Francois Locoh-Donou knows what it is like to be an outsider.
The son of a black father and a white mother, the newly-appointed CEO of Seattle-based F5 Networks was derided by his friends growing up in Togo as the dorky white guy of the group. When he moved to France as a teenager, he was made very aware of his African heritage.
He’s come a long way from kicking soccer balls around with his friends, dreaming of playing for French soccer powerhouse Paris Saint-Germaine, to running one of Seattle’s most important publicly-traded tech companies.
In part one of our recent interview with Locoh-Donou, we covered the business challenges that F5 faces as application workloads shift to the cloud.
In today’s second part, we talk about very different types of challenges: encouraging young Africans to study technology and become entrepreneurs, shrugging off the legacy of European colonialism in Africa and the dictatorial regimes that followed, and cashew farming.
Our experiences shape the people we become, and a rather large portion of the tech industry haven’t experienced anything quite like Locoh-Donou’s journey through Africa, France, Boston, and now Seattle.
Along the way — whether facing the hardships of dictatorial regimes in Togo or soul-crushing racism in France — Locoh-Donou developed a unique and inspiring personal philosophy that he’s using to help guide F5 into a new era.
“I experienced management by force early on, and the uncertainty that comes with that,” said Locoh-Donou, referencing the dictatorship that ruled Togo when he was a kid. “That’s one of the reasons that I have very, very low tolerance for management by hierarchy, management by authority, for anything but empowerment of employees and giving them context as opposed to controlling employees.”
Speaking from his offices overlooking Elliott Bay in Seattle, with a signed jersey of Arsenal Football Club and a historic photo of boxer Muhammad Ali on the wall, Locoh-Donou also described the implicit racism he encountered while a teenager in France and what he learned about Africa from helping to run a chicken farm.
At a time when the technology industry is struggling with diversity issues and a political rage is spreading across the U.S. that’s sparking immigration fears, Locoh-Donou’s personal story is powerful and humbling. It also needs to be heard.
Even though he arrived in the U.S. with a “funny name” and an “obscure nationality,” Locoh-Donou says he was never left to feel that he was “not exactly part of the family.”
“That in this country is phenomenal,” he said. “I think America has the power to make people feel included, regardless of where they come from.” And — even amid the heated rhetoric of the past six months — that’s something he still firmly believes.
A lightly edited recounting of our conversation with Locoh-Donou follows below.
GeekWire: I’d love to hear more of your background on what it was like for you growing up in Togo and a little bit more on your personal journey here.
Locoh-Donou: Well I grew up in Togo. My mother’s French. My father is Togolese. And when I was 15 my mother divorced my father and moved back to France. So I had an opportunity to go to France and study there. And that’s where I ended up doing engineering studies in Marseille, in physics, and then I joined a company in France. I was doing research and development.
They sent me to Boston to do a technology transfer from Paris, and I was in Boston for a couple of years. And then I wanted to move into sales with this company but they wouldn’t let me do that, and they wanted me to go back to Paris and I wanted to stay in the U.S., so I ended up joining Ciena, and then I spent 18 years at Ciena.
I have a large family in Togo. My father had 15 siblings. He had 11 children. So I have a lot of cousins. And also, I’ve stayed very attached to Togo. I’m in Togo every six months.
GeekWire: What were those first 15 years like in Togo for you? What was that upbringing like, and what impact did that have on you now and how you operate as CEO?
Locoh-Donou: The upbringing, I would say generally, happiness. I was just happy, I was playing football in the streets every other day with my friends, and I had a little chicken farm in my garden, I was selling eggs in our neighborhood, and I thought I was an entrepreneur on the rise.
So life was good. I was devastated when I left Togo. I just didn’t want to leave. I actually told my mother I would leave Togo if she would agree to, A: let me continue this chicken farm in Paris, and B: if I could play at Paris Saint-Germain.
GeekWire: Okay. I’m sure she guaranteed you that.
