Njambi Mungai: Open-mindedness helped me grow in my career

Njambi Mungai, the head of communications, media and advocacy at Clean Start. 

What you need to know:

  • To be successful, it takes the support and help from so many people around you.
  • Choosing a path that you are passionate about makes all the difference in the world. 

Njambi Mungai is a communication, media and advocacy specialist with more than a decade in the industry. Currently, she is the head of communications, media and advocacy at Clean Start. 

A wife and mother to two energetic toddlers, Njambi is a passionate defender of gender and human rights. 

Njambi is a lover of life, adventure, dogs, cats and gardening. She shares her career journey with the Sunday Nation.  

Tell us about your childhood and educational background.  

I was fortunate to have a great childhood, full of play and laughter. I grew up in a small family with just one sibling, I was the first born. 

Due to the fact that I was surrounded by a lot of male cousins, I was almost always pushing my limits in everything outdoors. From climbing trees, hills, playing football, being chased by dogs, whatever the boys did, I did it all.

Looking back, this definitely shaped my attitude in life of not backing away from a challenge and not being afraid to question things that don’t make sense. 

I started my education at Riruta Satellite Academy from where I proceeded to Pangani Girls High School. I scored a grade of B+ in KCSE and got an acceptance letter from Kenyatta University. However, my parents had different plans and I applied for a university in Finland. 

At the time, all you needed to do was pass the entrance exam, which was tough, then you could study for free. I aced the exam and at the age of 18 years, I boarded a plane to start a life in a country I had never heard of until then, to study IT.

You have to understand that during our time, IT was considered a highly marketable course. In typical African parent fashion, I was pointed towards that direction even though I wasn’t really passionate about it. I had always dreamt of being either a lawyer or a veterinary doctor, but passion was almost always never a consideration in many households. 

I majored in Software Engineering (Programming) at Helsinki Metropolia University of Applied Sciences – formerly Evtek University of Applied Sciences – and graduated in 2011. When I returned to Kenya I enrolled for a Masters degree in Digital Communications at USIU-Africa. I also have numerous certifications in various courses, such as advocacy, storytelling, social media, analytics etc. 

Share with us your career journey.

I got my first job right after finishing high school when I was 17 years old. Since I couldn’t stay at home lazing around, I decided to learn how to make hair. I volunteered my time at a nearby salon where I learnt how to do simple tasks such as blow-drying, washing hair etc. I was super happy to take home Sh20 or Sh50 after a long tiring day. 

I later got a job as an assistant at my former primary school for a monthly salary of Sh5,000. I learnt a lot of lesson during this time. 

I then flew to Helsinki, where I got a baptism of fire. As much as education was free, everything else came at a high cost. I had to work to raise cash for rent, food and transport, while also ensuring I maintained my grades. I cleaned supermarkets, offices, schools, did housekeeping and even as a caregiver to a wonderful lady who was confined to a wheelchair. 

My first professional job was at Nokia Siemens Networks as an IT administrator trainee after graduating school. It was here that I knew for a fact that my career path gave me no satisfaction. I found no joy in going in to work every day. I knew I needed to find my passion; I just didn’t know exactly what it was. 

After my contract was up, I packed my bags and flew back to Kenya. I knew that I had more leeway here to find myself, especially with the support of family and friends. The job search begun but during this time, I started documenting the culture shock of reentry in a blog I had started. 

The response from friends and strangers was quite a surprise. But even more surprising was how happy writing made me. I would find myself typing away at 3am in the morning. I felt that I had unlocked a level I wasn’t aware of. 

My first job was as an intern at a travel agency as an IT Admin, literally starting from scratch. During my time there, I noticed their website needed content, so I gave myself the job of writing and curating content on the website. That opened a new door to my journey, travel writing. I started traveling with Kenya Wildlife Service and Tourism Board to showcase the various destinations around the country. 

I was also writing opinion pieces and sending them to various media houses, hoping that they would be published. Imagine my surprise when Standard Media Group started picking my pieces. Seeing my work on the website was one of my happiest moments. 

When a sub-editor role opened up at the media house, I applied and was invited to an interview. What sealed the deal for me was my previous publications. Despite not having a journalism degree, my initiative and drive opened doors I had no idea I could get through. 

