Sarah Ochwada, the first Black African woman to hold a Masters Degree in International Sports Law, is hoping to leave a legacy that will inspire the next generation to live up to their true potential.
Ochwada initially wanted to become a professional fashion designer and admits to having had no interest in Law.
Her parents encouraged her to pursue a more serious degree, leading her to law school, which eventually triggered her interest in Sports and Entertainment.
The Kenyan powerhouse managed to find a balance between her creative and intellectual side, leading to various achievements along her journey.
She had a four-year stint as a runway model, was a part-time hip hop dancer and had a brief stint in acting.
On the corporate side, Ochwada has worked as a lawyer at the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) based in Switzerland and as Legal Counsel for the National Olympic Committee of Kenya (NOCK).
She was appointed as an Arbitrator at Athletics Kenya and as a panel member for the Cricket Kenya Independent Committee.
She also has a history of athletic and sporting achievements training in archery, coached in tennis for 6 years, participated in track and field events and javelin throw.
She played Centre for her high-school basketball team and won awards for 400m relay and basketball competitions in Law School.
Speaking with gsport, Ochwada reveals the secret to her global success and rebranding her firm – SNOLEGAL – during Covid-19 times.
Sarah, thank you for making time to speak to gsport. How are you doing?
Thanks so much for reaching out! It was a delightful surprise to hear from you and to get to learn more about your work, so of course, I’m game to lend my voice to your platform!
How am I doing? I’m hanging in there, oscillating between days of uncertainty/anxiety and days of optimism. So, despite the times we’re in right now, I’ve had to really get creative, and keep dusting myself off and pushing through. I’m channeling the resilience of the proverbial cockroach in an atomic situation, know what I mean? 😉
We enjoy profiling formidable women in sport and your story and journey is so inspiring. Do you make time to look back and reflect on how much you achieved?
The funny thing is, before COVID, I never had the time to look back. I was constantly on the go. But the great pause caused by the pandemic really came as a blessing to me. I got to spend my time in absolute solitude, to reflect on how far I’ve come, and also the direction I want to go moving forward. I truly aligned with my purpose and no longer wish to get into anything which doesn’t rhyme with my creativity or my values.
Where are you currently based? How has Covid-19 impacted your work? What are you doing differently these days?
I’m based in Nairobi, Kenya. Like I mentioned, COVID got me to truly pause and figure out my purpose and the legacy I want to leave behind. I work as a Sports & Entertainment Lawyer, so the cancellation and postponement of sporting events and in-person entertainment affected my work very early on.
“If they aren’t participating or earning money, then I wasn’t earning either. So, I went through a mental and emotional rewiring (some may refer to this as a come to Jesus moment).” – First Black African woman to hold a Masters Degree in International Sports Law, Sarah Ochwada.
I discovered that the bulk of my work was intrinsically tied to having clients who participate in sports or creative sectors. If they aren’t participating or earning money, then I wasn’t earning either. So, I went through a mental and emotional rewiring (some may refer to this as a come to Jesus moment).
During the first three months in lockdown I paused the business at my firm, and I cried, and I balled up in the fetal position and cried a little more then I stopped feeling sorry for myself just enough to start studying about Philosophy, Economics, Personal Finance, Marketing & how successful entrepreneurs built their businesses during the worst financial times.
I decided to look at things differently and changed my firm’s approach. I rebranded SNOLEGAL Sports & Entertainment Law into a Cyber Legal Firm which provides remote legal services and digital products, and I’ve created a system to transform my Intellectual Property into assets which can bring in revenue for the firm regardless of the work I receive from clients. I’m re-writing the rules of my practice and I’m loving it!
You had a great interest in being active and playing sport growing up. Tell us about your passion for sport.
