Brenda Ntambwireki on Building an International Career


#360Mentor is a continuation of the #40DayMentor series. In this episode, Robert Kabushenga (RK) speaks to  Brenda Ntambirweki  (BN) on Building an International Career .

Brenda Ntambwireki

RK: It’s my pleasure to have you on #360Mentor Brenda

BN: Thank you Robert.

RK: Let’s first establish, what’s your profession?

BN: I am a lawyer. That’s my profession.

RK: Is that what you are practicing now?

BN: Yes. Right now, I am practicing law. My practice focus is around mergers and acquisitions. I do a bit of banking and finance. But in the past few years, it’s kind of tended towards aircraft lease and finance. I have been more asset finance than your usual corporate finance. I would say my main practice is mergers and acquisitions. For some reason, during the pandemic I was doing some bit of venture capital. That’s an area that I am now gaining an interest in.

RK: You know that even though I’m a lawyer I will never see practice, which is where I got to first know your family because your dad was my professor at Makerere and a really dear friend. We disagreed ideologically but we remained very good friends. He thought I was wasting time with Marxism and I thought he was lost in his capitalistic world. But we got along very well. It’s great that you and I have remained friends and the tradition has continued.

I want to take you back, let’s start with school, where did you start school for you?

BN: I was a mixture of things. I want to take you a bit farther back, I was born when my parents were in exile in Nairobi. When I was two, we moved to Canada. My first experience of school was canada. My dad was a very cantankerous man. During his time at Makerere, he was in student leadership. When he finished university, he went into the Binaisa government. So when Obote took power, he was one of those people who were in and out of jail. When he had the opportunity he fled and my mum followed soon after.

RK: She wasn’t going to let politics get in the way of love

BN: My friend, ‘emitima gyakaluba’! She had to follow her man. While in Kenya a couple of years after I was born, Obote had started hounding the Ugandans who were in Kenya, my parents had to go to Canada as refugees and this was around 1983/4.                                                                                                                

My first experience of school was at Queen’s University where my mother was doing her masters degree called Queens Day Care. I am reciting these from history because I have no recollection. After that in 1987, we moved back to Kenya and I went to a school called Spring Valley Junior, that’s where I did P1 to P3. In 1992, we all moved back to Uganda. My dad got  a job at Makerere University and my mum got a job with the Ministry of Education.

RK: I remember him driving into the faculty.

BN: With his Peugeot.

RK: Yes, with Kenyan number plates. Tall big guy walking through the corridors with folded sleeves and everyone saying he is going to be our Professor. Anyway, carry on…

BN: When we came back, I went to Kitante Primary School and in P6, I moved on to Buganda Road Primary School. And the reason for that big move is that my parents are very big on academics and they thought my sister and I would have a bigger chance of getting into good secondary schools.

RK: Because of grades?

BN: Yes, it was all about grades. And after Buganda Road, I went to Namagunga for O’ level. I was bored with Namagunga by S3, so I put my first choice for A level at Gayaza High School.

RK: Why were you bored?

BN: I don’t know how to put it. I think a Namagunga girl would understand it. There is no way to explain it, but I needed a change. From Gayaza, I moved to Makerere University and there I went to LDC and then Oxford University. 

RK: What did you study at Makerere?

BN: I did the Bachelor of Laws. It was a four year program.

RK: Did your dad teach you?

BN: Thank God, no. By that time he was transitioning out of employment. He was one of those people that said that by 50, I will not be employed by anybody. By the time my sister and I joined Makerere, he was on his way out.

RK: If I may take you back to your secondary school, was there any indicator that showed you that you were going to pursue a legal career?

BN: Haa, this is a very interesting question…

RK: Anha, you tell us.

