IN CONVERSATION WITH…
DERRECK KAYONGO, CEO and Humanitarian
“I task myself with proving to people that we, Africans, do run things and can do it very well.”
Ugandan by birth, Kampala.
A refugee by occurrence of a dictator’s rule, Idi Amin Dada.
Free by education.
Founder of The Global Soap Project by identifying a need from those experiences.
CEO of The National Center for Civil and Human Rights by destiny.
I believe that life prepares you long in advance for the journey ahead. When I was a child, my family fled to the safety of Kenya in the midst of the unthinkable, well-documented brutal regime of Amin. Although young, I recall the transition not being easy. The things one sees by way of the absence of basic human needs often turn life-threatening. My family— mom and dad—you could say were firmly working middle-class and they were determined to get us through this hardship and be better for it. They could not shield us from it. It was all around so they focused on making us the better for it. Education, I remember, being paramount to this, which is why I value it so highly today.
In the 1990s, I came to America to attend university. My first time in one of your hotels, I experienced something that most people in first-world countries take for granted—replenished hotel soaps. Every day, whether partially used or near gone each kind of soap—hand soap, body soap, shampoo, face soap—was replaced with new unused ones. My experiences being what they were and seeing firsthand how poor hygiene can lead to illness and even death especially amongst children—not just from visiting friends and family forced to live in refugee camps but right here in America—stayed with me. Many years later my wife, Sarah, and I launched THE GLOBAL SOAP PROJECT. As a result, we are active in nearly 100 countries, and can take pride in being part of the more than 30% global reduction in child hygiene-related deaths. CNN honored me for this as CNN Hero. That was nice, but I knew my story would not end there.
When I started the Global Soap Project, there was a man named Phil Kent. At the time, he was CEO of Turner Broadcasting. He asked to meet for lunch during which I told him about The Global Soap Project. Phil and I became good friends. He was the first private donor to my business and literally helped me launch. In the development of that friendship, he watched me. He watched how I worked; democratically, methodical, and results driven. When the position of CEO came available at THE NATIONAL CENTER FOR CIVIL AND HUMAN RIGHTS in 2009, he put my name in the running and advocated my ascendancy to this historic institution.
At the time the Center was $3 million in debt. It had not paid vendors in nearly a year, there was a dysfunctional and disjointed staff and we had a website that required 5 clicks to get to basic information like opening and closing hours. Phil positioned me as someone who could ‘sweep in and do some good work quietly without you knowing it.’ Someone who would not alert the wider panic that had befallen other historic black institutions in jeopardy of closing due to mismanagement. Our institutions cannot die out because of desires of driving a Bentley and being public. That is how I have always seen it.
The decision of my appointment lay with the Board to which former Mayor ANDREW YOUNG and Congressman JOHN LEWIS resided—both of whom my experiences had placed me in front of. This center, you must remember, was Andrew’s dream. My respect for him was already long established having worked with him, as a young African, many years ago on the Good Works project. John Lewis who gave me a Congressional Recognition Award so it was serendipitous that these men where the ones at the table to make this decision.
That they knew of me peripherally was that I was not just a victim, a refugee, but that I was someone who has picked himself up and built his own business from scratch. That is what John and Andrew knew of me. All those pieces came together. I was prepared. While to me, my appointment made complete sense, I am aware that there were many who questioned my position—me being African and not African-American. Many people in this country see Blackness, and the ownership of the message, through a very narrow lens, and there were some who said to Mr. Young, “why are you giving this job to an African?” Civil and Human Rights is as much a Ugandan issue now and historically as it is an African-American one. See, I understood this and Mr. Young knew this also.
From my p.o.v African Americans have shouldered the primary responsibility of living and demanding human rights for too long. We have all benefitted from their struggle, so how do we share that weight of responsibility and expand it? How do I be essential to that? I wanted to give back to a movement that has enable me so greatly. Having an African take the helm invites a larger dialogue.
I could not have imagined this journey and yet this is one of those moments that Life prepares you. I want to show that Africans can lead. Most people when they think of us in business it is through the lens of the corrupt presidents leading certain countries. I task myself with proving to people that we do run things and can do it very well.
I don’t worry about how heavy a job is. To go down that path is to weigh yourself down before you even start.
