Kenya is rallying behind Ambassador Dr Amina Mohamed to be the next Chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission, and Africa has warmly received her nomination. Elections were set to be held on January 31.
With a stellar diplomatic career of over three decades, Mohamed, a Kenyan, is known as an excellent strategist with proven negotiation and managerial skills, having demonstrated solid leadership in every domestic and international post she has held.
She is the serving Chair of the 10th World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference which is the topmost decision-making body of the WTO.
Mohamed rose through the ranks in Kenya’s diplomatic service from legal advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Kenya’s Missions to Geneva and New York, to the highest level of Ambassador/Permanent Representative, Kenya Mission, to the United Nations (UN) in Geneva from 2000 to 2006.
She served as Director, Europe and the Commonwealth and Director Diaspora from 2006 to 2007 and was Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Justice, National Cohesion and Constitutional Affairs in 2008.
In July 2011, she joined the UN as Assistant Secretary General and Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) based in Nairobi.
In April 2013, she was appointed by Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta as Cabinet Secretary (Minister) for Foreign Affairs and International Trade of Kenya.
Weeks before the AU Commission elections, Mohamed spoke to CNBC Africa. Excerpts from the interview:
Q: You’ve had many firsts as a woman in leadership in Africa; just walk us through your journey?
A: The first time I did something that I guess laid the road-map for whatever else came after was when I was elected to chair the International Organization for Migration Conference which is a council for migration. At that time, Kenya was actually the only African country that was a member of the International Organization for Migration. And when I was approached, I told them that the only reason I would agree to be put up as a candidate for the chairmanship would be if they would open up the organization for Africa, and would be able to attract more countries into the organization.
So we reached an understanding and I chaired it and during my chairmanship, that one year, I brought in a few African countries, and the rest is actually history, because now I think the largest group of countries that are members of the IOM are African countries, and from then on, I think in especially the kind of job that we do as ambassadors, you are called upon to show your commitment to the continent by agreeing to chair different bodies.
And so I was fortunate, I was privileged that the African group in the cities that I served in saw it fit to elect me over and over again, and so it’s something that I enjoyed doing, I was committed to doing and I think the record is not a bad one.
Q: You are now running to be chairperson of the AU Commission, tell us about the drive behind this decision?
A: Kenya has put up my candidateship for the position of Chairman of the African Union Commission. Why am I running? I think we have a lot of value that we can bring to the table; we are also at a good time in the history of this continent. The first thing that comes to mind is the framework that we have. We have a framework that was agreed on by all African countries that needs a faithful implementer to put in place.
It’s a framework called Agenda 2063, for inclusive growth and sustainable development and it has a number of amazing aspirations for the continent. I think it’s actually time for East Africa because of the track record we have also set as a community, as an East African Community in what we have done.
We created a model for others to emulate and so there’s just a feeling that it was time for us to run for this position and I would be a good candidate for that because again I can bring people together, I have never come across a challenge that cannot be resolved, I look at challenges actually as opportunities. And I believe that we all know what we need as a continent to move us forward. One should look at the leaps we have made.
We are a young continent, we have done amazing things, we – many of us – have come up with new constitutions, constitutions that are based on our own realities, not on realities that come from elsewhere, also we look at our own specificities, our own individualities as countries.
For us as a continent, it’s actually excellent that we have such a young population.
It’s a young population that’s creative and innovative that are drivers of the economy and they are also the future and the present and therefore whatever they do, they know what they would like to put in place, for themselves and for their own children and for posterity I guess.
So we actually are in a situation where we can lead and not follow, because the problem is ours, the challenge is ours and it’s a wonderful opportunity to use, to propel the continent to the greatest possible heights.
Q: Briefly take us through what an AU Commission led by you will focus on, looking at the challenges Africa is facing…
A: I think industrialization, without any doubt. It is the only one that has the ability to reduce poverty, create the jobs that we need and to move the continent [forward]. And I think following that, trade, because trade brings us together, which is a unifier if you like.
