A career journey driven by fear

Dennis Matanda is the chief executive of Morgenthau Stirling Inc.

What you need to know:

Juggling passions: Dennis Matanda is the chief executive of Morgenthau Stirling Inc. and a professor of Contemporary American Politics at the Catholic University of America. A man of habit, Matanda still wears the exact suits, shirts, and shoes he wore 15 years ago and keeps the same friends.    

What does your job entail?

My day job at Morgenthau Stirling entails supporting African public and private sector to access trade capacity building resources from North American institutions, promoting African investment opportunities in terms of equity, debt, mergers and acquisition between capital sources in the developed world, and projects in the 55 member states of the African Union.

My university job entails teaching

How did Dennis Matanda become the person he is today?

My journey is neither because of destiny nor fate. If Apollo Muyanja had not insisted that I go for the Radio One interview, even paying for my transport from Makerere to Ntinda, I would not be where I am today.

If Apolo Ndyabahika had not introduced me to the AGOA Civil Society event in Washington, DC, I would not have sat next to Stephen Lande, and then learnt how to augment my American politics education with trade and investment policy expertise.

I got to where I am because someone else gave me an opportunity. I even appreciate those that taught me the tough lessons. The woman who surreptitiously became my direct supervisor the week I hired her taught me to trust my instinct. When Muyanja called to tell me that I had forgotten to be the DJ at a very good friend’s wedding, I learnt to always have my phone charged. Basically, I owe my entire career to friends and acquaintances. Of course, it always helps to speak eloquently, dress carefully, and care about other people’s feelings.

Tell us a bit about your background.

I was born in Mbale, grew up in Jinja, gained a world of experience at Namasagali College School, and became fully formed on the streets of Kampala.

What is the motivation for your academic accomplishments?

The fear of not knowing enough.

Can ambition be self-consuming and dangerous?

Just as love can never be patient or kind, ambition is neither self-consuming nor dangerous. Ambition is simply ambition. It is a desire and determination to achieve success.

On the other hand, if the desire and determination for success are entrusted to someone unscrupulous, or someone whose personal heroes do not have integrity, then that desire and determination becomes self-consuming and dangerous.

Everyone should have the desire and determination to be successful. Everyone should want more than what they have right now. We should all aspire for more.

However, we should always ask: How do I ensure that my determination and desire for success does not come at the expense of other people, or at the expense of that which could be considered moral, ethical, or simply fair.

How do you spend the hours away from your professional life?

I am one of the fortunate ones who found a vocation instead of a profession. And for the record, my wife rolls her eyes every time I say this because she knows what it means.

I am never too far away from my laptop or iPad/phone. I love to read. I love to learn. And I will take a phone call from a student or a client at all hours of the day or night. I also travel extensively because I imagine that the world’s problems are not going to solve themselves.  Invariably, even if I do not spend enough time teaching my children how to swim, ride bicycles, or video games, the few times we do these things as a family remain precious to me.

What drives you in life?

I am driven by fear, a fear of missing out, fear of not being there to help and of not being able to pay forward the amazing gifts that God and man have given me.

How have you managed to expound on your career gains?

I married a woman who is smarter, more generous, and more aware of my nonsense than I am.

What are the major things you considered before taking up the job, and why?

Although money was always a specific consideration, the implied need before I took on a job was how much the job needed me. If there was a chance for me to make a huge difference, I took the job.

Looking back, I would be remiss if I did not mention the tiny grief at not taking the teaching assistant and foreign service jobs at Makerere University and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, respectively. But those institutions did not seem to need me as much as the ones I eventually ended up at.  

Who were your greatest influences growing up?

At first, it was Batman, then Blue Falcon (and his Dog Wonder), and then Spawn. Eventually it was, chronologically, my aunt Christine Jolly Lukandwa [RIP] and her son, my cousin, Dr Richard Lukandwa, my friend Andrew Lubega, my uncle Dr Fred Wabwire-Mangeni, and then my dad, the late Akisoferi Derek Wasake.     

What’s your philosophy on money?

Save, do not spend.

Have you ever fallen short on a job?

I fall short at my job every day. And every day, like clockwork, I rise from setbacks. If you asked me about the biggest setback I have ever had, I will tell you about the time I should have been the DJ at a friend’s wedding.

We had lived next door to each other, and her family was practically my family. I pledged to play the music at their wedding because I knew all her favourite songs. I thought I remembered the date of their wedding and she never followed up because she had so much faith in me.  After all, how could anyone not remember their friend’s wedding day? Well, on the wedding day, my battery died.

In fact, that Saturday afternoon, I was teaching a class while the wedding committee was frantically trying to reach me. When I finally charged my phone, I got the messages. I will never recover from that setback. Although this was 18 years ago, I feel like it happened an hour ago.  

At what stage of your life do you think you had the most fun?

I loved my 20s because I thought I knew everything. I hated my 30s because I had to relearn everything. I liked my early 40s because I started to discover what I was really made of.

As someone on the cusp of the Big 50, I am having a great time. I have the knowledge I wanted to have when I was in my 20s. I have learnt the key things I was forced to learn in my 30s.

And I am much better at the things I discovered I was good at in my early 40s. More than anything else, these ages all mesh together. I still feel like that oblivious 20-something. I am still as anxious as I was in my 30s. And cannot shake this deep curiosity I discovered in my 40s.  

What lessons do you wish your children learnt from your mother?

Dream your wildest dream, and it will happen.

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