June Syowia is not your archetypal 20-year-old. While her age-mates are more engaged with friends, parties and squeezing in some few extra hours for studies, June is busy running not one, but two businesses and all this while acting as a consultant to a community based organisation which she helped start in 2013. The youngest among the 2015 Top 40 Under 40 Women award recipients opens to ESTHER AKELLO on what sets her apart from her peers.
When June Syowia and I meet for this interview at a local restaurant, revellers ask if she is the subject of an upcoming advertisement as we click the camera away. A woman next to me is shocked when I tell her June is a feted community mobiliser and entrepreneur to which she responds with the statement: “She is too young for that!”
When I reveal details of our conversation to June, she laughs airily saying nothing in return. Equally intelligent as she is beautiful (she maintains she was top of her class all through primary and high school), June comes off as slightly demure although as the interview rolls on, she becomes bubblier.
Couple that with her petite frame and it is not hard to see why people are quick to doubt her accomplishments right off the bat. Something she says she constantly battles with when making business pitches for her advertising company, BeiLess Digital, a niche marketing company that deals mostly in below the line advertising.
The 20-year-old admits that ironically, some of her best advertising partnerships are from unconventional quarters for instance, members of the matatu industry who often prefer to flirt with her rather than talk business.
However, they change their stance when they realise that June is all work and no play. “The trick is to respect yourself and their office just as you would that of a blue chip company CEO or even the president. Once you do that, then the tables turn,” she adds.
June started BeiLess Digital in 2014 when she was a first year economics student at the University of Nairobi. This, however, was not the first time she was trying her hand at business. Several months before, she had attempted to sell second hand clothes to fellow students but confesses she was not so good at it.
Her opportunity for change came when she decided to join a training programme sponsored by Google Kenya, dubbed Google Ambassadors. The programme entailed training university students in various aspects of technology including digital marketing.
“Although I had not seriously thought of doing digital marketing on an entrepreneurial level, once I received my certificate after the training, my next thought was: why not put it to good use? So I started fiddling online, trying my hand at creating Google ads. Then I slowly started reaching out to the networks I had created as project coordinator for a community based organisation, Mustard Seeds in Dandora, especially those with start-ups and small and middle-sized companies asking them to get their companies or that of their friends to let me do ads for their brands online for a small fee,” she says.
However, the company was not picking pace, at least not until one day when she made an observation, “I started noticing some of the advertisements in the public service vehicles in the central business district and asked about them. Once I realised there was virtually no competition in this niche, I decided to venture into transit marketing,” she says.
Together with two friends – a graphic designer and a website developer – she started pitching to bigger corporate brands such as money payment service provider, Equitel. However, she quickly found out the devil was in the details.
“One of the biggest challenges I faced was that of proper paperwork. I had not anticipated that in such a short time, I would be sitting across big corporate companies to pitch my ideas and so I neglected putting together the correct documents I needed to help me move my business to the next level,” she says adding that she has since corrected the oversight.
Starting with vehicles plying her home route, Dandora, BeiLess digital have since entered into deals with other matatus SACCOs in the larger Eastlands area. The company, which predominantly works with small and middle-sized companies, has also organised events such as the African Summit on Entrepreneurship and Innovation (Asenti) and ACT Uganda.
Growing up in Nairobi’s Dandora area, June says many people misconstrue the Eastlands estate to be a sprawling slum area with little hope for its inhabitants, especially the youth. She jumped at the chance to change people’s perception when a friend approached her and several other youth to start a community based organisation in 2013. It also became an active ground to try her leadership and planning skills.
“Shortly after the government announced the nyumba kumi initiative, a friend arrived back from Tanzania where the practice had taken root and suggested we become proactive with regard to spreading the spirit of the initiative,” she states.
