Evelyn Mungai, Kenya’s Pioneer Female Entrepreneur

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Evelyn Mungai is one of Kenya’s leading women entrepreneurs. She is popularly known for her success with the Evelyn College of Design, a pioneer design institution that 40 years on is still shaping the fashion and design industry. She has also been instrumental in the women’s empowerment movement, not only in Kenya but around the globe as well. ESTHER KIRAGU had a sit down with the seasoned entrepreneur as she talked about business, women’s empowerment and family.

Audacious is possibly the best word that describes Evelyn Mungai’s entrepreneurial journey, having first ventured into business in her 20s at a time when women, let alone African women, had few opportunities. “I had no capital, no collateral, was a woman, and barely knew any African entrepreneurs as role models. I was then married to my now late husband Arthur Mungai and was nursing our first-born child. I had extra time on my hands during my maternity leave, so I suddenly had an urge to do something with my time. Why not business? I said to myself and this led me to register one of the first companies in Kenya and the first African-owned human resource recruitment agency; Speedway Personal Selection, in 1970,” she says.

Many people then, doubted whether Evelyn would get clients, given that her company was African-owned. But these qualms became her driving force. She resigned from her job at the then East Africa Common Services Organization (EACSO) –East African Community where she had been working for eight years, starting out as a assistant to director of personnel rising through the ranks to becoming a human resource manager – to fully focus on her business.

“Looking back, I am amazed at the confidence I exuded, but I must acknowledge that the support and advice I constantly received from my family went a long way in steering me towards success,” she says.

Shaped by her upbringing…

Evelyn believes that an entrepreneurial spirit is something one is born with, because running a business is not for the faint-hearted and one can easily give up if not cut out for it. And whereas she agrees that business skills can be taught, she believes that the role of training is to reinforce the business attitudes that are already within.

Although Evelyn’s parents were not entrepreneurs per se, she credits her entrepreneurial skills to her late grandmother, who was a well-known entrepreneur. Evelyn states her grandmother was a great lady and role model for her and has fond memories of a great childhood in Cura Village, Kiambu County, tending her grandfather’s livestock with her brothers and cousins.

“The carefree life of the countryside provided a great atmosphere to think, dream and explore,” she says.

Her progressive parents and grandparents valued education, and passed on the assumption of good schooling to their grandchildren. Evelyn began school at the height of the Mau Mau rebellion, meaning there were interruptions due to insecurity, but she soldiered on. She went to the village school, and decades later established an orphanage as a form of giving back to the community where she was born. She then joined Mary Leakey Girls School in Kabete and thereafter enrolled at Kianda College, making her the first African student to graduate from there.

“At the time, the school was a colonial remnant, where the white upper class took their daughters to learn skills such as foreign languages, music, dance and social etiquette, and it later became a business school where management and business were taught. Most of my classmates came from wealthy and prominent families and were often dropped off at school, whereas in my case while my grandfather would drop me off I would have to find my way home, but this didn’t bother me one bit,” she offers.

Despite the racial discrimination reported in the country at the time, Evelyn says she neither felt racially segregated at Kianda College nor was she that conscious of the other students as whites.

The skills she gained from Kianda College set her apart and gave her the discipline to venture in other unchartered areas of life.

Establishing a fashion college…

Her employment stint lasted eight years, before she ventured into business with the recruitment agency. “Within no time, other recruitment agencies began sprouting up, a typical Kenyan phenomenon, and I had to put on my thinking cap to see what else I could venture into,” she explains.

A believer in the need for entrepreneurs to reinvent themselves from time to time, she closed the agency and in 1976 opened the first design school in Kenya  – Evelyn College of Design.

But why a fashion design college? Evelyn explains that the drive for launching this institution was a result of an informal feasibility study that she did and realized that in Kenya and indeed East Africa there was no school of design and saw the opportunity that needed to be addressed. When the college began, the fashion design industry in East Africa was non-existent, and so the college offered training in what was then a completely new field, the fashion industry.

“We had to hire expatriate trainers initially, but as the industry grew we were increasingly able to employ local faculty. Our student enrolment increased as well, and we started getting candidates from other East African countries and beyond,” Evelyn expounds, adding that over the years they have had to expand their premises to accommodate more students.