BN: When I was younger, maybe 7 to 11, I really wanted to be a doctor. I was so obsessed with medicine. Then one day in P6, I actually remember this clearly. My mum picked me up from school and asked me “What do you want to become?” and I happily said doctor. Then she asked “don’t you want to become a lawyer like daddy?” and then it occurred to me. But again, his whole life used to fascinate me. As you know, he’s larger than life. He was hilarious. His life seemed so amazing. He was on and off planes. It seemed like something I wanted to do in the future. By the time I got to P7,  I had decided I wanted to be a lawyer. This didn’t help me in high school because I just did them to pass. I had no interest whatsoever.

RK: In your education, was there any give away that your journey was going to end up at the faculty of law?

BN: I think at the back of my mind I knew I had a knack for humanities. I was really good at the arts subjects. I was not that bad at sciences, I just didn’t care for them. Regardless, I still did well. I just knew I wanted to be a lawyer. And I knew what would get me into law was literature, commerce, history, those were the subjects I really loved and enjoyed.

RK: So you go to the faculty of law at Makerere, how was that?

BN: Before I joined Makerere, my sister who is a year older than me had joined a year prior. A day before we started the course, my dad called me. He said you use my name and that is my place of work. I am going to tell you what I told Barbara last year, please don’t shame me. Don’t embarrass me. I went into law school with this thing that I cannot embarrass this man. Because of that cloud hanging, I worked so hard. I used to read all the time. I had a balance with social life but I was really focused on my studies.

RK: You are one of those who used to sleep in the cage in the library.

BN: You know he told me, I had to make the first year count. That’s the time for the best grades. Just do your thing because later on, you are going to find that the subjects are easier to do. But the first year is really important. I didn’t really use the cage that much. By that time, my dad had established his law school and he had his own library. So I decided to go and study there. I never stayed at campus either.

RK: Talk about unfair advantage, really?

BN: Hahaha. You use what is available to you.

RK: True.

BN: Cage had a lot of people. You would go and find pages torn out of the books and I had a whole library at my disposal. I would rather go there or go to the LDC library.

RK: Were there any particular points in your earlier life that made you studious? That made you develop that studious approach to life?

BN: So my parents are both over achievers and just being born to two people with that sort of accomplishments was on its own quite daunting and there was always this pressure even if they did not put it on you directly to measure up to what they had done.

RK: The family tradition is obvious. Nobody needed to tell you.

BN: Yes, exactly. You had to do well at school. You had to get a second degree. It went without saying. But then when we were younger, my parents were very big and reading and academics. We had a very huge library. I believe that most of the books have been donated to the Uganda Pentecostal University. But at the time, we had quite a huge library.

At home we had a black and white TV. You could not get the nice channels with the nice programs. In Kenya, you could only watch KBC. When we moved to Uganda, it was UTV. I loved reading. I started reading at a very early age. I used to do a lot of fiction between the ages of 3 and 9. Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Enid Blyton. By the time I was 11, I had moved on. I was on Chinua Achebe, Salman Rushdie

RK: You’re mad! How could you read Salman at 11?

BN: Haha. They used to hide the books but I could still find them. My parents would always say, these are not appropriate for your age. And I wait for them to leave and I would read them. By 13, there were no books in the house I hadn’t read. The reading came from an early age.

The other thing that our parents did a lot was to have us focus a lot on academics.

RK: How did they do that? What did they do?

BN: We had tutors all the time. I think it was one advantage my dad had being at university. There were always students willing to tutor for some extra pocket money. They would come through during holidays. 

You would get your holidays on Friday and the weekend would be all yours and then Monday to Friday, you would be having proper classes from 9am to 5pm. But on weekends we would really rest. There was a balance.

RK: And the good thing both of them have a wild sense of humour, so you’re in good company.

BN: Absolutely, they’re party people.

RK: Yes. Then you finish Makerere, I believe you finished with a major accomplishment. Would you like to tell us about that? All that studying and reading led to something.

BN: Makerere was very interesting for me. After my first year, I remember there was an administrative law class where I had not done well. I scored a 67% and I got sat down, and I told myself I could not get such grades.

RK: Who was telling you this?

