Named one of the Top 40 under 40 women achievers in 2011 by the Business Daily, 39 year-old Thrity Engineer is the marketing director for East Africa at GlaxoSmithKline, a global healthcare company. Thrity is the first female Chartered Marketer in Kenya and within the COMESA region to achieve this Fellowship status with the Chartered Institute of Marketing. In addition, she is the vice chairperson of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, Kenya Chapter. The mother of two talks to EDNA GICOVI about discovering and nurturing her marketing passion and finding that elusive work-life balance.
“Being an only child makes you grow up a lot faster, considering the amount of time you spend with adults. Through these frequent interactions and conversations you tend to absorb a lot of concepts from adults than other kids of your age. You become a little adult,” says Thrity Engineer in her sweet voice as we get started with this interview. We are seated in her homely, spacious office at GlaxoSmithKline’s headquarters in Nairobi’s Industrial Area.
She comes across as a reserved individual initially but a short while into the interview her seemingly subdued warm and bubbly persona is slowly drawn out. She is aware that she at times comes across this way to others and admits that those who don’t know her very well sometimes find it hard to approach her but that they get to see a different side of her after getting to know her.
“I never realised that this was the way I came across to others until someone who knows me very well told me,” she says, adding that this may be attributed to the fact that she is an only child. Thrity, a Kenyan of Asian ancestry, was born and bred in Mombasa where her late father was an accountant while her mother was a paediatrician, though now retired. Looking back at her childhood years, she remembers herself being a serious and grown-up child.
“I was not the kind to climb trees,” she says adding, “Since I had no siblings, I had to find a way to occupy my time. I ended up reading a lot. I still love books.” Nonetheless, Thrity grew up in a happy home, feeling secure, content and being able to express herself. “That old saying that children are meant to be seen but not heard didn’t apply at our home,” she reckons. Like most little girls, she liked to play with dolls and would line up her dolls and prop a blackboard in front of them and then teach them everything she had learnt in school that day.
One of her dreams was to be a teacher. She was also interested in science, owing to her mother’s line of work though she never aspired to be a doctor. “I just liked science. I think the blood and guts part of it scared me,” she says smiling. Thrity joined the University of Nairobi after excelling in her high school education and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1996.
Starting out as a medical representative…
Unsure of what line of work to pursue, Thrity tried her hand in several careers after graduating. “Armed with my degree, I applied to various companies for different jobs. I tried accounting and enrolled for a CPA course but got very bored and discontinued. At one time, I even thought of getting into broadcasting but that was never to be,” she says adding that she went to the university with the full intention of teaching afterwards but realised that this was not what she wanted for herself at the time.
When she found a job at Surgipharm, a pharmaceutical distributor, as a medical representative, she was still not sure of what career path she wanted to follow. “As a child sitting in my mum’s office, I often saw several medical representatives visit her office to talk to her about different drugs and thought that this had to be one of the most difficult jobs there was. How did they know what to talk about and how to answer the tough questions usually asked?” she says. She never envisioned herself doing the same job years later.
A year later, in 1998, she joined GlaxoSmithKline, then known as Smithkline Beecham, a multinational pharmaceutical distributor, still as a medical representative covering Nairobi and Mombasa. “My job led me to explore areas of Nairobi I did not know previously, and to learn how to interact with health care professionals,” she says.
The merger between Glaxowelcome and Smithkline Beecham to form GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) happened in 2000 and as the company grew, Thrity was promoted to the position of senior medical representative. With time, her career interests started taking an exciting turn.
“The exposure and experience as a medical representative was amazing and slowly as I became more proficient at my job, something caught my attention. When medical representatives went out, they needed communication materials to help them pass on key messages to the doctors. I got extremely curious and wanted to learn more. I offered to work on a project preparing communication materials for a new brand and learnt a lot,” she says about the genesis of her interest in marketing.
Excelling in marketing…
It was around this time that Thrity heard about the competitive Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) course offered at the Makini College in Nairobi. She quickly made the decision to enrol and when she was recognised as one of the top students in the country during her time there, she knew that she had finally found her calling. “Marketing was what I wanted to do. It was in my blood,” she says.
She was close to completing the course when an opening for a product manager position at GSK was advertised. She applied for and got the job. “Most product managers tend to do a lot of promotional work which I had found very interesting and different even before I decided to apply for this position. I would interact with them, ask a lot of questions and try to get more insights into the kind of work marketing entailed and what role it played in adding value to an organization,” she says.
The CIM course laid the foundation for the role Thrity took up and a whole new world opened up for her as she attempted to be creative within the boundaries set by pharmaceutical marketing. Following completion of the course, she realised there was another level of accreditation she could aim for to attain a Chartered Marketer status. “A Chartered Marketer is a recognition given by the Chartered Institute of Marketing to an individual who has demonstrated a commitment to continuous professional development and to the profession of marketing,” she explains adding that this status must be maintained every year by submitting records of continuous professional development hours with the intention of keeping up to date with matters marketing.
