Life at the Roost: A “Lucky” Journey Across Two Hemispheres & One Snowpocalypse

An Interview with Immanuel Kioko, Supply Chain Supervisor at RoosterBio Inc.

Listen to this Blog:

Carson: Here we are for another edition of Life at the Roost, and I’m deeply honored to be speaking with Immanuel Kioko today. How are you?

Kioko: I’m doing great today, despite the weather, but at least I was able to make it to work.

Carson: Yeah. 32 degrees [0 Celsius] and rain… it’s December… Let’s jump right in. So, first seeing you at RoosterBio I learned that you answer to a special nickname. Is that right? “Lucky?” If I may ask, can you please tell our readers and listeners the story of how Immanuel came to be known by friends and coworkers as “Lucky?”

Lucky, Supply Chain Supervisor, RoosterBioKioko: Yes. So “Lucky…” When I was born, it was a complicated birth for both me and my mom, so after she gave birth, she was in a coma. I was having complications with breathing with my nose and mouth. I wasn’t able to breathe, so “lucky” enough there was a doctor who was from Britain because Kenya was colonized by the British. And he was visiting that hospital that specific time, and he heard about the case, and he was able to come. I think he had bought some equipment—I think it was an incubator to donate to the hospital—and I was the first patient to use it.

I was there for about a month, and my mom also about a month, but when she went into the coma, she didn’t think I would make it. So, after three weeks, finally, the doctor was like, “Hey she came to” and was like, “Hey—your son!! He’s alive and he’s doing well! And she was like, “Oh wow he’s so Lucky.” And that’s “Why the name.” So that’s how the name came to be! It is a good story.

Carson: I told you I’d get misty-eyed—or maybe it’s just some dust in the air or something! Amazing…

Kioko: Yeah, so then later, when I was baptized,  my Dad chose for me Immanuel, so that’s my government name. But in my village, going anywhere in Kenya, sometimes somebody will call me Immanuel. It takes a while to sink because just about everybody else uses “Lucky.”

Carson:  Wow, now that’s a Christmas story. OK. So many of the greatest Americans—as you know—like you—have been born on distant shores. In fact, one of my great-grandparents immigrated through Ellis Island. That’s their “coming to America story…” New York City. From the stories, I heard it was not always easy back in the day for them. But can you share with us your story of arrival here? Maybe what was challenging or unexpected for you and your loved ones?

Kioko:  So, my journey was unexpected because while I was still in Kenya, I did journalism as my course. I worked a little bit for a company as a journalist; then the company went down. And there are not many jobs in Africa, especially in Kenya, you can even have a master’s degree, but unless you know somebody prominent, it’s hard to get a job. it doesn’t matter whether you have a master’s [degree] at all. It’s not like here. There it’s who you know… whose back you scratch… So, I was unemployed for some time, so I started a small business with my wife. And I just applied for the Green Card. My sister used to apply for me all the time. For five years I  did not make it, and by the 5th year, she was like, “Can you apply for yourself?” I was like, “OK, fine.” I’d really given up for forever to win it.

On the last day, she texted me and told me, “Hey, can you send me the confirmation number—and I’m like, (sigh) now I have to go apply. So, I went and applied for it. I told her “OK, there’s the confirmation number.” Then, a year after that, I get mail, and it says United States Department of State.  I opened it and they’re like, “Congratulations Lucky—Immanuel— You have won the Green Card!” So, I was so excited about it. My family was excited about it. Then, we have to start planning… How to come here and make the hard decision to leave my family first, come by myself. Because it was so expensive. By the time you get here, it’s at least in the 10s of thousands of dollars. Yeah, the green card is “free,” but from there, you pay for medical, you pay for the US embassy interview, you pay for the flight. And when you get here, you have to find a place to stay and all that stuff, you know… until you get your Social Security. So, I made a decision to leave them. When I was able to gather money, I came.

