From Hip-Hop to Business Leadership: The Journey of Luck Ochieng
Were it not for his office clothes Luck Ochieng would pass off as a hip-hop artist. Or basketball player. Certainly one, probably both. It does not, however, rock the earth from its axis to learn that he is in a grey sweater and grey suit pants.
If clothes maketh the man, then his are a touch ascetic, like the fun uncle who lets you smoke with him but still gives you solid life advice.
Like don’t run into a fence while playing football, which is how he got his trademark scar on the right side of his face, a permanent reminder of the fun—and folly—of youth.
But he defines himself less by the clothes he wears than by his cheeky grin and eyebrows—which he cocks up every time he finishes speaking as some kind of visible punctuation, his mouth set in neutral.
His hands though have the Midas touch, working with the who’s-who of the who’s-who, from Airtel in West Africa to Coca-Cola, and presently, as the MD and CEO of Unilever Kenya and Rwanda.
The hand that shakes mine at the lush Unilever offices in Commercial Street just off the maniacal Mombasa Road also loves playing basketball. He started in Kisumu Boys High School and had his star run in university until a career-ending injury reminded him of his mortality.
Three collapsed discs later, he tried his luck in cycling, which now occupies his time. That is, when he is not shouting at and for Arsenal, the only gunner in a house full of Mancunians, a romantic serenaded by the rational. His son especially supports Manchester United. “It pains me, man,” he says, rubbing the invisible scar in his heart. But he will survive because luck has always been by, and on, his side. We know this because he always does. And because he said so.
Have you ever run out of luck?
Generally, I think I am a lucky person. Whether private or business, I tend to be lucky, which is what my mother named me. I am the second last born in a family of eight.
Were you a mama’s boy?
Undoubtedly. My mom was a disciplinarian. I didn’t like it then. But that toughness was necessary for us. I grew up in Nyalenda, Kisumu. The temptations of life were many. If it weren’t for my mom, I would have gone into truancy.
What’s your favourite childhood memory?
I used to play a lot of football, which is how I got this scar [indicates his face]. There was a fenced playground. In the heat of the moment, I forgot about the fence and went through it.
Do you still play football?
No. Now I am into basketball. Lately, I have been doing more cycling.
Three times a week. I can do 15km in the estate, say in the morning. But the main one is in Karura, mostly on Saturdays or Sundays. I’d cycle to Karura, but after some accident, I took my feet off the pedal.
Have you had your customary accident?
I have had my close shaves in Karura. But the road is what scares me. The matatus, man. I used to cycle in Kitisuru, Lower Kabete and Wangige, about 40 km. Then a woman got knocked, and another guy died. That dissuaded me.
Do you ride alone?
Yes, I bought my children bikes but they aren’t into it.
What’s your favourite part about cycling?
The freedom and fresh air. You work out and enjoy the scenery. There are many routes and trails in Karura.
What’s the worst part?
When you are going uphill, and it’s like 200 metres and you are only at 50 metres, haha! That’s the toughest.
What was your nickname growing up?
Uhm, so, the name I was given was actually Goodluck. My mates used to call me ‘Good’. They’d tease me, so I dropped the good.
What remains unchanged about you since childhood?
I am naughty [chuckles].
What’s the naughtiest thing you’ve done?
There are some I can’t say, haha! Usually, it is playing pranks on people. Once I am comfortable with you, expect a prank. My son can testify, haha!
What’s your favourite thing about you?
I am an optimist. I believe that in life anything is possible, if you put your mind to it.
Are you a village boy or a city boy?
Deep inside, I feel like a village boy. People claim otherwise. With my busy schedule, I don’t get that much time. When my mom was alive, I’d make the time. But I try to stay in touch. Just this past weekend I was there.
What’s your weekend lifestyle?
I cycle and spend some time with my family. I also have a farm in Ukambani where I check on a few things. I go to church, early mass, come back, put my feet up and sleep.
Do you have a special treat for yourself?
I have my own cove. Well, it’s no longer mine because my wife is taking over. I usually go there to sleep. I’d look forward to spending some time there alone after pushing myself throughout the week. But once the children came, especially my youngest, she’d come, open my eyes and ask, “Daddy are you asleep?” and then force me to play. I have worked across the world and we always moved with my family. We are very close and do lots of things together.
What do you like most about fatherhood?