BN: Your friend. He told me you can’t be getting these marks, you’re embarrassing me. And then we had all these young lecturers who had been to Harvard, Cambridge and all those prestigious universities. I also wanted to be like them. I wanted to go there. Some of them were friends with dad so he would tell me about them. For so long, a first class was not heard of.

RK: There were very few; 2 or 3.

BN: Exactly. I said to myself, I also have to go to one of those schools. At a very early stage, I went to an internet café and looked up what I needed and I saw first class. That was it. I said I had to get the first class at whatever  cost. I studied hard. I didn’t start off with the first class. I started off with a good second upper class. The minimum for a first class was to get  a 75% in each subject. I had that at the back of my mind. I put that on my  wall throughout all my time at Makerere. I had a target for each semester and I pinned it.

RK; Wait. You had what?

BN: I had academic targets pinned on my wall. I had a target for each subject and a target GPA. And I am proud that I met each and every target. Actually in 4th year, I went over and above.

RK: Let me just say this to people who are listening. Priorities. Priorities. Priorities. Put them on your wall.

BN: Yes. Visualise them. I finally got the 1st class in my fourth year first semester and now the battle to maintain it began. I didn’t sleep. I had to make sure I mamintin it. Thank God, I was able to. It was really about focus.

RK: About two years ago, you  got a recognition, what was that?

BN: Actually that particular recognition started in 2014. It’s a peer review called Chambers Global. They ask your peers and clients what your work is like. So when I left Uganda in 2013, I got my first recognition in 2014 for work I had been doing in uganda.

RK: First pause there. at Makerere, weren’t you the first woman to first get  a first class degree?

BN: No, I was the second after Sandra Kiapi. She’s really one of the people I looked up to.

RK: I remember her. Her dad was my teacher. He used to teach us administrative law.

How was LDC?

BN: LDC was very interesting.  For all of my university, I stayed at home. And then at LDC, my parents kicked me out. They told me I had to go out and be with people. My dad had done LDC quite late so he thought I had to be with people. It’s a practical and tough course.

I had a discussion group I moved with from 1st year of Makerere so we just continued at LDC. At Makerere, I was a backbencher. I just never liked the girl in front.

RK: You’re in kamooli!

BN: Properly. So LDC was different. You had to participate. And the classes were smaller. At Makerere the classes were so big. I think we were like 150 in the day class.

LDC was good too. I was the second in our class. It was all a result of teamwork. Ours was such a dedicated group. And we did well. So it was nice to pass. That particular year, we were only 40 who passed. For me, it was also a vindication. At Makerere there was this cloud of Ntambirwekki’s daughter but at LDC, we only used numbers. I was my own person and I did my only thing.

RK: How did you end up at Oxford?

BN: When I was on my long holiday, between fourth year and LDC, I started applying to different universities. This, again, was on the advice of my parents. My mum sat me down and she told me; Brenda, I did my masters with two kids and it’s too much. You need to think about your postgraduate education immediately. That time she used to work in Swaziland. I would drop her in the morning and she would tell me to come back at 4:30pm when everyone had left and use the office computers to apply for slots. I narrowed down on four schools.

RK: At that point, you were with her in Mbabane?

BN: Yes. We used to go every holiday to visit her. I remember the only reason I didn’t apply to Cambridge, their application was so long. I applied to Oxford, Harvard, Edinburgh and Yale. I sent in my application ahead of time. The first admission I got was Edinburgh and I was so excited. A week after, I got another from Oxford. I really didn’t know anybody young who had been to Oxford. I found that exciting. I was going to be the unique one. I got the one for Harvard after. I chose Oxford because the fees for Harvard were really high.

The admission was on condition of proving that you had the financial ability to pay. I applied for all sorts of scholarships under the sun but I didn’t get any. When the deadline came, around May, I told my parents that I would defer for a year. They went and discussed among themselves and it would not make a difference. There was no guarantee that I would get  a scholarship the following year. So they promised to look for the money. They sacrificed all manner of things to pay for the degree and I am really grateful!

