Up&Ap: Dorothy Ooko on transitioning from a linguistics teacher and lecturer to succesful PR executive

Most journalists and bloggers met and interacted with her during her time at Nokia when the Finnish firm had almost total control of the country’s – and by extension the region’s – mobile handset market. But few are those who know much about her career journey – starting out as an English and French linguistics teacher in Western Kenya before joining moving onto the corporate world as a PR practitioner. Here’s the inspiring story of Dorothy Ooko, Google’s Communications & Public Affairs Manager for East & Francophone Africa, which is more about luck, preparation and always taking chances… 

Q: Give us some background on your professional life

DO: I started out my career as a teacher of French and Literature in English. I taught for a short stint at Mukumu Girls’ High School. Then l was lucky to receive a scholarship from Kenyatta University to do my Masters in French and left Mukumu. When l completed my Masters, Kenyatta University took me on as a Tutorial Fellow then Lecturer. I left Kenyatta University after close to 10 years to teach French at USIU. I had wanted to work and do something different so l enrolled for another Masters but this time in Business Administration and specialised in Strategy. Then one day out of the blue, a friend called to inform me that she was having a difficult time finding a French-speaking person for a role and she wanted to put forward my CV. The role was in Nokia and they were opening up their office in DRC and needed a bilingual PR/Communications person. I ended up getting the job and that’s how I moved from academia to corporate world.

Q: Looking at your professional profile, you started out as a French linguistics lecturer at USIU-Africa before moving to Nokia as the Communications Manager. How did you manage this transition, from handling students to communicating with media and representatives from other corporate organizations?   

DO: Teaching is really about communicating. It’s about understanding the learners’ needs, experiences and feelings, and making specific interventions to help them learn particular things. Your job as a good teacher is to simplify the material and make learning easy. PR operates on the same principles. It is about understanding the community, what matters to that community and showing how your product is meaningful. For this to happen you need to demystify your product and make it easy for consumers to understand and desire it. It is also important to have a good relationship with the media by showing that you are a trusted partner; one who they can count on. In terms of doing the job, I  found communications an extension of teaching as the same principles matter. However what takes time (and took time) is the building of relationships with media across the continent: first in East and Central Africa, then in Southern Africa and now in Francophone Africa.

(ABOVE: Virtual City CEO John Waibochi -left – with Ms Dorothy Ooko, Communications Manager, Nokia, East and Southern Africa in London when the firm was selected as the global Growth Economy Venture Challenge award winner).

Q: While still in college, did you ever imagine yourself working in the IT industry some day?

DO: Never. That l would be a techie (because that’s what l have become) still amazes my family and friends. I am the go-to-person for all things tech. At Nokia, the principle was you “have to eat your own dogfood” so downloading apps and making sure you used what you were selling to the public.  Many people would reach out to me on Twitter and when you met them the problem would be a simple software update that they hadn’t activated. Now I can’t imagine working in a non-tech company. Things move pretty fast and you have to adapt and learn fast. I love the challenge.

Q: You spent almost 10 years as a lecturer handling students. Did this experience and lessons gained at USIU-A come in handy in your previous role at Nokia and how?

DO: Everyday. You never stop learning! Teaching is also about learning. There is an Ethiopian proverb that says “He who learns teaches”. At Nokia there was a lot of learning to do; it wasn’t just about the job but about the products as well. I learnt about the device models we were releasing, about what happened in our factories, the impact of old phones on the environment so l could talk about this well to the media when questions were asked. I remember when we started the Ovi Store and we wanted to convince consumers to download apps while convincing developers to build apps for the Ovi Store, this being good at learning became handy and being able to demonstrate how these apps could make life easier and more meaningful.

Q: In your current position as Google’s Communications & Public Affairs Manager for East & Francophone, what are your responsibilities and how many countries do you cover?

DO: I am responsible for all communication activities for Google in East and Francophone Africa and am the company spokesperson for a wide variety of media and blogger inquiries. I also work very closely with the engineering, product, sales, policy and marketing teams to create compelling communications strategies that demonstrate the functionality and key benefits of our products. I develop written materials, messaging guidelines, press releases, Q&A, presentations for our activities and ensure that l maintain close relationships with journalists, bloggers/social media influencers and our key partners. I also manage the PR agencies in countries where we are based to help support day-to-day inquiries, special projects and events. The francophone countries are Sénégal, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Bénin, Mali and Guinée.