This one time, I was working with Airtel as the Commercial Director in West Africa. Working with Indians can be tough. The culture is very different. My daughter would always jump and hug me so tightly when I came home. I realised my stresses would dissipate and I’d forget about work until the next day. I see the value of family in that.
What are your children teaching you about yourself?
That I can be quite demanding. My son told me that I put quite the pressure. But I see the value of family in them. They are very caring.
What’s one destination that has stayed with you as a family?
We enjoyed living in Ghana. But as a holiday destination, the children love the flashy American lifestyle. As a family, we like nature and wildlife so it has to be South Africa. The Kruger National Park.
What’s the first thing you do in a new place?
Go out. Look for the food joints because food always gives you a flavour of the place.
What is an unusual habit or absurd thing that you love?
I am a vegetable farmer: courgettes, dhanias, capsicum, cabbages name it.
What’s the dumbest thing you’ve bought?
I am an electronics guy. The other day I realised I have four Bluetooth speakers. I also like shoes. I buy shoes on impulse. In my younger days, I walked barefoot quite a bit. I suspect it stems from there. I have 15 or 20 pairs so far.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
I have a sweet tooth. Chocolates, but age has gotten in the way. I cheat every now and then.
What’s one meal you can eat every day?
Mboga ya kienyeji [traditional vegetables]. I have breakfast and I’ll drink my tea the whole day and have dinner at six. Usually, no lunch.
What’s on your nightstand?
A radio. I’m a lover of international news and politics. I listen to the BBC, VOA and the like. I also like music.
No, HipHop. Soulful. My best artist is Luther Vandross.
I used to be. I had my time, haha! I have this drive playlist curated by [Edward] Kwach. But the last song I listened to was “Live Your Life” by T.I. and Rihanna. Even here in the office, when I want to really focus, I’d turn my Bluetooth speaker on.
What’s life’s simplest pleasure?
To show love. it’s the easiest thing to do.
Are you receiving said love?
Oh, I get it. Haha! In my circles, we are probably a bit more touchy-feely than the national average.
What are you most sure of?
Myself. What I can do, and believe in. Everything else is my interpretation.
What will people mourn when you are gone?
That I was caring and that I helped.
What is something you are proud of but never get to brag about?
Talking about myself now is quite hard! I am proud of my career and the achievements I have garnered. I am proud of my family that I was able to uplift or attempt to uplift. And the impact that we are making in this business.
What is something you long believed to be true but realised isn’t?
That politicians cared. I would even get involved in politics, as an activist, but then I realised, the political class are not what they say they are.
When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused what do you do?
Exercise. Cycling especially. I also have a basketball at home, but the knees are gone, haha! I can only shoot hoops. So, cycling helps clear my mind.
Is there something new you’ve been considering trying lately?
It’s not new but getting a lot more into the farming space. Try to make it commercial and not just a hobby. The other one is the tech space. I am getting my son to teach me how to code.
If you aren’t at home or at work, which other place are you likely to be?
Karura. Or Karen Club.
What colour is your life now?
Blue. It’s also my favourite colour. I am happy. I like my life. When I am not happy, I struggle with sleep.
What’s your superpower?
I am fierce. Like a lion.
What does this lion wish he was better at?
I am a very shy person [chuckles]. I’d probably want to be more outgoing.
Lately, what have you become good at saying no to?
People want my time. There are those who want to be on the priority list.
What’s on your bucket list?
To climb Mt Kilimanjaro. It is easier than Mt Kenya. My target is March 2024.
What do you have that money can’t buy?
Happiness. It’s cliché but it’s true.
A book you’ve read?
Winning from Within by Erica Fox. It talks about the power within you as a leader to choose what happens. In negotiations, for instance, we approach it with the mindset that the other party will come with a very difficult position, but more often, it is you and how you respond. It’s a mindset thing.
Do you have a secret talent that no one knows about?
I like to build stuff with my hands. I built the gazebo at our home.
What’s a weekend hack you know to make the weekend better?
Family makes everything better. Make time for family. Three weeks ago, we went to a movie before my children left for school. I have been travelling but now I have a date with my wife. There is a Denzel Washington movie waiting for us somewhere.
What’s one thing you love about your wife?
Because you’re naughty?
Who do you know that I should know?
Michael Joseph. He is the epitome of a business leader. He made a difference. I worked with him in my early career days and I saw the kind of leadership he brought. We talk about consumer centrism—he was its exemplar. Everything we did, he had that in mind. And he was always willing to try things out.