I first met Nick a couple of years ago at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford, UK. We attended the same lunchtime discussion workshop about innovative financing solutions for agri-businesses. Nick was representing his daughter, Marion's social enterprise, Wanda Organic, and I was a far less knowledgeable attendee (in agriculture at least!) seeking ideas that I could transfer to the low income housing sector. It was a small group, about a dozen or so of us sitting in a circle part eating our lunch and part paying attention to the workshop. Nick had arrived a little late, I had been early, so we were at opposite 'corners' of the circle so it wasn't until after the workshop finished that we managed to speak one to one, yet because we had both been two of the more vocal participants we already had a little rapport to start from.
I introduced myself in part to recognise our past hour chipping in to the group discussion, but mainly because I had had the pleasure of a dinner with Nick's old friend, Martin Fisher, with whom he co-founded ApproTEC and later Kickstart International, just a week or two before. Martin had spoken fondly of Nick during our dinner, saying more than once that we "must meet", though I confess I hadn't expected this chance encounter so soon.
What I had intended might be a brief and polite exchange (this was a large conference, and most encounters were often fleeting) turned in to a lengthy and compelling discussion. So much so that we were ushered out of the room after 15 minutes as it was needed for an upcoming session, and so took our conversation on to the main networking tent. I didn't realise it at the time, but Nick's ability to speak on almost any subject for as long as you pleased (or even if you didn't!) was second to none. After some time traversing topics from agri-finance (and many a proud mention of daughter Marion), to the challenges of construction in Africa and even a little of Kenyan politics, we swapped cards and resolved to carry on the conversation back in Nairobi.
So it was, just a few weeks later that we met for a coffee in Le Grenier a Pain in Kenya's capital and the city we both called home. Nick, a long-time resident was in the midst of applying for his citizenship, which he later obtained, and as he had been in Oxford was readily armed with a compelling story for almost any scenario or topic we covered. I should have learned perhaps from our first encounter, but had only scheduled an hour for our coffee and soon found myself re-jigging my day to allow for our all-morning coffee. Even then, I was conscious of how much we had in common and of how easy-going and enjoyable it was to spend time in Nick's company. Our coffee did end after a few hours, and we finished on a rather unexpected note. As we shuffled about paying the bill and preparing to take our leave, Nick made a vague expression of interest in getting more closely involved with Orkidstudio. A little taken aback, I somewhat burbled something back which was just as imprecise in return. We left it there, awkward and uncertain from my perspective at least.
It was a strange moment, for my rapidly accruing number of hours spent in Nick's company hadn't suffered any other blunders. Quite the contrary, conversation had flowed clearly and easily. I sat on this moment for some time before deciding to type out an email asking just what exactly he had meant. By this point I had resolved that his offer (if indeed it had been an offer) was most likely one of a more paternalistic nature. Surely he meant that he could spare a little time to guide, or at most take a seat on our advisory board. I was shocked, then, when a reply swiftly reached my inbox clearly indicating that the fumbled words over coffee were intended as a very direct job application!
Little did I know that this was the beginning of a journey that was far shorter than I could have ever hoped and far greater than I could ever imagined, as just a few days ago, at 10am (UK time) on Wednesday 10th October, Nick passed away having lost a four-month battle with lymphoma. I hope I can share just a little of my own story knowing Nick and what I came to know of this devoted, generous and talented man.
Going back then to July of 2017, Nick joined Orkidstudio as our newest and most experienced member of staff. As Programs Director he was officially on board to drive forward our ambitions to transform our work with women in construction into a more serious, impactful and sustainable venture, which he duly did, working tirelessly alongside myself and other members of our team to design what we now call "Buildher", a programme designed to train disadvantaged women in marketable construction skills and in turn boost their livelihoods and improve the talent pool in the industry. The first women are due to be enrolled early next year, a moment Nick would have celebrated and which we will be certain to do for him!
