Esther Wanjiru Gathigi surprised many people – herself included – when she left a burgeoning career in banking to oversee the launch of a new community center in Nairobi supporting women entrepreneurs. And although the recently opened WECREATE KENYA has the initial support of the US Department of State, the Caterpillar Foundation, the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program, Youth Banner and the global WECREATE initiative implementers – StartUp Cup – the goal is for the social impact business to become completely self-sustaining within 17 months.
In short, there’s a lot of hustle on the road ahead.
“I’m really proud I took the leap from corporate. It was a ground-floor opportunity to get on board with a startup and have the chance to impact women all around Kenya. If anyone had told me we’d have this kind of traction, I wouldn’t have believed them,” Esther says with no exaggeration. “I was told when I started, this was going to be the hardest job I’ve ever done, but by the end I’ll love it. So far, so true,” she laughs.
With a BCom in Finance from the University of Nairobi and a Master’s from Moi University, Esther seemed destined for a long and prestigious career in the financial sector. She signed up with NIC Bank where she moved up the corporate ladder from operations assistant to branch business manager within seven years. Still with the bank, in 2014 she was selected into the Global Shapers community, a World Economic Forum network of hubs developed and led by young high potential people driven to make a contribution to their communities. Her volunteer work for the hub in the areas of entrepreneurship, education and environment unleashed a feeling she couldn’t ignore.
“As a Global Shaper, my mandate was to make an impact, but honestly I didn’t feel my work in banking was making a difference in society. I had started to think about transitioning when I saw the job advert for WECREATE. I wasn’t ready to start something on my own, but I was ready to team up with a group of people who were doing something great and plug into that.”
Seeking individuals with a passion for entrepreneurship and the ability to take on a highly demanding position with a growth attitude, WECREATE hired the then 29-year-old. Esther was joined by Liz Kariuki, a like-minded sales and marketing executive from the motor industry, and together the pair received rigorous training in the run up to the official opening this past February.
WECREATE (a nifty acronym for Women’s Entrepreneurial Centers of Resources, Education, Access, and Training for Economic Empowerment) is a hyper-localized, public-private partnership between the US Department of State, the US Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, and StartUp Cup – a global network of locally-driven “accelerators without walls” founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Sean Griffin. The goal is to establish resource-rich spaces to support entrepreneurial women in their efforts to launch and grow businesses. WECREATE operates as a grant where employees like Esther and Liz implement the StartUp Cup program, gradually taking on Board roles and – after 17 months – running the center as an independent business. Income is generated through programs and events, a consultancy arm that supports already existing businesses, an incubation and coworking space that is let out to entrepreneurs, and sponsorship from institutions and corporations with an interest in women’s economic empowerment. In addition to Kenya, WECREATE operates in Pakistan, Zambia, and Cambodia, with a center planned for Mali next year.
“I was told when I started, this was going to be the hardest job I’ve ever done, but by the end I’ll love it. So far, so true.”
“There is no one-size-fits-all approach as each center is dependent on local culture. Our implementing partner, Youth Banner, runs the operations and we implement the program, which is designed by StartUp Cup, with local mentors. It’s a great model because the reality on the ground is very different for entrepreneurs depending on the market. They are constantly testing as they grow the initiative but at every step, they must ensure sustainability – this is how Sean and his team are able to continue opening new centers that are handed off to local partners,” Esther explains.
First-time participants in the Center can participate in Build-a-Business workshops at no cost. These visually driven and mentor-supported 4-hour sessions are popular because they are highly interactive and an entry point for women who are not sure where to start. The more advanced 15-week StartUp Academy takes in a small but determined cohort of 18 aspiring female founders. Applications for the next round in June 2016 are now open.
“We look for energy in the participants and a commitment to take their market research to the next level. At 15,000 shillings (US$150), it’s a commitment so we do try to subsidize participation where we can, but the women always need to invest something personally in order to reap the benefit.”
The demand for these services is clear. Since its launch less than four months ago, WECREATE Kenya has trained 600 women while weekend sessions can attract close to 90 participants in one sitting. Partnering with community-based organizations and local authorities has been key as the organization is able to reach women beyond their current stakeholder base. Longer term, the goal is to open satellite centers that replicate what is offered in Nairobi.
“We will train the trainers and mentors around the country and grow in stages. We don’t run before we can walk,” Esther explains, adding: “It’s amazing to be talking about our future vision when the initial challenge was to convince women to attend our events. Unfortunately, many organizations pay participants to join sessions. But it didn’t take us long to move entrepreneurs from the mentality of ‘you need to pay me to attend’ to ‘this is going to help me.’”
And while Esther and the team have made a serious dent in attitudes towards starting up and overcoming barriers to women business owners, she doesn’t hesitate to dish out a little medicine to those who are willing to hear it.
“Things are changing slowly, very slowly in Kenya. The government is making an effort to give access to contracts to women-owned businesses. In all honestly though, we are our own biggest barrier. Women don’t take up their businesses as aggressively as men, who have this ‘I have to do this’ survivalist approach. Women tend to think there will always be someone else to pay the bills and so the business can stay small. That’s what we need to change! We need to convince women not to be afraid to step outside their comfort zone.”
Speaking with her own experience in mind, it seems Esther might just be the best person for the job.
- Stop talking, start doing.
- Go with your gut. If it doesn’t work, try something else, but always get feedback from your customers.
- Take the opportunity and space to make mistakes, you’ll be fine. They will move you forward.
- If you really want something, you’ll find a way, if not you’ll find an excuse.