Locoh-Donou: She said yes to both. she then put me at an amateur club in our little suburb in Paris, and said why don’t you go play there? When you’re good enough, they’ll find you. They never did find me.
But it was happy. I think how it perhaps impacts me today in these roles, I guess I can think of two or three things that I can link to my upbringing in Togo.
One is Togo was a dictatorship. … And with that came a very natural culture that makes physical… it basically was the law of the strongest. And so number one, I experienced management by force early on, and the uncertainty that comes with that.
That’s one of the reasons that I have very, very low tolerance for management by hierarchy, management by authority, for anything but empowerment of employees and giving them context as opposed to controlling employees. It’s because I’ve just lived early on what it means to be told you have to do things that make no sense, just because somebody has more power than you. So I think that’s one thing.
The other thing I would say that impacted me is, again early on, I experienced it in France, I experienced it also in the U.S., but this issue of being a minority member of a group. And I actually experienced it in Togo because my mother being French, my father is black black, my mother’s white, and so in this country I get bucketed in the black group.
Over there I get bucketed as a white person. So I grew up as a white guy, and essentially experiencing all the jokes that you experience as a white guy in Togo is you can’t dance, you can’t play soccer, you can’t move, you can’t do this, you speak with an accent. So all of these things around being a minority trying to fit into a norm that is not yours, I lived that early on. I then moved to France and I started experiencing the reverse of it.
But it has certainly made me feel very strongly, very deeply, for the power of diversity in organizations and making people feel included, regardless of who they are, and making people feel that they don’t have to be somebody they’re not to feel included in a company.
And where this became important for me is when I moved to the U.S. I was working for this technology company so I moved to Boston. Then I moved to Washington. It’s not like I would have experienced even 10 percent of I think the adversity that some black folks can experience in this country, but I did experience some things that, frankly, were things you experience as a black person in this country.
But actually more than that, the one thing that was very special for me — and it’s why I’m still in this country — I think America has the power to make people feel included, regardless of where they come from.
It’s been a hell of a six months.
Locoh-Donou: Well, I know that the last six months… but it’s all relative. And in this country I came here, and I spoke bad English, I had a funny name and obscure nationality, and for the most part, nobody ever made me feel left out because of all that, (like) you’re not exactly part of the family. That in this country is phenomenal.
I still don’t have the U.S. citizenship, I’m not a U.S. citizen. I’m in the process of it, but I’m not. And I’ve never been made to feel that I was outside of the family. Europe is very different. I am a French national. I was born of a French mother.
But I can tell you in France it’s like, you’re French, but hold on a second. You don’t exactly have the right skin color. You have a really funny name, it’s not a French name. You do speak with an accent. By the way, your family’s going to come from next generation stuff. So there’s all these things.
And so the combination of experiencing what it’s like to be excluded and feeling you have to fit somewhere else, which I most experienced actually in Togo, funnily enough, and also experiencing the power and how people can give their best, including me, when you feel included, actually did shape my view about what diversity really means in companies.
How do you make people feel that they are absolutely part of the family, regardless of whether they are black, gay, veterans, or whatever they are? I tell you, I do think it’s an issue in the technology industry in general. By the way, here in F5, I think we have a lot of work to do on that damage. But I think that’s the second thing that has shaped my view.
And then the third thing is just … perhaps everybody has their way. We all have our upbringing that perhaps allows us to keep a perspective on things. Mine is in fact Togo, and I do some development work in Togo. I have a couple of cashew factories where we process cashews, and we employ a lot of women there. In Togo, which we’re relatively poor, the minimum wage is roughly $40 a month. And I have still a lot of my friends I went to school with are in Togo, some of which are making minimum wage. And every time I go there I spend time with them, and we talk about our respective dreams. Two things: number one is the dreams of my friends are essentially to have the lives that we have here. By that I mean to have a fridge, electricity, running water, they don’t even dream of a car, things like that are like, ah, if I could make that happen, the world would be different.