RK: I mean, these are salary people doing an honest day’s job. It must have been a massive sacrifice.

BN: And it was for all the three of us. My brother was already in school in the UK. My sister was doing her masters in South Africa. It was a lot. It was a real financial crunch for them. When I say, I owe all I am to them, it is because they really put down everything to make sure we got the best education.

RK: You then go off to Oxford, tell us about that.

BN: That’s fun. I loved Oxford but not the UK. I loved the university experience and living alone. There was a bit of a cultural shock in the way they taught. At Makerere, the lecturer would come and stand in front of you and talk. at Oxford, it was very interactive. The classes were very small. It didn’t help that there were only 4 blalck students in the class. There was no kamooli at Oxford, you had to speak. But then it was so intense. In the admission booklet, they said you had to do 45 hours of reading every week. I thought it was a joke but you actually had to do a proper 9 – 5 of studying. There were so many materials to get through.

I made many friends. It’s been over 14 years but we still talk. For me, in terms of networking it was really amazing. Most of my classmates are in really big magical circle firms. They are all over the world. It was a great networking opportunity for me. 

RK: After Oxford, what happened?

BN: I came back. I didn’t like the UK. I finished my exams on the 7th of July and on the 11th I was already in Kampala.

Maybe what I didn’t mention is that while at LDC. I did my clerkship with Kampala Associated Advocates (KAA) and they promised me a job. My supervisor then was David Mpanga who is now at Dentons and he was an amazing boss. I gained so much at KAA. He took me under his wing. The first sort of financing I did was under him. I also worked closely under Aisha Naiga. She really had an impact on my career. She taught me to pay attention to detail. My first experience with collateral was under Aisha Naiga. David and Aisha really played a big role in my career. I was at KAA from 2008  to 2010.

In 2010, I moved to Sebalu and Lule. I worked closely with Barnabas Tumusingyize and Nicholas Ecimu. They were the people I worked with the most. That is where I grew as a  lawyer. They would give me a lot of responsibility. I am actually still in touch with Barnabas. Two summers ago, we were in the same country. We met and laughed for hours. It was really nice. It was a really great platform for me. I was there until 2013.

RK: How did you end up in Kuwait?

BN: Kuwait! Kuwait! Kuwait! In 2013, I had started feeling restless. I really wanted to move abroad. I had just decided but I had no links. I had shared my CV around. One random day, a contact of mine asked to pass on my CV to a certain law firm in Kuwait. A couple of days later, I got a call from my boss. He had been a Professor at Makerere. We met and he told me a lot about the law firm and what they had been doing. So he asked that in case I was interested, I should put in the application and let him know. Of course when I heard of Kuwait, my impression was of what Hollywood shows us. I was shocked when I saw pictures on the website and it was a completely different place. That very night I put in my application. Few weeks later I did my interviews and got the job.

When I got the job, my boss told me to call Sim Katende and thank him. So the reason I am in Kuwait is because of a man called Sim.

RK: Sim, our Sim?

BN: Yes. Until now, I had never told this story but that’s it.

RK: So how does Sim connect you?

BN: Sim is very good friends with my boss. He’s very private. I don’t want to say much.

RK: Please send my regards. Tell him Kabushenga sends greetings.

How  long have you been there?

BN: This is my 8th year.

RK: Let’s go back to the recognition, tell us about it.

BN: When I moved to Kuwait, the years before I was doing incredible work at Sebalu and Lule. I imagine when they did the review at Chambers Global, my name must have come up and at that time I was associate to watch for partnership track, I guess.

So I emailed them to let them know I had moved from Sebale and Lule so they could send my placard there. Then they updated their rankings as expat based abroad for Uganda. So I had that recognition every year for six years and it was really amazing. It’s really nice to get that validation.

RK: So it’s the Grammy’s of the legal profession?

BN: Yes. Not everybody gets them.

