Meg Whitman’s Trying to Be A Different Kind of US Ambassador. Washington Is Noticing.

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If you’re a U.S. official on the phone with Meg Whitman and you’re wondering what Kenyan President William Ruto thinks about something, it’s entirely possible she’ll say: “Let me call and ask him.”

Minutes later, she might even conference Ruto into your call.

This is not something most other U.S. ambassadors can do, and even those with top-level access probably still wouldn’t. But since arriving in Nairobi in 2022, Whitman hasn’t acted like a typical diplomat. Instead, she operates more like the famed, action-oriented tech CEO she once was — forgoing conventions, emphasizing commercial issues and seemingly delighting Ruto.

The Kenyan leader will be in Washington on Wednesday and Thursday, in part for a sure-to-be glamorous state visit hosted by the White House — a rare chance for an African country to grab the U.S. national spotlight. Ahead of that he’s been spending time in Atlanta, home to many key companies and a strong Black middle and upper class. As he’s been greeted by a range of dignitaries, Whitman has been by his side.

Her presence could fuel questions about what lies ahead for her. A Cabinet post, perhaps? The 67-year-old chuckles at the idea but doesn’t rule it out.

“I never dreamed I would be the ambassador to Kenya,” Whitman told me in an interview. “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll retire. I’ve said that three times, and I’ve never done it. But we’ll see what happens.”

Whitman is a former CEO of eBay, Hewlett-Packard and the short-lived Quibi. In 2010, she waged an unsuccessful Republican campaign for governor of California. She became a major donor to President Joe Biden, which made her a prime candidate for an ambassadorship.

Wealthy, politically appointed ambassadors often land in cushy posts in Europe, but Biden aides suggested Kenya would be a better fit for Whitman. A major reason was that Kenya is an African tech hub with significant business potential, and the Biden administration wanted more emphasis on commercial prospects in Africa. Whitman decided it was worth a shot.

While past envoys have also acted as boosters for Kenya’s business prospects, the amount of focus Whitman has placed on so-called commercial diplomacy, especially tech, is above the norm for most U.S. diplomats, especially career Foreign Service officers, who tend to be more comfortable with security and governance issues — and who likely lack Whitman’s Rolodex.

Under an initiative called “Why Africa, Why Kenya," Whitman has become an evangelist for the idea that American businesses should consider her host country and continent as a business destination. Last year, Whitman and Ruto toured Silicon Valley together.

Such trips, of course, are the easy part. Corruption is common in Kenya, and bureaucratic red tape stifling for entrepreneurs. Crime and terrorism are continued challenges — ones that undermine the business environment. Already, many Kenyans are frustrated that Ruto is not delivering more quickly on his economic promises. The country’s democracy also remains fragile. Ruto himself faced International Criminal Court charges linked to violence that arose from the country’s 2007 elections. The case was thrown out in 2016.

Regardless of whether Whitman’s business-focused approach is successful, it garners praise for its intensity. It meets the desire that many African countries — Kenya included — have long said they have: a U.S. government that focuses on economic potential rather than political problems such as extremism or human rights debates.

Among Whitman’s biggest fans is Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware with a strong interest in Africa. He’s visited Kenya several times and said he heard nothing but praise for the U.S. ambassador.

“One of the things that has made her engagement with Kenya at this moment go so well is that President Ruto is focused on growing the economy in Kenya, on the digital economy in particular,” Coons noted.

(While Ruto emphasizes tech, that sector is small compared to mainstays such as agriculture, manufacturing and tourism.)

The Kenyan embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment, but Ruto has in the past publicly defended Whitman against criticism that she’s too active in Kenyan affairs.

Whitman says her rooting for Kenya and Africa as a whole is, at the end of the day, in the interest of the United States because promoting economic prosperity can promote social stability.

“If you are a young man that does not have a job, you are potentially attracted to violent extremism. If you are a young mom that doesn’t have a job, you know, what do you do to be able to feed your family?” she said. “All of our work on diplomacy and regional peace and security becomes easier if the economies are growing and people are employed.”

Another reason the United States is increasingly paying attention to the commercial side of things in Africa? It faces competition on that front from China, whose diplomats have a robust presence on the continent and are explicit that they prioritize relations with African nations.

Whitman appears to have few inhibitions when it comes to diplomatic protocols.

She has quickly rung up and looped Ruto into at least one call with U.S. officials, according to a person familiar with the matter. In meetings with Washington during which normally only the ambassador is present, or least visible on screen, Whitman has brought on her top aides as well, defending the approach by saying her deputies were experts and needed to be included, the person said. She won the argument.

“She’s very outspoken. She’s very public, much more so than other U.S. ambassadors in other African countries or other countries,” said Cameron Hudson, a former White House National Security Council official who dealt with African affairs. “She’s somebody who makes her handlers nervous because she thinks for herself.”

“I have a feeling that the embassy staff are learning to set their alarm clocks a little earlier in the morning now,” quipped Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist who worked on Whitman’s California campaign.

Not everything has gone smoothly.

When she arrived in summer 2022, Kenya had just held an election. She welcomed the results, calling the process free and fair — echoing what international observers said. That bothered some in the political class unhappy about the results. Whitman insists she never took sides, but has been candid in saying that she “didn’t really understand much about what was going on” in those early days.

Whitman may see economic growth as a key to solving many of Kenya’s problems, but she also points out she’s active on other fronts, including humanitarian efforts in a country just recently battered by floods.

“I was down in the flood zone just the other day, and whole swaths of houses just got washed away. The people who have the least lost the most,” Whitman said.

Whitman was once thought of as a potential Cabinet member should Republican Mitt Romney win the White House. She still might land in a Cabinet of a president, but she has other options, too, said Mike Leavitt, who served as Health and Human Services secretary in the George W. Bush administration.

She could run a major foundation or a U.N.-type body focused on global development, he mused to me.

“When you’ve achieved sufficient financial success as Meg has, earning is going to be subordinate to serving,” he said.