Caster Semenya, the Olympian, on never quitting, come what may.
It is August 2009 in Berlin, Germany, at the finals of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships.
It’s the 800 meters race; among the eight female runners is 18-year-old South African Caster Semenya, in a yellow track top and green shorts.
Thousands watch from the pavilion, loudly cheering as they await the gun to go off.
In the fourth line, Semenya waits too, blocking out all the noise in her head.
She takes in a long, deep breath and says a prayer.
“On your marks!” shouts the referee.
The women crouch.
And the race is on.
The young Semenya from Limpopo, one of South Africa’s nine provinces, runs alongside some of the world’s most famous athletes such as Mariya Savinova from Russia.
In two minutes, a winner will be crowned.
In an impressive show of might and mettle on the track, Semenya sprints ahead of the others.
With long strides, she is the clear lead.
A competitor from Kenya, Janeth Jepkosgei Busienei, then manages to run ahead of Semenya. It’s a tight race as they lead neck-to-neck.
At the sound of a bell signaling they have reached the 400-meter mark, Semenya bolts ahead of the group leaving a wide gap between her and the others.
At 1:55:45, Semenya is officially the champion.
It is a big win for the village girl from Limpopo.
“Things just went from zero to hero, so boom! Zero to hundred. It was just great,” beams Semenya when we meet her for the interview with FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.
At the end of the race, she does her signature move – the cobra – hands facing inwards and then outwards.
Holding the South African flag, she runs a few meters in a lap of honor.
Her country is proud, super-proud of its millennial daughter.
This match was the unforgettable milestone that launched the career of a simple girl from Limpopo on to the world stage.
Her name was soon going to be etched in gold.
Caster Mokgadi Semenya is the reigning Olympics and world champion in the women’s 800-meter race.
On a hot Monday morning in October, we meet Semenya in the leafy suburb of Greenside in Johannesburg, South Africa.
She arrives ahead of the appointed time with her wife Violet and her manager Becky Motumo. Her vehicle is number-plated ‘CASVIO’, an amalgamation of Semenya’s and Violet’s names.
That weekend, she had just returned from New York City, in the United States (US), where she received the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award from the Women’s Sports Foundation and from tennis icon Billie Jean King.
The ceremony was to award women who have extraordinary achievements in sport, and Semenya was one of the recipients.
As she enters the studio for our interview dressed in all-blue Nike apparel and sneakers, she greets everyone warmly.
First on the agenda for the day is makeup, something the sports star says she can never get used to.
“I like to be myself, I am true to myself. I just like myself the way I am and I don’t want anything to change in me,” says Semenya.
“With makeup, it’s the part I hate the most because I don’t like it. That’s not me, so it’s just something else. I don’t like it at all, I just do it because it is business,” she says, laughing.
Semenya opts for the natural look.
She says she loves the simple life, and has always been this way since her early years growing up in the small village of Ga-Masehlong.
As she readies, she reminisces those years.
“Growing up in Limpopo was special to me, I’m a village girl,” she says.
“When you grow up in a big family, obviously, they appreciate you for who you are and everything you do. They support you. They don’t criticize your work, they just go with the flow and they want what makes you happy.”
Her family was extremely supportive of her love for sports.
Semenya started playing soccer at the age of four, on the street with her friends, and in the bush, where they would bet on matches.
“Actually, I was the best striker in the village [when it came to] street football,” she laughs.
“Everytime I got on to the pitch, everyone wanted me, so I was that kind of a kid.”
In a few years, the young Semenya traded in the football boots for running shoes.
“Before you can kick a ball, you have to run first. Football is all about speed, it is more about agility and how you can move.”
In grade one, Semenya was introduced to athletics and immediately found her feet as a sprinter.
But due to a lack of facilities and proper coaching at the school, she decided to opt for middle-distance running, instead of sprinting.
“With middle-distance, you can run anywhere you want and you can still perform. You don’t really need to be surrounded by mentors and stuff like that,” she says.
Semenya came to realize that she enjoyed running more than football and so traveled a lot to take part in competitions.
