive than the CEO of Jubilee Health Insurance, arguably a market leader in the region. In the next one hour, in a deeply reflective conversation, the medic-turned-corporate executive shares the journey that got him here.
Feminist, huh? Tell us more…
Yes indeed. Ask my wife (laughs). I don’t cook as much as she does but that is only because I don’t enjoy it much. However, since my son was born, I am the one who takes care of bath time every evening. Seriously though, I believe in equal opportunities for both men and women. I endeavour to have just as many qualified men as there are women at all levels of leadership wherever I am. The best decisions are made when there is diversity in the room. And diversity is brought on by who we are; gender and perspectives. When we hire, we have to balance genders.
Being only 34, does your age ever come into play in the boardrooms?
Not at all. In boardrooms, it’s the value of discussions, clarity of decisions and performance that matters. I actually draw a lot from the diversity in the room, including the diversity of viewpoints that age differences bring. I think the value diversity brings in boardrooms is generally underrated, and I am happy to see that this is progressively becoming a significant agenda in our local corporate scene.
How does a man supposed to be roaming the hospital corridors end up in the corporate world?
I always knew that I wanted to get into the business side of health care. Always felt like the healthcare sector needed leadership. By the time I left medical school at the University of Nairobi, I had three academic degrees; a degree in medicine, another in human anatomy and an MBA.
(laughs) In fact, I wish the days were longer than 24 hours. I don’t think I particularly missed anything because I enjoyed myself fully. Heck, I even met my wife at the university. I put in a lot of time of course but I didn’t feel like I sacrificed anything because I enjoyed it all immensely.
But why two degrees in the medical field?
Usually, at the university, they would pull out their top four medical students after their second year of studies to take on a specialised discipline. We did Human Anatomy. The programme was meant to develop more anatomists since there are very few of them in the country. We took a year off the medical degree and undertook an intense year of study in the new course and after we graduated from that course, we would resume our medical degree where we had left off. The expectations were so high and we spent a lot of time in the lab. Fortunately, I graduated top of my class and was the valedictorian in 2008. The four students would then be considered faculty and would teach the first-year undergraduate medical students and first-year Master’s in surgery students.
What inspired the MBA?
After completing the intense year studying Human Anatomy, I felt like I had a lot of free time in the last three years of my medical degree. I didn’t know what to do with all that time. And since I had always been interested in the business side of things, I considered doing an MBA from the same school. I would do the evening classes to manage everything. The only thing in my way was the funding since my parents couldn’t really afford it.
How did you swing it?
I had the counsel of an old friend. He was actually one of the many people who had sponsored my education — I am a beneficiary of many sponsorships. Anyway, in one of our conversations, I happened to mention to him that I was thinking of doing an MBA but didn’t know how to fund it. Something he said made me realise that I had learnt enough to figure it out. That the answer to my problem lay within me. I just had to find it. And I did. I began teaching classical music. Between that and what I got from the university for teaching human anatomy, I made enough to pay for my MBA. My old friend was right; you have the answers. You just have to search inside yourself. And that helps you own your journey. And it also made it clear to me why we need mentors. They help you find some of those answers and validate some of the thoughts you have.
Classical music and needing sponsorships do seem worlds apart…
That’s true. And let’s just say, if I weren’t a doctor, I would have been a musician. A classical musician. In fact, after high school, I got two scholarships to study music; in Japan and another in one of the Nordic countries. I got into classical music when I was in high school. Let me explain.
I grew up in Maasai land, and I didn’t come from a wealthy family. I went to a public primary school where more time was spent outside the classroom, say planting trees or sukumawiki than actually learning. My father taught me more than the teacher did.
Then came Class Seven, I got an opportunity to join a school where the well-heeled went. It was the first time I wore socks. The educationalist who owned the private school decided to give chances to kids performing well in public schools from the area, perhaps to raise the school’s profile and help the underprivileged. I was lucky to be chosen, and there, I had my first experience with culture shock.
Then I joined Starehe Boys Centre, again sponsored all through. While there, I met kids from all walks of life. There were those like me and those from very rich backgrounds. Pretty soon, I learnt that rich or poor, we are born with the same potential. That experience taught me that doing your best and being the best at what you do is all that matters. It didn’t matter that I wore no socks If I topped the class.
Do you sometimes wish that you were in a white coat, stethoscope around your neck instead of in a suit and tie?
Not at all. I did my MBA research at Kenyatta National Hospital and, at that time, I came to the realisation that the health care system needed more than doctors. That is what got me curious. After graduation, I stayed on at KNH for my internship and took up a consultancy job at AMREF. The job at AMREF required the technical side of medical practice and the business side. I saw a niche. I would later move to a consulting firm, Mckinsey & Company, based in Johannesburg. It was the closest office I could be to home. I had a family then and I didn’t want to be away so much. I worked extensively across Africa and the Middle East, mainly Saudi Arabia, and eventually helped set up the Nairobi office.
I left Mckinsey for UAP-Old Mutual in 2016, then joined Jubilee in 2018 as general manager for a medical business. I was appointed CEO of Jubilee Health Insurance last month. I believe that we need more leaders in health care.
What have you spectacularly failed at?
Oh plenty of things! A group of us, while still at the university, tried our hand at starting a media house where we would do breaking news. We even hired some journalists. This was before social media was big. It started out as a website. It lasted about three to six months. At some point, we ran out of cash. The failure was one of the reasons I wanted to do an MBA. I have also tried my hand at family businesses and they crashed and burnt. Another time, I ran a digital company developing websites and wedding photography. It died off. Failure is part of life but you should learn your lessons and cut your losses. You win some and lose some.
What is the greatest fear you have at this point in your life?
That would be getting stuck in the past. It’s easy to dwell on the past and stay the same, but in our times and circumstances, I think one needs to be obsessed in creating the future in the way we imagine it can be. I also am afraid of missing opportunities. And when I get opportunities, making the wrong decisions about it.
What are some of the values you would wish to pass on to your son?
I want him to think and speak independently and be an open-minded person. I want him to own his thoughts. I want him to appreciate other cultures. I don’t want him to go through some of the things I went through but I want him to realise that all people are equal. Fatherhood gave me a stronger sense of purpose and now, I take risks with caution.
How do you escape from it all?
Home with my wife and kid is my escape. I try to be home by six in the evening to spend quality time with them. And I play music a lot. I blast away when the family is asleep. I am still involved in the classical music scene in Kenya and that makes me happy. I also used to work out a lot more before the pandemic.
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