AAR Colors

Elizabeth Wasunna: When I run, I lose my head but gain my soul

Ms. Elizabeth Wasunna is Junoesque. That is to say, she is lanky, with a wingspan large enough to grasp all her dreams. And dreams, many she has. The psychology of her personality, taken in toto, is drawn to the lachechism of adrenalin-inducing high-wire acts: parasailing, running, climbing Mt Kilimanjaro. That’s part of her secret sauce that has flavoured her role as the GM of AAR Healthcare—outside of her monthly daylong spa sessions where she “lets things fall apart.” Her words.

Most of us tread through life with a woebegone attitude, but with ‘Wazoons,’ as her day 1 friends call her, there is something disarming, an indefinable, faint expression, something stealthy — a smile —, not a smile — I remember it, but I can’t explain. She is curt but not rude, her conversation is the image of a mind in motion, not a word extra, not a word wasted.

When she escorts me after our interview, her languid movements eating up the ground like a thirsty spaniel, her personality looms large, like a wild animal held in a cage too small for it. “You never stop knocking,” she says while swiping me out of her office in Williamson House along Ngong Rd.

Then she flashes me the widest grin — yes, it was grin! — and it feels like I’ve left with more than just answers to my questions. One even forgets that we are in a grungy, turbulent and indecisive Nairobi, where the weather is casual in an irritating way, skipping rope between wet and slightly wet.

What’s it like being you?

It’s fun, it’s exciting, and sometimes scary because I enjoy a bit of calculated risks. I do things that I love.

Like what?

I love to travel. I love coaching people and trying to make them be the best they can be to achieve their life goals. I also enjoy outdoor activities.

What is one place you have travelled that has really stayed with you?

Takawiri Island in Lake Victoria. I am attracted to large waterbodies — lakes, and seas. The beach at Takawiri is really beautiful. Tranquil and quiet but with a strong sense of community.

Are you into swimming?

Yes, but I’d choose running. I try to do at least 25 kilometres every week, two 10 kms or a 15km kilometre over the weekend.

Why did you start running?

I have always been a sporty person. Played basketball in college, and ran for my primary school representing it in Nairobi County. Sports rejuvenates me. When I run, I lose my head but gain my soul.

That explains the height?

Yes and no. After college I needed to get a job so I left basketball. The new thing I have started is going to the gym. Every day for one month. So far, so good.

What’s one aspect of your health you struggle with?

Nutrition. I have typically had sales roles that warranted a lot of travel, disrupting my meal plan. My first meal is lunch, despite going to the gym every day. My last meal is at 8 PM, and I am at the gym on Mondays (5 to 5.50 AM) and every other day till Fridays (6 to 650AM). It’s a 90-day mission and it becomes a way of life because running doesn’t build your cardio.

Is this rooted in your childhood?

Outdoors yes. When I was growing up my father deliberately didn’t buy a TV. He believed in building other capabilities, and we would play tennis, soccer, and board games — and reading. We were always outdoors and that’s how I built my love for sports. Fortunately, I have many siblings.

What was your nickname growing up?

Haha! It comes from my surname — Wasunna. Most of my friends call me Wazoons.

What remains unchanged about Wazoons since childhood?

Kindness. I always believe every situation calls for kindness because you never know the impact of it on people around you.

Were you a daddy’s girl?

Not necessarily. I have seven sisters and two brothers. We shared a lot of things in common with my dad, especially travel and books, and getting things done. My dad really travelled far and every year I try to visit a new place.

How’s it going so far?

My plan this year was to go to Greece but I have just changed roles. I am turning six months in November. But every year I go somewhere I haven’t been. Leadership is something that I started back in high school as head of house in my school. I have looked forward to being a business leader in my career. I have gone for courage over comfort. I have worked in four different industries, and I have just left telecommunications for healthcare. I enjoy learning.

What’s a special memory you have from your childhood?

Mmh. When I made a decision to look for a school for my sister who had just finished class eight. I was what? 20? Walked into the school and put up a case for her, and she actually got admitted before I realised I was not the one paying fees haha! But my parents were actually very proud of me. I knocked on doors without knowing anybody.

Has that been your modus operandi? Knocking doors?

That’s where my sales career stems from. When you are selling you are hunting for new business. You keep knocking until they give way.

Growing up in a large family such as yours, did it affect your decision to have children?

I am a middleborn, but I love children and people. Interacting with people gives me perspective. If you want to learn, interacting with people is important. I would have loved to have many children but God has blessed me with one daughter.

What is a small decision you made that changed the trajectory of your life?

Mmh. Wow. In leadership, you are always making decisions but the fact that I took a sales career changed the world for me. Having done a Master's in Finance, in my first role, the interviewer told me my personality is in sales. And that opened up a whole world for me.

What do you struggle with?

In sales, more of ethics and integrity. People hold different measures to themselves; thus you need to ensure people understand where you stand. Sometimes you have to lose some deals due to conflicts. You have to stand for something.

Have you ever had to make an unethical decision for the, so to speak, greater good?