We need to make sure that our infrastructure, whether it’s land, sea or air, is seamless. It doesn’t take a day, it’s a process but we need to get on with it. We need to remove the obstacles that are low-lying fruit… they can be removed easily.
One of those is allowing the easier movement of people, business people, of capital, services and goods. There is no reason why Kenya should import; and I am using as an example, if we did not have the dairy sector and we needed butter, milk or cheese, there is no reason why we should import that from 10,000 miles away; if we can just go across the border, into the next country and import from our neighbors.
The only reason why that has been difficult is because of the infrastructure deficit that we are faced with and we need to address that and address it quickly.
In this country we have tried to do it, in the region we have tried to do it with the SGR, with the road infrastructure that we have put in place, with the modernization with the port that has been done over the last few years, with the modernization of our airport, so those are the things we need to do across the continent so that our young people can move from one country to another, bring ideas, bring creativity, bring innovation, but also find jobs.
So apart from industrialization, and obviously there you have to address the infrastructure deficit, trade and the need to trade amongst ourselves; the intra-Africa trade is at 13%, and there is no reason for that. It should actually be at least at 30%; we should, eventually have 60% of trade within the continent.
This is where the population is, this is where the fastest growing middle-class is, and obviously with that, you have a consumer market, so this is where most of the trading should actually take place.
Q: The outgoing AU Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has been very vocal about peace and security. Share with us your vision…
A: She’s also been very passionate about agriculture, because agriculture has the ability to transform communities and societies very quickly and there’s a need therefore again as a reason of the youth to make agriculture trendy and productive for the youth.
But you know you cannot undertake development unless you actually have a peaceful, stable and predictable environment. You must have peace and security, without it you can’t have growth.
And so it’s been actually a rallying call of Madam Zuma, to silence the guns and we’ve agreed that we would try to do that at least by 2020, if we can’t do it sooner. I believe that if we all came together and are always committed as she is, we should be able to do that before the 2020 deadline.
Africa does not manufacture ammunition except for a few countries. Africa is resolving most of its conflicts and there are very few countries today, of the 54, that are still engulfed in conflict, in fact there are probably less than five that are engulfed in active conflict, and therefore we are at a place where we should be talking about a peaceful Africa, a secure Africa, a growing Africa, a resilient Africa.
So it’s one of the priorities. We actually addressed most of the issues that were connected to decolonization, that peace and security became a big issue and we started addressing it.
I think if we are focused we can actually deal with it, it’s been successful in the majority of countries and of course there will be hiccups, back and forth, but I think a majority of the countries have gone beyond the stage where conflict is a daily affair, so we need to continue working on it and I think we should be able to get it done.
Q: What’s your vision on
A: We have a very comprehensive and all-inclusive agenda. And that is also an issue that is in our Agenda 2063; we are more transparent, we are more open. Again, we are a young continent, the youth is very demanding, we are involving more and more people in leadership – apart from the youth, the women that are coming in jobs now.
So I think today Africa is at a better place, in terms of the rule of law, in terms of governance than it has ever been, and I think the only way forward is to keep improving that.
And as I said before, we [Kenya] enacted our constitution in 2010. Immediately after its enactment – I was in Justice, Permanent Secretary there – we got a dozen requests from countries that wanted to come and look at our constitution and see whether there was anything they could borrow from there that would fit their own circumstances. Because at the end of the day, the instrument is only as good as its implementation.
And you will only implement something that you are really comfortable with, and so the whole purpose of coming to study and look at what we are doing is, ‘will this fit into my own circumstance, is it something I can do now, is it something that can be delayed a bit’.
As you know, our own constitution had transitional clauses, what we needed to do now, what we could a little later; some of the provisions could only actually be fully implemented in five years, six years, and 10 years. So we had actually time periods in the constitution for implementation of different provisions.
So I think it’s the same everywhere, but the governance situation on the continent is better than it’s ever been and I know it’s going to continue improving.
