RK: Joan, it’s good to have you on the show today.
JN: Thank you for the invite.
RK: Did I get the name Joan Nkiriki right? Which part of Uganda does that come from?
JN: The full name is Joan Rachel Nkiriki Nyarubona Akiiki. My dad is from Bulindi, Hoima and his mum was from Toro, so the name is from Toro.
RK: Is it because you are from Hoima that you decided to study oil?
JN: Not really.
RK: Were you born talking?
JN: I wasn’t. I was such a timid kid.
RK: You Joan?
JN: Yes, I was a shy kid.
RK: Where did you go for school?
JN: How far back should we go?
RK: From baby class.
JN: I went to Little Angels for nursery school. Nakasero for some classes of primary.
RK: You’re one of those?
JN: Yes. I was in Kob House. But I had to negotiate with my mother to follow my friend who had gone to join Taibah Junior School from P5 to P7.
RK: Was my friend Semweya Musoke the head at the time?
JN: No. it was still Uncle Pat, who is now deceased (may his soul Rest In Peace). After that, I went to Gayaza for six years.
RK: Through that schooling experience, at what point did you feel you were going to study to the highest point? Did you ever think of being an academic?
JN: That question is a trap. If you told me five years ago that I would be doing a doctoral degree, I would laugh at you. There is no chance. It is a combination of things. The first being; I think I had a wrong perception of a PhD. In many ways, we don’t realise that we are conditioning people to believe that being in school or education/learning for an extended period is bad. We think to choose between staying in school and making money. Let me demystify this. I am a believer and an academic, I want to make money and be financially independent. I didn’t want to do a PhD because I thought that in academia, there’s no money. But I now know better. PhDs do consultancy for about $500 per hour, and some of us try to raise that money in a month. But the other thing is that I wanted to be in the industry. I thought people would say I was missing the applied experience that I would equally miss the opportunity to apply what I studied.
RK: Let me take you back, what subjects did you enjoy while at Gayaza?
JN: Gayaza! At the time, I did not know what I wanted to do. It is a bit embarrassing, but I asked a couple of my friends what they would do and based my decision on their choices.
RK: Why would that be embarrassing?
JN: It’s embarrassing because one could say I chose my subjects based on other people’s choices without thinking of how they will affect me. The truth is, if you are misguided and you don’t know how to get the correct information, you will go with the bandwagon effect. But at the back of that, I was good at science subjects, especially physics, chemistry, and math. I didn’t do biology because of all the “big” words. I ended up doing PCM/Economics because I was always fascinated by the development of economies and how people make money at the back of my mind. I always wanted to have that knowledge in my bag. I also didn’t like the cram work model of learning history and geography. I give credit to my teachers because they did the best they could with the tools they had. I now love history and enjoy listening to history buffs. But back then, I just wanted to derive methods of things I could prove, and the application made sense to me.
RK: Did you go to Makerere?
JN: No. There was an interesting twist there. Coming out of Gayaza, in the sixth year (S.6), they asked us what courses we wanted to do at university. By then, I knew I wanted to do engineering. I was fascinated with problem-solving and tinkering with machines. And the buzzword among my friends was Telecom Engineering. But I was conflicted about whether that was my path.
JN: I was worried that if I went into telecom and realised I didn’t like it, I’d be stuck. This time around, I decided to ask someone who was doing engineering instead of relying only on my peers. I can’t thank my cousin enough, Roy Manzi, and he told me I was not limited by the bachelor’s degree, let alone any degree I pursue. You can always do whatever you want to do once you figure it all out. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, the earlier you make them, the sooner you can turn back and find your way. That information unlocked my mind. I ended up doing electrical engineering. At the time, none of the females in my family were doing engineering, at least in Uganda.
My uncle Rugege has worked in Louisiana, and he advised me to go to Louisiana Tech University.
RK: Had you finished bachelors by then?
JN: No. After debating what I would put on my S6 application form for university, Makerere assigned me to the civil engineering program. Still, I had already set my mind on Electrical engineering. So I applied to Louisiana Tech University in the US and did my bachelor’s from there.
RK: How did you go about work after that?
JN: At the time, I had two job selection criteria coming out of my bachelor’s program. One, I wanted money. I wanted a well-paying job. Two, this job needed to train me for Uganda, so all roads lead to home. I started engaging with the companies that were recruiting on campus. But alas, this was my first encounter with rejection. I applied to Halliburton, a big oil firm that sponsors international students. I started my application, and the first application was rejected. Later, I learned how studies had shown that male applicants were bold enough to apply for every job while females hesitated if they did not meet all requirements on the eligibility checklist. I learned that men have the confidence to apply for jobs when they don’t meet all the criteria, but women are more inclined to apply for opportunities where they tick all the boxes.
