By Mwaniki Nyaga, KamiLimu Management Committee Member
Søren Kierkegaard said of life: it can only be understood backwards but must be lived forwards. Jacklyne Betty has thus far lived a life that reveals hidden motifs only in retrospect. We see her altruism come out from her initial interactions in nursery school, her fascination with and structured approach to science manifest quite early in her primary schooling journey and her ability to continually go back to the drawing board until it all becomes clear play out over and over again.
In this interview, Jacklyne, a machine learning data scientist, shares her life journey, experiences with mentorship, and lessons she has learnt as a student, social entrepreneur and mentor. At KamiLimu, Jacklyne is both a one-to-one and the Data Science Track professional mentor.
Who is Jacklyne?
I’m an altruist. I’ve accepted that about myself finally. I’d never understood why I was drawn to making people’s lives better. Naturally, that started when I was young. All through school and now whilst in the workforce, I can still see that old and concrete part of myself, which is, helping out whenever and in whatever way I can.
Was this something you’ve felt since you were young?
In retrospect, yes. One day when I was in Nursery 1, our teacher came to class and handed out pencils to everyone in the class. I watched her as she did this. Lester, one of my classmates, had been given a pencil that was almost three times bigger than all the rest! I voiced my concern that it didn’t seem fair that some people were getting bigger pencils while others got ones sharpened by our forefathers. The teacher took them back and the next day we got new pencils. That’s one of those things that happened in my life that was a telling of my true nature, but at the time it didn’t have much bearing.
Why your field of work?
It’s not something I chose outright. I actually wanted to be a cardiologist when I was younger. I had a stethoscope by the time I was 8 and a library of Medicine books that I would read. That didn’t turn out so well. The next best thing I was good at was Maths and I chose the heaviest math course I could find at Strathmore University — Actuarial Science. My first job was as an associate manager at Jumia where I was charged with making sure clients got what they wanted on the website. From there I tried to start my own mentorship initiative for male students at Strathmore. My idea didn’t work out due to poor market research (laughs).
After that, I started looking for graduate courses where I could apply my business intelligence experience gained while at Jumia. I applied for an MSc in Business Analytics, which was a new course then, at the University of Bath School of Management. My curiosity was really piqued while studying there; a lot of the fear that comes from not knowing was quickly pushed aside from the support and guidance by faculty and classmates, which instilled in me a confidence in walking towards a place of knowing. I came back and worked as a corporate finance analyst at PKF. Next, I took up a consulting job at Strathmore Business School where I helped in setting up a data centre. Most recently I’ve been a Machine Learning Data Scientist at KPMG East Africa’s Data Incubator.
Wow. That is an incredibly interesting journey. You’ve mentioned a couple of key experiences that I would like you to expound. For instance, what had you envisioned for your mentorship initiative?
What inspired it was a gap I noticed in how students at Strathmore accessed their mentors and mentorship services. Throughout my undergraduate studies, I had mentors who I was in constant contact with — that’s how I knew to go to the careers office to aid in my job search while in my final year. I was also lucky enough to share living space with some of my mentors. The idea was to set up a house within which 8–10 male students would get mentored by professors at weekly sessions. I aimed to create an abundance of information sharing — to build the learners’ confidence and belief in what they had to offer the world.
What part of market research had you gotten wrong?
What I hadn’t considered was that having a general idea is not specific enough when it comes to business. Some questions I needed to have addressed were i) for something that is student-centred, the student is not the only stakeholder; the money often comes from parents. ii) I should have tripled the budget I had because I was paying rent. This fact is mainly because it would be many months before I would get a steady flow of revenue from residents. I also realized that, sometimes, one will have the privilege to pursue an idea, not heavily deterred by the fear that it might not work out. I think when you’re young and you have the privilege of having a support system and their favour, it’s easier to go ahead and try something out.
That’s a very powerful revelation that at times we only realize after its passing. The question now is why mentor with KamiLimu?
For me, if there is an opportunity to help, I automatically take it. I’ve participated in mentorship programs where I’m the one orchestrating everything, but with KamiLimu, it’s all right there. Everything is quite structured with an objective goal. I love it.
Specific to the ICT Track, what did you hope to achieve with your mentees?
Firstly, confidence building. In a lot of the undergraduate students I’ve come across, I’ve noticed a lack of confidence — in asking questions, seeking information that you don’t know, confidence that your voice needs to be heard. Secondly, I wanted an output that is concrete and with a machine learning flow. I believe there are certain machine learning principles that one can’t escape from. For instance, where are you sourcing your data? Are you able to recognize any bias that you’ve inherently introduced? Things like proper data cleaning, how you handle your null points, feature engineer and create variables in order to inform how you structure data to what your ultimate outcome is meant to look like. Those are the things I wanted to see come out of my mentees.
What was your approach to the ICT Track personal projects?
I availed myself every day for particular time slots, mostly during after work hours. It was such a great experience.
How was your experience in terms of your mentee’s attitude?
With Covid came a lot of things. I’m inherently empathetic so I felt I needed to know exactly what’s happening with them; their truth, you know. Based on the shift in circumstances with some of them — we had people moving houses, taking care of younger relatives, and some suffered bereavement — I think they did the very best they could.
How was your overall experience being an ICT Track mentor?
I care deeply about the people I work with, and the involvement goes all the way to my core. Every day I looked forward to 4:30 pm so I could talk to my students. It gave me so much purpose. A sense of unity is crucial, and I felt I had both that privilege and willing participants wanting to move further in the same direction. It got to a place I felt like I could just do this forever!
Is there anything in particular that stood out for you?
As an orderly person myself, having KamiLimu’s structure made work so much easier. It’s difficult to get as granular, even in general work, as I’ve come to see. When it comes to the students, their skills were inherently different both in the way that they saw things and in the problems they’d like to solve in the community. None of them were basic. They want to do things, and they are doing them. I could tell that if it came to them having to go back to the drawing board, they would do it. It takes a special kind of person to go back and learn something new, which they all did in one way or another.
What next for you and your mentees?
I’m always sharing opportunities and contacts with them. My hope for them is that when they go to sleep they are shocked by what they’ve accomplished; to go so far ahead in being present at improving their lives and livelihood. Currently, we are on a break because some students had exams to prepare for but we left having started proposing group project ideas and potential members who would want to work together on them. I like the idea of the group project actually because everyone gets to interact, rebalance energies, learn and grow in a different, less individual way, and this may lead to those who were struggling alone finding new perspectives.