Who is Mulang’ Onando?
I wear many hats but in general, I am a computer scientist, working in the area of data science and Natural Language processing. Currently I work as a research scientist at the Fraunhofer Institute for Intelligent Analysis and Information Systems (IAIS), in Bonn Germany, where I am involved in building technologies for human language understanding, with use cases including systems that answer questions from user’s natural language (think of Alexa or IBM’s Watson computers), Dialogue systems for use in navigation or automotive, decision support systems that rely on automatic text analysis and generally any technology that relies on data to identify relevant patterns or predict future trends.
What has been your greatest milestone and how did you come to achieve it?
I would say that the greatest milestone is achieving my Ph.D. at the University of Bonn. This is because, in my view, reaching the peak of my academic journey at a relatively young age, gives me the impetus and freedom to expand into other realms like investment. I generally had the view that academic success would act as a foundation to build upon, but Ph.D. offers you tools that can be generalized and applied to nearly all situations in life. I felt at the time that I needed to attain the specific training that comes from taking a Ph.D., change my environment, place myself under a certain pressure, open my mind to new concepts etc, basically get out of my comfort zone. A lot of folks would think that a Ph.D. is an academic qualification. And as much as that would be true, as it were, having gone through the four years of the work, I know there is more to it. It’s a period you define your own problems and design solutions, if there is a technical skill missing you could sharpen your own skills or use your leadership and negotiation skills to collaborate with others for mutual benefit.
I knew as well that I needed to take my Ph.D. abroad majorly because of the advanced learning structures and network. In Europe, a Ph.D. is really training in all perspectives, team dynamics, leadership skills, time management etc. But staying abroad comes with challenges. For instance in Germany the German language is the first challenge, to learn a new language takes time and there is simply no time to practice during the process, then there is settling down, culture, food, etc. If you are used to 360 days of summer and some good nyama choma, then you will understand when I tell you the going gets challenging in winter and the like. So I view that four years as an investment, and to be frank it was worth every sacrifice. As opposed to 5 or so years ago when I had a relatively narrow investment mind, restricted problem domains. Now I look at everything as an opportunity. I just did not want to be involved in the brick and mortar type of investment. Now I have tools to run my startups as well as services like consultancy, and training in really important technologies for the future.
What has been your secret to building a successful career?
I think I understood my journey and owned it early enough in life. I have defined for myself a path that is time budgeted. From time to time you lose some months in the budget but that happens with money as well and you must have the ability to shake that off and restructure.
What is the secret to making it? Where do you think many Kenyans go wrong?
Having a sound plan and being patient with it. Pastor Tudor Bismark, was once invited by TD Jakes and in his preaching paints the contrasting picture between the Zambian economy and the Chinese economies and how that the African is attending church worships and praying for success, yet the Japanees is a shituist, while the Chinese a pagn and yet still successful. He postulates that success is about being sound with your decisions, and having proper understanding. The value of initial decision and sound planning, having a very large success cap similar in meaning to the “law of the lid” from the 21 laws of leadership by John Maxwell. Being consistent with your plan and constantly reevaluating. Every step, every decision counts. I think Africans have been smothered by factors like religion, corruption and the like such that the young think they can quickly fix success or pray for fortunes. It’s not that simple. I believe God has blessed us equally and each of us gets opportunities at the right time. The challenge is how we utilize our opportunities and how strategic we are with our intellectual gifts. Carol Dweck has written a nice book about the growth mindset, having an attitude that is willing to accept the challenge required for you to grow. I always advise my students that the world now offers pervasive resources to gain any targeted skills you wish. It’s about determining early what you wind, find some mentors to look forward to, and be disciplined in the process.
What has been your biggest financial mistake? What did you learn from it?
I once took more than half a million to invest in a hotel at Umoja estate of Nairobi. I had just started out in my career at JKUAT. At the time I wanted to diversify, gain some other money generating activity. That idea itself is great: I had a great “What” that I wanted to achieve, however when it came to the “how”, I really was poor with it. So this friend of mine pitched me the idea about a thriving hotel business whose owner wanted to sell. We looked at his returns and it looked good. So I went, took my loan and bought the business. When we started off, we made some profit earlier on but then I had my day job at the university. To summarize the idea did not pick up well. After 1 year, I had decided to cut my losses. I think that helped me a lot, otherwise I would have continued investing until I am out. Took me quite a while to pay the loan but I took the responsibility for my poor choice at the time and never felt the pain of it. I think many a folk rush into ideas in the name of wanting to make it in life. Assuming several things before investing, failing to cut your losses early and refusing to take responsibility. From my experience, these are the three things I learnt and of course I promised myself not to undertake any business venture unless I have enough time to personally nurture it. As well I now prefer investing in a tech concept rather than service or retail.
If you were to start all over again, what are some of the things you’d do differently?
I think in terms of defining my path and staying true to it, I have done pretty well, maybe I would have spent time diving more into understanding more of mathematical spheres. I realize everything revolves around some math or physics principle. Otherwise around 2004 – 2006 I had lots of interest in acting and play writing, never followed it and it keeps nudging me from time to time.
Which method do you use to save money?
I use different approaches to save, I believe that one must spread risk for security purposes, especially in an unpredictable world with inflation, insecurity of property and so on. Majorly I like to utilize fixed accounts that draw some forms of interest but mostly if I have a specific goal for that, in any case savings should have a goal. I am a member of a few saccos as well and I love saving with SACCOS since the shares draw yearly dividends and then there is the matter of the loan coming at a bit lower interest rates .
Entrepreneurship versus employment: which one would you advocate for? Why?
It depends really. I believe the question boils down to how much does one understand themselves. Not all folks are meant to be entrepreneurs and vise versa for employment as well. If you look at it critically; life is a huge gamble filled with random occurrences. It’s about your ability to avoid being fooled by this randomness or how willing you are to accept life’s randomness, figuratively speaking according to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book. Entrepreneurship is great if lady nature picks you for success, of course there is a lot of research and groundwork you must perform, then get some investors or capital but that is just the 1% of entrepreneurship. What follows is hard work, consistency, lots of negotiations, leadership etc then there is the random luck factor. This is why for me, I would go for grounding yourself to a given skill set that can be diversified whether through employment or consulting or offering services. Strong skill set and great personality can get you employed, you can then use the returns as a fall back in case your investment takes a while to pick. Indeed investment should not be for generating money, rather to solve a specific problem you think affects the community, this way the returns on investment are just supply and you enjoy your time in the investment as well. If you are talking of investment in the form or the markets or Bonds, then you really need to understand what you are doing before you get saturated because that is a money business. Right now the world needs innovators, Africa is just at 3AM of innovation while the other world is at 10AM. That means that there is a huge gap to be filled by creatives. I see the Comedy and Music industries have picked up, I see fintech startups, Kenyans are trying. There is more, we need innovators and creatives to take their space. So if you ask me whether Investment or Employment, I will say both or either. Depends really on your understanding or yourself and you willpower to achieve your targets.
What is your parting shot? What is that heart advice that you have learned on life and money from other senior persons?
Stop gambling and start investing, gain strong marketable skills, and have a strong personality. There is a thin line between investment and gambling. A lot of folks tend to gamble their money in the name of investment (and I don’t mean the lotos or Sportpesa kind of gambling). Many people tend to use surface analysis of a business idea to invest. Many young people try living other people’s lives as well, living beyond your means, trying to build Rome in a day.