We all like to hear inspiring and uplifting stories especially when nothing seems to work in our favour. A rag to riches story easily inspires one to continue to fight through hard times. Such stories demonstrate just how far determination, enthusiasm and perseverance can get you in life, even when you are starting from the bottom. This month, we draw inspiration from Sam Gichuru, 36, on how he overcame his poor upbringing to ascent to the top of his game. He opens up to ESTHER AKELLO.
“I never thought I would live long enough to see my 25th birthday,” Sam Gichuru kick starts the interview with a chilling revelation. Despite his mother being encouraged by friends to get rid of him as she was still too young, 19 years to be exact, what worried Sam more was the fear that owing to his background, he had more chances of succumbing to drug addiction or crime related death. This is because for the better part of his existence, Sam and his family had lived a life of poverty in Ongata Rongai, Kajiado County.
There are days the family went without food with the children enduring a five kilometre trek to school as his mother, a teacher, and his father, a mechanic turned politician and entrepreneur, barely managed to make ends meet. That, however, does not begin to explain the frustration his family situation gave him.
“One of my lowest moment was when I was in form three. I had one pair of underwear, which I would wash and hang out to dry in the evening. I also remember sticking a patch on my trouser with superglue because the material was so frayed I was afraid it would disintegrate if I passed a thread through it,” he recalls.
To keep themselves out of trouble, Sam and his siblings would read their mother’s books. But the reality of their everyday life planted the seed not only for low self-esteem, but also a self-destructive path. “By my late teens, I was angry and disillusioned by life. I lashed out at everyone and became a drunkard, hoping to forget my troubles if only for a little while,” says Sam.
Despite his anger issues, he pulled himself together long enough to hold several jobs during the school holidays including becoming a casual labourer at a construction site, managing a cereals shop and, ironically, even once working as a crewmember of a sewage treatment outfit formerly owned by his father.
“My mum worked hard to raise school fees but I felt obligated to bring home something,” says Sam. Life was on a downward trajectory for him until one day in 1996, after he had completed high school, when he met a man of God, Pastor Gitu, who he credits with changing his life, even introducing him to networks that set him on his career path. “He took time to encourage me to have a vision for my future both spiritually and professionally – something, given my background, I dared not even dream. We are still good friends” he recollects.
That same year, he enrolled for a computer science course at the Kenya Christian Industrial Institute completing the course after two years and securing his first job as a sales manager at Insight Technologies in 1998 after a friend of Pastor Gitu notified him about the opening. To make more money, he took an additional responsibility as a customer support personnel, handling customer care inquiries. He also started his own business of offering computer related services.
“That job awakened ambition in me and I swore never to be lazy again. I worked as a sales manager by day, sleep three hours, before resuming work to take over as a personal service manager at 6pm until the next morning,” says Sam. After one and a half years though, he was fired.
“A client called a department I was assisting with since the colleague in charge was sick. However, he was unhappy with my service and I got fired. Ironically, three years later, I married the same colleague. Our running joke is that she is stuck with me forever as atonement for my being fired,” he adds, tongue in cheek.
However, the odds were in Sam’s favour because that same day, while visiting a friend at Wananchi Online, now Wananchi Group, he was offered a job as an account executive. Soon, however, he started questioning his career and life goals with his main motivation being the fear of being fired again, something he considered too powerful to lay within someone else’s control. Seeking direction, he approached one of Kenya’s most renowned and successful businessmen, former Wananchi Group Chair and Trans-Century group CEO, the late James Gachui.
In complete disregard of protocol, Sam directly wrote him an email telling him of his dreams to become an entrepreneur and a community developer. To his surprise, Gachui set up a meeting with him. Following their discussion, Gachui introduced Sam to the rotary club and he ended up joining the Lang’ata branch, rising through the ranks to become its vocational director, which involved mentoring youth from different walks of life while organisng charity events. He held the position from 1999 to 2002 in addition to sitting on the board.
“The rotary club changed my outlook. I got a taste of what it meant to be rich as I interacted with the who is who in Kenya including people like Senator Mutula Kilonzo Jr., who by then was my branch president,” reveals Sam.
After two years, feeling unfulfilled and ready to create his own path, Sam quit Wananchi Online. “I prayed and fasted over what to do and one day after tea break, I picked my folder, left and never went back,” confesses Sam.
He started concentrating on his business. However, after six months the company ran into trouble as finances dwindled. Lucky for him, an old client hired him as an operations manager to set up and run his Internet service provider company. By this time Sam’s business had suffered greatly and he closed shop. “I tried, without success, to piggyback ride on clients attained at Wananchi Online to get the business running but I had forgotten they were not really coming to me but the company. It is important as an entrepreneur to always have something unique to offer your clients,” he says.
Married and desperate, Sam bought Internet services from Internet service providers and sublet it to his neighbours at a fee. He also sold domain names, making use of his networks at the rotary club to get clients. Soon, the business picked up and Sam registered the company, Ideas Africa. In 2011, a friend approached him with an idea to help start and run Nairobi Incubation Lab (Nailab), a social enterprise business that would act as a tech business incubation hub for start-up entrepreneurs.
Together, they travelled to the Silicon Valley, the home to the world’s largest high-tech corporations in San Francisco Bay, United States in search of funding. They managed to raise Ksh 30 million and came back home to run the business. Upon realising he knew nothing about running social enterprises, Sam travelled back to the Silicon Valley. He approached Paul Graham, a venture capitalist attributed with the successful establishment of numerous start-ups.
“I walked in his office with no appointment and requested for 15 minutes of his time. He accepted my request and an hour later, he had introduced me to 10 chief executive officers (CEO) including a meeting with former Google CTO, Meghan Smith, who advised Google’s Nairobi branch to get in touch with me,” he says. Sam reckons that if one is serious about their goals, then they need to take risks, if they fail its not due to lack of trying.
Since its inception, Nailab has helped set-up numerous start-ups including Eneza Education, CladLight and Gigwapi. In 2013, Nailab won a Ksh 128 million government tender to develop a pilot technology business programme to support start-ups in the government’s national business incubation programme.
And while he is keen to help establish up and coming techpreneurs, there exists another group of people close to his heart. Boys. Speaking and writing widely regarding boy child issues, he cites his own childhood growing up as an only boy. “It is easy to be male, but becoming a man is less automatic. It is not like switching on a light-bulb, it’s a process. A man must have a vision. I am greatful to many people for the influence they have had in my life. Without Pastor Gitu, Paul Graham and the late James Gachui, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today,” he says with gratitude.
It is for this reason that he is close to his three sons adding that even with all his success and busy schedule, family still has to come first.
Published in June 2015