It’s a funny story! When I was 6 years old, I transferred to a new school which had all these co-curricular activities available. I remember sitting with my parents at the Bursar’s office and they allowed me to choose only one out of 3 activities: piano lessons, ballet, or tennis. I picked tennis because, at the time, I thought it looked really cool to walk around with a tennis racket rather than walking around in tights and ballet shoes… (I sometimes have regrets about this, because I eventually got into dance performance and could have really used with the discipline and flexibility of ballet, but I digress)…
Also, you can’t really be rolling around with a piano everywhere you go. So, tennis was definitely my gateway into sport. Then I joined the basketball team in High School, I played as the Center because I was literally the tallest person on the team. And I also ran track, 800m and 1500m. Followed by a brief stint playing Basketball at Law School and then I tried my hand at Archery after University. C’est tout!
What attracted you to law and sports law specifically?
I wasn’t attracted to law at all! Again, funny, and maybe familiar story for my fellow African creatives out there. I was actually on my way to Fashion School, or so I thought… before my very African parents accosted me! (Okay, not really, they just stopped me in my tracks and asked me to consider my future and get a serious degree as something I can fall back on). They let me choose anything, anything serious that had nothing to do with fashion!
“After gulping down my pride, I shed off my disappointment and gave some thought into what “serious degree” to choose. I cut down to 5 options, and out of the 5 options Law was the only one which did not include interacting with my arch nemesis, Math.” – Ochwada reflects on how she ventured into Law.
After gulping down my pride, I shed off my disappointment and gave some thought into what “serious degree” to choose. I cut down to 5 options, and out of the 5 options Law was the only one which did not include interacting with my arch nemesis, Math. And that is the story all about how my fashion dreams got turned upside down. But I kind of still had the last laugh…
While in Uni, I got into pageantry and modelling… Because, my glorious height, also because, why not, and also because one of my Uni pals convinced me to sign up. I won the Title of Miss Catholic University in 2007, and went on to participate in Miss University and Miss Kenya beauty pageants. Through that process I got into runway and had some really horrid contracts. That was my foray into Entertainment Law…
The day I got my Miss Kenya contract rescinded I went to my supervisor and pitched to change my entire dissertation into Regulating Talent & Modelling Agencies in Kenya. Mind you, I spent a good chunk of my free time while I was in the Miss Kenya boot camp drafting a proposal on Mobility and Accessibility of persons with disability into Entertainment Venues. So, my supervisor, bless him, allowed me to make the switch and I scored an A for my final year dissertation! Yaaaas!
After that, I was once again starting to entertain the thought of going to Fashion School. But my parents were like, “Young lady, your law journey isn’t finished. You need to go join the Bar School and get admitted to the Bar”.
At the time, it was still a good compromise because I felt like I really didn’t deserve to be a lawyer because it was never my lifelong dream. The imposter syndrome was so real. But I figured, okay, I’ll use my year at the Bar School to figure out my next move. Little did I know, that while I was studying at the Kenya School of Law, I would get introduced to someone who would plant the seed of Sports Law in my brain on a fateful bus ride home, one hot and dusty afternoon.
To cut (this already very long story) short, this young man explained to me that Entertainment Law and Sports Law are natural allies, and that I should look into practicing sports law too. At first I was like, “Yeah, right”, but one day I got bored, got on Google, went down a rabbit hole, and never got out of it. That was my introduction to Sports Law. And eventually, I got back into the fashion world through Fashion Law.
One of your major highlights is becoming the first Black African woman to hold an LLM in International Sports Law. What did it mean to you to achieve this?
The weird thing is I made the discovery that I was going to become the 1st Black African Woman to have a Masters in International Sports Law during my crowd-funding campaign to finance my Masters’ degree. It was during the application/interview process to get into Grad school that I learned about this. I asked the Admissions staff if they could recommend some alumni that I could speak to from Africa, they gave me a couple of names but there wasn’t any Black African female on that list. And I was like, “Hmm, am I gonna be the 1st?! Well dang! I need to tell my whole village!”.
“Shout out to all the Kenyans who rallied, donated, and supported me to get to Spain!” – Ochwada thanks her country for their crowd-funding which allowed her to go to Spain to obtain her Masters Degree.