It was very hard at the beginning without your family, you know… my kids… my wife. But, in the first month, I stayed with a roommate, and he was able to tell me that there’s a company which is hiring, and at that time I couldn’t choose. I was like, “Whatever is available” and “I don’t know how I’m going to do the interview. I don’t know anything about America… I don’t know if they’ll understand my English…” and all these other doubts in me. And they’re like, “No, no. Just go try. All they can say is no.” So I submitted my resume. They called me, in I went and did two interviews the same day—and with one of them the guy was not really interested. The other guy was very interested, and he was like, “Oh, so you just got here?” I was like, “Yeah, I mean, like one month old here.” And he was like, “Yeah just the way you’re explaining yourself, I want to give you a chance.” And I was like, “Oh wow, really?” and he was like, “Yeah, I’ll talk to HR, and if everything is OK with your paperwork, I’m gonna call you in.” After a week he called me in, and he told me “OK.”

It was as an entry-level lab technician. I didn’t know anything about samples, anything about biotech, and they came and trained me very well. They did everything. The funny thing in that position—it was a government contract—and it was just immigrants. So, one guy was Filipino, I was African, there was somebody from the Dominican Republic, and a black American, so we’re all mixed. So, everybody really encouraged me, like, “Hey, don’t worry we all came here… it’s just a matter of time…” They saw that I was really keen on learning and working hard, and within two months, I was flying! The boss who interviewed me, they told me “I just had a good feeling about you; you’ve been hard-working. I’m glad I didn’t make a wrong choice.” So that’s how it came to be, and from there—here I am!

Carson:  Yeah! One of my first experiences in science was working in a lab or “grad-studenting” in a lab—and it amazed me. There were people from India and Germany and Russia and China, from everywhere on every corner of the world…

Kioko:  I thought the guy was trying to make a United Nations! [laughs] Because we’re all from different backgrounds… It was very interesting. After working there for like a month, we had the big snowstorm. I wasn’t driving yet; I didn’t have a car. Everybody just got in their car, and everybody disappeared. I just started [on my way] because they left us go at around 3:30 PM. The sleet and snow starts coming down heavy. I just walked to the bus stop, which was just a few meters. But after 1 hour of waiting I was like, oh let me just start walking the way the bus comes, not knowing that everything was shut down. So I walk from Rockville to Shady Grove, you know that area? A storm still going on, I go to Shady Grove and wait there for the bus, but nothing.

I was living in Germantown and would take three buses to go to work from my house to Germantown… from Germantown to Shady Grove… then from Shady Grove to Rockville. Just to get to work. And so, I walked to shady Grove from Gude Drive, really near to the Metro. So, at Shady Grove, I wait for the bus. I’m like, “There’s nothing coming… OK.” And I didn’t know any shortcuts. So, I just go the way Bus 100 goes to from Shady Grove to via I270 till Exit 15, Germantown Rd. And I walked all the way. I got to the house around 2:00 AM, in the snowstorm. I didn’t have the right shoes. By the time I got there, I was sweating, and it was so crazy. My roommate was like, “What happened!?” And I didn’t have a phone at that time! I told him the story. It’s always the story I like to tell to share about that welcome to America, you know. It was a good lesson.

Carson:  Have you heard the old joke about how old people around here say, ”Well, back when I was your age, I had to walk through the snow to get there, because I’m so dedicated to my school or work… I walked 15 [miles]”… But you actually did do that!

Kioko:  Yeah, I actually did do that for real; I walked through the snow alone! At that time when I was working, I’m like, hmmm. Yes, they tell you to come to America, where in this “first world” country you’ll never have a problem like this. Because in Africa we walk all the time where the transport is not as “organized” as here. But yeah, I still had to walk in America. You know, this mentality that everybody has from different continents with everything here… What we see in the movies in Africa… we see everything as perfect. Because that’s the only way we know.

Unless you come from somewhere—or unless you go somewhere it’s hard to get a clear picture. Even the picture of Africa with a lot of people here in the US—they think it’s just grass and grass houses and lions roaming around! I remember what my supervisor told me because I had a picture of my city and coastal area, just beautiful. He’s like, “What is this?” I’m like, “Oh that’s Kenya.” He was like, “Nah I thought I’d just see people on lions.” I’m like, “No, it’s just that we also have big cities.” So yeah, there’s assumptions people make, different assumptions.

