How one woman rose from jobless to CEO of a thriving business.
What you need to know:
- Exactly six-and-a-half years ago, she was distraught following a false start at what she thought at the time was her dream career.
- After five months, she was fired.
- When the initial shock wore off, she spent the next five months seeking closure and thinking about whether she was ready to go back to employment and risk getting sacked again or whether to decide what she wanted to do for the rest of her life and pursue it with all she had.
At just 30 years, Daphine Okonji is at the helm of four successful companies.
When we get to her Kileleshwa office for this interview, she is going about her day with ease and self-assuredness. It’s hard to believe that she stumbled into interior design.
Exactly six-and-a-half years ago, she was distraught following a false start at what she thought at the time was her dream career.
She had a degree in business from Strathmore University, a diploma in human resources management and the job she landed soon after graduation at a human resources firm in Nairobi seemed like the answer to her prayers.
After five months, she was fired.
“I loved that job and I was so crushed that I broke down in front of the lady who gave me the termination letter,” she recalls.
When the initial shock wore off, she spent the next five months seeking closure and thinking about whether she was ready to go back to employment and risk getting sacked again or whether to decide what she wanted to do for the rest of her life and pursue it with all she had.
A SIGN FROM ABOVE
She settled for the latter and together with her husband Jan Okonji, who was her boyfriend at the time and a friend, registered a business partnership.
She realised that it was a good thing she hadn’t been in employment for long as she hadn’t acquired any loans or gotten entangled in debt yet. At this point, people couldn’t understand why she was getting into a business which was entirely different from her training.
She began getting pressure from her parents to look for another job and she gave in for a while and began sending out job applications. Surprisingly, despite having an impressive resume, she was not called even for a mock interview.
“I took this as a sign that I should go into business. The silence from prospective employers strengthened my resolve.”
Their company hired out gardens for functions and they also had a home in the same compound which they hired out for weekend getaways as well as to couples who wished to spend a night or two in town before heading out to their honeymoon destinations.
In the first month, Daphine realised that she immensely enjoyed the time she spent furnishing this house and putting together the décor and she also liked the end result.
Without wasting any time, and armed with only this passion, she registered an interior design company, and when she wasn’t working at the bigger company, she was fanning her passion, seeking and devouring all the information she could on interior décor.
Her big break came a year later in April 2009 with money she and her husband had gotten from their wedding from friends and family.
She added this money to her savings and used it to book a stand at the Homes Expo at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi.
She has not looked back since.
Partnerships come with unique challenges and theirs sank after two years, allowing her to dedicate all her energy to her sole proprietorship. Like any budding business, hers did not come without challenges.
It was hard to get qualified employees to start with and at one point, in frustration, she fired all but one employee, and had to run the entire company by herself. Her husband later left his job to run the company with her, easing the pressure.
Daphine also lost huge amounts of money to people she thought were her friends and had to deal with two break-ins that almost crippled the company. Not losing sight of the bigger picture, she says, helped her bounce back each of these times.
Her initial idea was to bring colour to residential homes but her scope is now wider so she now has hospitals, banks, executive offices, schools and even museums as her clients.
Her persistence has seen the mother company give birth to four companies namely: Elle Landscape Designers, Elle College of Design and Elle Décor Ltd. Her efforts have also not gone unnoticed and she has received several awards in the recent past including a honorary recognition from the Architectural Association of Kenya for her contribution to interior design in 2014.
What Daphine enjoys most about being an entrepreneur even more than being her own boss is having enough time each day to spend with her daughter.
Her secret, she shares, is making sure that her office is no further than 10 minutes from her home so that no time is wasted in traffic.
“I would not have it any other way,” she beams.
How she did it
- She didn’t wait for things to get better; she went out and made things happen.
- She ignored stereotypes and people who told her that she was too young to venture into business.
- She surrounds herself with like-minded people usually people in business and people who want to help her grow.
- Prayer. When things got tough, that was where she sought, and still seeks, strength