First Person: A Journey Back to the Motherland

First Person: Ken Kuguru, MBA ’03
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—By Ken Kuguru


I always knew I wanted to eventually return to the Motherland—for me, Africa. But the beauty of a Michigan MBA is that it also gave me the credentials, knowledge, and network to have the flexibility to hold off on my dream and to — in the meantime — pursue a business career any place in the world.

I started my career at DuPont, working in global roles based in Wilmington, Delaware. I led projects, including launching Teflon Car Care products in Thailand and building DuPont bio-based materials with our joint venture partner in Japan. It was during this time that company executives began recognizing me as “the business crusader for Africa,” because I spent all my networking capital — meeting top company leaders — advocating for more company resources to support Africa-based projects.

This mission did not come without challenges. Most major corporations were not yet quite ready to focus significant energies on developing markets that were not BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) markets. Adhering to the age-old adage “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” I decided to head to China, where I joined Philips Electronics. I lived and worked in Shanghai for 10 years as, among other roles, the head of kitchen appliances for China, Hong Kong & Taiwan in the Philips Consumer Lifestyle business. However, in an effort to maintain my linkage to the Motherland, it was during this time that I also launched the Philips renewable energy lighting business, targeting developing markets mainly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite my crusading, after a decade in China, I still wasn’t quite ready to head back to the Motherland. After all, I was thriving in the most exciting and fastest-growing economy on the planet. However, I had to remind myself of the goals that I had set for myself all the way back when I was a Ross MBA student: to utilize my global business experience and make a positive impact back home. When the opportunity presented itself to return to Kenya as a CEO for a dynamic growth company, I could not say no twice (I said no the first time, but that’s another story for another Dividend).

Today, I am proud to be the CEO of Nairobi-based Java House Group, East Africa’s #1 restaurant group with more than 60 outlets, in 10 cities across three countries. With our staff of 2,000 employees, we serve #JavaLove to more than 320,000 guests every month in the form of lattes, cappuccinos, burgers, burritos, and many other delectable treats.

Best of all, I know I am making a positive impact and contribution as the regional leader on both guest and employee satisfaction. With our industry-leading salary standards and healthcare benefits for 100 percent of our staff, our people are not only able to improve their standard of living, they feel valued and pass on the #JavaLove to our guests with a genuine dose of “African Hospitality” with every encounter.

We all have a personal journey, and it’s anything but a straight path. In order to give back and be our best selves, we have to be open to venture out, experience different things, travel to other places, and meet new people. But while on that journey, never forget your “personal Motherland,” whether it be a geographical location or an ideological goal, because there will come a time when you may be called to return to where deep down inside you have always known you are supposed to be.