FOUNDER & CEO, VIVO FASHION GROUP
I grew up in a middle class Kenyan home. An only girl with three brothers. My father, a civil servant and my mother, a teacher.
My dad was a really cool guy. Honest. Hardworking. Good looking. But he also loved his drink. And even though we all lived together, we could go for weeks without seeing him. And when we eventually did see him, we were pretty scared of him. But sometimes we had these special moments. We’d go on a road trip and he would tell us about countries he had travelled to, how important small and medium enterprises (SMEs) were in generating employment and giving opportunities to young people, and the kind of Kenya he wanted to see. And even though he remained employed, he always had business ideas. He would register and put money into them, but they inevitably failed. And as I got older he would say that he could see me as a businesswoman one day, and I would just laugh.
He passed away from lung cancer when I was 24. And even though we were never close, I think I’ve been chasing him my whole life. I went and studied economics, like he did. I worked as a civil servant for 10 years, like he did. I even bought our family home, tore it down and built a new one in the same compound. So I’ve raised my kids right where he raised us. And 20 years after he passed away I eventually found myself starting a business – just like he said I would.
I’ve spent my life trying to carry on his dream, even though I wasn’t conscious of it. But like Steve Jobs said, “Sometimes we can only connect the dots looking backwards.”
Today, I’m proud to have built and still be leading Vivo Fashion Group, Kenya’s largest and fastest-growing homegrown fashion business. What started 12 years ago with simply a website and a dream, now has 25 stores across the region, employs nearly 500 people and is helping to change the landscape of East African fashion. Our mission is to see “Africa Dressing Herself” as well as “Africa Dressing the World”.
Designing and manufacturing clothes generates large scale employment. And yet the majority of what Africans wear, whether new or second-hand, is made outside the continent. And there is no good reason for this. We have everything it takes to dress ourselves and even to dress others. We have fantastic designers, beautiful materials, strong manufacturing capability, expansive retail architecture, and the coolest content creators. We even have rapidly growing e-commerce fashion platforms such as www.shopzetu.com, which I founded in 2020, and which now carries over 300 fashion brands.
The economic contribution that can be made by a thriving fashion industry is enormous, and my personal mission is to see this industry explode.
Being a CEO comes with many rewards but also many challenges. Transitioning from being a hands-on entrepreneur, who drives everything and controls all decision-making, to becoming a true leader has been my greatest challenge.
I now believe the best role a leader can play is to set a strong and compelling vision, ensure that the vision is clearly, consistently and widely communicated, hire the best team to deliver on it, and then allow them the freedom and space to do that.
Obviously a CEO needs to stay involved, but typically that is to re-emphasise priorities, continue to engage with hiring and leading the top team, and to help solve big problems as they arise. And key to everything is to not let our egos get too much in the way.
I also think a lot about women in business. And while the external challenges facing women are real and need to be addressed, there are also many internal challenges and self-limiting beliefs we face. We are too often afraid to take risks, afraid to make mistakes, afraid to look too ambitious, afraid to outshine men (in particular “our men”), afraid to fail. Simply put, we are just afraid.
But I don’t believe it is ever too late to change these beliefs. People, including men, don’t succeed because they are not afraid. They succeed because they feel the fear and do it anyway. So we need to find ways for fear to be our motivator, and let fear guide us and push us forward, instead of paralysing us and holding us back.
As Ellen Johnson Sirleaf says, “If your dreams don’t scare you, they are too small.” So let’s dream big, set big scary goals and work hard towards building our continent. We owe it to the generations that are to come after us.