Q: At Nokia, you dealt with and handled tangible products – mainly mobile devices and accessories – but now at Google, you’re dealing with solutions that are mainly ‘virtual’ and can’t be touched. What kind of challenges do you encounter while trying to communicate issues to do with Google as a brand to the media and how do you handle such challenges?    

DO: That is not quite correct. I don’t know if you remember Nokia Life Tools that were services provided through the mobile phone to farmers in rural areas? It is true that the first thing people thought of were the handsets and accessories. However in the handsets you find the apps in the apps store (Ovi Store) and apps are not tangible, you have to download them to use them, you have to be convinced that it is meaningful. Back then, apps were not as ubiquitous as they are now.  We were encouraging consumers to download apps (even those from Google) and wanted to ensure they were getting a great experience. In a way l see the two as supplementing one another. When l joined Google, the company was getting to ‘mobile first’ and the challenge was how to make the web experience as great as on mobile. I came from a mobile background and understood what these challenges were.

Google’s mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” We want that information to be locally relevant; and therein lies our challenge.  Getting businesses online, wanting every small business mapped, encourage the locals to make money on our platforms…these are some of the challenges and l believe the media gets it. If you go to Google Maps, you should be able to find the info you need including a phone number to call. We are still not there and access to the Internet is still prohibitive for many people in the rural areas.

Q: Who do you look up to as mentors in your professional life?

DO: The controller of Budget, Mrs Agnes Odhiambo and my friend, Agatha Gikunda, chief of staff at Intel. I wouldn’t limit to professional, I think mentors are in your life–the whole gamut!

(ABOVE: Dorothy Ooko, then the Nokia Head of Communications in East and Southern Africa (second left) and Agatha Gikunda, Head of Solutions Sales (right) join Carol Kariuki and Walter Buyu to review apps that the two developers created in a three-month training programme involving 70 students from Kenya and Uganda).

Q: You’ve been part of several projects and initiatives since 2006, some of which involved lobbying various stakeholders and working with professionals from diverse backgrounds. Which one among these projects and initiatives can you highlight as the most interesting (or challenging) and why?

DO: Getting VAT removed on mobile phones in Kenya in 2008, without a doubt. It involved working with various mobile manufacturers, telcos to convince them that mobile phones should be zero-rated as laptops are. I was ambitious and was leading the lobbying which was taking place in Cameroon, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. One of the fruits of that initiative is that for the first time, mobile phones became really affordable and we saw an uptake in the number of mobile subscribers in Kenya.

(ABOVE: Dorothy Ooko at engagement sessions at iHub. Photo: Flickr).

Q: Google CSR programme focuses on various areas. Do you have any projects and initiatives meant to enhance delivery of education through technology?

DO: In 2016, Google committed to train 1M young Africans on Digital skills in 1year. In March 2017 we publicly announce our 1 Million milestone.  We have now extended that commitment to help more communities outside urban centers in Africa acquire digital skills.  We will be providing offline versions of our online training materials to reach individuals and businesses in low access areas where we were unable to hold physical trainings. We will also be delivering our offline trainings in African languages such as Swahili, IsiZulu and Hausa

We will be announcing next month Google.org grant to a non-for-profit org to support education in Kenya. This grant will support curriculum development coaches that visit Kenya (primary) schools, coaches teachers on their teaching practice (Early Grade Reading Assessment). More about this later.

Q: What can we expect from Google going forward?

DO: Google is focussed on making our products more useful for the “Next Billion Users” and providing core product features better matched with connectivity issues in countries like Kenya.  YouTube Offline is just an example of such products enabling users to enjoy offline playback of many of their favorite videos during short periods of low or no internet connectivity. The Internet is going to be increasingly global, young, urban — and mobile-first — so we’re building new apps tailored for these audiences, and by extension, for everyone.  We just launched on Mar 22, the ability to share your real-time location with friends and family from the Google Maps app.  You choose who to share with by selecting friends or family from your device’s contacts, Google Contacts, or by sending a link.  You can share your location for a set amount of time, until you reach your destination, or indefinitely.

Watch this space!

Q: Your parting shot please   

DO: Teaching is such a part of me. I teach mindfulness meditation at Google and travel to other offices globally to teach this and another internal program called Search Inside Yourself (SIY). This has greatly impacted my life. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and non judgmentally.” It is about being fully present in what you are doing, where you are at. We spend our lives too much in the past or in the future and miss the present moment which is the only moment we are alive. Google provides you with answers to almost every question except who you are. Mindfulness meditation helps you find those answers about who you are non-judgmentally.

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