At the age of 12, she moved from living with her mother to taking care of her grandmother who was getting older.
“She’s a great human being. I am truly blessed to walk in her footsteps,” she says about her.
“She taught me more responsibility, how to take care of myself and how to take care of others. She also taught me respect, how to appreciate and how to accept others.”
Her grandmother supported her dreams to run, unaware then of how far it would take Semenya.
In 2007, at the age of 16, Semenya ran her first international race in Botswana.
Unfortunately, she was placed fifth and returned to South Africa defeated, but hopeful.
“From there, I discovered that there are a lot of things to learn and I need to focus more and concentrate.”
Semenya worked harder and pushed herself to become better than her competitors.
It was the beginning of her international career in sports.
From ‘zero to hero’
The year 2008 was her final year in high school.
Semenya continued to compete whilst pursuing her studies.
She had qualified for the 2008 World Junior Championships held in Bydgoszcz in Poland in July that year.
She was one of two Africans competing in the 800m-race.
Unfortunately, she didn’t make it.
Three months later, her luck changed.
She competed in the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games in Pune, India.
Semenya won her first international title with a record of 2:04, which was not bad for a 17-year-old.
It was a defining moment in Semenya’s career.
“From there, that’s when I knew this is my field. I need to be in command and I need to train hard. I need to be strong physically and mentally, and everything needs to be ready,” she says.
Since then, gold has become her color.
After the win and back to reality, Semenya went back to high school to complete her matric examinations – these were two fulfilling accomplishments for the young athlete.
2009 was a year of monumental change for Semenya.
The village girl moved to the big city.
She traveled 317km from Limpopo to Pretoria, South Africa’s capital, and enrolled at the University of Pretoria studying athletics science.
While there, she trained under Micheal Seme, preparing for more career-defining races.
Semenya dedicated her time to intense training, working on improving her running time.
She ran the 800 meters in two minutes and qualified for the 2009 IAAF World Championships, but due to lack of experience, she didn’t know much about her competitors who had been running for years.
“I knew what I wanted to achieve. It was all about running good times and back then, good times take you to winning big championships,” she says.
In July that year, at the African Junior Athletics Championships, Semenya won both the 800m and 1,500m races with the times of 1:56:72 and 4:08:01 respectively.
She had improved her 800m running time by eight seconds since winning the Commonwealth Games nine months earlier.
She was the fastest runner worldwide for the 800m races that year. She had bested the senior and junior South African records held by South African female athletes Zelda Pretorius and Zola Pieterse, popularly known as Zola Budd.
But there was no time to lose.
Semenya continued to press on training to compete in the IAAF World Championship 2009 in August in Berlin.
She went on to win as a newcomer among some of the world’s best runners.
The long run to freedom
Back home, she brought more glory to the nation.
But as South Africa cheered and celebrated her, others had different plans for the teenage athlete.
At the time, news reports surfaced about the IAAF looking into the young athlete.
The reports suggested that they were conducting gender tests on her.
In a statement published by the IAAF in September that year, they declined to comment on the medical testing of Semenya but confirmed that it was indeed gender-testing.
“We can officially confirm that gender verification test results will be examined by a group of medical experts,” they said.
At the time, they were in discussion with the South African Ministry of Sport and Recreation and Semenya’s representatives, with the view to resolve the issues surrounding Semenya’s participation in athletics.
It was a dampening end to her year.
In November, the results came back.
They found Semenya to have high testosterone levels.
As a result, she was suspended from running and forced to sit on the sidelines.
Semenya’s response was released in a statement by her lawyers.
“I have been subjected to unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being,” Semenya said.
“Some of the occurrences leading up to and immediately following the Berlin World Championships have infringed on not only my rights as an athlete but also my fundamental and human rights.”
Reminiscing on the events that took place, Semenya tells FORBES WOMAN AFRICA that she wasn’t and still isn’t worried about the IAAF.
She will continue to run the race she started.
“Actually, I never thought anything about them. It was just all about me. What is it that I can control? Of course, if someone is or wants to do whatever they want to do, there is nothing you can do,” she says.