Q: Your bid has been warmly
accepted across a good number of countries, over 25 African countries. What are your expectations as we head towards January 2017?
A: We are campaigning, I was told by one of our leaders that campaigns are personal, you must ask for a vote and that if you don’t ask for a vote, even your own brother can vote against you, so we are going across the continent asking everybody for their support and trying of course to obviously convince them that we have a good candidate. They have been very receptive, very warmly received, wonderful arrangements put in place for us… we are encouraged by the reception and the support that seems to be coming across as well.
– Gitonga is a news producer at CNBC Africa and interviewed Mohamed at the CNBC Africa studios in Nairobi in November, Kenya; for the full text of the interview, visit
The Tall Lawyer, Investor And Philanthropist In A Power Suit
Aluko & Oyebode, Nigeria’s formidable commercial law firm, at No.1 Murtala Mohammed Road in Ikoyi, Lagos, Nigeria, is unusually empty for a Saturday.
It gives one enough time to admire its plush interiors. Describing it would be taking a page out of a John Grisham novel.
The imposing building houses three floors of prime real estate in the heart of the city and on one of the most expensive strips in Lagos.
As you walk in, the blood-red walls are juxtaposed with grey metallic fixtures and fittings. The décor of the building is reminiscent of past cultures of various African countries.
Each floor is delightfully curated with Afro-centric artefacts and in the middle floor of the building is the firm’s seat of power, the office of its leader, Gbenga Oyebode.
For a sweltering Nigerian afternoon, Oyebode is dressed like no other in a 100-mile radius of the elite Victoria Island hub of Lagos: in a two-piece power suit, his signature outfit. Today, it is in black, accented by a deep blue tie.
Oyebode is cordial and pleasant with the team as he takes his position on the ground floor for the first set of pictures for the FORBES AFRICA cover.
He is the Chairman of Aluko & Oyebode, one of the largest integrated law firms in Nigeria with over 70 lawyers and three offices in Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt.
The firm provides a comprehensive range of specialist legal services to a highly diversified clientele including top-tier Nigerian, international and multinational clients. In his capacity as chairman, Oyebode coordinates the various practice areas of the firm.
Described as a consummate dealmaker who has received plaudits from clients and peers alike for his corporate acumen, Oyebode’s areas of expertise cover energy and natural resources, power projects, foreign investment and privatization, telecommunications and project finance.
It is not just his formal dressing that is unusual.
Law firms in the country, family-owned by tradition, almost never run their firms like well-oiled machines providing solutions for several sectors at the same time. Oyebode was one of the pioneers of this concept. And it has not been an easy journey.
“It exposed me to these great minds I read about in the The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and I said very quickly to myself that I wanted to be like them,”
The 59-year-old spent the early years of his life musing over the promises of life in the civil service, a path taken by his father. It was a stable and comfortable job and one had guaranteed employment as well as a good salary. But he was compelled to ponder the possibilities of a riskier career.
“In those days, being a civil servant was the dream of every young person due to the stability of the job. However, as I started reading law, it became clear to me that I wanted to be an entrepreneur and for a lawyer that means opening a law firm,” says Oyebode as he takes a break from the photoshoot to begin our interview.
And that is exactly what he did. But not just any law firm, he wanted to leave behind a dynasty of great lawyers whose work would carry on long after he was gone.
If he had worked for any Nigerian law firm, his future would not have been guaranteed.
“The history of Nigerian law firms in the early 80s and some of them today was that they were set up by great minds essentially to be kept in the family. Their children went to law school and even if you were a great lawyer who worked with them, they make it very clear that you shouldn’t be thinking about your future at the law firm, because they were going to hand over the business to their children. So I understood that it was not going to work for me,” says Oyebode.
At well over six feet, Oyebode has a towering presence in any room, yet his calm and cordial disposition immediately sets you at ease and makes you feel as though you are having a conversation with an old friend.
Sitting in the conference room of his eponymous firm, Oyebode recalls a series of events that shaped the course of his career.