Yet, in truth, Nick did far more than just develop Buildher. He was a calm and reasoned voice in the midst of any crisis, he was the saviour of many a day as he pulled on his vast network of friends and contacts wherever he could, he was the one to always lighten the mood with a sharp joke just at the right time, and he was a friend to many of us beyond the office often at moments when we didn't even realise we needed a friend. For me personally, he was a great mentor, a man that I admired and whom I knew possessed much that I could learn from. A prolific storyteller, all you had to do to learn from Nick was just listen. As a young founder and director, leading a young team, I deeply appreciated Nick's input and guidance on many matters, but most of all I appreciated the way in which he gave his advice. Not once did he tell me or anyone in our team what to do. He never held us in judgement if we chose a path different to the one he suggested, and he always took the time to listen and understand before offering his thoughts. In this, he was a true mentor, and an equal voice at the table through his own humility when he could so easily have tried to speak above us.
He raised our average employee age by a fair bump too, yet was often the last at a party (and not one did he ever miss!) and always the one to energise people during the working day. He regularly told people, after joining our team, that he was "re-firing, not retiring!". I don't often think, aged thirty, of getting older, but I remember often reflecting that I'd make a damn cool sixty-something if I was even a little bit like Nick by the time I got there. With an already illustrious trail behind him, it is our loss, and the loss of many, that he didn't get as much time as he would have liked to keep on "re-firing". His energy and ability to make things happen, always done with compassion and empathy, was a lesson to all that knew him.
At one point, earlier this year, we sat as a full team discussing ways to develop our team culture. This was the sort of topic Nick loved - people were at the heart of everything for him, and the key to any success. At one point, having scribbled various ideas and initiatives on a big sheet of paper, one of my colleagues proclaimed, "this is all great, but if anyone is ever feeling down or stressed, just go for a coffee with Nick!". I'm not sure how many coffees he ended up going for, but there really was nothing better for the soul than a few hours in Nick's company.
When people die, it is the norm for many good things to be said of them. We like to see the best in those who have passed on, and any of the bad things are often forgotten or forgiven in light of our loss. Nick, like all of us, was by no means perfect, yet it has struck me over the few days since his passing just how many times I had already heard the great things his closest friends and family have said about him. During the past few months in which Nick was almost full-time in Hospital in the UK, he kept a small group of us updated via email on the many treatments, tests, scans, and other more trivial happenings that had become his day-to-day. Every update radiated positivity and energy, often with a healthy dollop of wit and sarcasm as well. The last few days, this same group has taken to WhatsApp sharing stories and photographs about our dear friend, and laying plans to celebrate Nick's life. Many of the posts have reflected perfectly my own experiences - a valued mentor; a loyal friend; a compassionate leader; a doer; a champion of everyone regardless of race, nationality or background; a humorous and fun-loving companion. It speaks volumes of the man that I had heard all of these qualities mentioned by those who knew him not only after his death but while he lived as well.
I recently read a wonderful book, "When Breath Becomes Air", written by Dr Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon in his mid-thirties whose lifelong fascination with our mortality and the meaning of life became a very real proposition as he was diagnosed and ultimately succumbed to a terminal lung cancer diagnosis. The book, a startlingly uplifting read despite the subject matter, is finished by his wife, Lucy, after her husband's passing. Theirs was a very different set of circumstances to Nick's, however, one point which has stuck with me was Paul's account of their decision to have a child after receiving his diagnosis. His wife, Lucy, asked whether he truly wanted to start a family venturing that it would surely make dying so much harder. Paul replied, "Wouldn't it be wonderful if it did."
Please don't think me the morbid type, as I am now reading Atul Gawande's book "Being Mortal", a similar discussion of our mortality and what really matters in the end. I am yet to finish, but the same themes emerge, especially of the superiority of quality over longevity of life and the people not the things that make up our life. In this, Nick was a rich man. Only in his mid-Sixties, by today's standards he left this world early, but the time he spent here has left a legacy and touched so many. Certainly, he will always be fondly remembered, loved and treasured by all at Orkidstudio. He was a wealthy man in quality of life and the people he had around him, and we are all the wealthier for knowing him.
Written by James Mitchell (Co-Founder & Executive Director)