So I decided to collect all these job applications that closely matched my skillset and fill them in—even those where I didn’t meet all the criteria. I customized my resume each time and put in all of the work. I was ready to tell them that I was an avid learner and could take on whatever they wanted me to learn.
Robert, in those days, I would open my gmail account, and all there was from Halliburton were emails with the first line showing as a “We regret to inform you…” countless times.
RK: Joan, I would like you to emphasise that, how many times did you have to apply?
JN: A lot. First of all, you have to do a cover letter for each position you are applying for. I asked for help. I went to the career center to ask them why my resume was failing to grab the attention of employers. To date, I still update it. It is a continuous process. Now I can confess, by the time they called me for that one job at Halliburton, I did not even know which position they were calling me for, that how many times I persisted.
I was so determined. With every rejection, there was something to improve. And if those positions were still on the website, then they had not yet filled them, they were still looking for someone and it could be me? Receiving rejection letters was not a nice feeling, but I kept going.
Eventually, they let me in; tenacity counts if you know what you want.
RK: Joan, the purpose of our conversation is to talk about a career. There are many people wondering what to do next in their career. From what you are saying, you are saying, try everything, be clear on the career path you want to take. What it is that you want out of your work. then also the tenacity with which you keep trying on your next step.
JN: Yes. What you want may be clear to you. You may have recognized the job, but you haven’t caught their attention, and there are so many other people who want the same thing.
RK: And you are also saying, you must be prepared for rejection but to never give up.
JN: Yes. You have to process the rejection. But do not take it personally if you must pivot, pivot. If you must push forward, push. But you should not use it as an excuse to stop. Don’t sit home just because they rejected you. No.
RK: So rejection is to be learnt from.
JN: Remember, you don’t return with the same resume and model. After the rejection, refine the model. If there is a feedback process, find out why they rejected you. Those interested in applying for jobs internationally know that there are algorithms, but even then, as you keep doing the iterations, you will learn how to make those algorithms pick up your resume.
RK: So can you actually fix this?
JN: Yes. The resume is not a static document, so you must keep working on it.
RK: So that when the computers are picking out names, they can pick on you? Hussein called it proactive serendipity. So you finally got into Halliburton?
JN: Yes. The first year was very exciting. As I mentioned, I am an avid learner and when I am doing that, I give it my best. But I reached a point and I didn’t fully understand what I was doing. I couldn’t articulate my contribution. One day I asked myself if I didn’t show up to work, would I be missed? Would the work stop?
It was very humbling to realize that I was not doing much. And it wasn’t because the opportunities for doing more work were not there; I was working very hard. But looking back, the purpose and impact were missing for me.
RK: What got you into that reflective mode?
JN: It started becoming very hard to connect with the industry. There were networking events, but I didn’t have a plan for myself in the job, so carrying on a conversation in that space was challenging. I didn’t have a big “WHY” – that is why I was in the job. I didn’t have it, and I was no longer enjoying my work after a while.
In those moments, it clicked for me; if there is only interest and no purpose in what I am doing or no clarity in how it leads to that impact, I won’t enjoy the work.
RK: But for a lot of people, they tend to think; if I am getting the money, why should I ask myself all these questions? Do you think people should ask themselves these questions as they plan their career paths?
JN: I got laid off from Halliburton, and the reason was that, as much as you want to tell yourself, all you care about is making money; if you don’t seek to solve problems, then you won’t bring your best self to work every single day. A better version of yourself. If you don’t keep asking yourself, how can we make this thing work or improve it? You won’t grow in the job. But if you are just at the company to earn money, you are not even at the company to solve problems, or you are not trying to fix anything. Eventually, you’ll get dropped. No one pays for average.
RK: When they decide to cut costs, you are the first cost that goes.
JN: Yes. You must understand the bottom line and add value; otherwise you get chopped. This is why being average is a problem.
RK: Imagine you are talking to someone who is trying to figure things about, should people be thinking about their careers now?
JN: The question varies. Some people are just straight out of uni, others are on their jobs already. For the employee straight out of university, it may be about going into different jobs to realize what you don’t want to do. One of my mentors told me recently, “knowing what you don’t want to do, is sometimes even more important than knowing what you want to do.”
Those coming out of universities should care about their careers because one way or another, it will determine your level of satisfaction and if you enjoy your job. Time and chance happen to everyone, but if that luck doesn’t happen to you, you will be miserable even while the money is flowing. For me I value happiness and peace.