Like the time he was going to university and struggled to get guidance from mentors who would have advised him on the best path to take to become a successful legal entrepreneur.
The prominent Nigerian lawyers at the time were not strictly lawyers who worked at the firm but were mostly also involved in other professions.
According to Oyebode, the earliest nationalists of Nigerian politics were all lawyers, who used the law that they had learned abroad to change the system in Nigeria to gain independence and push the envelope against colonialism.
That would later become the real motivation for Oyebode to become a lawyer. For him, the ability to use law to change the political system with democracy or creating value was a calling he wanted to be a part of.
After graduating from the University of Ife in 1979, he immediately went to the Nigerian Law School and thereafter, completed his postgraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) in the United States (US).
“What UPenn did for me was show me that there was a different way to do things and that the world was bigger than the opportunities I had in Nigeria. One of the most significant things about going to an Ivy League institution is how they draw from great minds around. So we went to conferences where great minds in the capital markets were and it was a game-changer. It exposed me to these great minds I read about in the The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and I said very quickly to myself that I wanted to be like them,” recalls Oyebode.
His journey is a textbook case study on how to systematically build a business step by step. He eschews convention. From the minute he finished primary school, his father signed up to a subscription of Reader’s Digest that was to become his monthly diet.
“He thought that it was important for us to read. He said it was important for us to understand what happened around the world. So one of the things that I do continually even today is I read the Reader’s Digest every month. It shaped my view of the world and created for me a situation where I learned more about the things that were happening around me and I was not limited to Nigeria,” says Oyebode.
His tenure as an associate at White & Case, one of the world’s leading law firms, helped him visualize the type of law firm he wanted to build of his own.
“American law firms were the type of law firms I thought we could replicate in Nigeria. Their vision for building big partnerships and for those partnerships to survive named partners was impressive. So it was very clear where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. I worked with White & Case for a year and I said to myself it was time to come back home,” says Oyebode.
Home had changed a whole lot while he was away. Nigeria had returned to democracy after years of military rule. The business environment was growing and there was a need for competent people to push the envelope and help with the development of law and business.
Furthermore, there were less than 10,000 lawyers admitted to practice law and Oyebode decided he would rather be one of 10,000 in Nigeria than one of a million in the US.
Soon after making that decision, disaster struck. No sooner had he returned to Nigeria did the crude oil market collapse and the Nigerian economy took a dip for the worse. The democratic government that had motivated Oyebode to come back was very quickly removed in a coup d’état in 1983.
“Before we knew it, the [Muhammadu] Buhari government was in power. To make matters worse, the naira had collapsed and the country was looking at a structural adjustment program with the World Bank. So contrary to my plans, things changed very quickly. I couldn’t go back to the US and I had to make do with things in Nigeria,” says Oyebode.
But where there are clouds, there is also a silver lining. Oyebode chose to keep faith and stick it out. He applied to work for the Gulf Oil Company, which later merged with Chevron, and spent two years learning about the oil and gas industry.
“That was very instructive because it gave me an opportunity to work in an industry, which was Nigeria’s biggest foreign exchange earner. I essentially cut my teeth working in Nigeria’s oil industry. I saw through the merger of Gulf and Chevron and then decided it was time to go out and do my own thing.”
In 1985, Oyebode went into partnership with friends and started his first law firm
Ajumogobia, Okeke, Oyebode & Aluko. After eight years of success, the firm was dissolved due to internal challenges. The string of such incidents, be it the country’s economic downturn or disagreements with partners, have all contributed to the success story Oyebode is today.
“What is impressive about Oyebode is his calmness and composure in times of crisis. He has the ability to look beyond that problem and says ‘how do we move on from this and get to the solution’,” says Tunde Folawiyo, Managing Director of Yinka Folawiyo Group in Nigeria.
That steadfastness has been an invaluable trait for Oyebode over the years.
He went on to establish Aluko & Oyebode with his other partner. Perpetual wins translated into mammoth personal gains for the legal mastermind.