RK: When you look back, your journey; academics and work, what are those things that have led you to where you are today?

BN: They are quite a number. One of them being goal orientation. I have always been a goal oriented person. When I put my mind to something, I will more often achieve it. For me, I have always been about my career apart from my family. And there are things I have learned over the years that have helped me along the way.

1.       You have to be ethical. The crooked business and glory-seeking and all the stuff that comes with being a crooked lawyer is something that should be cut out.

2.       Remaining teachable. My bachelor’s and master’s degrees, all they did was to open the doors for me. My academic qualifications did not mean everything. I like to learn. I love learning new things and that is something I always encourage people to do.

3.       The other thing is criticism and feedback. As lawyers we think we know it all. But the one thing is that you have to take feedback both positive and negative. You can refuse to take it but atleast listen.

RK: Over and above your professional career, you have built quite a personality on social media. I have seen you engage with people and how useful has it been in your other life?

BN: In the past, I used to get in trouble with my bosses about social media because for me, I look at social media as a medium of learning and communication. It is also one way you can expose yourself and brand yourself. I have used it as a tool. And it is interesting to see that even the people that were berating me for being on twitter are now also on twitter. But I always remind the lawyers on twitter to always be very careful especially about work. I don’t tweet about work because of confidentiality obligations. There are limits to how you use social media. I like to engage but again it’s not free for all. I am not going to spill all my stuff on social media. I just like it as a branding tool and a social interacting tool. My family really teases me. They call  me the family influencer.

RK: I agree with them. you’ve done well on that front. If the law fails, you can always come and be an influencer.

BN: Haaa. Okay.

RK: Would you talk to me as the father of an 18 year old girl, what would you tell me?

BN: I’d say let your daughter see out her dream. Law is very challenging particularly for women. In my experience, the microaggressions that come along with being female are so many. I have learnt over years that it’s really small stuff. I really don’t let it get to me. It’s taken a while. There are times I have gotten into meetings and people assume I am the secretary. But by the end of the meeting, they will know I am not the secretary.

Girls need to be encouraged to pursue this profession irrespective of whether it seems daunting.

·         You have to value your team work. Behind you and beside you there are people doing incredible things and it is important to learn to work within a team.

·         As a woman, you need to be patient with yourself. You will see your male counterparts being promoted over you. You will see all sorts of things but at the end of the day, you will get there. Be patient with yourself. What’s your financial goal? Do you want to hit a certain target before you leave your job? Focus on your goal without paying too much aggression you face.

·         Find a mentor. If you can, find a lady mentor. In case you can’t find a male mentor. But have someone who will pick up your phone and call when you are at your lowest.

·         Be confident but not arrogant. You can always make your point without being overly over.

·         Embrace change. If you have opportunities coming your way and they are mind blowing like mine, take them. don’t be held down by what society will say. Take the jump. I guess for me it was a bit easier because my circumstances are quite simplified.

·         Embrace the low days. They will always be there. 

·         Imposter syndrome is real. There are days you will feel like you don’t belong or that you  don’t qualify to be in the position you are in. It’s so prevalent with women, but the one thing I need to say is that you need to celebrate your successes. Celebrate the value that you bring to the team and you need to be confident on what your contribution is.

RK: But Brenda, someone listening to you will say, coming from a place of privilege, there are some circumstances you have not encountered. What would you do in terms of practical ways, taking the example of covid, how do you overcome the circumstances you are in to achieve the state of the things above?

BN: For me it is really positive thinking. And personally, I am a born again Christian and I am anchored in my faith. When I am down, I will pray.

RK: What you are saying is that as an individual, you owe it to yourself to have a coping mechanism?

BN: Absolutely. You have to find a way you can cope. That’s why it is important to find someone you can call when feeling low and they lift you up. There are times I have wanted to pack up my bags like the following day but then I always have someone who will sit me down and remind me of the bigger picture. If you always go back to your why, you will find a way.

RK: Definitely!

