Mentor Perspectives: Dancan Onyango, Part 3

by | Aug 30, 2022 | Mentorship

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Lesson 5: Do not allow the undue influence of others to override your ambitions

In my final year of graduate school, I struggled to decide which one among the many areas of specialization would be a good fit. I wanted to study finance, and I enthusiastically shared this ambition with my peers. I was benched very hard and told to stay in my lane–to look for roles in marketing or strategy where previous grad students were landing jobs fast. On innumerable occasions, there were lots of push backs from folks who reiterated the notion that as an international student, I could not beat Americans in finance. 

Believe it or not, many students went for marketing, hoping to land a job before their visas expired. A lot of finance majors were ex-investment bankers, and many fresh grads who took a different path dealt with many fears, key among them having to work harder. Overwriting this blatant historical oversight proved challenging. At one point, I was a breath away from pursuing a general MBA 

I am sure there are marketing majors who are rolling their eyes at me right now. Please hold that judgment for a second. This is not to oversimplify the novelty of a career in marketing, but to underscore the importance of sticking to your ambitions no matter what. All this was happening in the wake of a gradually shrinking economy. Unemployment in the State of Massachusetts was on a record high, and many graduates were unable to find jobs. I went for the finance concentration, nonetheless. If people didn’t see what I saw in myself, then I had to make it happen. Either way, I knew I was setting myself up to win. I have learned to get better at taking wild bets on myself.

Lesson 6: Seek out advice from a broad range of experts 

As many people are moving from working in their offices to working from home, it has been hard to find people to talk to about careers and life in general. People taking social distancing seriously would make networking interactions quite interesting. To be honest, I found connecting with mentors in person a drag. I had so many obligations with my academic work and being an introvert, speaking with 5 different people at a networking dinner was just unreasonable. I often felt that I made the least out of the numerous events I attended on campus. 

But when my 8B Education mentor came into the picture, she changed everything. She made me understand WHY I needed to show up at all company events, whether that meant “Bagels Tuesday” or a brunch.  At first, I was quite hesitant. We must keep networking within the office even across departments. You want colleagues to know you, what you do.  

Fast forward, in my second month at Gilead, I have been made a business partner, supporting 3 divisions within the company. I cannot emphasize enough how relationships with the directors of these departments have borne fruits as far as making my work easy. On many occasions, I have learnt very pertinent issues around their finance needs through informal chats along the corridors. I have run into folks who joined the company before I was born and some who joined in my capacity and have structured their careers in a whole different direction and returned to finance.

You must not necessarily have the deepest of experts in your chosen field, but rather speaking with people outside your career path will open your eyes to opportunities within your immediate realms. 

Lesson 7: Ask for help because you are worth helping

The seventh lesson I am sharing here is not necessarily based on my personal experience.  Sometimes I wish I could breach the privacy and confidence of those who shared their experiences with me – but I won’t do that. Because so many have told me how in one year, things went south, and the next year they picked themselves up. Men who have lost businesses have started over and flourished a year later. Keep the hope alive. Stay sane 

Before coming to the US, I was running a microfinance startup in my hometown, Kisumu, Kenya. When I left Jiwo Paro, success to me was either raising capital, scaling, and exiting. An MBA and US networks would serve me well. After my first year of grad school, I decided to find an internship and keep Jiwo Paro for my nights and weekends. I didn’t want to make the mistake of spending all my time on the startup while waiting for the outcome of some capital raising endeavors. We did ink a deal, but it wasn’t enough to turn the startup into a full-time job. If anything, I stepped on the gas on my academics at this time and I was committed to gleaning the most out of it. 

When I completed my studies, I knew going back to my company was not an option. My decision would not impress many who had been involved directly or indirectly as donors, and mentors in some way, as they would think what a dream killer I was. When I shared the idea with one of my current mentors, she quickly pointed at the innumerable doors an MBA would open. At first, I felt that she was indirectly urging me to get a job and pay off my student loan, because she made the call herself. I was nervous at first. She seemed to have so much hope in me, but five months later, my job prospects weren’t readily apparent. Along with her support around a job application, she not only made some introductions but actually offered me a job

This piece of advice makes sense now, and it was super pragmatic of her to help me get situated as I looked for a more stable job. Looking back in retrospect, this advice was really a “come to Jesus” moment for me. 

Lesson 8: If you do not put a premium price on yourself, no-one will offer it to you

While receiving my graduate degree, one of my biggest extracurricular commitments was to serve as a leader. I served at Intervarsity Student Council, a globally focused student campus ministry. I served as president of the student group at Babson College. After graduation, I stepped into the world with aspirations to become a finance leader. Studying overseas, I encountered a variety of different finance leaders–from academia to fund managers across various industries. Despite earning a master’s, one of my biggest struggles was how to sell myself. I came up with lots of affirmations. My mentors also kept sending positive energy my way. I felt grateful and excited about all the people who believed in me and wanted to see me win. During that time, the following affirmations kept running through my mind: 

  • You have done it before, you can do it again
  • The world needs more authentic people
  • Onwards, Dancan!

Resisting the “need to know” and instead being willing to pause in the “not knowing” place led me to the unexpected connections with very good people who are out to help people like you and me to succeed. 

Despite being a bit introverted and a good candidate for 3rd grade social skills fair (!), a revelation has occurred to me as far as the importance of valuing my worth. By concentrating on not just the nodes of what a professional connection and considering the value of empty spaces between me and industry experts, it became obvious where answers to some of what I considered intractable blockages were. 

This is the last instalment of Dancan’s reflections on mentorship. Check out Part 1 and Part 2 in case you missed them. 

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