Oyebode’s is also the story of a smart entrepreneur who, spurred by the increase in the proliferation of Western companies in Nigeria, spotted an opportunity in corporate law and has methodically worked to cash in on it.
He is currently advising on the Brass LNG Project, a joint venture between NNPC, TOTAL, Conoco Philips and Agip for the construction of a $3.5 billion Liquefied Natural Gas plant. He has also advised on key transactions like the $1.275 billion financing of the Exxon Mobil Natural Gas Liquid II Project, the $1.06 billion financing of trains four and five of the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas Plant Expansion Project and the $3.5 billion financing of the NNPC and Mobil Producing Unlimited Satellite Oil Field Project. He sits on the boards of MTN Nigeria, Nestle Nigeria and CFAO, among many others.
“Corporate law was something I was good at. It’s something that is dependent on your network and it is something that comes naturally to me. At White & Case and at Gulf Oil, that was my forte. I had invested a significant amount of my time around that so I was able to very quickly develop as a good oil and gas lawyer,” says Oyebode.
His wife, Aisha, attests to this. “What I admire most about Gbenga is he is very kind and warm and he is a people’s person. I do not know anybody that doesn’t like Gbenga.”
It was what Oyebode did next that distinguished him from his peers.
“One of the people that I studied a lot was Chief Chris Ogunbanjo. He ran the biggest law firms in town and was a lawyer who represented all the multinationals and was a lawyer who got involved in the businesses he represented. So when I came back [to Nigeria], I saw his model as one that I could emulate. I saw that he was able to achieve his objective, which was essentially run a significant law firm and become the advisor of the biggest corporates in the market as well as the repository of knowledge of what it means to work in Nigeria,” says Oyebode.
And that was to become Oyebode’s operating style over the next two decades. His modus operandi was simple.
Find opportunities, which he could maximize, and provide professional services and legal advice to top-tier corporate clients and where there was an opportunity, take a chunk of the business.
“One of the things as an entrepreneur that you tend to look at is opportunities around you, so long as those opportunities don’t divert your from your chosen path. If you ask me what I want to be known as, I would say a lawyer first, then an investor,” he says.
Oyebode sits on boards of companies that he has invested in as well as boards that he has been invited to join due to his significant expertise in corporate Nigeria.
The last two decades have seen a veritable boom in the business. For Oyebode, the key is passion for what you do.
“I am driven to build a big firm. We have 85 associates in three offices. There are 16 partners in the firm across the different practice areas that you expect a full service law firm to have, from legislation to corporate law to intellectual property, to risk and governance. So these are all key sectors that are sectors for growth of the Nigerian economy. The rationale is building a legacy that is driven by return,” says Oyebode.
Ever the opportunist, Oyebode is also looking to capitalize on the growth in demand of global companies looking for local partners in the real estate sector. He has a two-hotel deal with the Fairmont Group to establish hotels in Lagos and Abuja. Given the size in the number of tourists and business people in the country, Oyebode believes there is tremendous growth opportunities in this sector.
“The view is that there is still a gap around the hospitality business in Lagos. I go to Accra and I see the Kempinski and Movenpick hotels and I know that if Accra can do it then Lagos certainly has significant scope to develop hotels. Abuja only has the Hilton.”
But it has not all been smooth sailing. No sooner had he started his second stint at a law firm that tragedy struck.
“Life is about tripping and falling and learning from mistakes, pulling your strengths and moving on. My partner, Bankole Aluko, had a mild illness and called in sick for a couple of days. I decided to pay him a visit after work and on my way there, I was told he had passed away suddenly. It was a big shock because we had built everything together and most of the lawyers that joined us did so because of our strength as a firm. I had the corporate law expertise and he was a litigation expert. I thought it was all over at the point,” says Oyebode.
It was dark times for Oyebode.
“In those days it was very difficult to get clients. They came to you because they knew you and your reputation so it was very personality-driven. Today, clients look at your brand and your track record. So losing Bankole both as a dear friend and a professional was devastating.”