Carson:  What part of Kenya are you and your family from?

Kioko:  Yeah, about the village… I come from a city called Machakos, but also that’s where my parents grew up, where one’s parents are buried, and then we have a house in the city Nairobi—that’s the Capital. That’s where everybody goes when you want to go look for work, you go to the City. But my village is like a 45 minute drive from Nairobi.

Carson:  OK, so it looks like you began in the Rockville area, in the biotech field. What interested you with the biotech industry, and what do you find thrilling about it to this very day that keeps you getting up in the morning?

Kioko:  It was by chance. But once I started learning, once I started knowing the trade of it, it was very interesting because I think the Thermofisher contract that I was working for was for clinical trials—research for people with cancer. So we used to make the kits and send it to researchers, and they would send the samples back to us for storage, so it was like a bio-storage facility. We make the kits and do batch records. In a day we could do 1,000 kits, sending it to them, and we are also- we are receiving and storing the samples once they send them back to us. Once you receive all the material back from different schools and universities, and government hospitals, then we have to store them, put them in the system with all the data.

So, the fact is, the way we handle all those samples—somebody’s life is depending on it. Like, anytime we’re making those kits, the patient was waiting for us to do a perfect job to make sure there are no errors, because if you send the wrong thing it, has to be sent back, and you delay someone getting the critical medication or the help they need. So, from an early stage, I came to know how much biotech affects so many people in the world, because some samples are even coming from Africa, you know, from different places so that really fascinated me, and I wanted to be part of the people who help those who are in medical need. From that time, I just moved from one biotech, and I don’t think I can do anything else, yeah? So, very fascinating and challenging… and every day you meet different challenges on how to help your clients. And it’s always good to brainstorm about solutions.

Carson: That’s really cool! A lot of detail. A lot of people getting things [exactly] right from step to step. OK, so having applied your skills to both small and large life sciences companies how would you compare the experiences when you were working for a big institute versus a small one, and do you prefer working for a big company or a small company? And what are your thoughts on that?

Kioko: Well,  that is a very interesting question because both situations have their pros and cons. In a big company, it can be hard because you know it’s so big—you can be lost in there when nobody really may see you as a person, a department can have  50-100 people. Even if you are doing a good job, sometimes when it comes to a merit increase you can be lost in there in the sea. Because, you know, once it gets to that time of being recognized—or just be recognized for doing something good—and the person who is the manager will be the one. “Hey, good job to the manager,” and that’s about it.

So, I think a small company is much better. If you make a mistake, everybody knows you made the mistake… Which is good, because making mistakes is part of growing and learning. Then, when you do something good, also… because it’s just like here. I love it here because it’s Jaliene, Courtney, Megan, and I, you know. So we know what we have to do and are aware of our daily responsibilities. But when we need help, it’s just a step away. If we have a problem, we meet quickly and discuss the way forward and how to solve the issues we are facing. We get quick solutions. But in a big organization, it has to go through so many steps, and by that time, a client is being affected by all the chain of command and everything. I think you call it bureaucracy, where we’re not given all the power to make decisions. But here, even sometimes I don’t need to ask and can make some decisions based on my experience. I’ll make a decision and send it off and it’d be like, “Hey, this happened… I didn’t want to bother you, it’s just something I’ve done so many times,” and then it’s “Yeah, good! I appreciate it, thank you, thank you for taking the initiative.” So, you feel more appreciated.

Then, when I’m working here the leadership team knows you and what you do and you meet and see them on occasion unlike in the big companies, even the CEO—they know your name, everybody knows your name. And you know everybody’s, too. So that’s really that’s what makes me like it. In a bigger company, you will rarely see the leadership team or the CEO doesn’t know you.

