Mr Ongeri, 46, is perhaps the senior- most Kenyan on Wall Street today with an experience spanning 20 years, 15 of them at Barclays Bank Plc. Today, he is Managing Director responsible for Global Corporates at Barclays International, New York. PHOTO | COURTESY
A Kenyan’s journey to the apex of corporate America
For someone who has worked on Wall Street for most of his career, Mr Nyagaka Ongeri seems too mild-mannered for the powerful nerve centre of American finance that has often been depicted as a vicious survival-of-the-fittest setting.
Wall Street originally referred to the one-kilometre-long street in Lower Manhattan, New York, home to the network of powerful financial institutions that largely run the economy of the United States of America. Today it is a byword for the financial sector.
When Lifestyle met him last Friday evening for coffee at the café Le Pain Quotidien, just outside his office at Barclays Bank, he was in dark trousers, a green tie and white shirt — typical corporate America dressing.
With his measured words delivered in soft cadences, he could easily have passed for a pastor in a local church. But, on reflection, it could as well have been the perfect banker’s pitch to a high-value customer.
Mr Ongeri, 46, is perhaps the senior- most Kenyan on Wall Street today with an experience spanning 20 years, 15 of them at Barclays Bank Plc. Today, he is Managing Director responsible for Global Corporates at Barclays International, New York.
“I have never thought of that really,” he says of perhaps being the most high-profile Kenyan in New York.
The name Wall Street often invokes images of avarice and hedonism as depicted in the 2013 movie, Wolf of Wall Street, which tells the story of Jordan Belfort, a young charismatic stockbroker who makes a fortune by defrauding investors.
But Mr Ongeri says he finds balance between the demands of his career and his moral beliefs in the work and religious ethos of the Seventh Day Adventist church.
“My faith has been central in my life through the highs and lows,” he says.
For Mr Ongeri, the son of former Cabinet minister Sam Ongeri – who is currently Kenya’s ambassador to the UN-Habitat – the journey to the top echelons of world finance began almost 30 years ago as a teenager.
He had just completed his “O” Levels at St Mary’s School, Nairobi, when he landed a three-month temporary job at Kenya Savings and Mortgage, a housing finance company that has since folded.
“I did ledger entries for a housing project that the company was trying to sell to clients. One has to be very keen and methodical when doing ledgers and the skills that I learned then came in handy when I was establishing my career,” he says.
Much has been said about Kenya’s education system and how it promotes rote learning as opposed to impacting long-lasting knowledge, but Mr Ongeri is quite proud of it, especially the old 7-4-2-3 abolished in 1984 by President Daniel arap Moi.
For his “A” Levels at Moi Forces Academy in Nairobi, he specialised in mathematics, geography and economics.
“Don’t undervalue the skill sets you have accrued from learning in Kenya. These, coupled with the experience I had at the firm, gave me the essential skill sets to pursue finance,” he says.
After working for the company for three months, he went to the National Youth Service (NYS) in Gilgil for the mandatory training of all students who had completed secondary school and were waiting to join university. He credits his time at NYS for exposing him to other Kenyans.
In September 1988, he joined Kenyatta University for a Bachelor of Arts degree, but soon received good news from Howard University in the US that his application for admission a few months earlier had been successful.
Located in Washington DC, the political capital of the US, Howard is a historically black university founded in 1867 and it was this that appealed to him. In January 1989, he left Kenya for the first time ever to begin his degree studies in business finance.
Academically, his first years at the university were “easy”, he says, but it was the cultural differences that took him time to adjust to.
“I had these concepts of the US from the media. People were open and didn’t have qualms about speaking their minds. I just wasn’t used to that,” he says.
Although his parents were paying for his tuition fees, he took up a part-time job as a cashier at a petrol station in Washington DC for pocket money, working what some call the graveyard shift, which is between 10 pm and 6 am.
The job gave him an opportunity to not only earn extra money but also to put class knowledge into practice. However, it soon brought him face to face with the unseemly side of the American society.
“One day I was at work and these guys came in and robbed me at gunpoint! It scared me to death. After thinking about the whole affair, I concluded that the job was not the thing for me. I left after five months,” he says.
Due to his good grades, the university awarded him a full scholarship during his second year, thus relieving him of stresses related to money. In 1990, he landed a three-month internship at the Maryland Bank National Associates, which has since been bought out by the Bank of America.
“This was my first introduction to corporate America. It opened my thinking to the idea that I could work on Wall Street,” he says. The next year, in 1991, he landed another internship at JP Morgan, the financial behemoth based in New York.
“Until then, Howard had taught me how to write a CV, how to dress and what to say. But at JP Morgan, I learned the things that you are not taught in school — the business etiquette. For example, I learned how to dress and to show up on time,” he says.
His internship at JP Morgan was facilitated by Sponsors for Educational Opportunities (SEO), a not-for-profit organisation that identified brilliant black students across universities in the US for internship at leading companies.
It is a highly competitive and multi-layered process that aims to pick only the best. In 1991, Mr Ongeri was one of the 25 black students picked to benefit from exposure at these corporates. He was placed in the capital markets division at JP Morgan.
“I was simply overwhelmed by New York,” he says of his experiences as a first time visitor to the city. But the benefits of the SEO scholarship sowed in him the seeds of philanthropy that he would germinate and bloom in his working life.
During his final year at Howard, he interviewed and got job offers from Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and Merrill Lynch, perhaps some of the biggest financial institutions in the world at the time. He opted for Merrill Lynch.
Nyagaka Ongeri. PHOTO | COURTESY
“When I visited their offices, I saw young black people working. This was the early 1990s when there weren’t a lot of black people on Wall Street. It said a lot about their commitment to diversity, which I didn’t feel as strongly elsewhere,” he says.