So that became the selling point of my crowd-funding campaign. Shout out to all the Kenyans who rallied, donated, and supported me to get to Spain!
The achievement really is more for the Kenyans who believed in me. I mean, the whole reason I chose to get a Masters Degree in Sports Law was because after going down the rabbit hole, I became really intrigued by this whole world of sports regulations. Even when I had to do my professional training (pupillage) under a practicing Advocate, my first assignment was to register a Sports Academy in 2012.
At the time, my pupil master had no clue where to start, but he knew I had an interest in the subject area, so he threw me in the deep end and told me to go out there and figure it out. Now, in that week of “figuring it out” I knocked on so many doors from the Kenya Premier League, to Football Kenya Federation and eventually wound up at the Ministry of Sports where they said they were working on a new legislation called the “Sports Bill”.
So, the legal drafting team from the Ministry of Sports adopted me and we went through that process until we got the “Sports Act of 2013”. The Sports Act established 5 new institutions dealing with sports registration, sports arbitration, sports funding, sports academies and sports facilities. That experience exposed just how little I knew. And I decided that I needed to learn so much more from the experts so that I can be useful to my country once the Sports Act came into effect.
Sports law is still developing in Africa, yet you charted your own way. What has been the secret to your success of making it big globally?
I don’t feel like I’ve made it yet, and I’m not saying this to be coy. I celebrate my successes whole-heartedly, but I don’t let my personal achievements overshadow the amount of work that needs to be done on the continent.
When I started out many people, including my family thought that Sports Law was a thing that I had made up. So, the 1st obstacle that I faced was getting in the right mindset. Ignoring the naysayers and having a laser focus on redirecting the country to take sports seriously.
The secret is in making a plan and executing it no matter what is thrown at you. I’ve had to adapt and adjust a whole lot along the way but sticking to the goal and working towards it is what propelled my career.
I noticed that the more I kept working on getting to my goal, the more people I met along the way who supported my path. That’s how I got into teaching at the University, becoming a sports arbitrator, providing legal commentary for the media and representing high profile clients.
It also helped that I stood firm in my youthfulness, my femininity and African-ness. Many occasions, I would walk into a room and I was either the youngest, the only female or the only African. But darling, me, my high-heels, my red lips and my chocolate skin will bring swagger for days! Not to mention I actually had the knowledge and a wide portfolio of work experience to back me up.
You have worked extensively with sporting organisations including the International Table Tennis Federation and Kenya Olympics and Cricket associations. What stands out as some of your top experiences as a sports lawyer?
I’m not one to point to specific events in my career but there are 3 experiences, rather reactions, that I absolutely love getting. The 1st reaction is when I’m teaching my students, or training a group of professionals, or explaining a technical legal concept to my clients and I can see the look of sudden realization in their eyes. It’s like an epiphany, like a light bulb went on inside their minds. And usually this spark of bewilderment and understanding is followed by a quiet nod – or an “I get it” or an “It all makes sense now”. The fact that I can open someone’s mind and introduce new knowledge is so satisfying!
The second type of experience or reaction is one of absolute gratitude. This reaction really melts my heart because I usually receive genuine appreciation from the athletes I represent pro-bono in anti-doping cases. Doping Laws are so lopsided and so complex that very often an athlete is perceived to be a doping cheat long before their case is heard and determined.
I go hard for my clients, despite the lack of resources we get resourceful and we figure out ways to bootstrap and build a solid defense. By the end of that process, no matter the outcome, the athletes say that I provided them hope and believed in them when everyone else abandoned them. There’s no better feeling than giving hope to someone who’s in a state of despair.
“When I confidently out-argue, out-perform, or even out-wit some of the most seasoned lawyers out there, they treat me differently.” – Ochwada on being a woman in the sport industry.
The third reaction is one where I elicit the respect of my peers and my seniors. I’m not an ordinary lawyer, and I definitely don’t look like, or even act like a stereotypical lawyer. This sometimes leads to people under-estimating my capabilities. So, when I confidently out-argue, out-perform, or even out-wit some of the most seasoned lawyers out there, they treat me differently.