And also, and I knew this less when I was growing up there than when I’ve been going back and doing work, is understanding what somebody does when they go from earning $5 to a month to $50 a month. And one of the things that I keep being baffled by is when I speak to women who work in the factory and I ask them what they do is, I find out when they go from $5 to $50, they give half of the money away to an aunt, a cousin, a family, et cetera. And so to see this level of generosity from somebody who makes $50, one of the true value of solidarity, I think that’s actually a unique value of Africa.
It gives me perspective when we do all these jobs and the money is so big, and sometimes people have a sense of entitlement, I’m making $130,000 but it really should be $140,000. For me it just gives me a perspective.
And the last thing is, there aren’t many folks in my country that are doing these jobs. So in a way I also feel that I have to make sure I don’t screw that up so that my friends can say hey, you are the one that went, but you did us proud.
Where do you think, with respect to technology development in Africa, things stand? I know it’s not where anyone would like it to be, but how much progress has been made over the course of your work life, and what opportunities do you see?
Locoh-Donou: A ton of progress. The biggest curse of Africa is frankly it’s a leadership curse, a political leadership curse that has gone on for too long, in part because of a relationship with colonial powers, including France as the number one player.
They have maintained a form of leadership there that frankly holds the people back. And when I say hold the people back, I mean holds in terms of education, healthcare, access to infrastructure, all that stuff.
Despite all that, in the countries where there has been some form of both political and economic freedom in the last 15-20 years, the level of innovations you see there is just incredible.
Like which countries?
Locoh-Donou: Ghana, Kenya, even Nigeria now. South Africa to an extent, but it’d been there before. Egypt, even though they are going through some phases. Where you see educated people, Ghana and Kenya, the numbers start off in the mobile software space, mobile payments, leapfrogging and taking advantage of the things that have been done here, leapfrogging the space, mobile apps in particular. There are lots of young entrepreneurs really starting to make headway with startups.
In fact, one of my friends is one of the principles at Y Combinator, and he was telling me that the last batch of companies they had, they had three or more from Nigeria that came here for the 90 day boot camp and it’s part of that.
And it’s just there’s a bit of startup scene in Lagos, there’s a startup scene in Accra going on. Nairobi has a lot going on. So I feel that a ton of progress, if only we had better leadership there is an amount of innovation that is being unleashed, and in a way in these countries, I feel we are losing our inferiority complex.
When I grew up, and I would say even 15 years ago was still the case, when I grew up in Togo, anything technology was associated with the white man. Anything. We would go ah, the white man’s magic. Any things that were cool, like a phone, ah, the white man.
There was no concept of we could come up with stuff. It was like it’s got to come from the white man. Which comes from colonization by the way. And I’ll give you a simple example. Before the cashew thing I was doing, the cashew factory I was doing a chicken farm. And my partner-
GeekWire: Going back to your original dreams.
Locoh-Donou: By the way that was a dream. When my mother cut that dream … if I ever find the money I will do a chicken farm. And found, I went back to Togo on one of my vacation trips, and one of my best friends had graduated from the University and he had started chicken farming. He was an agronomy engineer. I said dude, we’re gonna do this.
So we built this farm, and we went up to 12,000 chickens. So it was actually a big deal. We were selling eggs et cetera. And one of the big challenges in chicken farming is you have to get the mix of the food for chickens absolutely right, because if you get it right they’ll give you 8.5 eggs every 10 days.
If you don’t, you’ll get problems, et cetera. So you want to give them the proteins and all this stuff that gets you your 8.5 eggs, but you want to do that for the minimal possible cost.
Well, there is something you guys may have dealt with it’s called linear programming and Excel, where you enter all these parameters and essentially Excel tells you what mix you should have for this thing, it figures it out, it’s an algorithm.