To the person already in the job, mid-career, you should care because it is so sad when there is unrealized potential. There is greatness locked up on the inside of you. It is there. As long as you are not allowing it to come forth, many people are suffering. It is not just about you and your small circle. Purpose and impact are about uplifting others. No.
RK: You know, Joan, something else that comes out of unrealised potential as a result of something you have talked about; that if you live for today, then you are going to be living a life of regrets five, six years from now. Because you didn’t take the step five years ago to go in a particular direction.
JN: Playing it safe can work against you in so many ways.
RK: You talk about being intentional, what is being intentional? And why is it important?
JN: Allow me to say this, I am a believer. My faith is my foundation. Because of my belief, I love people and work for people who may not have the privilege or be fortunate enough to be where I am. It is a big part of my ministry, and I want to reach out to empower others. When I meet someone who is in their comfort zone. I think to myself; you are not where you are just by mere fact of being. First, there are people who sacrificed for you to be where you are. It is a collective. It takes a village.
Secondly, you also the hard work and what it takes to get ahead. I have a problem with people who say, “ I suffered to get where I am so you too must suffer.” Why?
RK: No. No. I must suffer so that you don’t have to pay the same price.
JN: Exactly. When you suffer and you allow me to begin from where you left off, together, we build something that gets elevated and grows. Then we can pull each other up. The ones who do not want to be intentional are being selfish.
RK: So what does it take to be intentional?
JN: For me, it started with the frustration of trying to figure things out and making so many mistakes. I was able to identify the smart persons in the room and that if I work with them, I can get somewhere. However, where I made the mistake was to think that when someone mentors you, you automatically inherit their success. Someone once said; “they want my glory without knowing my story”. I think it was Bishop T.D. Jakes. Basically, I was mimicking what I saw but I didn’t understand what drove those people to those places of excellence. I didn’t understand the details in their stories.
Going back to the career thing, intentionality and why it is important to this conversation, I will say to someone, if you know where you want to go and you know someone who will help you get there, asking them for help does not mean you have shifted your responsibility of growth to that person.
RK: Correct. And if I may add to your statement; that person does not owe you. It is not their responsibility to get you to where you are going. They are giving you ideas, the legs are yours.
JN: I, too, had to drop that sense of entitlement. Sadly, we also think that because someone is family they should do things for you. If they do, well and good, if they don’t, remember they don’t owe you anything. If you come with the kind of attitude where I have worked hard so you must naturally benefit without any effort or recognition of any work I have done. There is a problem there, you can’t be a free rider.
The intentionality is key. At one point I noticed that although I was growing, others were moving faster than me. And I wanted to know why. It became clear to me that people who have accelerated growth constantly go back and ask who is in their circle. They say you are the average of five people around you. If you are always the best around your peers, you never grow. Find someone ahead of us to keep challenging you. I love that book. I am going to be referencing it a lot of times. John Maxwell. The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth. One of them is the rubber band law. If you look at point A where you are and point B where you want to go and you have a rubber band stretched between those points, at no point should the rubber band lose its tension. Point A where you are can never be Point B where you want to be. You will not grow. The two points have to keep moving. Your goals should be a moving target. You cannot be a goal-oriented person that achieves a goal you say, you have arrived. That goalpost needs to keep moving forward.
RK: Is that what you meant by arrivism?
JN: Yes. I keep hearing people saying “I have arrived” or “arriveism”. There is no “arriveism”.”Even presidents are still arriving because they aspire to greater things. Even the people you look up to are still growing because they want to reach greater heights. Or at least they should. That’s why we all have a place in helping each other. If you come to me for help, you should also figure out what it is that Joan needs. Think about how, as much as she may be able to speak, maybe before she speaks, there are some nerves she has to deal with. So how can I then offer or share any knowledge that I have.
RK: Explain to me, there are people who lack self confidence. They don’t think they deserve the next career move. So they don’t do anything about trying to do anything about where they are going.
JN: I need first to figure out why. I am not a certified career coach. And if I find out that the why is hidden in fear of failure then I would really have to emphasise that you cannot live without failing if you want to grow. Every time you fall or are disappointed by something on your way up, then you have learned one way not to climb up that ladder. There is never a time when that failure should immobilize you. If the person says they don’t want to shift from this place because they are afraid that if they take the next step, it will be a disaster, then let me say to that person. Even the people you see who are doing what you consider to be great things, they do it regardless of that fear being present.
RK: This is the thing Joan, even those who develop thick skins the truth or reality we face in our society is that people are so ready to laugh at others
JN: This is how I struggled to pick up languages quickly because I thought people would laugh at me. We call it “mbogo”. Growing up, you made a mistake, and kids laughed at you. So we start being afraid of learning because we think they are going to laugh at us.