He vowed to continue the legacy they had started together and leave his name on the business as a named partner, which still stands today. These days, Oyebode is more interested in giving back. He mentors the next generation and is finding ways to give back. He has also turned his attention from corporate boards to philanthropy boards and actively seeks out opportunities to contribute to the community.
On the issue of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission’s (EFCC) fight to retrieve Nigeria’s stolen loot, which is estimated to be billions of dollars from state coffers, Oyebode offers some practical advice.
“My concern about Nigeria is not the lack of law or policy but always about execution. I think we have a robust legal system, we have laws and policies in place and we have a strong civil service. Do people obey the law around the world? Yes, and that is because they are afraid of sanctions. So if you do not obey the law or sanctions, then you pay the price. So our problem is a lack of execution of good policy, inconsistent application of the laws and sometimes, we have allowed federal character and the process of rotating positions to trump skill and expertise so therefore mediocrity is able to rise to the very top.”
But that is an ongoing fight, which Oyebode believes will not be solved overnight. Presently, his focus is on leveraging his expertise as one of the most formidable and accomplished legal minds to add value and give back to Nigeria.
His legal firm is a victim of its own success. And this is a happy problem to have.
Herbert Wigwe, the CEO Access Bank, one of Nigeria’s top banking institutions, calls Oyebode one of the strongest legal minds, not just in Nigeria but also across the world.
“And I say this because I have a strong personal relationship with him, apart from the fact that in Nigeria, he runs the strongest corporate law office. The existence of what is a modern Access Bank would never have happened but for people like Gbenga….All of these attributes have led him to sit on most of the large corporate boards in the country…Saying Gbenga is the new face of business in Africa is not something that is far-fetched; it is something that he has proven over and over again in his career.”
Here’s Why Jeff Bezos Is Not Truly The Richest Person In History
Amazon, the global e-commerce behemoth, has brought incomparable scale to online retailing. In turn, it has brought incomparable wealth to its founder, Jeff Bezos.
As of Monday’s market close, Bezos was worth more than $104 billion, making him the world’s richest person—at least when not factoring in inflation—since Forbes began tracking global wealth 30 years ago. In two years, his net worth has risen over $50 billion, more than the gross domestic product of Iceland, Belize or Monaco over the same period.
Yet Bezos is not truly the wealthiest person ever, despite numerous reports to the contrary. On an inflation-adjusted basis, Bill Gates has previously been worth far more. In April 1999, for instance, Gates’ net worth eclipsed $100 billion for the first time when Microsoft shares topped out at the apex of the dot-com bubble. That fortune would be worth roughly $150 billion in today’s dollars.
Gates, who is now worth an estimated $92 billion, would also be far richer if he had not given about $36 billion of Microsoft stock to charity over time, mostly to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the planet’s largest private philanthropic foundation.
Bezos’ fortune is nonetheless staggering, and he may well top the list of The World’s Billionaires for the first time when Forbes unveils the 2018 ranking in March. Unless Amazon’s share price unexpectedly collapses, he will have the highest-ever net worth of anyone to appear on the ranks, and by a wide margin.