Carson: Those are interesting observations. I tend to agree with you. I think, once upon a time I started up with a small company when it was small—a lot like RoosterBio [is right now]. And it grew, which was a good thing of course, because growth is what companies should do when succeeding. But in the end—the way people just are, the way human nature is—it ends up being 50 companies within a company of 2,000 people anyway. With groups of ~50, groups of 40 or so. Because most people just interact with the same 40 people most of the time. I mean it’s kind of how it is, anyway. And then, when you want to make a decision—like you say—there’s just more bureaucracy in the way. At the end, when people need to commit to a decision, they say “Hmm I’ll think about it… I will not ‘sign in blood’ to make the final commitment. Let’s think about this for a while [instead]…

Kioko: They say “I’ll circle back, and it takes weeks and weeks…”

Carson: So OK, it looks like you joined RoosterBio, just last year. When did you first hear about RoosterBio and what brought you over here?

Kioko: Also an interesting story. Because I was working for (USP) United States Pharmacopeia, just down the street. So, my manager at that time was like, “Hey, you know here’s this company I saw on my LinkedIn, and I think you really would be perfect for that position.” Because the department I was working for had already become the lead, and he was like, “That that’s the highest I think you can go, unless you are placed to another department. I appreciate the way you work hard. I know your story all the way from ThermoFisher.” Because we worked with him in ThermoFisher, he knows my story, and he was like, “I want you to have something better for you, for your family and everything.” So he was like, “Why not apply for these and just see how it goes because I think you’ll do very well.” And I applied for it and the recruiters called me, and then the interview, and everything went well. And yeah, here I am today, so I should say at least that I thank them for showing me the opportunity.

Carson: Yeah, you too! I’m really glad to be here myself.

Kioko: It’s a good place to work. I’ve no regrets at all. Yeah. It’s got very interesting people, lovely people. The whole work schedule is very great. It has a good balance.

Carson: So if I get your title right, it’s Supply Chain and Material Supervisor. Is that right? In a company like RoosterBio that wants to industrialize the supply chain, that sounds like a very full day of work for you and your team. Could you tell me a little about how that day goes for you or is there such a thing as a typical day at “the Roost?”

Kioko:  From Day One I remember, because I started on Monday, and Mondays are always the craziest. We always call it Crazy Monday. And so, on a typical Monday, you can have a number of orders, some international, some local. Mostly we use FedEx as our main shipping partner but sometimes we use couriers like Optimize for our critical customers and time-sensitive products. So we talk to them. So I will send them an email with the shipping details like how many boxes we are shipping, and how much each box weighs, and the destination, and pick-up point, that way they can give us a price quote. Once they send us a quote, then we go ahead and cut them a PO, and from there we start arranging the logistics of when they will pick up and when they will deliver. Which is very interesting, but on a typical day we have Shipping, Purchasing, and Receiving. Our Senior Customer Success Representative will get the orders from Marketing, and she’ll put it into NetSuite, and she will let us know that we have some open orders. And with most of them, she’ll be like, “Hey Lucky, we have these orders going out this day,” so I’ll print out the packing slips and make sure everything is good, get all the papers that are needed to go with the shipment. Make sure we have everything on the packing slip in inventory.

But on a typical day when everything is good, I’ll come in the morning, prep the day’s shipping orders, and start packing one client at a time. You don’t want to mix so many things. You pick one packing slip and the paperwork, you do it one all the way, completely seal it, put it away. You grab another one, pull everything, and double-check everything—because you always want the customer to get the right thing! You want to do it faster, and correctly. So, we do that and once everything is complete, we go to our inventory software system to make sure you remove everything from inventory, and we have excel spreadsheets where we go to enter all that information—that way we know what is happening. Mostly, our Supply Chain Associate handles most of the purchasing receiving and internal orders.

With our accounting software system, with all information entered, that way at least whatever we have physically and electronically everything matches. Then, whatever they also need to use for the lab that we don’t have downstairs… that’s where they put in their order log there where we order them straight from their customers, but that doesn’t go to Inventory. If it’s just to be transferred, once we come to receive it, we just transfer it to them. So, the Purchasing… whatever you order. Whenever it comes in, you have to receive it into the system, and if, sometimes, they’ll send less, then you have to make sure you balance everything. It’s a pretty-busy day every day, and every day there’s always issues to solve—which makes it more interesting because anytime you’re ordering things with the customers you’re communicating, but sometimes… communication breakdown. Sometimes you order ten, they send five. You have to ask, “Why?” Underline, and trace what happened.

