Amandla Ooko-Ombaka MPA/ID, MBA 2016 reflects on her time in the joint degree program.

By Calee Lucht
May 19, 2016


Amandla Ooko-Ombaka MPA/ID, MBA 2016 was thoughtful as she reflected on her time in the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School joint degree program.

“I came to graduate school to have my perspectives on international development challenged,” she said. “As a student in the MPA/ID and MBA programs, I had the opportunity to surround myself with peers who asked what we can do to make our communities—and by extension, the world—a better place.”

Before she returns to her home country of Kenya to implement the leadership skills she learned at Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School, Ooko-Ombaka will welcome to Cambridge more than a dozen family members to celebrate her achievements at Harvard Commencement.

“On graduation day, I will be thinking about how I can make this amazing experience mean more than just me. Back home, we say it takes a village to raise a child. I think that it takes a community to support a Harvard graduate, and I am proud of mine. How can I become a platform for my community, writ large? I hope my family will see that I’m changing the narrative of Africa.”

Amandla Ooko-Ombaka MPA/ID, MBA 2016

During her time at Harvard, Ooko-Ombaka spent time crystallizing her own narrative. She possesses the enviable skill of zooming in from big-picture thinking to introspective thoughtfulness: She speaks just as fluently of macro- and micro-economic returns to education as she does about what it personally means for her to be part of the fabric of the Harvard community as well as her larger communities of Kenya and the continent of Africa.

Ooko-Ombaka was attracted to the MPA/ID Program because of its mix of analytical skills grounded in the realities of development and tailored for practitioners complemented by soft skills like management, leadership, and negotiation.

“I heard about the MPA/ID Program before I even knew about HKS,” said Ooko-Ombaka. “While working at McKinsey as a consultant in Nigeria, I met alumni from the program and was inspired. The program also stood out for me because it’s 80 percent international. Coming from Kenya, I wanted to look outside the African lens and get exposure to more global views.”

She cites HKS Professor of the Practice of International Development Lant Pritchett’s class DEV-101, Economic Development: Theory and Evidence as instrumental in “cutting through the noise” with data-driven policy.

Her class with Ronald Heifetz, King Hussein Bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership and founder of HKS’s Center for Public Leadership (CPL), compelled Ooko-Ombaka to examine not just what type of leader she wants to be, but who she wants to be as a leader.

“Leadership is a practice,” she said. “It’s risky, challenging, and imperfect. It can be learned, and must be taught.”

Why did she choose the HKS/HBS joint-degree program?

“I have a public sector heart and a private sector mind,” explains Ooko-Ombaka. “Too often, the two sectors are framed as dichotomous. I have an intense desire to work with—not across—both sectors. While I believe that private sector growth is the key to prosperity on the African continent, without the public sector driving the development agenda in concert, the visions that we have set are likely to remain just that: visions. I want to do things.”

“Leadership is a practice. It’s risky, challenging, and imperfect. It can be learned, and must be taught.”

Amandla Ooko-Ombaka MPA/ID, MBA 2016

And “do things,” she did.

Among other activities and achievements during her time at Harvard, Ooko-Ombaka galvanized her HKS/HBS community by organizing a Walk for Mandela. She had the opportunity to moderate a panel in the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum with notable HKS alumni Felipe Calderón MC/MPA 2000, the former president of Mexico, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf MC/MPA 1971, the current president of Liberia.

She traveled to Montgomery, Alabama as a Glenn Dubin Fellow and George Leadership Fellow with CPL to learn about local public and private sector leadership challenges and policymaking.

For her Second Year Policy Analysis, the MPA/ID Program’s capstone project, her client was HBS alumnus the Honorable Adan Mohamed, Cabinet Secretary for the Ministry of Industry, Investment and Trade in Kenya. Her paper, “Kenya’s Big Industrial Push: Coordination Challenges in Kenya’s Industrial Zone Approach to Manufacturing,” drew on both her private and public sector perspectives. The breadth of these experiences highlighted the network and access that HKS and HBS offer its students on campus and beyond.

Now, as Commencement rapidly approaches, Ooko-Ombaka is again adjusting her focus to look “beyond.”

“It’s time to go back to Kenya and take on a leadership role,” she said. “I want to work towards strong, adaptable governance across the diverse continent of Africa and ensure that both Africans and non-Africans are present in the conversations about its future. I hope others will come to see Africa the way I see Africa.”