Starting with one model court that consisted of 10 plots each containing 10 houses, the group set up shop; unblocking drainage systems, cleaning compounds, attaching gates for individual plots and even planted a children’s garden in a nearby open field. Though the initial courts got the services for free, word of their work soon spread and not only were the residents willing to pay the Ksh 100 service and maintenance fee to the organisation now dubbed Mustard Seeds, but the landlords also cashed in on the venture by hiking rental fees in revamped courts.
“We were keen on sustainability so with the money we earned, we set up systems that would ensure the courts cleanliness would be regularly maintained through cleaners and garbage pick-ups and with every security gate we put up, we hired a security guard. Soon enough, other youths in the area started
asking how they could get involved,” says June.
Realising the potential that Mustard Seed had awakened among Dandora’s youth, the organisation encouraged other youth to start their own organisations, incorporating more services such as car parking and cleaning services. This year was a good year for the group as they received a donation of tools worth Ksh 1.2 million from singer Jaguar and the Deputy President, William Ruto, after a local station highlighted their story on national news. It is also the same year that June and other founder members relinquished the reins of the organisation.
“We felt it was time to move the organisation to a new direction. So we discussed with other organisations in the area and formed an umbrella body, Dandora Transformation League, under which all the other local community based organisations would operate,” she says adding that following the election of new leaders, some of the founding members agreed to stay on only as advisors to the new body.
Just slightly over one year later, she established another business. “The success of Mustard Seed made me realise that I have a passion for creating opportunities for the youth. With that in mind, I started a blue-collar recruitment company, Syowaks Company, which basically provides labour to real estate and construction companies for jobs such as electrical wiring, masonry, carpentry and casual labourers,” she explains.
Together with a friend, they went door to door in Dandora registering potential candidates both certified and self-taught and created a database listing their skill sets. And while the company is only three months old, they have already worked with several contractors and engineers working in upcoming apartments and office buildings. She is also contracted to supply Bamburi Cement products to clients. She hopes to grow her portfolio to include bigger real estate and construction companies in the future.
With so many responsibilities, one is hard-pressed to ask when she gets the time to study and have fun. While she confesses that part of the reason she exited the active running of the Dandora Transformation League was as a result of having too much on her plate, she admits that sitting pretty has never been in her nature, citing long hours at her mother’s shop as her training ground.
“We would take turns with my mother running her shop and even days when there was virtually no customer, the shop would
always remain open. In life, there is just no room for giving up. If you keep at it, one day your efforts will pay off,” she says, a concept she is very familiar with.
Just a year after joining secondary school in Nairobi, her parents broke the news that the school was too expensive and she would have to transfer to a cheaper school in Machakos. Taking it in her stride, she adjusted and proceeded to pursue her studies with gusto, maintaining her top streak and while she passed her final exams exceedingly well, unfortunately, she was just a few points shy of landing a coveted spot in the course
of her choice, medicine. She and her parents agreed to look for a plan B. However, their plans differed. While her parents started making arrangements for her to join the parallel medicine programme in university, June made a bold choice; she chose to study economics.
“Parallel programmes and especially medicine can cost an upwards of half a million shillings a year. That was money my family did not have and considering the amount of time it takes to complete the course, six years to be precise, the probability of running out of funds and walking around with no degree was very high. So I settled for a cheaper option,” she reveals saying many of her peers find her to be too ambitious and even urge her to slow down.
Additionally, she says with the current public university programme where often times she spends a maximum of three hours on any given day in class, she ends up with too much time on her hands, which she uses to run her business. Despite winning the prestigious Top 40 Under 40, the youngest honoree in 2015 says news that she was a nominee was shocking to her.
“Naturally, I was shocked and humbled in equal measure. It has never crossed my mind that there were people who thought so highly of me,” she says adding the award has thrust her into an unanticipated limelight as she has received numerous calls and requests from investors to partner with her. As flattering as she says the offers have been, June says she is in no rush to make any decisions but her vision – to impact the society and especially her community positively – not only remains intact but also grows.
Published in November 2015