Over the past 20+ years, Michelle Kagari, One Acre Fund’s Global Director for Government Relations and Policy, has dug for answers on human rights and dignity in her quest to create positive change in the lives of individuals and communities. Here, she talks about her career, her journey to the top, the hurdles she’s overcome along the way, and why she thinks “good girls” can get the figurative corner office.
You are a trained lawyer – with experience spanning 15 years in the human rights space – advocating for farmers. What made you decide to work with an agricultural organization?
I advocate for human dignity in all its forms, and farmers deserve to lead dignified lives. I believe that development is a right and not a nice-to-have thing. I come from the belief system that governments and people in power are obligated to uplift the communities around them and create an environment that catalyzes human growth and wellbeing.
I joined One Acre Fund because I yearned to be in a space where I could see the change I was advocating come to life. In my previous role, I advocated for human rights at a macro level, which meant tangible change was not quite readily visible. One Acre Fund allows me to see the change we are creating in real-time. My role allows me to apply my skills to support immediate-term farmer prosperity while enabling me to be part of a future-facing team that champions innovation and sustainable development.
What do you think is your most unique leadership superpower?
Authenticity. I strive to lead in a way that cultivates trust. I believe in leadership that sets a clear-cut vision that people can get behind and be inspired by. I am proud to see the fulfillment of our departmental vision, from being a support function in the organization to working strategically to unlock scalable opportunities and more impact for farmers.
What excites you most about having more women in senior leadership roles?
It is the difference in leadership — a feminine type. Women are changing the workplace. Our mothers broke the glass ceiling for women in the workplace, but my generation has shattered the barrier into the C-suite. I am excited to see how having more women in the C-suite will change how business is done. Women bring a lot of positive attributes to leadership — inclusivity, communication, and empathy; these are the traits we need today. I am so excited to be part of changing the narrative about women being the weaker sex or women’s approach being weaker because there is increasing evidence that our approach delivers better business outcomes.
Sometimes leaders are looked at as having peaked, but growth never really ends. How do you continue to grow and develop as a leader?
I went through an event in my career that taught me the value of continuous improvement. Because of my drive and hard work, I got my dream job 10 years before I expected it. I did the job well and was at the top of my game. But I got too comfortable and lost the motivation to invest in my career growth and personal development. Ten years later, I realized that I had stagnated in my career progression. During my career ‘awakening’, I decided to pursue a second masters in International Development, which has stood me in good stead. Nowadays, I do many short courses and am currently learning about the concept of circular economies and creating sustainable businesses. I enjoy putting myself in spaces with people who inspire and challenge me. The more I learn, the more I realize how much I do not know, which drives me always to seek knowledge.
Are you reading anything interesting right now? What’s your takeaway from it?
I read two to three books concurrently, primarily on business, fiction, and inspiration. I just completed a book that gave me a lot of mixed reactions – What Men Do Not Tell Women About Business. That book has helped me understand how a certain cadre of men interpret female behavior and how this can sabotage careers.
I have just started reading ‘Good Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office,’ and I am excited about it. I think women’s inherent characteristics bring a different type of leadership that we are naturally good at— empathy, relationship building, and consensus. I want to create spaces where my strengths and those of other women are not considered a weakness but a strength. Women can deliver the same if not better outcomes when we lean into our strengths. In that respect, I am a fan of Brenee Brown and her work in demystifying vulnerability and championing leadership that embraces vulnerability and empathy. This is the future of leadership — and yes, that type of leader does get the corner office!
Speaking of your role, what does a Global Director of Government Relations at One Acre Fund do?
The Government Relations department works to ensure compliance with the regulatory and policy landscapes of the countries we serve. I also oversee advocacy work, which entails influencing policy landscapes to make them more favorable for farmers. One Acre Fund serves more than 1.5 million farmers across Sub-Saharan Africa, giving us a profound understanding of the challenges that limit smallholders. We leverage that understanding to influence policy and regulatory changes to make farmers’ work more profitable.
Michelle addresses national media while hosting senior government officials at our headquarters in Kakamega, Western Kenya
What does a typical workday look like for you?
I spend most of my days overseeing the execution of priority projects to ensure we are on track. I brainstorm and guide tactical actions that drive projects and refine specific strategies. I also check the external and internal environment to identify trends or areas we need to pay close attention to and recommend appropriate courses of action within my department and the organization.
And over the past year, Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion (DEI) has been a huge priority and is key to my day-to-day engagement with my team. It is important to me that our department’s culture is one where people can thrive, feel supported, and have structures and processes that facilitate their work and help them do it well.
The way you speak about DEI makes it sound like a personal priority. Is it?
That’s right. DEI is personal to me because I am a woman of color who has practiced in the international development space for over 20 years. I have seen and experienced the need for diversity, equality, and inclusion.
I am privileged to be in a leadership position that allows me to mold a positive work environment and nurture an inclusive work culture where everyone feels valued. It is important to me that my team feels included and supported. Identifying and removing any biases to ensure an equitable workspace is not just a tick-box exercise for me; it is something that I prioritize and want to do well.
How do you ensure you attain a work-life balance?
I do work-life integration instead of work-life balance because I am very intentional about how and where I focus my energy. I have learned to be disciplined and focused on enhancing myself, my family, and my career and finding good people to support my efforts.
One good thing about Covid is the flexibility of working remotely. It is great to see and experience this digitized world that allows us to connect and work from anywhere, making it possible to integrate our family and work. When my daughter comes home from school, I take time to catch up with her before getting back to work. I am happy that she knows her mother is close by and easily accessible.
Secondly, as my role became more senior and demanding, it was important to have a strong support system. I have an amazing, trustworthy lady who has been with my family for years and helps manage my home. I am also lucky to have a supportive husband who understands the dynamics of my work and takes up additional family duties when I am tied up. I also make time for personal time with my friends, as it gives me a space to unwind, laugh my heart out, and be around positive energy.
What is in your bucket list?
I love to travel with my family and I’m eager to travel to exotic places, mainly islands like Fiji. I would love to be able to afford to go for a cruise on a luxury yacht across the Mediterranean. And a good, comfortable retirement home on a cliff by the sea would be great.
What is your advice for the next generation of female leaders?
Whoever you are, lift yourself, then lift others around you. You don’t need to put other women down to get ahead. Life is a marathon and in the long run, our lives are better when we focus on lifting others around us.