“So, I never think about such people. I always think about myself and what will benefit me… There’s nothing I can do about what organizations think and there’s nothing they can do about what I think.”
The case was complex.
Media reports and critics questioned the ethics of their testing and their methods.
But Semenya was not the first.
News items and academic reports suggest that sex verification tests at the IAAF started as early as the 1950s.
Dutch athlete Foekje Dillema was reportedly banned in July 1950 after undergoing gender-testing by the IAAF.
In more recent times, Dutee Chand, Pratima Gaonkar and Pinki Pramanik, all from India, have reportedly had to undergo gender-testing too.
But Semenya stood strong.
After her experience, she calls on all women to unite.
“I think we as women need to come together and support each other,” she says.
“Without that, you will still feel discriminated, you still feel oppressed, you still feel criticized in everything that you do and you will still feel like you are not recognized,” she says.
During this trying period for Semenya, back home in Limpopo, a 15-year-old girl from the small town of Westenburg was acting as Semenya in a high school play.
Sevenah Adonis was finishing her grade eight at Hoërskool Pietersburg when she played Semenya for the year-end school concert.
It was also the same period Adonis first heard about the track star.
Semenya’s trial had inspired the young girl.
“My general perception of Caster Semenya when I had just heard of her is that she’s a very fantastic athlete,” Adonis tells FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.
“Limpopo is a very isolated place. There’s not a lot of exposure or anything, so for her to actually make it over the parameters of Limpopo is remarkable. I do look up to her and I aspire to go beyond my borders and accomplish things that she has accomplished,” she says.
Adonis is currently pursuing a degree in economics at the University of Limpopo.
The 22-year-old hopes to meet Semenya one day, but for now, she watches and cheers on her fellow Limpopo native making a global mark.
Back in Semenya’s world, July 2010 (after six months of being suspended) was when she received the news she had been waiting to hear.
The IAAF announced that she would be able to compete again.
“The IAAF accepts the conclusion of a panel of medical experts that she can compete with immediate effect,’’ they said in a statement.
The medical details and findings are confidential.
Despite the controversy with the IAAF, Semenya had been dubbed a hero by many for the way she handled the situation.
During the interview with us, she remembers what former South African President, the late Nelson Mandela, once told her when they met.
“Be the best that you can be,” he said to her.
“He just told me, ‘people can talk, people can do whatever they want to do, but it’s up to you to live for yourself first before others. So, the only thing that you can do is to be the best that you can be’,” she says.
It was the best advice she had ever been given.
Semenya returned stronger, winning every race and championship she entered.
“My goal is to be the greatest and there is nothing that anyone can do about it,” she says.
“I’m an athlete, I train and I perform. That’s me and that’s what keeps me going. I believe in myself and I trust myself and I’m always motivated. I’m a very positive person. So even if something comes in a negative way, I always find a way to put in more positive,” she says.
Semenya went on to win a silver medal in the 800 meters at the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, in 2011.
But it was in the year 2012 when she showed the world her true prowess on the track.
Leading the charge in London
Semenya was only 21 years old when she participated in her first Olympic Games.
“I was more mature then I think, but I didn’t have that knowledge of understanding my body; how to train myself, you know, to calm down,” she says.
But the prestige of the Olympic games excited Semenya.
It was the opening ceremony at the 2012 London Olympics and Semenya carried the South African flag proudly in front of thousands at the London Stadium (formerly known as the Olympic Stadium), while leading the South African Olympic team.
It was a proud moment for South Africans across the world.
Thousands and thousands cheered her on.
“It shows a great quality, especially more in leadership. So, I lead the team in and then, of course, I still have to go deliver because people look up to you. Your family, your friends, the entire nation. They expect you to perform,” she says.
One of the challenges she faced was not knowing whether all her training had been good enough for that moment.
She didn’t know what to expect.
“What’s going to happen in this championship? Am I going to win? Am I going to even win a medal?” she asked herself at the time.
