Finance

Meet Denis Okema — the ex-political refugee now fighting to diversify the investment industry

SEI Investments director Denis Okema fled his home country as a political refugee after he was the target of an assassination, which tragically claimed the life of his brother instead. 

At the tender age of nine, he spent six months as a child slave after being kidnapped by rebel militia.

On the fateful night he was abducted, Okema was playing outside the family home, his grandmother seated by the door, looking on. His uncle, an ex-militant, was also home, feeling too unwell to join the others who were finishing up the day’s work at the farm, typically done in the mornings and evenings to avoid the scorching midday sun.

Okema heard footsteps and something that sounded like a herd of cattle. Suddenly, a group of men in uniform descended on the family homestead. They set to work raiding the family’s fresh water supply and granary and taking whatever livestock they could get their hands on.

When they discovered his uncle, they dragged him outside and preceded to beat him. “My grandmother was screaming for them to stop and I just started crying,” Okema recalls.

The rebels, who were part of the Uganda People’s Army, abducted both Okema and his uncle, who months later was killed in action.

In captivity, Okema was forced to do gruelling manual labour and lug the loot the rebels would acquire when attacking towns.

He avoided combat due to the fact weapon supplies were short, and there were older children who could do a better job manoeuvring an AK-47.

As the months went on, the more friends Okema lost. The rebels “made examples of” children who tried to escape, he says, without going into further detail.

But the pain of never seeing his mother, grandmother and siblings again outweighed any possible danger of getting caught. One day, while fetching water for the rebels, he made his escape, as his escort was distracted bathing in the river.

“I just threw my bucket down and started running and just kept running. I didn’t even hear him say anything. He probably didn’t realise I’d left.”

Fast-forward to March 2022: Okema has been appointed director of diversity and inclusion at SEI Investments. The Pennsylvania-headquartered firm, which is listed on the Nasdaq, provides outsourced investment management and technology for asset and wealth managers and looks after $1.2tn in assets.

“It’s a wild dream to think that life took me through all these other places and now I’m here,” he tells Financial News in a virtual interview on 22 November.

This is Okema’s first role in the investment industry and his first true taste of Corporate America, a world away from a traumatic childhood and challenging upbringing in his village in the Atiak sub-county, in Uganda’s Amuru district

 The bulk of his decade-long career in the US has been devising and implementing diversity, equity and inclusion programmes for high schools in Philadelphia, helping young people from marginalised communities.

Okema says he was drawn to SEI Investments because its senior leaders seemed “genuinely interested in cultural adjustment”.

“They understood the challenges,” Okema says. “Personally, I was looking for a company that has a global presence because I have an additional lens being an immigrant and having experience in international development work. I wanted to work with an organisation that wants to continue building its inclusive culture in a way that influences and touches lives beyond borders”.

Resources were scarce for Okema growing up. He lived with his mother, three brothers, uncle and grandmother together in a grass-thatched hut. He did not receive his first pair of shoes until he was 13. But they were content.

That was shattered when his village got caught in the crosshairs of Northern Uganda’s brutal civil war waged by rebel groups, including the Lord’s Resistance Army, against the new Ugandan government under president Yoweri Museveni.

Years after his escape from the rebels, Okema found himself on the run again – he’d become a target due to running for political office, alongside international development work focused on building conflict resolution, HIV/AIDS outreach and fighting poverty after graduating from Uganda’s largest college Makerere University in 2004.

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“My message was considered dangerous, but I never thought that danger would extend beyond me,” he says.

On Boxing Day, two weeks before voting day, an assassin gunned down his brother, mistaking him for Okema. The tragedy left his unborn nephew fatherless – and Okema decided to flee the country to protect them.

His nephew, now 11 years old, is thriving and doing well in school is some comfort, but Okema still suffers from survivor’s guilt.

“Around December I sometimes get very heavily depressed. The trauma of what I went through that night – I haven’t fully recovered from it, even if that was more than 10 years ago.”

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But his incredible journey has given  Okema key lessons that he can now put into practice at SEI Investments in laying out a path to transformation.

He has designed a roadmap for the company’s diversity, equality and inclusion strategy, run a diagnostic assessment with a third party to identify areas for improvement. 

Members of his team also have access to self-awareness training to help them deal with unconscious bias.

Two recently-formed affinity groups at the firm – for Latinx and LGBTQ+ employees – also provide spaces for people from underrepresented groups to share their experiences, encouraging them to be their authentic selves, while also creating advocacy opportunities.

Like most investment firms, SEI Investments’ executive team and board is predominantly white and male. 

Okema says meaningful change on the DEI front “takes time”.

“An organisation can be diverse in terms of representation and not inclusive and an organisation can be inclusive and not diverse,” Okema says.

“What we’re looking for in terms of the benefits of DEI comes from a combination of a healthy amount of diverse representation, but also a concerted effort to build an inclusive culture because these two elements feed off each other. 

“To do that well you have to make sure it’s not a marathon. The accountability is not just a checklist.”

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To contact the author of this story with feedback or news, email Kristen McGachey

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