RK: How do you work through to develop the confidence you need not just the failure, the mockery, the laughter, to be able to see through that, it would be easy, that touches on the personality aspect.
JN: Robert, I had to learn to clean house. By that, I mean I came to Twitter, all my social media platforms, an unfollowed some people. I have to admit that I was the person someone had to take out of their circle at one point. Because we are all constantly evolving. Now, if your family are the people who are always discouraging you, then don’t share that new idea or next step with them. You really need to have the right people speaking into your life and advising you. Usually, the critics are always the loudest yet doing nothing.
If you are afraid because people are going to be laughing at you, just get to the people who know what it takes. They understand what failing means, so speak to them and be encouraged.
RK: Someone once told me there has never been a monument built for a critic.
JN: Never. If you say we don’t have access to those people, at least the people excelling in your field, then I say that excuse is invalid. If you can hear me or read this online, you can access free resources. People share information for free on youtube and so many platforms.
RK: Look at me, I am here. 360 Mentor is doing just that. Talk about imposter syndrome.
JN: That one is like that thing you want to drive out your system, and you wonder, why it is still here?
It starts with how we see and speak to ourselves. I mentioned this briefly in the tweets, but the truth is that when I was younger, I was never the best in class and consoled myself by saying at least I wasn’t the last. That was always my consolation. But as a result, I started to tell myself that I was average and mediocre. And so when opportunities started opening up, I would say to myself, “why the average person? There are so many people who can do this better than I can”. I was always the one discrediting myself. You are the one saying maybe I don’t deserve to be here – that is impostor syndrome. And it is a constant battle. There are so many of us who go through this daily. Even today, I have to remind myself to find ways to counter that discouraging voice inside. For example, one way I psych myself up is by talking to my mother. She will always remind me of the God I serve. She’ll say, “Do they know the God you serve, that you are Joan Nkiriki Nyarubona?” It’s funny, but that process helps me out. Imposter syndrome may be there, but you have to find countermeasures to address it. I am always asking myself, how can I become my own coach. Sometimes you need to psych yourself up.
They say no one can pray for you more than you pray for yourself. No one believes in you more than you believe in yourself. No one can hope for you the way you hope for yourself.
Things don’t just happen to you. You have to take ownership of the growth journey.
RK: And you must see your role in it.
JN: And when you see it, you cannot run away from it. Please do not run from it.
RK: Sometimes, your role is what you described as imposter syndrome. You are self-sabotaging. And yet sometimes you are even propelling yourself and you don’t realise that it is you. Even God is not operating externally of you. He takes advantage of the gifts you have and works through them.
JN: God has not given you the talents and gifts to hide them in the ground.
RK: And you must multiply them.
JN: When I was 22, I wrote a letter to my 16-year-old self.
RK: What did you say?
Jn: I said you need to expect more from yourself than you do from others. Sometimes we are so happy to celebrate our family, our friends, and when something is happening to you, you’re like, “Is this really me?” I know we want to be humble, but you have worked hard to be where you are and deserve recognition. You deserve to be in that space. And you deserve to grow.
RK: The guys on the street say, “Even me I fear myself”
JN: You should. Those guys know how to psych themselves. They also say, “After God, fear me.”
RK: You said growth is messy, what do you mean by that?
JN: I have made so many mistakes, Robert.
RK: You are not the only one. Talk to someone who might be feeling like they made a mistake given the career choice they made. What would you say to them with all the experiences you’ve had?
JN: Be kind to yourself. It is very important. Look at yourself in the mirror and say, “it is okay,” and forgive yourself. The truth is we all go through hardships. We go through seasons. As I speak now on 360 Mentor, I am still in that fire.
RK: Even me, Joan. I am in fire somewhere.
JN: See. I would like to say to someone right now, I looked at myself in the mirror, and I said, “Of all things that have gone wrong, you have to acknowledge and celebrate the things that have gone right, whether big or small wins.” They are important. Once you start to see those things and as you remind yourself where you’ve come from, it is encouraging. Write down declarations you are going to say to yourself every day. And some of these things are hard because you need to be reflective and authentic as you say them. I say my declarations sometimes and start crying, it can be deep. The process is tough.
It is supposed to bring out that self-awareness. You have to recognise that there is so much in you. The confidence you have should not come from external validation. Whether you are giving a PowerPoint presentation, and everyone in the room looks bored, you need to know deep inside that you prepared for this thing and you are a superstar. It is important. Find your voice, don’t allow yourself to be somebody else’s mouthpiece. You have been given gifts; use them.