“It was kind of the most stressful championship I have had in my life…” she says today.
It all came down to how prepared she was.
“When I walk onto that track, I perform. So, when I perform, I expect people to recognize my work but not just because I am me, but for the work that I do,” she says.
But once it was time for the race to take place, Semenya put all her worries aside and stayed focused.
“It is no longer about what happened last week. It’s about what’s going to go down now. We are more focused about it. It’s do or die,” she says. The pressure was on. Semenya was determined to win. Crowds in the stadium cheered waiting for the gun to go off.
The runners started off.
Semenya began to pick up pace.
As she did, she looked back and saw the other runners catching up.
It was do or die.
“The main thing was to think ‘I have to keep going’. But my other mind was like ‘you have lost the race, there is nothing you can do’… But when you believe that ‘ok, I still have a chance for a medal’, you will just keep on pushing until you get the momentum.”
In the end, Semenya was placed second, behind Russia’s Savinova.
Semenya brought home silver.
It was a proud moment and South Africa celebrated with her as the whole world watched the new face of 800m.
Francine Niyonsaba, an 800m Burundian gold and silver medallist, was a competitor alongside Semenya at the same race.
After meeting a few months earlier in Monaco, they had become friends.
“Caster Semenya is a good runner. She loves everybody and I think she is a very talented girl and an inspiration to all, especially African youth,” Niyonsaba tells FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.
Twentyfive-year-old Niyonsaba draws inspiration from her friend.
She says that the challenge women face in Burundi is that they feel they can’t achieve anything, elsewhere in the world.
“In Burundi, in our culture, women believe they cannot do something special in the world but it is just a mentality,” she says.
“A woman can do everything!”
Both Niyonsaba and Semenya are passionate about inspiring other women in sport and putting Africa on the map.
At the 2016 Olympics Games in Rio, Brazil, the two competed again.
This time, Niyonsaba won silver and Semenya won gold.
They met again at the 2017 World Championships in London and it was the same win again; Niyonsaba silver, and Semenya gold.
Despite the two always running against each other, Niyonsaba says on the track, Semenya has been very encouraging towards her and the others.
“As an African, she is trying to do something special. She is an exceptional girl, because you know as women in Africa we are afraid to do some things. So, Caster Semenya is trying to show everyone that women can do everything,” says Niyonsaba.
‘I don’t see myself
After bagging world titles and beating records, what else is on the cards for the sports star?
For Semenya, there’s no stopping her and she plans to stay on in the sports industry.
“I don’t see myself stepping down; until I’m 40, that’s when I’ll be satisfied.”
Semenya plans to become the greatest middle-distance runner in the world and she plans to break more records.
Back home, in Pretoria, she has been running the Caster Semenya Foundation aimed at coaching and equipping children who are active in sports.
The foundation currently trains 20 children aged 12 years and older.
She plans to expand it to other parts of the country.
“My main goal is to empower women and help other young men to be better in future,” she says.
“You have to show them first that education is important and we balance it with sports. If we can perform both sides, I think we will be fulfilled,” she says.
“Education never stops, you keep on learning every single day.
“Without education, your decision-making will be weak… when you are educated, it becomes very easy to make decisions and decide what is the next step.”
In 2018, she received her diploma in Sports Science from North-West University.
But she hasn’t stopped.
She is currently pursuing a degree in Sport Management at the Tshwane University of Technology.
It has been a big year for the athlete.
In September, she joined the Nike ‘Just do it’ campaign for its 30th birthday.
It featured some of the greatest athletes, the likes of tennis icon Serena Williams and former National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick, with each bringing social issues to the fore.
In October, she became the ambassador of Discovery Vitality.
In November, she won big at the South African Sport Awards. She took home the People’s Choice Sports Star Of The Year; Sports Woman Of The Year, and the Sports Star Of The Year.
She was also nominated for the 2018 Female World Athlete of the Year at the IAAF Athletics Awards in December.
With all her accolades and achievements, as her star continues to rise, what about her finances?