He started work in January 1992 and worked on the capital markets desk for three years. While he says he appreciated the working environment, he decided to go back to school to boost his future prospects in corporate America.
In 1994, he applied to two of the best business schools in the US – the Harvard Business School and the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Both rejected him the first time but, undeterred, he re-applied and got admitted to both the following year. He opted for Harvard and started in January 1996.
“Books have been written about surviving the year in Harvard. It is incredibly intense. You are taught to make decisions, stand by them and fight to succeed. Every night we were given assignments which we were required to present in front of colleagues the following morning. These are smart and opinionated. If you are mediocre, you get exposed quickly,” he says.
Besides, their class projects were oriented around teams which also trained graduates not to be social misfits.
“I learned that you can’t be too academic. Being socially successful is just as important as being academically successful. Never eat lunch alone is a book I read and philosophy I live by as much as possible,” he says.
He graduated from Harvard in 1997 and interviewed at JP Morgan. At the time there was a lot of focus on emerging markets, mainly in Asia and Latin America, but little on Africa. But JP Morgan had set up its first branch in South Africa and asked him if he was interested in joining the team in Johannesburg.
“I arrived in September. Those were the heady days in South Africa. Nelson Mandela had just been elected president and there was so much optimism in the air — a wonderful rush of revitalising air of freedom. There was a feeling that anything was possible,” he says.
He worked within the capital markets division, servicing both local and international clients. The company also had an active corporate social responsibility mission which invested in schools in Alexandria, an impoverished neighbourhood outside of Johannesburg.
It was here that the seed of the philanthropy that had been sown by SEO germinated. Together with a friend from Harvard who was working in South Africa, too, they set up a non-profit organisation to help brilliant students from poor families.
Student Sponsorship Programme started in 2000 mainly to help high school students and has since spread beyond Johannesburg’s townships. In 16 years of existence, it has sponsored more than 700 students and has been modelled in other African countries.
Of those, one boy he met in 1999 in Alexandaria while scouting for talented students made a big impression.
Mr Ongeri and his wife Eva on their wedding day in South Africa in 2011. PHOTO | COURTESY
“He told me he wanted to be an economist, which almost every ambitious young person says. But then he took it a step ahead and started engaging me on why the World Bank and International Monetary Fund policies have failed in Africa and what he was going to do about it. He just blew me away! Fast track to 2016, that boy is now a banker with Deutsche Bank in South Africa,” he says.
Just two months after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the US, he joined Barclays Bank and moved to New York. His decision to join Barclays, he says, was a result of something that he kept returning to during the interview: Social capital.
“I joined Barclays because I had kept in touch with many people there who inspired me to join them on a mission to grow the US business. It goes back to the point I told you I learned from Harvard about the importance of being socially intelligent yet doing so without expecting a return,” he says.
He worked on the capital markets desk for eight years and in 2009, he returned to South Africa to grow the bank’s financing franchise across 13 African countries. In 2011, he returned to the US to lead the set-up of the bank’s global corporate banking business in the US.
“We help US clients with their corporate banking needs across our global footprint which is the UK and Ireland, Western Europe, the Middle East, Africa and India,” he says.
In New York, he has continued to pursue his philanthropic missions, which is close to his heart. In 2014, he joined the board of Amref Health Africa USA.
“They wanted somebody who had knowledge about Africa to help them fundraise. Since I am passionate about Amref’s mission, having seen its work growing up in Kenya, I felt that this was an important calling for me,” he says.
In 2013, he resigned from the board of SSP which he had formed at the age of 28, and joined the board of Education Development Centre, a $85 million US-based organisation that promotes health, education and international development in the areas it operates.
Mr Ongeri’s forays into South Africa didn’t just pay off careerwise. It brought him to Eva, a South African, who was a partner with a successful law firm, Bowman Gilfillan. They got married in 2011 in Cape Town. Eva decided to transition careers on moving to New York to be with Mr Ongeri and is currently completing her Master of Business Administration at the New York University Stern Business School.
“I am a romantic. I don’t believe in marrying just to fulfil a societal requirement. I wanted someone who would enrich me and who had her own personal ambitions. That’s why I married at 42. I think I caused great anxiety among my family for dragging this out, but I wanted to do it right,” he says.
The banker, who is an avid mountain climber and runner, has over the years maintained discipline in the way he manages his day.
“I usually get up about 5.30 in the morning. It is a habit that we adopted while growing up. Being in the medical field, our parents woke up early, dropped us in school on their way to their work places. We were always the first ones in school. It is a habit that has stuck to date,” he says.
The Ongeris are a family of high achievers. Prof Ongeri, the patriarch, worked as a paediatrician before venturing into politics while his wife Elizabeth retired as the deputy chief nursing officer after spending many years at Kenyatta National Hospital. Ms Carole Ongeri, 47, the eldest in the family, is a trained engineer and is an executive at Turkana Wind Farm.
Sylvia, 41, is a dentist educated at Baraton University and the University of Toronto who also worked at Kenyatta National Hospital while Fiona, 38, studied inorganic chemistry at Brighton University in the UK. She was a researcher for a long time in the Houston area but recently moved back to Kenya with her husband Vincent Aberi.
Mr Ongeri says his parents and faith are his biggest inspiration, but he does not see himself going into politics like his father. “You don’t have to be a politician to be successful. I enjoy banking and finding innovative ways to touch the lives of people,” he says.
The aspiration he holds and looks to achieve through his professional and philanthropic work is that young African men and women can realise their dreams.
Source: Daily Nation