Keynote speech by Mr Jan Mohamed at the graduation ceremony at the Aga Khan Academy Mombasa | Aga Khan Academies

Keynote speech by Mr Jan Mohamed at the graduation ceremony at the Aga Khan Academy Mombasa

25 May 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen, 

I feel honored and privileged to have been asked to be the Chief Guest at the graduation ceremony of this excellent institution—I was fortunate to witness the unique features of the Academies program yesterday morning, and I have great admiration for the emphasis the Academy places on life-long learning and development, positive engagement with the community, developing leadership skills; qualities that will positively impact your communities, your country and the world at large. May I take this opportunity of expressing my appreciation to Simon Otieno and Salim Bhatia for the invitation to this morning’s event.  Mr Otieno shared your feedback on the Class of year 2013—and I was most impressed with the way you describe the class—awesome; great team that made things happen; fun loving; overachievers; motivators; different and from diverse backgrounds but gelled brilliantly as a team; innovators. Provided you build on these strengths from here on, I am confident that your future in the real world is secure! Many business leaders strive to build  such qualities with mixed success. I hope that in the future I can claim to have been the Chief Guest at the graduation of the future Jack Welch, Wangari Mathai, Meg Whitman, Lakshmi Mittal or a future Head of State!!! 

Graduation is a time of celebration and triumph and marks the end of one phase and beginning of the next phase. It is a very proud moment for the graduates, parents and teachers who have all played their part in the end result. The students have worked hard with focus, determination and discipline. The teachers (and I have the highest respect for the teaching profession built over many years as a student, parent and past honorary Chairman of Aga Khan schools in both Nairobi and Mombasa). Teachers have done their utmost to help you  by encouraging and motivating you to perform at optimum and achieve the end result. Your parents have made many sacrifices in the last few years and provided you with the enabling environment at home, financial, and moral support, to help you through this phase. The students started as children and are leaving as adults; they will be in totally different environments with new friends, they will be subject to new peer pressures, parents have to accept that their children will not be under one roof with them and may end up a few thousand miles away from home. This will require emotional adjustment for both parent and child. From my own experience as a student, I was excited leaving school; however as a parent, I recall the anxiety and the worry I went through when my children were off to university. 

Parents may not always be right in what they say to you—but believe me whatever every parent  says or does is because they genuinely believe that it is in the best interests of their children.

I have three grown up children who graduated from British universities and are now successful professionals in the UK and Spain. They are like our friends and we enjoy our time together on the golf course, on holidays, and I am fortunate that our relationship is no longer a one way parent to child relationship. I believe it is of utmost importance that when your child leaves home that you accept that amongst many success stories they may face challenges—some within their control and some outside their control. When they are in such a situation they must feel comfortable to speak to either parent openly and in a timely manner. Your children are entering a new phase in their lives and your management styles may have to change. Equally the students must realize that when you leave home your parents are faced with managing a major change in their lives—you must also change your style of parent management to avoid adding to what is a very stressful life they lead in this day and age. In some cases parents make huge sacrifices—it is inevitable that they have high expectations of the end result.   

Try and keep out of trouble; however if you are faced with a challenge, remember—parents love you unconditionally, and will help you through the ups and downs, and the sooner you share the issues with them, remedial measures are less expensive, less painful and solutions come faster. To the parents, trust your child, quite often we underestimate their ability to deal with issues and create a relationship and an environment of dialogue regardless of the issue. 