During the interview, when asked how much she is worth, the village girl from Limpopo simply smiles and says, “I’m just priceless, to be honest.”
‘She Is So Humble; Does Not Sweat The Small Stuff’
How To Become A Billionaire: Nigeria’s Oil Baroness Folorunso Alakija On What Makes Tomorrow’s Billionaires
One of only two female billionaires in Africa, with a net worth of $1 billion, Nigeria’s oil baroness Folorunso Alakija elaborates on the state of African entrepreneurship today.
The 69-year-old Folorunso Alakija is vice chair of Famfa Oil, a Nigerian oil exploration company with a stake in Agbami Oilfield, a prolific offshore asset. Famfa Oil’s partners include Chevron and Petrobras. Alakija’s first company was a fashion label. The Nigerian government awarded Alakija’s company an oil prospecting license in 1993, which was later converted to an oil mining lease. The Agbami field has been operating since 2008; Famfa Oil says it will likely operate through 2024. Alakija shares her thoughts to FORBES AFRICA on what makes tomorrow’s billionaires:
What is your take on the state of African entrepreneurship today? Is enough being done for young startups?
There are a lot of business opportunities in Africa that do not exist in other parts of the world, yet Africa is seen as a poor continent. The employment constraints in the formal sector in Africa have made it impossible for it to meet the demands of the continent’s working population of which over 60% are the youth. Therefore, it is imperative we harness the potential of Africa’s youth to engage in entrepreneurship and provide adequate assistance to enable them to succeed.
Several governments have been working to provide a conducive atmosphere which will promote entrepreneurship on the continent. However, there is still a lot more to be done in ensuring that the potential of these young entrepreneurs are maximized to the fullest. Some of the challenges young startups in Africa face are as follows: lack of access to finance/insufficient capital; lack of infrastructure; bureaucratic bottlenecks and tough business regulations; inconsistent government policies; dearth of entrepreneurial knowledge and skills; lack of access to information and competition from cheaper foreign alternatives.
It is therefore imperative that governments, non-governmental agencies, and the financial sectors work together to ameliorate these challenges itemized above.
The governments of African nations should provide and strengthen its infrastructure (power, roads and telecom); they should encourage budding entrepreneurs by ensuring that finance is available to businesses with the potential for growth and also commit to further improving their business environments through sustained investment; there must also be a constant push for existing policies and legislation to be reviewed to promote business activities.
These policies must also be enforced, and punitive measures put in place to deter offenders; government regulations should also be flexible to constantly fit the dynamics of the business environment; corruption and unethical behavior must be decisively dealt with and not treated with kid gloves. We must empower our judicial system to enable them to prosecute erring offenders with appropriate sanctions meted out. There should be no “sacred cows” or “untouchables”. The same law must be applied to all, no matter their state or position in the society; non-governmental organizations can also provide support for them through training and skills acquisition programs that will help build their capacity; they could also provide finance to grow their businesses; more mentorship programs should be encouraged, and incubators of young enterprises should be supported by public policy aimed at improving the quality of these youths and their ventures; and also, avenues should be created where young entrepreneurs will be able to connect, learn and share ideas with already successful well-established entrepreneurs.
What, according to you, are the attributes needed for tomorrow’s billionaires?
There is no overnight success. You must start by dreaming big and working towards achieving it. You must be determined to succeed despite all odds. Do not allow your setbacks or failures to stop you but rather make them your stepping stone. Develop your strengths to attain excellence and be tenacious, never give up on your dream or aspiration. Your word must be your bond. You must make strong ethical values and integrity your watchword. Always act professionally and this will enable you to build confidence in your customers and clients.
#MyWorstDay: A Demolished Shop That Built A Success Story
Ada Osakwe’s business growth in Nigeria was fraught with struggle, but she is now fighting the injustice meted out to her as a female entrepreneur in the early days.
Most democratic societies consider themselves – on the surface at least – to be gender equal. But while legislation may not discriminate against women outright, real equality is still a long way off. The answer to greater empowerment and more profitable leadership may lie within women themselves.
