After receiving my Masters Degree in Fine Arts in India, I got married in 1995 and came over to Kenya, to Nyeri to be precise, into an extended family that all lived together. At that time, the family business was in the production of mineral water – the Highlands Mineral Water Company – and I soon became involved by joining the accounting department. It was my first exposure to the working environment in Kenya, in what was then a male dominated sector. Some years later, my husband and I started RAKA (RAjesh and KAlpa) Milk Processors Ltd., producing The Finest Kenyan Cheese, and that’s when my journey as an entrepreneur started, 16 years ago.
Being an entrepreneur in Kenya has presented its own set of challenges, and I had to learn so much about how to operate here and how to handle the challenges – especially after the passing on of my husband seven years ago. I had to take over the reins of a company that hitherto I had only partially run. But now I had to assume total control, in addition to taking care of my sons Parth and Manav, who were still young at the time. So I had to combine being a full time mother with fulfilling my obligations as a business entrepreneur.
My leadership of RAKA has taken me on a sixteen-year journey of business and personal growth, providing Kenyans with a product that has made the company a household name, and among the accolades we have earned are a nomination as a SuperBrand, and qualified through the selection criteria in the “TOP 100 SMEs in Kenya” – an initiative of KPMG. We now produce several varieties of cheese, and we export to Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Eritrea.
I must pay glowing tribute to the mentors in my life, and first my parents. They played a vital role in my upbringing and in my personal development. They gave me the confidence to believe in myself and the belief that I would succeed in any venture that I put my hands on. Unknowingly they helped me lay the foundation that has made me who I am today.
My other great mentor was my late husband, Rajesh, and I am so grateful to him for teaching me the do’s and don’ts of engaging in business in Kenya, and more for so giving me the confidence that I could succeed. He believed in me and appreciated me as his business partner, and that went a long way in ensuring that what he taught me was also put into practice under his guidance. It was he who prepared me for independence, and he who strengthened my self-esteem. I treasure this legacy of the great gifts he left me with.
Let me now reflect on what I have learned in my journey through life and see what advice I can offer to the current generation, both men and women.
As we progress through our daily lives, we go through daily regular motions. But true change, serious change, valuable change, only comes through accepting serious challenges and through living with diversity. For you to succeed and to be a front runner, you have to step out of your comfort zone and be ready to weather every storm that will come your way. It is only by handling such obstacles and setbacks that you can eventually emerge a winner. Change is inevitable. The questions is, are you willing to adapt to that change? Or are you satisfied with just existing within your comfort zone and putting up with the mediocre?
We occasionally see in the news and on social media how narrow-minded the mentality of men in Kenya – irrespective of colour or creed – is towards women. It is still the standard thinking of too many to believe that a woman is incapable of being a leader, a mentor, a keeper or a provider. Yet look at the role of a woman in a home. If you think of a family as a company, she is so often the Managing Director, The General Manager, the Head of Human Resources and the Mentor.
As Managing Director she ensures that the family’s needs are all taken care of and no member has any reason to complain or not feel part of the team. As General Manager she ensures that every member of the family – irrespective of age – carries out their duties. She teaches them the right way, ensures that each is provided for and keeps them all together as a family. And in every family with both parents, it is the mother’s responsibility to ensure that the children (and sometimes the father too!) do the right thing, understand proper manners, learn how to be a responsible citizen and provider and above all, be compassionate and empathetic. In these ways she acts as the Mentor in the family.
And by the way, if you think of the company as a family… the same applies!
So finally, why then can’t a woman be the next president of Kenya, when already she has more qualities and capabilities to run a country than so many of her male counterparts?