Nothing Worthwhile Comes Easy: Lessons on Grit with Richard Okello

Co-Founder of Sango Capital, an innovative African private equity business backed by leading global investors, Richard has had a thriving career in a cutthroat sector. After winning scholarships to study in the UK and US, his first job was at Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, where he became a Partner within five years. His next growth opportunity was at Makena Capital, a global private endowment based in Silicon Valley. As a Principal at Makena, Richard managed portfolios with substantial emerging markets exposure. Despite reaching stratospheric heights of success, his passion for the African continent and desire to invest in its future drove him to leave the US and establish Sango with fellow Ugandan, Charles Mwebeiha.

Richard learnt the value of grit at a young age, and shared with us some pivotal experiences that crystallized its importance in his life.

“What I’ve learnt is that nothing worthwhile comes easy. The point is to go towards the challenge, not veer away from it. Once you’ve had the experience of pushing yourself beyond the limits, the gratification of the success becomes a self-reinforcing mechanism.”

Redefine your limits

I grew up in a large family in Kampala, surrounded by siblings, aunts and uncles who lived at our home. It was a period of rapid modernisation and change for Uganda, and my parents provided us with a powerful example of facing challenges head-on. My father was a central banker who worked his way up from the ground level to become the Deputy Governor of the Central Bank, while my mother worked tirelessly for a non-profit that put thousands of young orphans through school.

When I was 13 years-old, I went to a boarding-school that academically followed the British system, but also had caning of students by student leaders as a common practice. From the time I arrived, I realised that this was an entirely counterproductive and archaic form of punishment — and so I decided to do something about it. I got a few of my classmates involved and we persisted over the next four years in a mission to get it abolished. It was a seemingly impossible task, but we didn’t give up and eventually our efforts paid off; our school became the first that we knew of in the country to ban this practice.

The idea that I could abolish caning or even participate in a process that would have such lasting impacts at the age of 17 seemed incredible to me. It redefined the limits of what I had perceived to be possible. Then I thought: okay, what’s next?

From non-athlete to Swarthmore College team

Another critical lesson from my high school years came out of Sports Day, which I eagerly anticipated — not because I was a keen athlete, but because it was a day for parents to visit the school. After my first Sports Day, my father informed me that it was pointless for him to attend when I didn’t play any sports. This served as an instant incentivisation to become a runner! I sought out an upperclassman who ran track at the national level and asked him for guidance.

Unsure of whether a non-runner would have the stamina to endure the rigour of track, he told me to arrive at the bottom of a steep hill on the school grounds at 5:30 in the morning. Not only did the training involve running up and down the hill until I could barely stand up — but I had to do it with a car tyre strapped with rope around my waist! By the end of the first morning of training, I had to consider whether the sweat and suffering was worth it. Difficult as it was, I didn’t want to give up so soon. I decided to stick with it and by the following Sports Day, I was running on the track team.

More than anything, this demonstrated to me the unanticipated rewards of grit and hard work: if it wasn’t for the months of gruelling training to become an athlete, I would never have won a partial sports scholarship to Swarthmore College. Who knew that those 5:30am sessions would enable me to meet my financial obligations while studying at an elite college in the US?

Don’t take “no” for an answer

When I arrived at Swarthmore, I set out to complete my BA Honours degree in Economics and Public Policy within three years. I took seven classes in my first semester — which, understandably, no one had attempted before! In order to graduate, I needed to do a relevant internship. I found an ideal public policy firm, but their website stated that students had to have a Master’s degree or above in order to apply. I wrote to them and asked for a month’s internship to prove my worth, explaining that I would do whatever was required. When no response came, I proceeded to send a fax to their office every day. After weeks of persistence, the firm eventually relented and offered me a trial internship — so long as I agreed to stop sending faxes! As it turned out, I managed to secure a placement there throughout the year, and I’m still in contact with the founder of the firm.

The difficult gets done now; the impossible just takes a little longer

Bridgewater was a relatively small hedge fund when I joined, with less than $1 billion. By the time I left, eight and a half years later, it had grown to $50 billion. It was incredible to be surrounded by top people in such a high-octane environment at the start of my career. I decided to pursue my MBA while I was working there. The pressure was intense, but I had the reference point of becoming a sprinter and of achieving things that never in my wildest dreams would I have thought possible. This is what got me through the late nights of studying while working at full capacity.

Undoubtedly what stands out most from this time is the relationship that I formed with the founder of Bridgewater, Ray Dalio. He was surprisingly down to earth; despite being a multimillionaire at the time I joined the firm, he drove an old Volvo. And that relationship has stayed intact over the years. When my business partner and I were raising our first fund for Sango, Ray supported us with 10 personal reference calls — something that I still find pretty amazing, given who he is.

If you’re not making an impact, what’s the point?

Ultimately, my vision has always been to leave each community in which I apply myself better than when I found it. When we founded Sango Capital eight years ago, we didn’t want it to be just another investment firm. The goal was to attract capital that wouldn’t normally come into the continent, creating a different momentum of finance and discipline. From the beginning, we chose the harder path.

When we started investing, people didn’t even think there was a private equity middle market in Africa. It’s been anything but easy, yet when I look at what we’ve been able to accomplish, it’s mind-blowing. This is the only place where you can have tremendous financial success and a tremendous positive impact at the same time. We’re making a tangible difference in people’s lives; when we invest in a business that provides electricity in West Africa, it’s supplying power to schools and hospitals. The long-term impact of what we’re doing makes the work much more exciting and fulfilling.

What I’ve learnt is that nothing worthwhile comes easy. The point is to go towards the challenge, not veer away from it. Once you’ve had the experience of pushing yourself beyond the limits, the gratification of the success becomes a self-reinforcing mechanism. And the rewards of this are endless.