By Kimani Kuria
Dr. Elizabeth Mary Okelo is the founder of Makini Schools and the Vice-President of Women’s World Banking in New York. She made history as the first female bank manager in Kenya and founded Barclays Banks Women’s Association to mentor women. Dr. Okelo also founded Kenya Women Finance Trust. Her career has been stellar and an encouragement to young women to chase their dreams.
Here is the profile of Dr Okelo, a widow, a mother, grandmother and mentor as told by WoK.
Background and Family History
Dr. Mary Okelo was born in Butere to Canon Jeremiah Awori and Mariamu Awori to a large family of seventeen children, ten boys and seven girls. She was the 14th born in the family of brilliant minds. Her father was a clergyman and the first canon in Kenya.
He ministered at the Church of England now called the Anglican Church of Kenya. Both her parents were literate and valued education.
Speaking to Prof. Henry McGee, the entrepreneur had this to say about her mother:
“My mother was prayerful and an extremely intelligent woman who beat my father in mathematics in class and that was what attracted my father to her. My mother assisted my father in the ministry of the church. She ran the Mother’s Union, a dispensary, adult literacy classes for women.” read the interview in part.
Her siblings are:
W.W.W Awori – Legislative Council Member in the 1950s
Arthur Moody Awori – Kenya’s 9th Vice President
Aggrey Awori – Ugandan politician who ran for presidency in 2001
Professor Nelson Wanyama Awori – Led the team that carried out black Africa’s first successful kidney transplant in 1978 at the Nairobi Hospital
Hannington Ochwada Awori – Among Kenya’s pioneer civil engineers
Grace Wakhungu – Entrepreneur
Dennis Awori – Kenya’s former ambassador to Japan, general manager of CMC in Kenya and Uganda
Christine Hayanga – Renowned Lawyer
Henry Awori – former Kenya’s Commissioner of Insurance
Willis Awori – Human Resources Director, International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE )
Alliance Girls Alumni
Dr. Mary Okello is an alumnus of Alliance Girls’ High School where she did her A levels under government sponsorship alongside twelve other girls. They were the first girls to sit the A Level examinations in Kenya for the first time.
Some of her peers at Bush were Lady Justice Effie Owuor, the late Elizabeth Masiga who was the first woman chief inspector of schools, Mother-in-Law’s Charity Mwamba (real name Elizabeth Wanjiru), and Professor Florida Karani.
After high school, she enrolled at Makerere University to study History.
Dr. Mary Okello’s Career Journey
Kenya Prisons Department and the Ministry of Affairs
After completing her university education, she worked at the Kenya Prisons Department where she was trained as a cadet and would also learn how to effectively handle firearms. She went on to work at the Ministry of Affairs but quit saying she was not diplomatic enough for the role.
Barclays Bank Kenya (BBK)
Dr. Okelo applied for a job that was advertised on the local dailies looking for undergraduates fresh from university for management training. She applied but was turned down on the grounds that she was a woman. They told her in the banking industry there were no women managers but she was not about to give up. Her persistence paid off and she was absorbed.
“….. they said in the banking industry there were no women managers, so they couldn’t take me. Then I started to argue with them. I said, “What? Why not?” And I think because I was so persistent, they said they would give me a try. I don’t think they were convinced that I would last, but I just wanted to know why they didn’t want to recruit women. They had these arguments that, okay, in the event of a robbery, women panic. And I kept asking, in the event of a robbery, a man would stand there and wait for a gun to be shown? So, I think after a while, they got fed up with my persistence and said they would give me a chance and they did”, She told McGee.
She rose to become the first woman assistant manager and later bank manager in Kenya in 1977.
After eight years in the role, she left Barclays to become the regional representative and first African representative to the Women’s World Banking, a role she delivered exceptionally well. Two years later in 1987, Dr. Mary Okello was appointed as a senior advisor to Africa Development Bank’s (ADB) president.
Her last role in the Banking industry was between 1990 and 1992 when she served as New York-based Women’s World Banking vice president.
In a past interview, Dr. Okello said, “Being a leader means being the voice for others as you have a privilege which they don’t”. This was something she fully lived by throughout her career as she used her positions to disband women-discriminatory rules and regulations.
She did not only blossom in the banking industry but went on to empower women in a field erstwhile dominated by men. Drawing from her experience and what she saw at the Bank, she founded the Barclays Bank Women’s Association, an avenue that would mentor, empower with knowledge, and encourage women to stand up for themselves.
The association laid the ground for her to later partner with other women to establish the Kenya Women’s Finance Trust – KWFT aiming for financial empowerment among Kenyan women.
Founding the Multibillion-worth Makini Schools
Dr. Mary Okello founded Riara Gardens Academy with her late husband Pius Okello in 1978 citing that, “There were few [private] schools offering quality education. They were mostly mission schools such as St. Mary’s.” The institution started with eight students in the couple’s home and has since then spread its wings to include more institutions listed below after it was rebranded to Makini Schools:
Makini Ngong Road Campus (Pre and Primary School)
Makini Ngong Road Campus – High School
Makini Junior Academy
State House Avenue (Pre & Lower Primary)
Makini Junior School Migosi
Makini School Kibos
Makini School Kisumu.
The institution moreover has several offshoots including:
Makini Training Consultancy
Boresha Limited focused on digital content creation
Also Read: The Ten Richest Women in Kenya
Makini Schools Majority Shareholding Sale
After forty years of building and running one of Kenya’s best learning institutions, Dr. Mary sold 71% of the shareholding of the conglomerate to UK-based investor Scholé Limited and South Africa-based investor Advtech at Ksh930 million on 1st May 2018.
Marriage and Family Life
Dr. Mary met her late husband Dr. Pius Okello in 1968 during her time at Barclays when he was a doctoral student in the UK. They built a friendship and tied the knot in London. The couple would then be blessed with three children Joseph Okello, Lawrence Okello, and Clare Niala. In 2004, a grisly road accident claimed her husband’s life marking Dr. Mary’s most heart-wrenching experience.
For her immense contribution to Kenya’s education sector, she is an awardee of the Moran of the Order of Burning Spear (MBS).
Success Tips from Dr. Mary Okello
She attributes her success to God and her parents who shaped her saying, “My mother juggled several roles including teaching, midwifery and being a social worker, and my dad’s pioneering spirit in establishing churches, his courage, and high principles in whatever he did remain admirable values to me.”