The college has also diversified over time, including offering courses in interior design and photography, a decision driven by market demand. Evelyn is proud to see that many of the school’s alumni have gone on to become leading design professionals, with many running their own businesses. This year the institution marks its 40th anniversary with plans in the pipeline to setting up campuses around the country as form of celebration to mark this important milestone.

A champion for women…

Evelyn has always championed women’s economic empowerment, not only in Kenya but also globally. “For women to achieve their full economic potential, they must be supported and equipped with skills and knowledge, opportunities and resources, so they can be advocates, change makers and leaders in their communities,” she says passionately.

This passion for women’s economic empowerment led her to establish, together with other leading women entrepreneurs in Africa, the All African Businesswomen’s Association, whose mission was to facilitate networking and personal development among senior women in the private sector. Furthermore, in 1981 she became the first woman member to join the Africa Business Round Table, a high-profile continent-wide private sector body of the African Development Bank.

She later served as a board member of the Africa Project Development Facility of the International Finance Corporation, the private sector development arm of the World Bank.  In all these, she represented women and advocated for their economic empowerment and also promoting Africa as an investment destination.

She has also been involved in the publishing world having been a publisher of Presence Magazine, which served as a platform for strengthening and promoting women in all their areas in life. She had to let go of the magazine after a period of 10 years as the college was taking most of her time and energy. She decided to devote much of her time with its expansion and excellence.

“My greatest achievement with the magazine was informing women of their rights, as it became a great tool for women’s empowerment, especially during defining moments such as the 1985 Nairobi Women’s Decade Conference and the subsequent 1995 Beijing Women’s Decade Conference,” she explains even as she emphasises that it was not a feminist magazine.

She also published Kenya Women Reflections, a book that appreciated the role performed by Kenyan women who were active in the independence struggle and the role they played so that Kenya could be free and their daughters could go to school and excel in all areas of life without discrimination that they were women.

A versatile woman, over the years Evelyn has been involved in varied business sectors, including  property development, and was the founding chairperson of Faida Biashara, a private sector micro-finance company that empowered small-scale entrepreneurs. For several years she has been a member of the International Advisory Panel of the World Islamic Economic Forum, a global body that promotes business between Islamic countries and the rest of the world, where she represents Africa.

Selfless service to others…

Evelyn became the first woman member of the Rotary Club of Nairobi in 1992, and her leadership skills combined with her dedicated service to others saw her elected as the first lady president of the club in 2001. Largely through Rotary, she nurtured a grassroots project in Cura, the village of her birth, which provides care and education to AIDS orphans as well as offering other forms of community service.

She has served as chairperson of Transparency International’s Kenya Chapter, and is currently a trustee of the President’s Award Scheme. She was also a founder board member of the Nairobi Central Business District Association and of the Kenya Chapter of Safety on the Roads International.

For her impact on society, Evelyn has won many awards and accolades, including the Lincoln University President’s Award for Excellence in Business and Finance, and the Order of the Grand Warrior (OGW), a national honour. Recently, she was awarded one of World Greatest Leaders 2015-2016 and the college was also awarded World Greatest Brands 2015-2016 (Process Reviewers: PricewaterhouseCoopers P.L)

On the family front…

Evelyn was married to Arthur Wagithuku Mungai and they were blessed with two children. Regrettably, he passed on in 1978. At the time of his death, he held a senior position at the government of Kenya as Commissioner of Customs and Exercise. During this interview, Evelyn was reluctant to talk about this chapter in her life and only stated that her children gave her the motivation to work hard and in the process ease her loss. She acknowledges that her strength came from her family and from God.

Eighteen years after being widowed she met and married Mike Eldon a management consultant. “At the time, a woman like me remarrying was unheard of, and I guess I helped break this barrier without realising that I was doing so,” she says.

As this interview comes to an end, Evelyn’s advice, and especially to female entrepreneurs is, “Own your fears but rise above them. Believe in your dreams, and get all the information and support you need to achieve them and to rise to the top.”

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