Comrade Otoa: How important is networking?

BN: While I was in Uganda, if I had lawyers on the opposite end of the transaction, I really  tried to get to know them as well. For that reason, people like Phillip Karugaba, Daudi Mpanga, that is how we became friends. I went out of my way to talk to them.

I’d say to the ladies, don’t feel shy to reach out to people. Half the time, they really want to mentor and talk to people.

Animu: Did you ever  feel any pressure of being the “first” and how did you manage to keep your balance? How did you deal with the transition to Kuwait?

BN: I have not met any pressures because I mind my business. Just do you and focus on yourself. On keeping a balance, they have moved on and are doing well with themselves.

In Kuwait, it’s true but I am shielded by my law firm because it is very diverse. It has people from all over the world. It used to be strange for me to learn how to conduct myself but I largely found it interesting. But you adapt as time passes by.

Paula Henrietta Mugisa: Could you talk more about microaggression, how do you deal? Do you ever get the short end of the stick?

BN: On microaggression, it has mainly been the secretary one. People assuming I’m not a lawyer. I also think that people think that I don’t know what I am doing. I have learnt to let my work speak for itself. When I am in meetings I try to be as confident as I can to show people that I know what I am doing.

On the short end of the stick, I must say that I have been very fortunate. I have worked with the best people. At KAA, I worked with David Mpanga who was very good at letting me fly. The same with Barnabas and my current boss. My request to the men here, give women a chance to do the work. Allow them to put themselves out there. I wouldn’t be out there if those gentlemen had not been given me the opportunity.  

Isaac Mpanga: How do you make your diamond shine? How do you make the spotlight shine on that that you truly are?

BN: That is a hard question. What has worked for me is mainly my personality plus my work. and the fact that I easily mesh into things. I adapt very easily and that ease has got me into the positions I have been. The other thing is that I always try to go the extra mile outside of the academic qualifications. I like to work. I am always asking for work.

RK: I guess for me, what I see from where I am is;

·         You’re authentic

·         You’re very aware of yourself

Peter Ahabwe: In the pursuit of your career, did you think that what you were studying at Oxford had a bearing back home? Have you felt some bit of ineptness as you pursue your career?

BN: For my masters degree, I chose a subject I had a keen interest in. I did insolvency, corporate finance, global finance and competition law and these are things that have been very relevant at my practise of law since I left Oxford. So yes what I studied is relevant to what I am doing.

In terms of ineptness, the one thing I learnt earlier on especially when I moved here to Kuwait is ask. There’s no shame in asking where you are not sure. I was very keen to understand what was required of me. I really wanted to impress, yet I was doing the wrong thing. I have since learnt to ask. Whatever I don’t know, I ask.

RK: Where you are now, what does the future look like for you ten years from now?

BN: I am really happy with where I am right now. I enjoy the exposure this job has afforded me. I see myself still here for a while. East or west home is best but for now Kuwait is home.

RK: What would you say to the young ladies getting into the career world, especially those who are looking at starting a family vis-à-vis a career? Those choices tend to be very difficult for people between 20 and 30. What would you say to them?

BN: Enjoy the season you are in. When I came to Kuwait, I was single. I didn’t have much to tie up. All I needed was to fly and get here. I would really like to encourage women, do not worry whether you will get married, everything has a season. Why wouldn’t you build up your career as opposed to chasing this societal chokehold? You need to free yourself from the societal pressure to get married. Don’t rush into such things until you are absolutely sure. If you have a career opportunity, go for it.

RK: But you Brenda if your aunts are asking when are you getting married, what do you tell them?

BN: Ask them when they are dying. Society needs to free women. Go follow your dreams. Even men want women who are accomplished.

RK: Hahaha. Thank you Brenda for all your time and sharing your story with us.

BN: This has been so much fun. I am always looking to mentor people, my DMs are open.

RK: Enjoy Kuwait. And Good luck with all the work you do.

BN: Thank you.

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