A lot of co-working spaces go to great lengths to highlight the companies that work from their space. At Nairobi Garage, we feel that telling about the people behind the companies and their, sometimes rollercoaster-like, stories, is far more interesting. We thought it could also shed light on diverse people profiles, their personal and cultural backgrounds, and the varied insights, expertise, stumbles and struggles that led them to Kenya (and the fun they had along the way, of course). We are calling it #ZOOMIN. This week we kick off this series with Alastair Curtis, International Launcher at Uber.
This won’t be yet another #UberLoveStory. Alastair would probably want me to clarify that it was indeed a love at first sight , but that’s not the story I’m about to tell. Alastair is what you’d call a Jack-Of-All-Trades. An opportunity addict, a hustler, a mediocre golfer and a former A&F model. Someone who never takes “no” for an answer and is one of the most driven and charismatic people I’ve had the pleasure to meet. Above all, he is a genuinely nice and honest guy who proudly calls himself South African. Let me introduce you to Alastair Curtis.
“South Africa is always going to be my home. If I was going to participate in the Olympics, what flag I would carry… South Africa would be it.”
Alastair was born in Wimbledon, London, where he spent the first 7 years of his life. Due to his dad’s work, his family made a move to Cape Town, South Africa. They rented a house in a dreamy beachside location in Clifton and never looked back. And why would they really – with a vineyard on one side of the property, golf course on the other, and sweeping views of Atlantic Ocean on top of that. That is probably why waterside is his happy place. Alastair considers SA his home and praises it more than many born and bred South Africans I know (seriously, give this man a citizenship already).
“I went to the University of Cape Town where I studied the Bachelor of Business Sciences and specialized in finance. Because that was the cool thing to do and everyone wanted to be an investment banker. What I should have done is what my dad advised me to study, which is PPE – politics, philosophy and economics. Anyhow, once I was done with the university, I obviously didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, so I went to Aspen, Colorado. Why? After graduation me and my mate went to a meeting in Cape Town to look at our options for a gap year overseas, and they told us: Aspen is where billionaires kick out the millionaires. I thought that sounded quite cool, went to Aspen and worked as a bellman, vallet driver and a doorman there.”
During his university years, Alastair lived (what most people would consider) a rather carefree life. Back in the day, slaving away your summers while interning at stiff corporate offices wasn’t really a thing in SA. Alastair made the most of it and spent his holidays playing golf or hanging out at the beach. He did work as a caddy and bartender from time to time, to make some extra money, but that’s where his work experience begins and ends before traveling to US. Alastair had planned on staying there for 3 months, which eventually turned into a year (as in all great stories, there might be an amazing woman involved).
“When I was living in Aspen, I was working at The St. Regis and met this guy – he had a beautiful wife and was staying at the penthouse. After a few days I was like – bro, what do you do?? And he was like – I’m a vice president at Merrill Lynch. And I was like – ok, I need to be an investment banker. So I moved to London, tried to be a banker and it happened. After about 7 months at Morgan Stanley I was yawning already. I was tired. I hated the job. This was not what I wanted to do. The only good thing about this place was the smoothies they were making in the restaurant and chocolate muffins, which were amazing.”
Astonished by the idea of wealth and glory, Alastair went to London to start a career in investment banking. To put it in his own words: “I was at a disadvantage because I had no relevant experience. But I was ginger, so I was diverse”. On a more serious note, he did what he knew how to do best – he put himself out there and socialized. Intros led to new intros, and eventually he landed a job at Morgan Stanley. (I must add though, Alastair is a natural when it comes to socializing and networking. When I asked his peers about a quality that would best describe Alastair, they all agreed on his exceptional interpersonal skills.) Having spent a year as an entry-level analyst there and absolutely hating it, he decided it was time to move on.
“I made some major life decisions based on movies. I watched the Wall Street and decided to be an investment banker. I had seen the movie version, saw the real life, they seemed pretty similar but they weren’t. Anyways, didn’t like it. Then I watched another movie, Jerry Maguire (the sports agent movie with Tom Cruise), and I thought – ok, that looks cool, so I applied for and got a job at IMG, the biggest athlete representation firm in the world. Didn’t really work out either.”
After two and a half years in London, Alastair decided to move back to South Africa. Rumor had it, things were happening there. He finished his contract with IMG, and had some extra months to spend in London before taking a (one way) flight to Cape Town. During those three months, Alastair worked as a bartender during the night and at Abercrombie & Fitch during the day. Need I say more? It was the most fun 3 months in his life, for quite obvious reasons.
“I moved to SA and got offered a job at Ericsson. I was supposed to move to Johannesburg – what they did though, they offered me to travel around Africa. I wanted to do something different, just get out of the comfort zone. Let’s do something crazy, I thought. None of my friends had worked in Nigeria, in Kenya, etc. So I said to myself – this is it, let’s do that. And people thought I was nuts. In 3 years I saw most countries in Africa, lived in Kenya and saw places that most people haven’t seen.”
That was the beginning of Alastair’s move from corporate to startup world. Three years in Ericsson, another year on helping build a drones-related business from scratch, and he then found himself digging into startups and LinkedIn messaging everyone he could find that worked for Uber. He sent out over 100 messages, a close number of blind e-mails, and made a YouTube video. As we know now – it worked.
“I don’t believe in taking no for an answer, if there is a will there is a way. And I’ve proven that 100 times over in my life, whether it’s going after a girl or landing the job of my dreams. Too many people take no as the answer, I say to myself – I never want to wake up one morning and say “If only”. There is a saying I like, “The same boiling water that softens a potato hardens an egg – It’s not about the circumstances, but rather what you are made of.”
I am sure some of the ladies out there are wondering by now – is this man taken? Well, here I’ll have to disappoint you. During his first Uber launch in Nigeria, Alastair met his girlfriend Katie. And from what I’ve been told – she is amazing. Actually, when I asked him, if he could choose any person to invite for dinner – who would it be – his answer was “Katie, she is THAT awesome!”
Alastair is currently managing the Kenyan Ops of Uber and once a local GM is found, he’ll be off into the Uber Expansion abyss once again. He certainly has plenty of career-related dreams but there’s a particular one he’s had for quite some time:
I’ve dreamt of owning a 1966 Shelby Cobra 427 “Super Snake”, and haven’t done it because I can’t afford one yet!#KeepTheEyeOnThePrize
If you don’t know what car it is – go look it up, you won’t be disappointed. Good luck with that Alastair!