Interview: Pilot Isaac Awinyo Talks About Success & Giving Back To Starehe With The Support Of Emirates Foundation


Isaac Awinyo was a young boy who joined Starehe Boys Centre with a dream to become successful. Determined to prosper in his secondary education it was at this point that his passion for philanthropy was born. Isaac was touched by the life stories he listened to and experiences he had in an environment that touched the lives of orphans and the less fortunate.

We sat down with Isaac to find out more about his journey from Starehe, his heart for giving back to society and how he became a First Officer at Emirates Airlines.

As a Starehe Boys sponsor, Isaac Awinyo sheds light on Emirates Foundation, a philanthropic foundation set up by the Government of Abu Dhabi to improve the welfare of people across the UAE. He tells more about how this Foundation will contribute to transforming the lives of some of the young boys at Starehe Boys Centre.

  1. How did you join Emirates?

My story began in Starehe Boys Centre, where I completed my secondary education. I then joined the University of Nairobi for a degree in Mechanical Engineering. I finished in 1997 and joined the military, Kenya Army, where I was stationed in the workshops. Later I moved and started flying the helicopters from 1999-2002.

Towards the end of 2002, I left the Kenya Army and got recruited by Kenya Airways. I went for my initial training set at Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. After completing the programme, I came back to Kenya in 2004 and started flying Kenya Airways planes. I moved up the ranks and became a captain in 2009.

I was quite ambitious and I realised that being a pilot didn’t give me enough tools to fully understand the operations/background of an airline. So much goes on. So in 2013, I joined Edinburgh University for my Masters in Strategic Planning with bias in Aviation Management which I completed in 2016.

Later, I made a decision to leave management and I began flying the 737. This became the pivotal point of my career. Through my search for other challenges and space where I could apply the knowledge of my Master’s degree, I found myself at Emirates. I joined in 2017 as a First officer. I have been at Emirates since then and it has been quite a good and different experience.

  1. Tell us more about your experience working with Emirates

Emirates is an organization that takes care of its staff. In terms of discounts and staff benefits, Emirates covers the expenses for its staff not only in Dubai but also in America, Australia and Japan.

The most important thing is that there’s a stable career progression path that is planned for you. It is also an organization that absorbs its people based on merit. So if someone were to join the organization I would advise them to start by going online and applying.

You might feel that you are disadvantaged but remember technology and the internet has made the world a global village. For example; If you asked me 2 years ago if I would be competing for the same position with someone from Japan, I wouldn’t have imagined the possibilities. However, this is where I am now.

In terms of recruitment, I would say, Emirates does the same thing we do in Kenya only that we do it differently. For example, we pick all the bright students from all over the country and we put them together so that they can challenge each other. Emirates does the same by picking brilliant people from all over the world and putting them together for the same reason. So put simply it is a huge company where you will meet people from different parts of the world. In total, we have around 103, 000 members of staff worldwide.

  1. You joined Starehe after your primary education. How did that impact the person you are today?

Starehe Boys Centre is a unique school that concentrates on building character. Griffin, one of the co-founders used to tell us that all of us had proved to the country that we were intelligent, no doubt. However, he wanted a complete individual to walk out of school after 4 years with good character, principles, discipline, integrity, timekeeping and all the qualities that we needed to fit in a working society. Through his quote, “If you are given a cup to wash, wash it as no one else will,” he always stressed that whatever task you are given, do it to the best of your ability. With this attitude and mindset, over time Starehe became a personal experience for individuals.

An example: in Starehe and bear in mind, we have Starehe Boys and Starehe Girls, you realise that an orphan was given a chance in life. Then you meet them 50 years later or so, and you marvel at what they did with that chance. They’ve gone to school/university, they have established themselves, built a family and they’ve gone back to Starehe to help another orphan.

This makes you realise that there’s more to this world than working, making money and being comfortable. These are the qualities Griffin tried to teach us. He himself being an orphan he wanted us to take responsibility for our lives and come back to look after the orphans.