And read. You will learn about other people’s experiences. As you read, you’ll find many of those excelling have also passed through and continue to face the fire.
RK: And the answers are in the books. You don’t have to re-invent anything. It is in the books.
JN: By the way, that statement that “if you want to hide anything from Africans, put it in a book” hurts me.
RK: When people see it, they call it lugezigezi.
JN: You know?
RK: And when they meet a girl with a PhD, they fear to approach her. You talk about that. It discourages a lot of young women from pursuing their dreams so that they can fit into society expectations.
JN: When I decided I was pursuing the PhD, most people advised me first to get married. Apparently the PhD would shrink the number of potential candidates. Interestingly, the married women were the ones pushing me to go for it. I think with time, they have realised that you shouldn’t have to compromise on your dream or what it is you want to do.
Secondly, I have friends who are not doing PhDs, who are married, dating, and single. In the same breath, I have friends who are doing PhDs that are married, dating, single or have met in the PhD program. No one can convince me that pursuing a PhD means no marriage. I understand there are sacrifices to be made. But there are no guarantees that if I go for my dream, I will not find someone to love me. If that person should be intimidated by that greatness that is locked on the inside of me, then they are not for me. I shouldn’t have to shrink myself for you to accommodate me.
RK: And yet the person you are going to be with, should be able to enjoy this greatness.
JN: They should be able to celebrate it. Your partner should be your biggest cheerleader. You should be each other’s advocates.
RK: I am one of those who download their thoughts on paper. After rewriting it many times, it clarifies. As Joan, how do you sit down to purposefully have clarity of mind?
JN: This is a work in progress. It is something I am working on. I am trying to get better at it. I heard about SMART goals, and it’s my current framework. A goal has to be Specific, Measurable, Achievable/ Attainable, Realistic, Time constrained.
If you cannot break down what you want to do in SMART goals, then it is not a goal. Get your goals into the SMART framework. I have taken on the 5 AM Club book by Robin Sharma. He puts some good practical steps in that book and an actual daily schedule you can modify.
RK: Have you bought the Everyday Manifesto?
JN: Oh yes.
RK: You are on the right track. When I started running, I have not felt this good in 24 years like I do now.
JN: I will start next year.
Grace Kusasira: I am an international student in the US in California, how did you maneuver?
JN: First of all, it is true there is cultural shock. I went to northern Louisiana, which is like a proper village. Still, in class, I had a cultural shock. Here we were allowed to come to exams with cheat sheets and do open-book exams. Back home, that would be “sasi” , and it was punishable. Grace, find a community to work with, people who can help you navigate your environment. It makes it easier.
Rukwengye: When you come back here, do you usually find that there is a disconnect in the workplace in regards to how you want to apply yourself at the workplace versus those you find here?
JN: I really struggled when I first came back home. Everyone was asking me to get a master’s degree. The disconnect was when I could not be allowed to be over-ambitious. For now, when I return as an expert, I’m more confident about what I want and where I am going.
Secondly, I will not work at a place where I am not allowed to grow. As you are interviewing me, I am also interviewing you.
RK: Talk to me as the father of an 18 year old girl who has just finished high school
JN: Like Solomon King said, make sure you don’t impose your dreams on her. Remind her that she should feel rushed, especially when she is making those small judgment calls. I always felt this pressure to know where I am going when people asked for my 5- or 10-year plan. Tell her it’s okay to say, “I don’t know”. Allow her to express herself even when she cannot fully articulate what she wants to do. If earlier enough I had expressed myself that I am confused about something, they could have responded.
You always to seek to understand her before seeking for her to understand you. You will not always be her go-to person, and that is okay. Surround her with impact-driven women who can process pain and failure, whatever it will be.
RK: Your parting words
JN: My life is not my own. I fully believe that I am blessed to bless others. I keep telling my friends; I want to write the kind of doctoral thesis and publications that make people wonder about the God that I serve. I might start preaching, but I can say this – I don’t believe in the impossible, I have crazy faith, and God always comes through. Read, read, and read some more, challenge the status quo, and seek to create value wherever you go. Open yourself up to career opportunities, and if you haven’t found you want yet, you’re confident that people need it – then create it. Start the company or create your job description and explain to the CEO why they need you in that role. Articulate your value confidently. Find your guiding principles, mine is my faith. So, know what keeps you grounded as you explore opportunities, so you don’t compromise.
Let us seek to add value wherever we go. Clearly articulate the value you bring wherever you go.
RK: Joan Nyarubona Nkiriki Akiiki, thank you very much.
JN: You’re welcome.