I don’t worry about the sympathies or cryptic expectations of others. I worry about the task at hand. “What do I need to do to solve the problem?” That is the job of a CEO.
The MANTRA (Voice in My Head)
I have two that I call Derreck-isms, and one that should appear on my headstone. The first is, “never underestimate the power of failure to inform the future of your success. Failure is the gateway to success.” She tests you. She asks you questions. She pushes you away because she knows that in order to reach the mountaintop of your dreams you must be proven, tried, and deserving. I see failure as an opportunity to sharpen my skills and talents so that I can enter the realm of success.
My father taught me this. It, among other things like temperament and character, is why men being present to boys is essential for manhood. He is a quiet man. He doesn’t speak too much, but boy when he says he is going to do something he does it. When he says he is going to be somewhere, he is there. When he says he is going to provide, he provides. And when he fails, he explains why he failed. That is what really got me to think of him as a direct influencer.
The second is, “do not seek perfection in life because you will never find it.” You should seek consistency, passion, and justice, and if you achieve those then your life will have meaning and you will leave a legacy behind.
My headstone phrase is, “I Fought For You.” This is what I stand on. Being able to know this in my heart and say it out loud with integrity makes me a real man. Knowing that I am not perfect and then explaining to my daughter and my son why I could not deliver on something. I learned this from my father. When you explain, you retain faith and you retain their faith in you. Also, you retain your faith in yourself. That is essential. A man who understands you, who will fight any situation to protect you and always, always give my best. That is where my honor lies.
The MEDITATION (when you think Legacy + Heritage)
To create a positive correlation between Africans and Business. I know that is general, but I have already built one with The Global Soap Project so I can tell you that legacies are tough to construct and build.
I was just speaking to a friend who is struggling/questioning himself as to whether he should quit his job to go follow his dream. My question to him was, “do you want to go from being a little lion—a cub—to being a big lion?” That is not a space that is occupied easily. It requires a lot of sacrifice and what people do not understand is that legacies are built upon sacrifice. It’s a detailed and architectural construction.
Most people in the west do not know that Africans are incredible people. They don’t advertise very well. We are not pretentious in that way. Individually, my legacy is to do some really important work, accomplish remarkable things, and do so in a way that makes one in awe when they learn that it was this young refugee boy who came from out of nowhere, got an education, founded the Global Soap Project, which now in 100 countries around the world, and became the CEO of the Center for Civil and Human Rights. Africans often say this about excessive shows of self-importance, “don’t tell us about your success, let your success tell us about you.” My continued success in all areas of my life will be my legacy.
My favorite authors of all time are Nigerian novelist CHINAU ACHEBE (Things Fall Apart) and English author GEORGE ORWELL (1984).
When I am traveling, I read The Economist and catch up on Netflix. I also love old English movies during the Elizabethan age. I guess that is the imprint of Colonialism on me.
I can’t speak to the songs that would be at the beginning or the end, but I do know that my soundtrack is:
Michael Jackson – I own him all the way, every album. Every time he brought his very best. He was a perfectionist.
Lionel Richie – No one travels more beautifully through love and attraction.
BONO (U2) – The music he creates and the consistent philanthropy in Africa…
Miriam Makeba – She is the mother of South African Jazz, and like a mama her voice soothes the spirit and mind.
Bob Marley – What a soul he had.
Tupac – Harvard has a course on him, so I can say, ‘Prolific’ without question.
5 Things I Can’t Live Without
Women - I may get in trouble for saying this, but it is true. I can’t imagine a world without women. Their softness. Their tenderness. The way they temper down the egos of men. Their utility. Their Love. I don’t know how we would survive without them. If women take on the tendencies of men then we will have lost one of the greatest wonders of the world. Nothing can compare to female intuition. There is no algorithm that man can formulate to compare.
Music - is the beat by which human beings express themselves and find their way out of complexity. Music softens the human experience, making it more palpable. It is the data in the midst of this huge injury we call humanity.
My Freedoms-My Rights – you cheat the whole world when you attempt to do this. Any leader who does not understand this is lost.
My Family – a human being without family is an emotionally deficient being. That is why people look to gangs, because we are looking for connection and belonging.
Academia – I think it was Churchill who said, “if you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” I don’t think anyone can evolve without knowledge. Despotic leaders are so prevalent today because we no longer have a formal and informal educational sphere.