There is a fiery ball of fire headed towards the Kenya Tourism Board in the form of Joanne Mwangi-Yelbert, their new chairperson. She comes with passion, ideas, and questions. “What does it mean to be Kenyan? What is the Kenyan brand manual? Who can give you a Kenyan brand manual? What is Kenya?”
These are the many questions she has to answer in the new office. She is sitting under a cluster of potted plants at the Pallet Cafe in Lavington, Nairobi, buzzing with her caffeine and with idealism and gung-ho.
She also has undeniable successes to speak of; the founder CEO of Professional Marketing Service (PMS) Africa Group, former chair of the Federation of Women Entrepreneur Associations, and founder chair of Eastern Africa Women Entrepreneur Exchange Network.
She also received the Head of State Commendation for her work in support of the growth of women-owned and led enterprises.
In short, she is ready. But first, she has a tale to tell about her PhD…
You were telling me about your PhD…
Yes, the one that never happened. [Laughs]. I went to do my PhD simply because I wanted to be called Dr, to be honest. On the first day of class, at the University of Nairobi, the lecturer just took us on a run-through of the motivations of why he thought we were there.
He said, ‘some of you are here because they’re being paid for – especially government people. Some of you are here because your parents expected you to get a PhD. Some are here because you feel deficient in some way, and a PhD would be a validation.
Some of you are here because you’re idle, and so you’re looking for something to do, to tick a box or to keep yourself busy.’ I fell in the category of idleness.
And then he said, ‘by the end of the course, 90 percent would have dropped out, or gone mad, or suffered so much from failing and it would scar them for life.’ And of the class of 20, he added, he expected only about three of us to end up with a PhD.
He said motivation was the only thing that made the difference between those who finish PhD and succeed. So I decided to drop out on day one. I donated my money to a needy student because I had paid. But I’m still hoping that I’ll get an honorary PhD because I think I deserve it.
Why do you think you deserve it?
Because I’ve done so much in the entrepreneurship space, and I’m not just puffing myself up. The one thing I hate is poverty. I want to do everything I can to pull up everybody. I have the potential to touch many lives through entrepreneurship. It’s my little big thing.
Because in the time I’ve run the PMS Group which is about 25 years, thousands of people have gone through the programme. It may not be a long-term impact, in terms of employing them for life, but I have given them a skill that they can then leverage.
Have you experienced poverty at any time?
I’ll be lying to say I’ve experienced real poverty, but I have gone through hard times in life. I’ve been broke. When I left formal employment to start a business, the first year was rough. You get to a place where you’ve used up all your savings and you don’t know what’s next. Listen, I went to Alliance –
Oh Lord! I was wondering when you would bring up that little detail, it’s taken you a whole, what, seven minutes…
[Laughs loud] Oh please, how would I fail to tell you? I should have said it at the beginning, eh? Next time I’ll start with that. [Chuckles]
It’s only natural that way.
I think the one thing that Alliance does to you is you’re not expected to be mediocre. You’re expected to be creme de la creme. Anything less, even if it’s good, you have failed. That makes you very uncomfortable with reality.
So when I was broke, I couldn’t understand why I was broke. I was like, ‘with all this big brain of mine, other people are selling mitumba and thriving, they’re buying RAV4s and there I am in my KAD and I can’t even upgrade.’
Have you attained excellence?
I don’t think excellence is a place you reach and stay, excellence is sporadic. You get there, you drop off, you get there, you drop off. And it’s dropping off in terms of elevation, because every time you reach what you consider excellence, then suddenly there’s a new peak. You can never really attain excellence.
Why do you have three Master’s degrees?
(Laughs) The first one was from USIU. I was working at Colgate as the brand manager. Business completely absorbed me – I used to work like 18 hours a day. I think I was hiding at work because my life had no balance. I would read a lot but then I realised the books weren’t answering my questions. So I had to go back to school.
I did my second Master’s degree from Babson College in the US. I have done the Stanford Seat Programme, and so many other courses I can’t even remember.
