Lendsey Achudi has always dreamt of a career in technology or cybersecurity fields, and has been involved in organising international forums where issues of technology and entrepreneurship are discussed.
About a year after successfully organising one such meeting — the African Youth Assembly whose theme was leveraging the contributions made by African youth in technology and entrepreneurship, in July 2013 — Lendsey and her team of two others were invited by Korean government officials to help them organise something almost similar in Seoul.
If everything had gone according to plan, the then 23-year-old who was completing her studies at the University of Rochester in the US would have taken a direct flight from Nairobi to Seoul. But, as fate would have it, this was not to be. Whereas her team made it, she missed her flight.
Lendsey, a frequent flier who has been to 27 countries, was not fazed by the setback. As a person used to international travel, missing the occasional flight came with the territory. She called Kenya Airways to reschedule.
The only other way she could get to Seoul, she was told, was to take a flight to Bangkok and spend a few hours lounging at the airport there before boarding a connecting flight to Seoul. It sounded perfect despite the layover, which she thought would be a little too long.
“As I was waiting for my flight, I got a call from one of my friends,” Lendsey, a dark, diminutive and outgoing young woman who describes herself as “a girl from Teso” and “the daughter of a school teacher”, told DN2 in a recent interview.
While still a student of International Relations and French at Rochester, she had expressed interest in working for Facebook.
That August 2013 day when her friend called her, it was to inform her that Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer and author of the acclaimed book, Lean In, would be in Bangkok.
Lean In, which has sold millions of copies, encourages women not to give up their career dreams for motherhood, and instead to find a way to balance the two without being bogged down by guilt or a sense of inadequacy.
When Lendsey told her friend that she would be transiting through the city, her friend surprised her even more. There was a chance that both Sheryl and Lendsey would be at the airport at the same time.
Although this meant that Lendsey, who had applied for a job thrice at Facebook without success, would be within a walking distance from Sheryl, their chances of meeting were diminished because one would be in the business lounge while the other would be with the ordinary travellers in the expansive hallways. But Lendsey’s friend was determined to ensure the two met.
And that, to cut a long story short, was how Lendsey met Sheryl, thanks to a missed flight and a dose of serendipity. By then, she had read Sheryl’s best-selling book, to the point of memorising some lines.
When Lendsey found herself in Sheryl’s presence, she pitched for a job, reeling off her accomplishments, including her two degrees and her stint as an intern at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
“In your book, you asked: ‘What would you do if you were not afraid?’” Lendsey told Sheryl. “Well, I would ask for a job at Facebook.”
Sheryl did not have many words for her.
“We will be in touch,” the COO had said. It was almost an anti-climax for Lendsey.
In Kenyan parlance, when a potential employer says “we will be in touch” it is a polite way of saying “sorry, but we have no job for you at the moment”.
COURTING FACEBOOK, GOOGLE
Given her Kenyan background, that was the message Lendsey took with her when she ended her brief meeting with Sheryl, who has been described as among the most influential women in the world.
So, on she travelled to Seoul, where her team conducted the youth meeting. Then she flew back to the US, where she was living at the time, the matter of her informal job interview forgotten.
Then one day, about a month after meeting Sheryl, she got mail inviting her for a formal interview at Facebook. She was then taken to Menlo Park in California, the company’s headquarters, to interact with staff and gauge whether she would fit in.
As a rule, before one can be hired by the social media company, one has to spend time with the staff to measure their mutual compatibility. One can miss out on a job if co-workers say they are not comfortable with a candidate.
This, however, was not the case with Lendsey. She got along well with the staff and even had a salary in the bag, the equivalent of Sh10 million a year.
However, life is not a straight line, as Francis Imbuga says through one of his characters in the play Betrayal in the City.
Before Lendsey could sign on the dotted line, she was offered an almost similar job at Google headquarters in Mountain View, also in California.
There was a catch, however: though Google was offering her a slightly higher salary, they wanted her to make a commitment well in advance of the time she had been asked by Facebook.
In the fullness of time, however, Lendsey decided to forego both offers and… well… return to Kenya, the land of her birth.
“I still get a lot of flak for that decision,” says Lendsey, who studied International Relations in the hope of becoming a diplomat, but who, in the course of her studies, decided to change course and immerse herself in security matters; which is what brought her back home in the first place.
She believes that cybersecurity is going to play an important role in international relations and global security in the next two or three decades. And she wants to make a contribution in that time.
Armed with a grant worth $50,000 (Sh4.6 million) from an American venture capitalist fund and her own savings, and egged on by her mentors — Jonathan Burdick (her former dean at Rochester) and Ani and Mark Gabrellian, (a New York business couple) she decided to register a security consultancy in Kenya, which she did in October 2014.
At the time of her interview with us, she was in the process of setting up the establishment as well chasing a second grant that would set her on the path she had always dreamed of.
Unknown to her, in just a few weeks, she would be interviewed for a job as a cybersecurity consultant with the Ministry of Interior and Co-ordination of the National Government, a position that would see her put her private dreams on hold to take up a public appointment.
“My mentors told me that if I have to succeed with security consultancy, I have to work with the government,” she said, explaining why she was involved in talks with top security officials to find out in what ways she could contribute to greater cybersecurity in Kenya at a time when the country was experiencing numerous threats, ranging from cyberfraud in banks to foreigners operating on the fringes of the law, such as the group of Chinese suspects now facing trial for electronic fraud targeting international financial institutions, and who were operating from Runda, Nairobi.
“There is need to educate Kenyans that cybersecurity goes beyond monitoring hate speech,” says Lendsey, who is worried at the narrow perception of electronic security and the lack of laws that define cybercrimes and a legal regime to enforce cybersecurity.