Ada Osakwe, founder of Nuli Juice, a healthy ‘fast food’ company based in Lagos, Nigeria, believes the time for women to act is now. Osakwe catapulted Nuli Juice from a single-brand organization to a multi-category, multi-brand beverage giant. But that story almost didn’t materialize.
On September 1, 2016, Osakwe was celebrating the highlight of what was a journey that had taken almost four years in the making. Her juice company had just opened its first flagship shop in the cosmopolitan hub of Ikoyi, Lagos, and the young female agripreneur was the talk of town for her innovative approach to empowering local farmers by sourcing raw materials locally.
The next day, disaster struck.
“I was lying in bed and I get a call from one of my guys who said there are people here at the shop with bulldozers and I need to come. I got in my car and the streets were blocked off. There were police officers with guns all over the place,” recalls Osakwe.
Her shop was part of a group of four female-owned businesses being ransacked by the Nigerian police over the landlord’s alleged failure to pay taxes due to the Lagos State government.
“This was like 8AM and I said to them ‘we are tenants’ and they didn’t listen to us. We couldn’t reach out to the landlord. I made some calls to the relevant people in Lagos State and nothing happened. I said ‘don’t do this’. We are employing people, even squatters have rights and I pleaded with them to stop.”
Her cries for help went unheard and in that one morning, all her hard work came crashing down.
Ironically, a week before the demolishing of her shop, Facebook founder and American internet billionaire Mark Zuckerberg was in Lagos with the government celebrating the trip as a testament to their support for the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Lagos.
“It was really tough. A woman-owned business in agriculture, which was the focus of the government for youth job creation with over 15 youths employed in the store, was destroyed that morning,” says Osakwe.
For her, the experience was a bitter pill to swallow. She had turned down a lucrative position to follow her mentor, Akinwumi Adesina, as he made the transition from agriculture minister to the president of the African Development Bank (AfDB), in pursuit of making her mark on the world.
After graduating with a first-class honors degree in economics from the University of Hull in the United Kingdom (UK), Osakwe began her career by working in investment banking in London. After two years on the trading floor, she was introduced to the AfDB where she secured an opportunity in France at the age of 24.
“I think I was the youngest person to be ever employed by a development institution and it was such a transformational path and it really set me on the path for who I am today. I worked hard, took minutes and people began to notice the effort I put in.”
Osakwe was right in the heart of what she felt was her calling at the time, driving Africa’s development, but she started to question whether there was more she could do.
Her goal was on making more of a direct impact on the African continent and the people she knew.
“It’s so easy to be in these institutions and you are traveling business class meeting different ministers in different countries and it is tempting to stay in that position but I had this burning feeling to do more,” recalls Osakwe.
After working in the infrastructure team where she was a part of the financing of the Lekki Toll Gate project, a multibillion-naira infrastructure project in the heart of Lagos, Osakwe decided to do an MBA in the United States (US) and transitioned into the private equity space.
“At that time, the African government was investing into private equity because I felt it was a way to truly support entrepreneurs. I worked with a company called Actis which was the biggest private equity firm for emerging private equity funds and ended up in New York with an African-focused fund.”
Osakwe was beginning to feel more at home making an impact with local entrepreneurs. A chance encounter with the team from the Tony Elumelu Foundation, a nonprofit organization pushing the advancement of youth entrepreneurship in Nigeria, brought her attention to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“I met with the minister of agriculture at the time, Dr. Adesina and I took a flight to New York and what was supposed to be a 30-minute conversation, lasted three hours. We talked about plans for the youth in agriculture and it was a fun conversation. I was like ‘this is a minister’ and he was talking about the private sector and funds for the agriculture sector and when I left, I knew I would be working with the firm,” says Osakwe.
That was a lifetime ago. After working with the AfDB for four years, she knew it was time to venture out on her own. That eureka moment was sparked by two startling statistics Osakwe came across.
Firstly, Africa was spending about $40 billion on food imports that could be grown locally. Furthermore, Nigeria’s total importation amounted to about $11 billion on fish and tomatoes.
