‘Meet the Boss’ is a How we made it in Africa interview series where we pose the same ten questions to business leaders across the continent.
Simon Gicharu, founder and chairman, Mount Kenya University (MKU)
1. What was your first job?
My first job was teaching.
2. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
That would be the person who sacked me. If I had not been fired from teaching I would probably still be in my comfort zone. He gave me the courage to get into entrepreneurship. I would never have left my teaching job to go sell milk. I am glad I got the chance to exploit my potential.
3. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
I worry about political stability in my country, Kenya, especially after the experiences we have had in the past. In 2008, after the post-election violence, about 1,000 students left the university. This gave us a lot of problems especially with cash flow. That is my biggest worry.
4. What are the top reasons why you have been successful in business?
First is humility. That has been key in working with other people, especially employees. I have learnt that it is through humility that you can be able to nurture your dream. Focus is another attribute. I am like a lion. If a lion earmarks on a specific antelope, even if another antelope rubs on its body, it will not be distracted from the original target. I have managed to avoid distractions and stay focused on building the university.
5. What are the best things about your country, Kenya?
I love the weather because it is always moderate. I also love the fact that a simple person like me can come from nowhere and achieve so much to the extent of getting presidential recognition. Last year I was awarded the highest honour a civilian can get from the president of Kenya: Chief of the Order of the Burning Spear (CBS). Anything I have achieved, I have earned fairly. In Kenya, opportunities are not only for a certain class of people.
6. And the worst?
I hate the tribalism. I don’t like this and I have tried to use my university to fight it by ensuring equal employment opportunities for Kenyans from all communities. Sometimes I wish we had only one tribe in Kenya where people do not foresee each other with suspicion. I don’t know how many years it will take before we identify ourselves as Kenyans first before anything else.
7. Your future career plans?
I would like to diversify my investments. I hate the idea of doing one thing for the rest of my life. That would be boring. I would like to invest in other sectors.
8. How do you relax?
I go to the gym when I get time.
9. What is your message to Africa’s young aspiring business people and entrepreneurs?
They need to remain focused in whatever they are pursuing. Whatever you are good at – be it sports, business or politics – give it your best and avoid distractions.
10. How can Africa realise its full potential?
We need to ensure that our governments are stable. Stability is the only way through which the African people can get maximum gain from the continent’s numerous resources. Look at DR Congo which has numerous resources yet its people are among the poorest on the continent. Congo has potential to be the Europe of Africa. Africa must strive to be a stable continent.
Simon Gicharu is the founder and chairman of Mount Kenya University, one of the leading private universities in Kenya with operations in Rwanda and plans to expand to Somaliland and Tanzania.