STORIES FROM THE BIG SHIFT – JAMES OTIENO

This profile is one of eight first-person stories featured in Marc Freedman’s latest book, The Big Shift. Each person has taken a deeply personal journey in midlife that has led to work helping others.

James Otieno
San Jose, Calif.

I always told my wife that I was going to retire early. In fact, I was joking with her and told her I was going to retire at 35. Then I amended my plans and told her I was going to retire at 45. As it turned out, I missed my target by two years – a complete failure! I retired at 47.

The reason I wanted to retire early was to do something good for society – to give back to my native Kenya. I was born in Kisumu, a city near Lake Victoria. I came to the United States when I was 11 with my mother and two brothers.

My father was already here, part of a contingent of Kenyans who came here for an exchange program for aspiring individuals in Africa – the same contingent, as it turns out, that President Obama’s father was part of.

I went to the University of Minnesota and graduated with a degree in economics and psychology and then got a master’s in industrial relations. A number of companies came calling, and I decided to go the corporate route.

I took a job with Hewlett-Packard (HP) because the environment was very conducive to learning, and the people there were very genuine. They asked me where I’d like to spend my first few years, and I chose compensation and human resources (HR). Lo and behold, they gave me good assignments right away.

At the beginning, like a typical new MBA, I thought I’d stay in the company a few years and then move on to something else, to greener pastures to build my wealth. But, as it turned out, 24 years later, I was still there. I learned a lot, engaged a lot, had great assignments, great people to work with, and that’s why I stayed.

By the time I retired, I was the vice president of executive compensation and services for the company. I managed a compensation portfolio of about a billion dollars, with 3,000-plus executives that I provided guidance to on a worldwide basis. I felt that I had done everything I’d been meaning to do in the corporate world, particularly in my profession. I was ready to change careers.

First, I wanted to take some time off – about a year to recalibrate. Right after I retired, I had cervical fusion surgery, so I needed four or five months just to recover. Toward the end of my year, HP called me and said, “Hey, we’ve got this new Encore Fellowships program with Encore.org and the Packard Foundation, and we thought you might be interested in helping us to pilot it.”

And I said, “Huh? You’ve got a program that places recent retirees in nonprofits in Silicon Valley where we take on significant, part-time, yearlong assignments; help the nonprofit advance; and learn something about the nonprofit sector? Wow! That sounds good. Count me in!”

I chose to work with the Silicon Valley Education Foundation. They wanted to focus on human resource issues initially, and then they needed some help in finance and board governance. I thought that was a good match and said, “Let’s make a go of it.” And so that’s what happened.

My first assignment was with HR, which I thought was going to take the full year, but in three weeks, I’d worked with the process, written a whole analysis and report to the board, and outsourced HR. Then I moved on to describe the financial structure and recruit a financial person to come in house, who then was eventually able to put a process in place.

And then I worked on board governance-related issues. We’re still working on that. Then I was asked to help with strategy – that was a great entryway to the organization, because, in order to work on strategy, you have to talk to everybody, which is great. I had a blast. And I learned a lot.

A number of fellows in my group grew up in a world where at some point in our careers, we pretty much got a lot of things that we wanted, and we had a lot of resources, and we morphed into fairly aggressive creatures, thinking that we can do everything and we can own the world. Our patience is very thin, and we want things done very fast, and we think we know the formula to get it done right.

But we have to be careful. If you go into the nonprofit sector saying, “I know how to do this. I know how to fix this because I’ve done it before,” it’s a losing proposition.

We have to go in with, “Yes, I have certain skill sets that have not been deployed in this sector. I have certain learnings from the for-profit sector. But I also have something to learn about the nonprofit environment, and I have to see how I can balance the skill sets that I have and bring them into this environment in a more collaborative manner, rather than a forceful, aggressive manner.”

And I think that is what the program is doing. After I finished my fellowship, I agreed to stay on and see the strategy work through on a part-time basis. And you know what part time means – 40 hours a week instead of 70. It’s a challenge fitting in everything I’m trying to do.

I started a foundation called the Karibu Rafiki Foundation, which means “Welcome Friend” in Swahili. We focus on the underserved women and children of Kenya and Sudan – providing financial support, building schools, whatever it takes.

And on top of that, I’m the chair of the board of Palo Alto University and serve on the board of the Children’s Health Council and the Child Advocates of Silicon Valley, where we train volunteers to work with kids in the foster care system.

I have no moments of doubt, no regrets. Even though I seem to be doing quite a bit now, it’s nowhere close to what I was doing before. Well, I do have one regret – I still don’t have enough time.

James Otieno was one of 10 people to take part in the Silicon Valley Encore Fellows pilot program.