For context, here are the top members of Forbes‘ list of The World’s Billionaires in each of the last 20 years. Also included are their net worths adjusted for inflation through November 2017, based on the most recent data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Name: Bill Gates
Net worth: $86 billion
Net worth adjusted for inflation: $87 billion
Name: Bill Gates
Net worth: $75 billion
Adjusted for inflation: $77.7 billion
Name: Bill Gates
Net worth: $79.2 billion
Adjusted for inflation: $82.7 billion
Name: Bill Gates
Net worth: $76 billion
Adjusted for inflation: $79.3 billion
Name: Carlos Slim Helú
Net worth: $73 billion
Adjusted for inflation: $77.4 billion
Name: Carlos Slim Helú
Net worth: $69 billion
Adjusted for inflation: $74.2 billion
Name: Carlos Slim Helú
Net worth: $74 billion
Adjusted for inflation: $81.7 billion
Name: Carlos Slim Helú
Net worth: $53.5 billion
Adjusted for inflation: $60.6 billion
Name: Bill Gates
Net worth: $40 billion
Adjusted for inflation: $46.4 billion
Name: Warren Buffett
Net worth: $62 billion
Adjusted for inflation: $71.6 billion
Name: Bill Gates
Net worth: $56 billion
Adjusted for inflation: $67.3 billion
Name: Bill Gates
Net worth: $50 billion
Adjusted for inflation: $61.7 billion
Name: Bill Gates
Net worth: $50 billion
Adjusted for inflation: $63.8 billion
Name: Bill Gates
Net worth: $46 billion
Adjusted for inflation: $60.6 billion
Name: Bill Gates
Net worth: $40.7 billion
Adjusted for inflation: $54.5 billion
Name: Bill Gates
Net worth: $52.8 billion
Adjusted for inflation: $72.8 billion
Name: Bill Gates
Net worth: $58.7 billion
Adjusted for inflation: $82.2 billion
Name: Bill Gates
Net worth: $60 billion
Adjusted for inflation: $86.5 billion
Name: Bill Gates
Net worth: $90 billion
Adjusted for inflation: $134.6 billion
Name: Bill Gates
Net worth: $51 billion
Adjusted for inflation: $77.6 billion
Karlie Kloss – Coding’s Supermodel
Karlie Kloss is sitting in a glass-walled SoHo office holding court with five teenage girls. Over video chat with several more, they are brainstorming how to support scholars of Kode With Klossy once class is out. The teenagers are all graduates of Kode With Klossy summer camps, an initiative by Kloss’ education nonprofit that aims to teach girls the basics of computer programming.
In her off-duty uniform of a Planned Parenthood T-shirt, black jeans and Gucci loafers, the 6’2″ supermodel listens intently. One young woman wearing a white Kode With Klossy top suggests a custom app for students to communicate through. Kloss nods and encourages more ideas. Perhaps Kode With Klossy could upload lesson videos for scholars to look back on, or start a newsletter with events and internships. Another girl in glasses says she posts tricky coding problems on Snapchat and scholars from her camp offer solutions.
As the meeting concludes, Kloss hugs the girls before rallying them to put their hands in for a cheer. “Klossy Posse!” they shout in unison.
A 36-time Vogue cover girl is an unlikely candidate to launch a charity that has taught more than 500 young women how to code. But the 25-year-old has leveraged her giant social audience – some 12.6 million followers across platforms – to grow a burgeoning nonprofit that aims to balance the scales of software engineering’s gender disparity.
“I didn’t go into this with the plan to build an education nonprofit,” says Kloss, a member of the 30 Under 30 Class of 2018, over vegan cupcakes and cookies in her Manhattan office. “I really went into all this out of my own curiosity of wanting to learn what the heck coding was, because it was building massive enterprise value for people in a short period of time.”
Her first taste came in 2014, when she signed up for a two-week boot camp at adult-education company the Flatiron School in Manhattan to learn the basics of computer programming. “I didn’t actually know who she was,” says Avi Flombaum, cofounder of the Flatiron School, who taught Kloss’ class. “She was the best student in that group and I was surprised by how enthusiastic she was.”
Kloss covered the basics of Ruby on Rails, a popular web development framework. But she quickly noticed that her classes weren’t gender equal, an imbalance that mirrored the tech workforce. “I was curious, why are there not more women in this space?” recalls Kloss. An idea for how to help took form: “I realized, here I am with this platform and reach to young women across the country and around the world,” Kloss explains. “If I could just help a handful of girls that would be really meaningful.”
In 2015, Kloss spent more than $20,000 to personally underwrite 21 scholarships for teenage girls to the Flatiron School’s two week pre-college coding class – the very class she had taken the year prior (Flatiron School matched the donation).