Carson:  Sounds incredibly complicated, and you have to be thinking “on your feet” all the time!

Kioko: The whole time, yes! I love the fast pace you know, quick thinking on your feet. I love that kind of thing, because I’m an early person—I like to come early—I’m here 7:00 or 7:30 AM. By 1:00 PM, the time flies, and it’s like, “Oh, it’s already lunchtime.” Because you’ve just been right running all over the place. I’m trying to make sure everybody’s work is going smoothly because you need a well-oiled machine like a conveyor belt. Like things are moving from the warehouse to the labs to the QC lab, and everybody’s work is not being impacted negatively.

Carson:  Well… I can see why we are VERY “Lucky to have you! OK, so in my experience, that, despite all the hard work that people like you do, RoosterBio can still find a way to be flexible. And I found this out during 2020, where I fully learned that it would be OK for you to take some time off work if you were feeling ill. But have you found that to be the case as well?

Kioko:  Yeah, I mean, I’ve found it true, because during COVID when I was in the other company, I had a bereavement in my family. My mom passed away and when I got to Rooster, when I was doing the interview, I talked to our Senior Director of Operations, and they told him, “Hey, you know I’m going to need to take some time when everything settles down, to go for a month to Africa because the ticket to go there is so expensive. You don’t want to go for just one week because to get there you have jet lag. You need three days for the time difference—and he was very understanding. My supervisor was also understanding and thought like, “When the time comes, you just let us know. We’ll always find a way and find somebody to cover.” Because you know, with small departments everybody has enough on their plate—but they were like, “Hey, you know, we’ll try and balance everything, and get somebody to cover for you—whoever can—so you can go and at least be able to have closure on that.” And so, we went as a family.

Even when I got COVID, everybody was supportive. They’re like, “Take as  much time as you as you want.” But some companies—you know, you say “Hey I’m taking time off,” and they’re like, “Why? Can you explain…!?” So I find it really refreshing that you have that flexibility to be able. Because people have different issues. If you feel mentally tired, you can take a break.

Carson:  Kind of like if you bust a string on a guitar? You could still make a beautiful sound—chords and solos—even if you bust a string or two, and you kind of just get by. The other strings make the sounds they need to. It works, yeah, life is like music. OK, so outside of the “world of work,” what else is really important to you?

Kioko:  You know, family is really my #1. I worked that hard, you know, because we were separated when I came here for four years… Took me four years to be able to bring them, and my daughter used to call, asking “Dad, when am I coming down?” I remember when I first started living here, I was renting a room in the basement where the electrical thing is, and it was windowless and was so depressing! It was dark and I used to call my wife. I’m like, “It’s so depressing, like, I don’t even know the time.” Because when you first come to the States, you don’t have any friends; you don’t know anybody—you just have the work people. So, I went through all that, and by 2016 I had the house! I was able to buy a house, and the time I was like, “Hey, I’m ready!” Because I told them, let me go prepare. I want, when you get you come, you have a place. Some people told me, “You know you have to rent places.” But I didn’t want my family to go through that.

So, in 2016, I had the house, I brought them; they came here so excited, and my daughter was like, “Dad, you’ve done very well!” …And apart from that I also like sports. I’m a soccer fan, like a crazy soccer fan. I’m planning to go see my favorite team; it’s the Arsenal FC in London. I’m planning to go see a game live, so one for my bucket list. That’s what I do most of the time, my football soccer game—women’s I love, too. That’s my kind of therapy—just the time with the family and you know just watching a little bit of sports, maybe a movie.

Carson:  I hear ya. I love that family time. I’m a family man, myself. Say what was that name of the team in Britain? [Didn’t catch it]. I don’t know the football clubs too well.

Kioko:  It’s called Arsenal. OK, so a big team. You know we’ve been doing badly for the last few years, but now this season we’re all you know we are all on point. And William [co-worker]–he’s supposed to be our Enemy #1 [laughs]. But me and him—when his team loses, I’m like “Hey what’s up, what happened to your team?!”