So I had studied in linear algorithm, and I go back and my partner who was an engineer from Togo, highly educated guy, highly intelligent, he was essentially doing this optimization by trial and error. He says, oh I’ll put more corn in today, and he see the results. And he had been doing that for a few months to get to the recipe, and the recipe is this secret that Togolese farmers keep to themselves. Ah I can’t tell you my recipe because you gotta grow through your three years of figuring it out, and it’s your intellectual property. I come by, I said dude, hold on, we’re going to do this with linear programming.
And I enter this stuff in Excel, I put this thing, et cetera, and I say, voila. He says that’s not possible. You can’t have figured this stuff out in 15 minutes for the best, I say go try this. We go try this for two weeks. He comes back to me, his comeback to me was “man, the white man is so magic.”
And it hurt me so much. By then I had left Togo for 20 years. That 20 years after, somebody who was an elite — five years of education post high school, highly paid engineer — that was his interpretation of it, that this kind of innovation stuff has to come from over there. That is the complex that has held back Africa for so long, and there’s a generation of guys who are 20, who don’t know this.
GeekWire: Did he say that to you because of your mixed race?
Locoh-Donou: No no no no.
GeekWire: Or because of your education in France and U.S.?
Locoh-Donou: No he wasn’t referring to me. He wasn’t referring to me. He was referring to the white man who built Excel, who built this linear program. He knew I was using a tool, and that was built by Europeans or Americans. And so that’s what’s changing in Africa, is you’ve got a generation of guys that they literally don’t know about this.
Is that (changing) because they are more aware of, they are more connected? They are more connected to the outside world and can see that no, it’s not magic, it’s actually just somebody working hard with the right tools?
Locoh-Donou: Yes. They are more connected to the outside world. A number of them actually frankly studied in Europe or came back et cetera, but they are way more connected to social media and the outside world. And actually the most important thing is they did not experience colonization, and they don’t have a parent, their fathers did not experience colonization.
My father grew up when Togo was a colony. He just graduated from high school when Togo got it’s independence. He grew up under the rule of the white man. And so I have a parent who grew up in colonization, that filters into a conversation that then filters into my thinking when I was growing up in Togo, of what aspiration, I never dreamed of doing the things I do today.
And frankly if I had stayed in Togo, I would have never dreamed of doing something like that. It’s because I left the country and had the opportunity to see other things change horizons.
But for most of my friends who grew up from colonization, there’s a certain mindset that comes with that. And the biggest thing for this youngest generation is they’re two steps removed from colonization. They’ve only known an independent country. Their fathers were people like me, who themselves didn’t know colonization. And also in some cases they’re living in countries, it’s the combination of colonization I guess is the white man and dictatorship. Dictatorship is very, very pernicious.
You know, dictatorship is, you’re not taught to think. You shut up, you are told what you’re going to do next.
What did your mother and father do in Togo?
Locoh-Donou: My father was the first architect of Togo. So when he graduated from high school, there were probably 12 graduates for the year in high school, this was the early ’60s, and he went to study architecture at France. This is where he met my mom. And he came back, he was the first architect of Togo. So he built stuff. And by the way, I just spoke to him today, he’s 76 and he’s still building stuff. That’s actually his problem by the way.
He said everybody has addictions. His addiction is cement. … So he put his savings into building this hotel, which was going to be his final bouquet. Guy starts building this hotel, he says I’m just going to build a little thing, it’s going to be three floors, it’s going to be good. His children are okay, if you want to do that. … We ended up with a hotel that has 11 floors, 340 rooms, and he’s still building.
GeekWire: What’s his critique of your new offices going up in Seattle? Has he seen those?
Locoh-Donou: The F5 towers?
GeekWire: Yeah, the F5 towers. Does he like them?
Locoh-Donou: I need to bring him up here. I think he will love the architecture.
GeekWire: He’ll have some tips. He’ll want to get in there and like add a few stories or something.
Locoh-Donou: Totally. That would be totally him. He would add to it.
(GeekWire’s John Cook contributed to this report.)