I stopped doing these courses because I reached a point I asked myself; ‘can you first utilise what you know before you start trying to pile more and more?’ I still read a lot. But I think I was just piling too much on.
Did all these Master’s help you in business?
Oh yes! You don’t realise that they’re helping until one day you are the only person who has a solution to a problem, and you’re like ‘but I thought it was obvious’.
The Stanford Seed Programme – an executive programme for entrepreneurs – was particularly impactful. They immerse in your business and train your top management and turn your business from a ka-small business to a global one.
From where do you think you get your validation?
My family. Okay, work yes of course, because I’ve always loved work, but I think it is my family. When I say my family, I’m not saying I want my children to have PhDs and whatnot.
It’s just seeing them as wholesome humans, flawed and all, but very wholesome. Because I think it would be tragic if you had everything else and your family is falling apart. So for me, I feel very good just enjoying my children.
Define falling apart.
To me, it is when your children are struggling and suffering. Not that life should be hunky-dory but, they shouldn’t be unable to cope. My firstborn is Valery, she is in cybersecurity. You can’t write her age, Biko, she’s a girl. [Chuckles].
The second is Andrew, he is 31 and works with me in the business as a project manager. He studied project management engineering, came back to Kenya and realised that in Kenya project management engineering jobs don’t exist. So he has the choice of going back to the UK or Canada. So I think between him and his wife they’re thinking through what next.
There is Solomon, who is studying chemical engineering. Then there’s Tre [we hope we got this spelling right]. Tre is from my second marriage. So he is my husband’s son. He’s just joining law school in the UK. But for me, my family is wider, including my nieces, and nephews. We’re a very close-knit family.
What would you like your children not to learn from you?
I would not want them to work as hard as I’ve worked. I’m very clear about that. I think that work-life balance is so important. I would want them to have a lot more fun. I would want them to be less serious, to be more frivolous, and not to follow rules too closely.
Because that’s another Alliance problem; just following rules, doing the right thing all the time. No, come on. Be a bit crazy. I think that’s the essence of a full life.
How different is marriage the second time round?
Oh! It’s profoundly different. You’re very intentional in a second marriage. You’ve already experienced the end of one, so the second one is a new beginning. You know what you did right, what you did wrong, what you wish you did.
And you also know that when you’re marrying somebody, you’re marrying the entire package. You’re not marrying this romantic image that you’re sitting in front of. You’re now marrying an entire culture, an entire history.
This person has been shaped by experiences and so you have to accommodate that baggage. It’s a new level of tolerance, of being a lot kinder and less judgmental.
I look at it very easily, ‘what do I want from this person? What is he capable of giving me?’ If I want 1,2,3,4,5 and he’s capable of giving me 1,2,3,4, we shall never fight about number 5 because it’s a waste of my time. I enjoy the 1 to 4.
For example, he loves biking, I don’t. But we both love dancing. On the other hand, there are some things I do that he can’t understand why I do them. Like my obsessive reading. I don’t watch much TV, I’m always reading. He doesn’t get it. He says my eyesight is terrible because of all the reading. [Laughs].
You mentioned that you don’t want your children to be caught up in following rules too much. Which rule do you find yourself struggling with now?
To be honest I’ve overcome the Alliance baggage of wanting to be perfect. Another thing I picked up in Alliance was trusting everybody because we were taught to be truthful and honest. Your word was your bond. That was me, and I expected everybody else to be the same.
I went through life very naive. It took a very long time for me to get to the place where I have to wait for you to prove that you’re trustworthy before I trust you. That’s the one rule that affected my life, especially in business. Because you get conned.
What part of your life is not working the way you want it to work now?
[Pause] Can I be honest? I don’t think I have an area that I’m struggling with seriously. It’s just the normal small struggles.
For instance, I’m supposed to go to the gym four times a week and I go three times instead. I’m supposed to reduce eating carbs but I have to eat a mandazi. Those can’t be things to mention not to be working in my life. I feel very blessed to be in this space.