So being a Starehe alumnus and later working in Emirates I found myself in the same context. For instance; Emirates is a company where if you are to be picked up at 6:30, you need to be at the venue at 6:20. Ironically, 22 years ago in Starehe if lunch was from 1 to 2 o’clock the bell rang at 1:50 and at the top of the hour, everyone would be settled in class. When it comes to the uniform, Starehe and the military (Kenya Army) are very particular and so is Emirates. We respect the uniform and we look after the brand. Something similar to what Griffin taught me, in addition to caring, a culture that is rooted within Emirates.

  1. Would you say that this (working with Emirates and sponsoring the orphans) would have happened if you had gone to a different school?

Well, I would say that Starehe to me is a personal experience rather than a system of rules we had to follow. There are many people who went to Starehe but they haven’t gone back yet to mentor/sponsor the needy students. The zeal to mentor these children solely depends on how the experience touched someone as an individual.

For instance; If you found yourself seated close to a boy in the same class who had no parent, no money but had this one chance in life. You became friends, played together and did the same things together for 4 years until you finished school. Then Starehe comes through for him again and pays for his university fees. He then goes back to Griffin because he was the only father figure we had and afterwards he gets a job and is now a responsible member of the society.

You realise that had someone not given him that one chance, his life might have been different. It makes you ask yourself how many other people do we have in the society who just need one chance? Yes, we cannot help them all but we can go back, hold their hands and set them up for success in society.

  1. Emirates Foundation has sponsored 10 boys from Starehe as their initial contribution into the community. How was the selection process?  

Emirates as an organization reinforce the idea that as staff members wherever we go, wherever we are doing, we have to touch the lives of the particular community. So it is with this culture that Emirates Foundation decided to come on board and touch the lives of 10 orphans, by sponsoring them fully throughout their secondary education.

Starehe Centre is a national school and Emirates, an international airline where every nationality is represented. The selection followed this principle where the 10 sponsored boys stand as representatives of the different counties in Kenya.

The sponsorship is $1,400 annually per boy, which will cover their food, uniforms, books, tuition and administrative costs of running the school.

Emirates Foundation aims to increase the number of sponsored boys with time, as the school hosts 1000 students with 800 boys already sponsored.

Awinyo Isaac Pilot Emirates Foundation. Picture courtesy of Emirates Foundation
  1. Would you say that being a Starehe alumnus and working at Emirates, had an influence on Emirates Foundation sponsoring the 10 boys specifically from Starehe?

Yes, it did. Right now I would challenge everybody and ask Kenyans to take responsibility for the next generation. As alumni of schools let us ask ourselves what do we do for these schools that made us into what we are. How can we touch the lives of the people in these schools?

If you went back to your school and asked the principal if they had a student who didn’t have school fees, you will definitely get an answer. You don’t have to pay the full amount if you can’t. However, you can assist in what you can. The take away from this course of action being, if everybody did that, we would reduce the number of students dropping out of schools. What you contribute doesn’t matter. Even if it is buying brooms to keep the school, clean. What counts is that as an individual you would have made your contribution in whatever way you could, hence uplifting the society.

From my experience, going back to your school also gives you an opportunity to mentor the young generation and tell them about your journey through life. You can advise them and they will look up to you. All it takes is a group of alumni and a WhatsApp group. You come together and decide the amount you want to raise and for what purpose.  This is something that will change and touch somebody else’s life.

So basically this is the overall story of Starehe. Going back to where you came from, looking for the vulnerable, giving them a chance, and creating that serendipity for them to study knowing that an alumnus has their back. If we all did this as a country it creates a cycle whereby those who received the help can go back and do the same or even better for someone else. That is why Emirates foundation and the alumni are going back to Starehe to help.

  1. Nowadays the youth lack of employment opportunities and this makes them helpless and desperate. How would you advise someone in this situation who still wants to become successful?

I would tell the current youth that we have relied too much on education as the only means to get a  job or an opportunity. But this is not the case. Everybody has their passion. Your passion might not be in the line of education/academics.

Therefore first establish your goals. Have your definition of success. Once you have this meaning you will realise that success is not defined by the amount of money, but rather the progressive realization of a worthy goal. So work towards your goal by establishing first, what it is you want to do.  Start doing it. Study it. Work at it. It may take months or years but work towards that goal. The most important thing is realizing that to achieve a worthy goal you have to put in effort and dedication. On top of that, know that it will take time.