But she was itching to do more. Last summer, Kloss took the initiative in-house, launching her own two-week summer camp for teenage girls aged 13 to 18 in New York, Los Angeles and her hometown of St. Louis. Kloss helped pick candidates, design the curriculum and select teachers; its graduates have gone on to win hackathons and land places at Ivy League universities. In June, the program expanded to 12 cities across the U.S., with plans to grow further.
Adults are also included: Last July Kloss launched a year-long online scholarship with the Flatiron School that selected one woman every month to enroll in its full stack web development course. And while other nonprofits with similar missions, such as Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code, are far more established, Kloss’ reach brings her objective to millions.
To date, funding for Kode With Klossy programs has come from Kloss herself and the brands she poses for. According to a familiar source, Kloss has personally contributed into seven figures to Kode With Klossy since 2015. She has also redirected a slice of her modeling contracts with companies such as Adidas, Swarovski and Express to fund and support Kode With Klossy. Ford’s STEAM Experience — an initiative focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines as well as the arts, part of the car maker’s philanthropic arm — lent additional support to this summer’s camps.
Such initiatives are sorely needed. Half a million more jobs related to computers are expected to be added by 2024. Though 74% of high school girls are interested in STEM, women only earned 18% of all undergraduate computer science degrees in 2015. That impacts employment, especially among minorities: Women made up just over a quarter of the tech workforce last year, though African-American women comprised a mere 3% and Latina women counted for only 2%.
“There are so many young women who really could change the world with this kind of opportunity, girls who self-select out because they don’t see others in the industry that look like them,” says Kloss.
The daughter of an emergency room physician, Kloss’ favorite subjects as a child were math and science. Had she not been discovered at a charity fashion show in a mall, aged 13, she might have become a doctor or a teacher, she says. Instead, she booked her first advertisement in 2007; that same year she landed her first major runway show, walking for Calvin Klein.
Her career quickly took off, but it went into overdrive with the advent of Instagram. Thanks to social media, says Kloss, “I could be seen as well as heard.” As her followers swelled, her fees increased. She premiered on Forbes’ highest-paid models list in 2014 banking $4 million pretax; this year, her contract earnings soared to $9 million in the 12 months prior to June 2017.
“When social media arrived, models came back into the spotlight because now everyone could see what was behind the velvet rope,” says Maja Chiesi, SVP at IMG Models, the agency that represents Kloss. “The next evolution is brands wanting the full, 360-degree sense of who these women are… They want women with a voice.”
Enter Kloss, who has long presented herself as more than just a pretty face. In 2012, she started a charitable cookie line called Klossies with Manhattan dessert spot Momofuku Milk Bar; the treats donated to meals for children with each purchase. After taking the odd night class at New York University, in 2015 she enrolled (mentor and supermodel-turned-philanthropist Christy Turlington wrote her recommendation letter). With her busy schedule, she has opted for approximately one class a semester, so far notching credits in creative writing and feminism.
She is eager to expand her platform through a YouTube channel, launched in 2015, that documents her travels and baking forays. Next up: A talk show, Movie Night with Karlie Kloss, airing on the Disney-owned Freeform in December.
All of it serves to raise awareness for Kode With Klossy. As she focuses on the nonprofit, she has pared down her modeling contracts to the most lucrative partnerships. Today, says Kloss, she works with “partners that really are excited to work with me because of not just what I look like, but because of what I stand for.” It makes sense that her bookings have shifted from conventional beauty and fashion to tech; she can be seen in recent advertisements for electronics giant Samsung and website builder Wix.
For now, the aim is to grow quickly and cost-effectively. “I’ve been thinking about Kode With Klossy like a startup,” says Kloss. The nonprofit’s team is lean, with Kloss, her manager, business partner and SVP of SB Projects Penni Thow, five full-time employees and consultants plus help from three members of her management.
And, Kloss says, she is just getting started.
“I plan on building a big business at some point, too.”
Startups, you’re on notice.
– Written by ,
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