To the graduating students—this is your day and I congratulate you on your achievement—well done. May I ask you all to put your hands together to applaud the success of the graduands. You are fortunate that you that you are graduating from an institution that has prepared you exceptionally well. Seth Godin outlines in his book Stop Stealing Dreams and I quote: “You are entering a new chapter in your life in an exciting world, full of challenges, opportunities amplified by the Web and the connection revolution, human beings are no longer rewarded most for being compliant cogs. Instead, our chaotic world is open to the work of passionate individuals, intent on carving their own paths. That is the new job of school. Not to hand a map to those willing to follow it, but to inculcate leadership and restlessness into a new generation.” The Academy has prepared you not just on the academic front, but to play your part in helping communities improve their quality of life. This is a quality that you must build on—the developing world is littered with major environmental, ecological disasters, security issues due to increasing numbers of the population living below the poverty line, the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer! This is due to corruption, poor governance and leadership. Your countries need your input and you must at every stage of your life play your part in turning this unacceptable situation for the sake of our children and grandchildren.   

It is not enough to simply try and get by in life—that does not move the world forward—you must strive to excel in everything you do—excellence in every task, large or small. The decisions you make starting today will determine what you become. Your academic journey is not over yet and you must be clear on the end result and how you wish to get there. You will face many challenges but this is what the “real world” is all about and the next phase in your life is a great training ground for your future success. I remember reading a recent article on education that highlighted three essential interrelated elements to intrinsic motivation: Play, Passion and Purpose. Whether and to what extent, parents, teachers and employers, encourage these qualities makes an enormous difference in the lives of young innovators. You must think big, dream based on not what is, BUT on what might be. You will have amazing networking opportunities in your next phase—you will meet new people with different cultures, values, attitudes and knowledge. Take full advantage of this opportunity as my own children have benefitted significantly from  networking in their professional lives. It is easy to remain in the comfort zone in terms of the friends circle but the best lessons in life are learnt through reaching out. Play your part in sports, cultural or other activities that enables you expand your network. We have witnessed a number of cases where it is easy for university students perhaps to give health and well-being issues less of a priority—have fun and it is important that you do, but look after your health through exercise; eat healthy as this will help shape your future. Balance is the key to future success. 

Do not be afraid to be fearless. We all must have goals and we will have fears about achieving them but it is how we handle those fears that determine whether or not and how quickly we get there. Not every project or task we undertake can be successful—when it is not successful, learn from the mistakes made, and take the necessary remedial measures on the next project.

I was delighted to read the word “team” feature in the majority of your feedback—in this day and age a number of major organizations have failed due to lack of teamwork despite having the finest brains on their establishment. Human creativity has increasingly become a group process. You must improve your skills on working with teams as human friction makes the sparks in the corporate world. We now live in a tough world, low hanging fruit is diminishing and significant success can be achieved if we connect our imaginations. 

Let me now take a few minutes to share some personal experiences in my professional life that may be useful.

Serena Hotels has expanded from four units in 1985 located in Kenya to 35 units in 6 African countries and three Central Asian countries in year 2013. We have faced a number of challenges on the journey due to the fact we do not enjoy a level playing field due to in some cases corruption, poor governance standards and some competitors being in the business to make a quick profit and get out. Despite these challenges, AKFED, who are the principal shareholders in Serena, continue to engage in pioneering activities, demand that we invest heavily in the development of our most important asset—our HR, act responsibly when it comes to our environmental and ecological practices, pay our statutory dues transparently, and contribute positively to the well-being of communities that live around our properties. The bottom line is that despite these additional costs, we have managed over the years to provide a fair return to our shareholders (could have been much higher if we had a level playing field), our staff turnover is well below industry norms, and we have managed to remain in business when some of our competitors collapsed during tough and turbulent times. I believe that in the developing world, governance standards will continue to improve if current and future leaders like yourselves insist on good governance and integrity. I urge you to bear this in mind when you are in positions of authority as it is the responsibility of each one of us to ensure that the developing world exploits its full potential. We should not be reliant on aid and strive towards becoming self sufficient. 

Finally may I thank the Academy for the invitation, I hope that my presentation has been useful and I take this opportunity of wishing all the graduates all the very best in their future endeavors. To the teaching staff, keep up your excellent work in helping shape future leaders and may God bless you all.

Thank you.


M.Jan Mohamed

Managing Director, TPS Serena Hotels