Not quite. Life is such that sometimes the decision doesn’t sit with you. Anytime that happens, I have made sure my position is known.

What’s something you wish you were better at?

Deep listening. Listening is a very good trait that every leader must have. Listen actively and to everyone.

What’s something I wouldn’t believe about you?

I am very good at crocheting. I can knit a sweater, a throw et al. My daughter is trying to do it as a business, but for me it is therapy, it teaches you patience, and it is also routine. It’s all self-taught, except the patterns that I get from the University of YouTube.

What matters way less than you thought it would?

Status. Ego. What matters more is the legacy you leave behind, not who you were. Your impact.

What are you hoping to leave behind?

People who’ve achieved the best that they would have for themselves. And a generation of people who have something to emulate, that I stood for something and this is what they learned from me.

What is something you are proud of but never get to brag about?

Mmhh. I do career coaching so I am very proud of some people I have coached. There is one who is currently a CEO of a manufacturing organisation. I get a lot of inspiring messages every Mashujaa Day from some of them.

Is there something new you’ve been considering trying lately?

Golf. I bought some expensive golf shoes so I could be inspired to play but I ended up giving them away. I don’t think I have bought more expensive shoes than those ones haha!

Speaking of, what’s the dumbest thing you’ve spent money on?

Some very expensive handbags. I bought them proudly as a sign of my hard work for the year. They have lasted, but really?

What’s the first thing you do in a new place?

Look for a museum, a theatre, or a church.

Does the office life constrict you?

This is the first time I am actually sat in an office so it is a new experience. But we have 26 clinics so I am always visiting them.

If you aren’t at home or at work, which other place are you likely to be?

Outdoor in a forest running or catching up with old-time friends from high school.

What’s a typical weekend for you?

Either I am taking my daughter for soccer or swimming, or I am meeting friends and family over a cup of tea. But I try to throw it down and read a book.

What’s one book you read that changed your life?

Who Moved My Cheese by Spencer Johnson. It is very simple but really challenged me in terms of how your environment can change and how to remain agile. When I change roles, I go back to The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins.

Is there something that struck you from the book?

When your cheese station changes, then you change because the cheese will not always be at the same station, or the maze could change — so it’s how do you change alike with the situation?

When you think of the weekend what food comes to mind?

Good grilled salmon.

What’s your weekend soundtrack?

If I have done very well, especially a deal we’ve clinched or a situation we have resolved then [proceeds to sing] ‘The emperor the conqueror the lion is here.’ If it was a stressful week, then I would go for Tina Turner's Simply the Best.

What’s your favourite thing about you?

I am very self-aware. I have a deep understanding of who I am and the impact I have on others. I know how I impact and influence others with my energy. That self-awareness is one thing I like about myself.

Do you have a special treat just for yourself?

Daylong spa. From 8 in the morning. I detox. That day I have a digital fast, let the world deal with itself, let London burn. I do this once a month. And Tina Turner is playing in the background, simply the best.

What’s life’s simplest pleasure?

A good cup of coffee. Ayayayaya. Make it black, no sugar.

What will people mourn about you when you are gone?

They will miss my ability to bring people together. They will miss the cheerleader.

What are you most sure of?

That every day one must earn their leadership.

What is the last thing you do before lights go out?

My evening devotion. I listen to some readings and a good night message.

What are you praying about now?

The economy is struggling and it is very tough for many people out there. I pray that they are able to hold on and that the environment eventually changes and things stabilize.

What’s on your bucket list?

I want to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. I have already done Mt Kenya but I want Kili to be my sign-off. Initially, it was parasailing which I did in Abu Dhabi.

What is a misconception people have about you?

That I am not approachable. Once you get to know me, you are like, ah, so this is you.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

Thick, chocolate cake.

What’s a weekend hack that can make my weekends better?

Not everything has to be done. Sometimes you are so busy because you want to do everything — be comfortable not doing. Let London burn, let things fall apart, as long as there are no casualties. I leave the weekend open. Be fluid. We try to do so many things over the weekend that’s why we find ourselves tired on Mondays.

What’s the best compliment you’ve received?

You get things done.

What do you have that money can’t buy?

Humility to learn from people who are different from myself, from situations I have failed, from peers, and from anyone that I come across.

What’s the most trouble you’ve been in?

In high school, we had cross-country runs. Look, Kenya High is a very big school. Along the route, there are loquat trees so a bunch of friends and I took the shortcut and agreed that until the known runners had reached, we would stay behind. We sat under the tree watching the runners pass, but, little did we know the games teacher had also taken the shortcut. We had to redo the route. Lesson learned. No shortcuts.

What never fails to make you laugh?

Trevor Noah.

Who do you know that I should know?

Mmmh. The headmaster of Oltepesi Primary School and how he is transforming the lives of the students there by making sure the school improves academically. He is very strong in partnering with charity organisations and corporates — he has partnered with Safaricom who have put up a classroom and Rotary Connect who have fenced the school. His name is Geoffrey Kirumba.