Step aside men, here come the go-getters

What you need to know:

  • A combination of dogged determination to succeed, quality education, a friendly constitution, and changing attitudes have made it easier for Kenyan women to excel in the corporate world. So do they owe their success to men in any way? CHEGE MUGAI has been seeking the answers from successful women

Up the hill from Mombasa Road at the Hillpark Hotel as half of Nairobi battles with a gridlocked traffic, a young woman sips juice from the comfort of a terrace seat.

Briefly, she flicks open her laptop, taps on the keyboard keenly then sits up again and continues her relaxed pose. Everything about her defines a person in charge of her life. And she is.

While she may not exactly be a household name in Nairobi, Ms Jeanne Mathenge is making big waves as an independent real estate and ICT projects management consultant as far apart as Juba and Toronto. Meet Kenyan women who are making a difference.

“I am always on the move and work never really goes away. I therefore try to enjoy as much as I can as I work,” says Ms Mathenge, her phone in hand as clients keep calling or texting for updates.

Here, a peek into her everyday life.

It’s a typical Juba day with temperatures hovering above 30 degrees as the Insurance giant UAP breaks ground on three very high profile real estate projects. The numbers involved are staggering but that is the least of the worries facing the fledgling South Sudan administration right now.

Petrodollars are in plenty and what they badly need are investments to address an acute shortage of office space in the capital. As Gen Wani Konga, the governor of the Central Equatoria province tells the assembled guests, the city – mostly characterised by ageing structures – will need modern buildings.

UAP is part of the deal and its 15-storey Equatoria Tower will easily become Juba’s most recognisable landmark (the tallest building now, the Sahara Hotel, is only four storeys).

As the function proceeds, UAP invites its project manager to feed the guests with the specifics of the project. Gen Konga looks amazed as a young woman steps forward and proceeds to make an eloquent presentation on the project.

It is all in a day’s work for Ms Mathenge. She has handled projects across the region as well as in the United States and Canada where her business was born. She later moved back home to pioneer in the lucrative sector that handles project execution for clients of practically any form. Ms Mathenge owns an office block in Karen and has her home in the same exclusive suburb.

Welcome to the new world where women are increasingly making their way into roles that were previously a preserve of men. It has been a long, hard battle as Mrs Mary Okelo, Founder and Director at Makini Group of Schools says.

In 1978, Mrs Okelo had all sorts of problems trying to start her schools.

“Women had no bank accounts, were not valid signatories to anything and could only own property through proxy,” she recalls adding that then, a successful woman was a marvel; an exception to the general rule. This was as a result of a systematic discrimination that has not quite gone away in some countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait women still cannot vote or drive.

That to Mrs Okelo looks so far away now as her initial struggles have since been replaced by success.

“It looks so far away now but in the 70s, we could never have thought it would happen so fast. Now, it looks like every thriving institution has a female face behind it,” says Mrs Okelo whose schools produce outstanding women professionals like Kethi Kilonzo, a renowned advocate and Ms Koki Mutungi, Kenya’s first woman commercial pilot amongst others.

But according to Dr Steve Muguchia of the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, the reality of women rising to the top was only a matter of course as they possess a number of key advantages.

The engineering don says women have an edge on male students especially on the hard scientific subjects.

“Women naturally have a better attention level than men and in such critical disciplines like the sciences. It really helps,” says Dr Muguchia who has witnessed the women advance the battle of the sexes in his area of specialty.

But it does not just end there as far as the don is concerned. He feels women have communication and feminine advantage over men, the latter especially in the present age. “Women have a better commitment to creating and sustaining social relationships than men. Because of that, they are running away with all the jobs that have a social dimension,” he says.

“Because the larger economy still tends to be male dominated,” reasons Dr Muguchia, “women in executive positions have that advantage of being able to have their way with male consumers more easily because of that natural law of cross sexual attraction.”

The don sees a danger for the male folk in the future as women empowerment becomes a social and constitutional reality. Dr Muguchia is perhaps referring to the existence of vibrant women lobbies and a constitution that now requires employers to allocate at least a third of their positions to women.

“When you are up against a woman who is at your level of academic and practical credentials, as a man you may stand no chance in today’s job market.”

Dr Muguchia is however quick to add that women deserve their improving fortunes after being ignored for a long time. Women tend to be more methodical and keener employees for some reason, observes the don. And maybe even keener business people as Ms Daphine Okonji, a vastly growing graphic designer is proving. In 2008, straight after wrapping up her studies at Strathmore University, Mrs Okonji felt she was never going to sustain an employment.

Armed with only Sh5,000 from her last salary, Ms Okonji set out on a seemingly impossible journey to build a business from her home. But in another excellent case of the power of a woman, her Elle Interior Designers is today a Sh20 million-a-year business with a dozen employees in its books.

Ms Okonji, at only 27 years of age, has achieved a truly inspiring feat . “Yes, being a woman has really helped me,” she says from her impressive office block in Kileleshwa where she also runs a well attended design school.

“Women have a never-say-die attitude deep within them which is unstoppable when properly directed. The other thing with being a woman is the focus which not many men can lay a claim to,” she says.

Mrs Okonji feels that focus is in every woman and that it is what one requires to succeed.

“In the past, it was not that women were ever of low intelligence. It was only that roadblocks were put in their way to success. Now with all that crumbling, women are rising – not because of any male goodwill – but because it was inevitable for this to happen.”

But a leading human resources consultant, while agreeing with Mrs Okonji on the power of the woman, still tends to disagree on the issue of goodwill. Mrs Lucy Kiboi, the managing director, Touchline Management Services, feels the goodwill is actually there in plenty.

“I would say the goodwill has been earned rather just given to the women of this country on a platter,” she says adding that it has never been any more exciting to be a woman in this country than now. But she doubts whether women are doing enough to capitalize on the goodwill.

“Women have been holding back rather than step out of the shadows big time. The numbers are now good in the business circles. But at the very top, we badly need numbers.”