Second, know that the valuable commodity you have as a youth is time. You can turn time into anything you want. Money, gold, you name it. However, the difference between who you are today and who you become 5 years down the line will be determined by two things. The people you spend your time with and the books that you read. So take advantage of the resources you have, like the internet. Find audiobooks that you need. Remember even if you have nothing to do always ask yourself at the end of the day, what have you done? What have you learnt? Start realizing your dream by taking small steps and successively you will become successful.

Lastly, I would urge the parents of the current youth to support them. Give them a platform where they can develop their talents and this will help them attain success.

  1. Which books do you read?

I like reading books based on personal finance and self-development. The Richest Man In Babylon is a 72-page book that teaches you how to handle your personal finances, how to get out of debt and how you can change your financial status. It teaches you to value your work as your best friend.

The Laws of Success is also one of my favourite books by Napoleon Hill that highlights the keys to success. I believe if you practice these 15 laws, the golden rule being treat others as you would like to be treated, you will always succeed.  It is like a mathematical formula, it will never fail.

  1. You have achieved so much in your journey from Starehe to Emirates as the First Officer while still sponsoring the boys at Starehe Centre. What keeps you motivated?

My motivation comes from my family. My family goals keep me grounded. I have to focus on what I want my children to become. For one, I took them to Starehe to show them where the journey began because once they have learnt to appreciate the family history they will give back to the country.

I always stay hungry. This gives me focus to look out for the next thing to achieve. It is crucial to understand that you have to move and look at something beyond yourself. If you look at successful people this is what they’ve done. Look at something beyond, help without expecting returns, give back to the society and most importantly have a passion for what you are doing. If you have a passion for something, it ceases to exist as work. It becomes part of you and you will always stay motivated.

  1. Who inspires you?

My biggest inspiration in life has been Geoffrey Griffin. A man who started off with a dream to help orphaned boys then went and realized it through asking for help from people. His life and work echo what he used to tell us, “Make sure when you dream, you dream with your eyes open.” For when you dream with your eyes opened, the dream stays in your heart but if you dream with your eyes closed, the dream vanishes.”

  1. Have you encountered someone who has gone back to sponsor other boys in Starehe?

Yes. Not one but many. A classmate of mine is one of the sponsors who came back to Starehe to mentor a couple of boys. He was also an orphan so he has gone through the same experience. Having established himself as a senior lawyer in the country he has come back to mentor and sponsor the kids who are in need. People normally come back after 10-15 years after they have had the time to get a footing in their lives.

  1. Parting shot

I would encourage young people to remember that they are now competing on a global scale. Let’s say you want to sell you Avocados in Dubai. Find out how to do it and these days it has become easier especially with the internet. During our time we had to go to the library to find resources some of which you couldn’t find.

Watch out for the people you hang out with and the books you read. These two factors will determine if you succeed in your dreams or not. Do not spend too much time on things which are not geared towards your goals. I will give an example of a ship that wants to reach Japan. It is fully fueled but for 6 weeks this ship does not have sight of Japan. However, every single day this ship makes simple corrections moving at 20 or 30km/Hr. For a full 99% of its time, the ship does not see its destination. But eventually, it will get to its destination.

In contrast, let’s say the same ship leaves from the port of Mombasa with no destination. The captain hears there are some cars sold in Japan, he turns the ship. He gets a tip that there’s another deal in America, he turns the ship towards America and so on so forth. In the end, this ship will be lost at sea with no definite destination.

So I would encourage the youth to set their goals. Have a target. Every single day set aside 1 hour to work towards your goal and you will get there. Read, do courses online and get certifications. Do not let time pass you by. How you spend your time and the people you spend your time with will make a difference between the person you are now and the person you will be in the next 5 years.

Hope you loved this interview. Want to get more inspired? Read about Rita Okuthe’s Journey To The Top And Safaricom’s Investment In Women’s Leadership.

Interview by Njeri Njoroge and Lynda Chalker.

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I am a writer with interest in hair, beauty and fashion. I also like telling stories, but most of all I enjoy listening and reading them. If I'm not doing any of the above, I will be trying to crack a game of chess or monopoly. My biggest fear is being ordinary.