Professional development hours can be obtained in different ways including teaching, research, on the job experience and taking related courses. Determined to get chartered, Thrity put in a lot of work into accumulating her professional development hours. She rekindled her love for teaching by facilitating a communication course at the Chartered Institute of Marketing. She also contributed marketing-related articles to the Sokoni and Nakumatt magazines and continued to get more experience at GSK. She received her Chartered Marketer status in 2007.
After several years of serving as a product manager at GSK, during which she worked not only on different brand categories, but also on projects that varied from PR and corporate communications, to organising conferences and events and integrating new businesses across Sub Saharan Africa, she was appointed the marketing director for East Africa in 2010. By this time, she had already taken up a distance learning MBA with the University of Leicester in the UK to study Strategic Human Resource Management as she realised her need to learn more about management. She is currently working on completing her dissertation. She also had the unique opportunity of spending a week on a leadership course at Insead Business School in Singapore, building on her leadership skills.
Constantly thirsty for growth, Thrity did not stop there. “The statistics from the CIM Kenya branch indicated that there were just over 50 Chartered Marketers in Kenya and just over 10 Fellows of the Institute, all of whom were male. I immediately knew that is what I wanted to achieve next. I wanted to be the first woman Chartered Marketer to achieve Fellowship status,” she says.
A Fellow of the Institute is a senior marketer with years of experience in the profession at different levels and diverse areas of expertise. This is not an easy accreditation to achieve according to Thrity. She sent in her application and on the third attempt it was approved making her the first woman in Kenya and within the COMESA region to be recognised by the CIM as a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing (FCIM).
“This achievement is the culmination of years of concerted focus, but it is also an award on behalf of all the women out there studying the CIM course. If I can do it, so can you,” says Thrity while challenging fellow women Chartered Marketers to aspire towards this prestigious accreditation.
Thrity is currently the vice-chairperson of the CIM, Kenya chapter. Her dream is to have 500 Chartered Marketers in Kenya in the next ten years. Thrity says that the world is changing and marketers are needed in every single profession including areas as diverse as politics and sports and she would like to see marketing grow as a profession in Kenya. As she continues on her journey to the very top of the marketing profession, she emphasizes on hard work, a passion for marketing, communication and a serious determination to achieve what one sets out to do as key ingredients for success in the field.
On love and parenting…
Thrity has been married for two years to Mark Mbuthia and is a proud mother of two boys, Pervez, eight, and Cyrus, four months old. “Relationships require a lot of patience. When you live with someone, your weaknesses become clearer to one another. It is however important to draw on each other’s strengths and help each other in the areas you need to improve,” she says. Regarding the aspect of communication in relationships, she says that seeking to understand before you are understood is a key part of making any relationship work.
On parenting, Thrity says that children are a complete source of joy and give parents a reason for living and doing the things they do in day-to-day life. “When I go about my daily work, I know at the back of my mind that there are people looking up to me and I wouldn’t want to let them down,” she says adding that she wants to impart knowledge in them and also make them good citizens of the world.
Children make one realise that there is nothing more important than family. “Whenever I wash my baby and he gives me one of his toothless smiles, I get a feeling that is out of this world,” she says with a beaming smile.
“Sometimes I get home late and my older son will say something like, ‘Mum you are tired and you’ve had a long day. Let me get you your slippers.’ I could be having a really bad day but that’s enough to make it all go away. Children have this really special ability to see things from a very simple perspective,” she says.
“One time when I was feeling unwell, Pervez asked me why I was going to work while sick when didn’t let him go to school when he was sick. His argument actually seemed valid and it was hard to convince him otherwise. I wish the world was as simple as the way children see it,” she says with a smile.
Thrity says that there are times when it is important to involve children in decision-making, especially when those decisions may affect them and they are old enough to understand. “This way, you are setting the foundation for them to be able to reason and make their own decisions adequately when they grow older,” she says.
With her busy schedule, Thrity has had to greatly prioritize her time to find a good work-life balance. The way to make it work, she says, lies simply in good time management. “I try to get my work done within the hours I have during the day and when I get home, I know that is family time. If there’s homework to be done, for example, or the baby needs a bath, I will do that. As the evening progresses and the kids are in bed and asleep, then Mark and I can have time to ourselves,” she says, adding that it is very important to find time for one another or else you find yourselves growing apart and out of touch.
This is especially important to Thrity now that there’s a baby in the family. “Most of the attention is understandably directed to the baby now, though it is very important to find time for one another amidst all this,” she says. In her free time, Thrity enjoys cooking, reading fiction and listening to music.
Published on July 2013