“I was like what is happening to our farmers? So, the wheat farmers in the US are getting richer and our farmers are only small-scale farmers and struggling. Something had to be done,” she says.
After making a series of small investments in two startups as an angel investor, Nuli Juice was born. Today, the company has 10 stores across Nigeria with a further expansion in its product portfolio to include homegrown coffee. Her brand is also stocked in all major retail outlets including Spar and Shoprite.
“The food industry is a $3 trillion industry and Africa is not on the map. You don’t go to Tesco in the UK and pick up a spaghetti that says ‘made in Nigeria’ or ‘made in Togo’; you see ‘made in Spain’. We have to change this.”
Osakwe is deliberate about changing the narrative of how agriculture is seen in Nigeria. Her goal is to use her platform to fight the injustice she suffered as a female entrepreneur in the early days of her business.
“It has been a struggle. The gender issue is a real thing for a woman in Nigeria and I see it when I am raising money. Women have to be resilient. As an entrepreneur, you will get the nos and sometimes your store will be demolished and you will get the police threatening to shut you down because they want a bribe, but you have to believe in that bigger plan and vision for where you want to see yourself,” says Osakwe.
And for her, that vision is to see Nuly Juice, an indigenous Nigerian brand, on the shelves of all major international retailers across the world.
New Billionaire Ghost Writer: The Mystery Around MacKenzie Bezos
MacKenzie Bezos is an author, an early Amazon employee, a billionaire — and isn’t talking.
MacKenzie Bezos was not fussy, which was helpful, as there was no time for fussiness at Amazon headquarters in early 1996. She shared her office with a junior employee in a space that doubled as the company kitchen. For 12 hours a day, as workers squeezed by to use the microwave, she presided over the accounting. At night she headed to the warehouse to pack orders. She “was a huge contributor,” says Mike Hanlon, Amazon’s seventh employee. “She really is a talented person in a way that I think gets lost when you’re the billionaire’s wife.”
The mystery around MacKenzie, 49, seems carefully cultivated. She largely slipped into anonymity after Amazon’s early years and has granted no interviews since January 2019, when her split from husband Jeff became public.
The couple finalized their divorce in July, with MacKenzie getting 25% of his Amazon stock. That stake is currently worth $36.1 billion, enough to put her 15th on 2019’s Forbes 400. “She should have gotten 50% of the company,” says Nick Hanauer, one of Amazon’s first investors. “MacKenzie was an equal partner to Jeff in the early days.”
In keeping with character, MacKenzie wouldn’t talk for this story. To shed some light on her, we spent weeks contacting more than 100 friends and former classmates and coworkers; even that yielded only a hazy picture, one of an intensely private but talented woman who has, quietly, excelled at every stage of her life.
MacKenzie grew up in San Francisco, a middle child with two siblings. At six, she wrote a 142-page book called The Book Worm. Her parents, a homemaker and a financial planner, sent her to Hotchkiss, the Connecticut boarding school, where she graduated a year early. She studied at Cambridge, then Princeton, where she majored in English; Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison was her thesis advisor. “She was generally a very poised and a quiet and brilliant presence,” says Jeff Nunokawa, one of her English professors.
After graduating, she took a job at the hedge fund D.E. Shaw, where she began dating Jeff Bezos, who left to found Amazon in 1994. From the outset, MacKenzie was heavily involved. “No one really had job titles . . . so she did just about everything,” says Tod Nelson, another early employee.
MacKenzie pulled back around the time Amazon went public, in 1997, to focus on fiction writing. She kept a low profile until 2005, when HarperCollins published her first novel, The Testing of Luther Albright.
Morrison deemed it “a rarity.” MacKenzie followed it in 2013 with Traps. The more recent chapters of her life are largely unknown. In 2018 she and Jeff committed $2 billion to fight homelessness and support nonprofit preschools. In May, as their divorce neared completion, she signed the Giving Pledge, promising to donate at least half her wealth. True to form, she hasn’t said a word about where those billions will go.
–Noah Kirsch, Forbes Staff, Media
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