Three of Kenya’s top business leaders share their tips for success

African youth are increasingly being urged to venture into business and create jobs. Whether out of passion or for survival, many young people are heeding the call to pursue entrepreneurship.

Lee Karuri

Lee Karuri

Last week a group of young entrepreneurs in Nairobi attended the Under 35 Multi-millionaire Economic Conference where a number of established business people shared their success tips. How we made it in Africa was in attendance and looks at the advice from three of the speakers.

Joanne Mwangi, CEO, PMS Group

Award-winning entrepreneur Joanne Mwangi started her business 18 years ago and has built one of East Africa’s leading marketing firms. In 2010, Professional Marketing Services Group became the first woman-owned business, and the only one since, to be voted number one in the Top 100 SMEs competition in Kenya.

According to Mwangi, one of the reasons for her success was widening her scope and geographical reach. For many years she focused purely on marketing but later realised that she was missing out on opportunities in other sectors and outside of Kenya.

Mwangi advised entrepreneurs to study market needs and trends, innovate and diversify their businesses.

“Money does not come coloured… I can have money that comes from construction [and] I can also have money that comes from garbage collection. It can all fit in my wallet. Don’t block yourself [by doing only] renewable energy, [for instance]. If this business is not working, what else can you do? Throw your hand at various things.”

She also urged audience members to outsource services they don’t need to offer in-house since “it reduces the number of things you have to worry about as the CEO”.

Mwangi explained that the business world is full of “sharks” who undercut and play unfairly. However, entrepreneurs should “never back down”.

“The business adversaries that you meet, you must never be the one to shy away. Stand your ground and fight for what you believe you can win because if you back down today you will not have the strength to stand up to them tomorrow. [If] you give an inch they will take a mile and soon there [will be] no space for you to operate.”

She highlighted the importance of having a work-life balance by spending time with family and friends and nurturing hobbies and other interests.

“You are a business leader but what other hats do you wear? If you don’t balance your other hats then you have a problem. Do not sacrifice all at the altar of making it in business.”

Lee Karuri, chairman, Home Afrika

Lee Karuri is the chairman of Home Afrika, a Nairobi Securities Exchange-listed real estate firm. The architecture graduate has been in business for over two decades and founded a number of property-focused companies.

According to Karuri, entrepreneurs aspiring for success should be competent in what they do, have the ability to network, work well within a team and build partnerships with others.

He encouraged entrepreneurs to uphold high standards of integrity and ethics.

“Ethics is central in business. I have been in business for 20 years now and I have come to learn that the area of ethics is so critical,” said Karuri. “Most people say ‘I am working on my reputation’. Reputation is who you want other people to think you are. Don’t work on your reputation and ignore your character. Work on your character and it will translate into a good reputation.”

Beyond personal integrity, Karuri said business people should deliver on their promises.

“One of the biggest challenges that we have… is providing quality services. It is unethical to provide sub-standard services from what you promised. Our challenge is that businesses are not delivering what they promise because they want to maximise profits and cut down on the work they need to do. At the end of day it translates to shoddy work, customers are complaining and eventually you lose repeat business.”

Mugo Kibati, CEO, Miliki Ventures

Mugo Kibati is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and founder of Miliki Ventures. The engineering graduate previously served as head of East African Cables and as director-general of Kenya’s Vision 2030 delivery board that is responsible for spearheading the implementation of the national blueprint aimed at making Kenya a middle income state by 2030.

According to Kibati, one key to success in business is to think big. He cited the case of a multi-million dollar technology park project, called Konza City, that is under construction in Kenya. Whilst foreign investors are buying into the project and making investments, Kibati said most Kenyans remain sceptical that the project will take off.

He explained that instead of coming up with innovative ways to tap into the opportunities the project will create, local entrepreneurs are instead buying land near the project asking about where the road will pass, with the hopes of getting compensated by the government some day.

Government should not “think bigger than entrepreneurs”, said Kibati. “It should be entrepreneurs thinking big and government playing catch-up.”

The audience was also warned not to have a short-term approach to becoming wealthy. He said many young people want to be like cement-tycoon Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man, but mistakenly think such success is achieved overnight.