I was tasked with starting a digital entertainment brand that did not even have a website or any other brand touch points. My IT background came in handy when we designed and developed the website, monitoring analytics, managing social media pages and many other technical skills. 

I spent more than eight years at the media house having created two of the strongest digital brands, run an amazing team, made lifelong friends and learnt a lot. 

In 2021, I moved to a social enterprise called Clean Start as the head of communications, media and advocacy. This role aligns perfectly with my personal values of gender empowerment and advocating for those without a voice. It challenges me to raise awareness about women, children and girls affected by the criminal justice system. 

The scope of my role is to convey information to the internal and external stakeholders about the work/activities of Clean Start and to position Clean Start as a globally recognized brand in the field of social justice and advocacy. This includes changing narratives and perspectives towards formerly incarcerated women in the society. 

What are the fondest memories of your career journey thus far?  

Definitely the time when I was travel writing. It was the perfect combination of work and play. I was always so excited to do that job. 

I cherish my efforts in starting brands from scratch, dealing with every aspect of brand development opened my mind up. Going on to see these brands win awards was amazing. 

I also have fond memories of mentoring the youth and seeing them grow into their own. Many are now thriving in various spaces which gives me an immense sense of satisfaction. 

What are the key drivers of your career growth? 

Self-initiative has been key for me. It’s the tasks that I did out of what was required of me that opened new doors for me. 

Then there is open-mindedness, which literally prepares you to receive more. The more could mean wisdom, skills, lessons, but it goes a long way. 

I cannot also not stress the aspect of people management enough. If you can manage people properly, understanding them and where they come from is the secret weapon to moving up in your career. It takes time and a lot of unlearning, but its so worth it. 

Care to mention a few people who influenced your career growth?

No one is self-made. To be successful, it takes the support and help from so many people around you. My family, especially my husband, has been incredibly supportive. 

For the notable ones, I have to start with Matthew Shahi of Standard Media. He was the one who accepted my very first opinion piece. He was instrumental in guiding me during my time at the organization. He harnessed my technical skills together with my writing and editing skills to make amazing brands. 

Then there is my best friend Caroline Makenzie for just holding my hand and being that sounding board on all things career, motherhood and life. 

My immediate supervisor Susan Kihara for gently guiding me on matters operations and structures. For her little nuggets she gives without even realizing how impactful they are. 

My boss Teresa Njoroge for being the fountain of wisdom and inspiration. For the challenges and opportunities she has pushed my way and encouragement along the way. For showing me that career progression does not have to be a battle in a shark tank and that there is more joy and satisfaction in changing lives of people. 

What accomplishment are you most proud of in life? 

Doing my Masters Degree while pregnant twice and while having two newborns and a fulltime job. I honestly don’t know how I did it. 

Key decisions you might have taken along your career journey?

Not being afraid to start from scratch, even if it meant getting a salary cut and knowing when a role no longer serves you and learning to let it go. 

What you studied might not be what you end up doing and that is okay. Choosing a path that you are passionate about makes all the difference in the world. 

What’s your advice to Kenyan youth?

Respect the process. I cannot repeat this enough. With the social media pressure, the youth have the notion that they will start earning big bucks. It takes time to build yourself and learn. That kind of growth is slow and painful but it teaches life skills that will keep you support you in the future. 

The youth should also appreciate the fact that growth is not linear. It’s up, down, forwards and sometimes backwards. But its all connected, because those lessons you learn during these periods will sustain you and carry you to your future. 

If there was one thing you could change about your past, what would that be?

Everything that happens to you prepares you for your future. Every lesson, painful or happy, prepared me for this place I am in. So, I would not change a thing. I never regret, I learn. 

What do you do for fun?

Gosh! I need to get back to that. It’s been a hectic couple of years with two babies under four years. But I love to hike, travel and take long drives to relax my mind. I cherish the times when I can travel alone and just listen to myself think. 

Your future plans?

I plan to advance in the communications and advocacy field especially in the humanitarian sector. What excites me is that I am breathing digital life to the communications field which has been largely analogue. I’m definitely eying a communications director job in the near future. I also plan to volunteer my time and skills more. Its important that I help and pass on knowledge and wisdom. 

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