MIT to Harvard: Carolyne Njeri Gathinji Credits Success To God
“God’s fingerprints are evident in the people He put on my path” says Carolyne Njeri Gathinji. Carolyne is an MIT and Harvard graduate who currently works at McKinsey & Company. Njeri has excelled through life, whether it was at the Alliance High School in Kenya, a prestigious all-women boarding school, or at UBS after MIT. She is a consultant who loves traveling the world. Her best self-care tips? Same as Kerry Washington’s: getting her nails did. No wonder she is such a gladiator!
Who is Carolyne Njeri Gathinji and what gets you out of bed every day? Give us a brief tour of your life.
She is a simple, light hearted lady who is living a life she had never envisioned for herself. An optimist with a disproportionate share of joy, seeking positivity and positive energy. She is an extroverted introvert who enjoys bringing people together and forging connections. She is a Kenyan (from Nakuru) living in Boston and working as a management consultant.
Many people have been part of my journey. I could not get to where I am by walking alone. I am motivated by their belief in my strengths, their support along the way and the ability to inspire others. Secondly, my job gives me the opportunity to work with brilliant, ambitious and interesting people to solve clients’ problems. Getting to the solution becomes fun when surrounded by great teammates and clients.
I spend most of my time in Boston with one or two trips to Kenya every year to visit my family. I love traveling so I’ve also established a tradition for a week-long summer vacation trip. During the rest of the year when I am at work, Monday – Thursday are spent at the client site, working with them to solve the problem. Given most of my clients are not in Boston, I find myself away from home most of the week. I get back to Boston most weekends and spend the weekend relaxing and catching up with friends. I am also currently helping a local Boston business think about its growth strategy.
You are incredibly achieved – Alliance, MIT, UBS, Harvard, McKinsey- what’s your secret?
Is there really a secret? If someone has discovered one please share…
As I said earlier, it really has taken a village! I wish I could say all this was part of a master plan that I worked on, crossing one thing off the list after another. The only one of these institutions I really thought of for years was probably Alliance. I had that dream growing up, probably from the age of seven; given the caliber of strong women I knew who had attended the school.
MIT only became an option in 12th grade when my physics teacher prompted me to apply to American colleges, and about a year later, I was packing my bags and leaving my family at 18 and taking my first flight of the country to Cambridge.
Having said that, when I decided to go for any of the opportunities, I worked with undivided attention on the goals I had set and tried to leave no stone unturned.
In the moment, it was a lot of hard work and a matter of sacrifice, but if your eyes are on the prize, you barely feel it. In The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho talks about the fact that when you want something so bad, the universe conspires to make it happen. I believe this, but for me, it misses one crucial piece – the work you and the universe have to put in.
What I have found is that if you decide you will pursue something and put in the work, and make sure the relevant people in the universe are aware, they will work with you to make it come true. Of course, this presupposes that these relevant people are bought into your success and want to be helpful.
Although, I didn’t have the master plan, I believe someone did, and if I reflect on my entire journey, God’s fingerprints are evident in the people he put on my path, the strength and resources He provided and the favor upon my life. Steve Jobs said you can only connect the dots looking backwards, and even in my short life so far, I have had to trust that the dots will connect in the future and given my all to what is happening in the moment.
You travel a lot. What’s the best place you’ve ever visited?
Each place is different and I find that there are always unique experiences to enjoy and cultures to learn from. If forced to pick, I would say Thailand is at the top, because of the breadth of experiences it offers.
You studied Mathematics and Management Science in undergrad, do you apply what you learned in Math in consulting? Any advice for younger women looking to study in the field?
Even though I do not use most of the complex Math that I learned, logical and critical thinking skills gained are very applicable in consulting. Inherently, we are solving a client’s problem, which is what a Math major does daily. You need to break the problem into structured bit-sized pieces that lead to the final answer. You need to apply certain known theorems and assumptions along the way. That is what consulting is about. Additionally, we do a lot of quantitative analyses for which a love for manipulation of numbers fits well.
Advice: First, let no one tell you that you cannot pursue or do math…refer them to Hidden Figures! Secondly, think of how you want to use your Math degree. There are many ways you could directly use it; as a professor, statistician, actuary etc. However, there are many other professions that would value a math degree and you have to figure out if you need to pair the degree with another to pursue a career in that field.
I combined my Math degree with Management Science since I wanted to go into Finance. Once you decide to study Math, realize that some classes will be easier than others, seek professors’ help as needed and do not despair along the way.
I loved math, and it came naturally to me, until I went to MIT where everyone was a math whizz and things were moving too fast. I failed my first math exam at MIT and had to take a makeup test to at least get a C on that exam. I ended up getting an A- in that class but again, lots of hard work involved.
How do you thrive in a foreign land? What hurdles have you had to overcome?
It’s not easy, especially if you’re from most African countries with a strong sense of community. I have had to create my little pockets of community as I’ve gone through the different phases. Whether it was the African students clubs, advisers, co-workers, friends and families in the area, I had groups of people I could rely on.
I also got reconnected with my distant cousins in Virginia who I would visit for the main US holidays like Thanksgiving Day. As part of the Zawadi Africa Educational Fund, my fellow Zawadi sisters became my family away from home given we shared similar experiences.
Talking to family often was, and still is, my way of keeping in touch with what is happening back home. Technology has definitely made it better over the years.
Additionally, I had to deal with the reality of America, which Chimamanda Ngozi -Adichie so aptly describes in Americanah. The fact that race, a construct I had not thought much about growing up in Kenya, was one I needed to be conscious about. The fact that my hair would be difficult to take care of and be the subject of so many conversations.
Who is your role model and why? What books, or blogs keep you inspired?
I don’t have one single one. Generally, I find myself inspired by women who are pioneers, legends in their own right, who formed their own unique identities, having to withstand a lot of challenges to succeed. Wangari Maathai is one example.
I recently read a book on Sonia Sotomayor’s life (My Beloved World) and I am now reading Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s My Own Words, and I would include them in that list. In their own ways, these women are a big source of inspiration to young women and girls around the world. that they can go
Apart from biographies and autobiographies, I love good storytelling, and will get lost in anything that Chimamanda Ngozi Achidie and Bikozulu (Kenyan blogger) write.
To go back home or stay in the U.S.? How do you keep engaged with Kenya/the continent?
I have thought about this a lot, especially recently, because on my maiden trip to the US, I had it in mind that I was going to stay for a maximum of ten years, which would be this August. At this point in my career, I think the breadth of experiences in the US offer the best learning opportunities for me.
However, I do believe the level of impact to be had on the continent outweighs what could do here, so I see myself making the jump at some point. How many years really? I’m not sure.
I visit Kenya at least once a year. When not in the country, I read a lot from local Kenyan newspapers and follow prominent Kenyans to understand the pulse of the country, I also ask about what’s happening on the ground whenever I talk to family and friends. Here in Boston, I also have a group of African friends who get together every so often and we discuss what is going on in the continent.
What’s your best self-care secret?
Physically, I would say mani-pedis do it for me. Sometimes you can even tell how I feel by looking at my nails.
But more importantly, I think it is what we feed our mind that really matters, especially today where most of what we are exposed to is negative.
Feed your mind and soul with what you want to grow. I personally watch comedy and have started a habit of writing at least two good things that happen every day. It could be different for every person, but still important to figure out what keeps your spirits up!