When were you in a very bad space?
When I lost my dad. I was very close to my dad. He died at 92. I didn’t understand how to grieve because I had never grieved before. I realised I wasn’t coping but I didn’t know what to do and what resources were available.
To cope I decided to do something I had never done in my life. Fast. I love food. I did the 21-day fast, just eating raw vegetables and fruits.
Daniel’s Fast. From the Bible.
Look at you, showing the Biblical in you. I didn’t even know it was Bible-based. The 21 days fast taught me that I was stronger than I thought. Anything you put your mind to you can achieve and for me there was no way I was going to let down the memory of my father. So it goes back to the compelling reason, the why. I believe that in life, as long you have a why there’s nothing you can’t achieve.
You are getting into the government as chairperson of KTB. Are you aware that good intentions normally go to die in government?
Good intentions go to die in government, yes, but not mine. [Chuckles] I am serious about this. Mine are not dying in government because if the government is not the place for them to live, I don’t have to be in government. I can still do it.
And I also know the freedom of being out of government. Because when you’re out of government, you don’t have to challenge protocols or anything. You’re just you.
When you’re in government, you’re restricted by protocols because you have a certain modicum of decorum to observe. My intention is so powerful that I must achieve it.
To thrive and get things done, you might have to play politics. Are you a political animal?
I am a political scientist. I understand politics. My father was a politician. You can’t sit out of office politics if you’re to get ahead in any corporate position. Anybody who says they’re not political will never find themselves in the 30 percent club in corporate; the top management.
What did you have to sacrifice to get to the 30 percent?
Plenty. I sacrificed the fun, the frivolous, the things I don’t want my children to give up. I sacrificed the youthful adventures and the rubbish you do when you’re young. I never had that. But even more fundamentally I think I sacrificed a lot of family time.
You know those evenings instead of sitting and playing with your children you’re on your laptop? Yeah? I did that. And then I learned. One day I just woke up and asked myself ‘what am I doing?’ And I stopped. But those were the sacrifices I had to make.
Your children have to sort of make their sacrifices as well.
And I expect them to but I don’t want them to be tortured like I was. If I can make their paths smoother I will help.
How much discomfort would you allow your children to have?
Oh, plenty. I don’t believe in children having everything.
What do you remember from your childhood?
I was born in Pumwani Maternity Hospital. I grew up in Bondeni Estate. It was magical. I grew up in the Nairobi we dream of today. I remember Christmas time. The City Council would paint the pavements white. There was this particular Weeping Willow tree that we used to play under.
Only one family had a TV, so we used to go there to watch a programme called ‘Solid Gold.’ We would wake up and find dad had come, and we would find sweets; Quality Street. I thought everybody ate Quality Street.
My dad worked in hotels and when he worked in Chinese hotels he would bring us Chinese food. We would wake up to that. My dad had very British mannerisms so for breakfast there would always be toast, boiled eggs, orange juice, or oranges. You know that kind of life?
What are you insecure about now?
The fact that none of us knows how long we have. I’m insecure about thinking that old age takes away the edge from your sharpness and you get to the place where you will be dull. I feel like I need to do as much as I can before that happens to me. I don’t want to wake up one day and feel like I wasted my youth.
You are a grandmother of two girls. How does it feel to be a grandmother?
It’s amazing because it’s take-two on parenting. You get a chance to remedy all the mistakes you made. You look at your grandchildren and want a better future for them, for them to speak many languages.
Everybody should be multilingual because it opens up the world. If I’m in France I should be able to speak French. If I’m in Germany I should be able to speak German. If I go to China I should be able to speak Chinese. There is no single reason why Kenyan children are not learning international languages.
Learn your mother tongue, learn Kiswahili, learn English, and learn any other language you choose. You should learn a minimum of five languages as a Kenyan child.
Every child below the age of 7 has a porous language barrier. It is the exposure to language that they’re not getting. And if I was to do anything in the education sector, that is one of the things I would do.