Carson: So, I sometimes watch kids play soccer—as maybe you do too—but I haven’t really followed the 2022 FIFA, and I guess it looks like Argentina and France?

Kioko:  And France yeah! But Jon, what a World Cup! I think it’s the best I’ve ever seen because I followed every World Cup holder lately. It has so much drama! Because, the first game, you imagine Argentina lost to Saudi Arabia. That was a shock to everybody because they were expected to go all the way and everybody was like, “What?!” And small teams just beating the big teams, Germany being beaten by Japan. It had just everything, like all the drama and everything. And… let’s talk about Morocco, a small African team—semifinals! You know the first African country. I mean, the dream was cut short, finally. Because you know, of course, France, they’re just on another level. But it will be a good Final. I’m looking forward to watching that—two giants, you know.

Carson:   Yeah. But it’d be nice to see some more African teams [on the list in the future]…

Kioko: And I think also they did good to put the World Cup in the Middle East. Because next time when they put it in America—getting a visa—coming here—it’s is no joke! So at least in the Middle East, a lot of African people are able to go and support their team because, you know, the Middle East and Africa are very near. And a lot of good teams in Africa come from West Africa. But, as we know, East Africa we just know to run better 1,000s. Kenya is known for running the marathons, we go win everywhere, the long distance—“the Other Ethiopia.”

Carson: Any advice for the US team because we never seem to quite make it? Any hope?

Kioko: I think it has a good young team. But I think they should have put a little bit of experience with the youngsters, because when everybody’s young, you need at least add a core of more experienced players. I know… nowadays we’re going for the young, but experience is for when you’re down you and need leaders in the team. Like, I think it was one of the youngest teams in the World Cup (the US team). I think the average age was 25, 26… So that’s a pretty young team. Because I think the goalie is one because he plays for us, and I think he’s 28, and everybody else was below 25.

So, when you look at that, you’re like, I know they’ve played a lot of club soccer and everything, but you need at least a few people in there, at least age 28, to have a backbone. And be like, “Hey, let’s focus!” Because we look at Argentina, that Messi. You can’t leave him out! He has all the experience. He knows how to carry the team. So, a lot of all these other teams that have gone all the way… they have a mixture. You need a mixture of both the young, the upcoming, and the veterans, mixed together, to get a good team. But I think in a few years they [Team USA] should make it. It’s great, because soccer in the US is not very old. So, I think they are right on the right path, so hopefully, one day they can lift it!

Carson:   Yep, someday maybe. OK, alright I think that kind of closes it up [the interview]. Are there any questions that you’d like me to ask you? Anything that you’re dying to be asked, and wanted to tell people about?

Kioko:  Well, I think I covered most of my last story in America. I think I covered most of it. Only thing is, maybe you know… When you don’t have so much family near—like all my brothers and everybody back home—sometimes you miss them. It just is what it is. And my in-laws and all that. So for Christmas, we’ll just be you know, the four of us. Back home, you know, Christmas is always a big thing, it’s like Thanksgiving here. So like Thanksgiving, we go visiting family—everybody comes home, and the parents will slaughter a goat or something to be able to share. Because we don’t buy it like packaged in the store. You have your own running around—they’re like, “OK can you get that one?” So, it’s a little bit different. I miss the Christmases back home, yeah. But I mean this is my new home, so you adapt to the way things are.

Carson:  You’ve told me a lot, but I’ve barely scratched the surface, I’m sure. I’d love to ask you to spend days and days listening to you and speaking with you, but I hope we can continue this conversation sometime! But at any rate, I guess that’s a rap for now. Thank you so kindly for being here and sharing your story I really-really appreciate it.

Kioko:  Thank you so much for having me and for wanting to hear my story, and sharing the story with “the Roost!” Most of the people here know about most of the history, because it’s a small company and everybody you know, once he tells just one person everybody else knows about it. Some of the story’s always a good conversation starter—like, “Yeah! like I can’t believe you did that.”

Carson:  My pleasure. Thank you, and Merry Christmas to you and your family, far and near.

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