Some treat me worse, because they perceive me as an enemy and can’t believe what just happened to them, while others extend their admiration for my work. So, the next time we cross paths, they bring their A-game, and that makes the industry and the practice of sports law that much richer and better.
Who are some of the sports law experts who you look up to?
Oh, I just recently had a conversation about this with some of my attendees for a Career Navigator program that I’m running called the Sports Law Safari. The word Safari is a Swahili word which means journey, and so I thought it was fitting to use the word to guide aspiring sports lawyers.
I really admire the Sports Lawyers who took a non-traditional career path. Top of my list is Matthew Himsworth. He figured out how to combine sports law, social media & reputation management. He started his own consultancy which catered to high profile clubs in the English Premier League and trains players how to manage their online presence in order to avoid lawsuits and disciplinary sanctions. I thought that was brilliant.
Then there’s Marcos Motta and Luis Pamplona Novaes from Brazil. Marcos has had an incredible 20-year career and has been involved with shaping football regulations especially with Third Party Ownership. Luis, probably has the most expansive sports law practice out of anyone else I know – ranging from Football, Volleyball, Athletics, Poker, Sailing, E-Sports – and he started off as a tax law expert!
Then there’s my brother from another father, Dev Kumar who’s opening up the African continent to sports law expertise.
Not forgetting, the ladies in Sports Law – Desiree Ornella who’s had an expansive career in football and is now the head of professional football at FIFA, and Alexandria Gomez-Bruinewoud who just keeps killing at as Senior Legal Counsel at FIFPro. And keep an eye out for a rising star – Susanah Ng’ who went from corporate lawyer to working at the Asian Football Confederation.
What is your advice to aspiring sports lawyers?
Figure out what is a good fit for you, and then pursue that rather than trying to fit into someone else’s mold.
Who are your favourite women in sport and why?
At the moment I’m crushing on a few sports ladies who are just doing their thing and doing it well!
Kuki Anwar – Kenya’s 1st Olympic Archer
Maxine Wahome – Kenyan Motorcross Biker
Sylvia Gathoni – Kenya’s 1st Female professional Gamer & E-Sports Athlete (she’s also a budding lawyer)
Naomi Schiff – W. Series Motorsport Driver
Ezinne Okparaebo – Norwegian Olympic Sprinter
And I recently came across a Kenyan showjumper – she simply goes by the handle @KenyanEquestrian on Instagram.
What are your thoughts on the state of women’s sport and what we can do to change the game for women?
I think it’s sad that there’s generally very little support for women’s sports. It’s even sadder that women’s leagues across many disciplines are either poorly developed or non-existent. The only way this can change is through mindset and a little entrepreneurial ingenuity.
How can we work better as Africans to improve the overall state of sport on the continent?
As always, mindset first. We need to foster a spirit that sport is valuable for health, wellness, community building and as a commercial venture. Sport can be used as a tool to uplift communities out of poverty. We need to nurture and harness the talent that we have on the continent and build and support our own homegrown championships and leagues. Put money back into the African economy.
What is the one thing you are good at that nobody really asks you about?
My gosh! Such a phenomenal question!
I happen to think the sexiest thing about me is my mind, my long legs come in a distant 2nd but I’m really good at figuring out if an idea is commercially viable. I’ve had the pleasure of sitting down with some of my clients and showing them how to tweak, expand or reconfigure their ideas into revenue-generating ventures. The few that I’ve done this with have told me that I’m in the wrong business, and that I should pivot away from law and go make millions elsewhere. They might be onto something.
What is your greatest ambition?
I want my life to be a masterpiece! At the end of my days, I want to have lived so abundantly and unapologetically that it inspires others to live up to their true potential.
I also want to leave a legacy, whether that’s through my work or having a family of my own, I’d like to leave behind a value system that can be embraced and emulated.
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