Evelyn Mungai

Having founded Evelyn College of Design 41 years ago, Evelyn Mungai is a pioneer in the fashion and design industry in the East Africa region, a visionary trendsetter and a true business mogul.

Like every other child in her village, Evelyn Mungai walked barefoot each day to her local village school in the countryside of Cura Village in Kiambu County. She grew up surrounded by her extended family comprising grandparents, cousins and nine siblings. Her father was a court clerk in Nairobi and she fondly remembers how he would come home on weekends armed with canned sardines, which soon became one of her favourite delicacies.

The young Mungai loved school and relishes memories of her youth. “Our parents’ love for education accorded us a good upbringing. All of us siblings were brought up as equals in our home,” she says. “We were blessed to have educated grandparents. It followed that our parents would educate us well.” She attended Mary Leakey School for her secondary education and later joined Kianda Business School in 1962, the first African girl to attend the college. “I had received a scholarship from North Carolina University for my schooling. I had to ensure I excelled,” she recalls. Upon completion of her college studies, she joined the East Africa Commerce Services and started off as a secretary. She worked hard, rising to the level of director. In 1970, she made a bold decision to quit her job and start her own business: the first African-owned recruitment company. She confides that it was not easy. “There were many   sceptics around me. They said that I would never make it, so I was determined to prove them wrong.”

Her strategy was simple: to network in order to become affiliated with international agencies and join their member associations. She knocked on several doors, including law firms.

Some, out of curiosity, gave her a chance, and she made sure she left a good impression. The main lessons she learned through her journey of entrepreneurship were that one should not sacrifice quality, credibility or integrity and that one should never offer what they cannot deliver.

During this time, access to finance was a great challenge for women in business. Getting a loan as a woman was not easy, especially without security and without a husband. Against all odds, she managed to secure her first loan of Ksh16,000 – a princely sum at the time. Humbled and encouraged that her loan had been granted, she resolved to work even harder. The business fared well for about six years, after which the market began to get crowded. She analysed her recruitment data and realised that many of the people she dealt with harboured the desire to become designers. That is how Evelyn College of Design was born in 1976. “This was a leap of faith. I knew there was a need and that it was an unknown venture in Kenya,” she says. “I was not sure how I was going to pull it off while running the recruitment agency.”

But armed with the determination to fill the gap, she forged on. Mungai sourced qualified teachers to get the school off the ground. Most of her staff were expatriates. Within a short period, the demand for admissions had gone up and they could hardly keep pace with the numbers. The college offered courses in clothing construction, fashion, textiles and later introduced interior design.

Overwhelmed by the workload, they had to temporarily discontinue the interior design course as the school had opened its fashion and design course to students from other African nations including Uganda, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Once the college gained traction for its prowess in fashion and design, the interior design course was re-introduced as its reputation grew. “In business one must learn to let go and balance the pros and cons. You make mistakes and learn from them. I have made my fair share,” she shares candidly.

On the journey to becoming an excellent businesswoman and educator, she learned the hard way that people are important. She learned the art of managing employees, the importance of recruiting staff whose vision resonated with her business goals, and how to deal with vicious competitors who poached some of her best employees.

Mungai is happy to let Evelyn College of Design remain as a tertiary institution and keep its doors open for those who are ready and willing to work with their hands. In addition to design, the college now offers communications, entrepreneurship, leadership and project management studies. Her hope is to increase the number of courses to include highly skilled crafts like carpentry and leather making. She has aspirations for the college to start a fashion label and expand to overseas markets. She also hopes to work on a succession plan and identify someone with fresh ideas who can take over from her and take her vision to a new level. Mungai draws her motivation from a deep desire to be the best at what she does, so as to inspire people to pursue their dreams. She is particularly proud that Evelyn College of Design helps people achieve their ambitions. One of her most special moments was when a mother and daughter graduated from her college at the same time.

She confesses that she is motivated by the innate fear of failure alongside the desire to prove those who look down on her wrong. Without a doubt, Evelyn College of Design is her proudest accomplishment. Through this achievement, she became the first woman to participate in the Africa Business Round Table, to which she was later appointed its first vice chairperson. For 10 years, Mungai also dabbled in publishing through Presence magazine, which showcased the achievement of women from all walks of life. She also published Kenya Women Reflections, a book that highlights the critical role performed by Kenyan women during the struggle for independence. She would eventually drop publishing to focus on the college. Her day invariably begins by 5am to spend some quiet time with God in prayer. Most days will find her in her office at 8.30am reading emails. She then holds short meetings for updates from her staff. Lunch is often eaten at her desk and she usually leaves the office between 5 and 6pm. A firm believer in empowering her employees, she detests micro-managing her staff. Back home, she has an early dinner and watches news before retiring to bed.

Widowed at the age of 34 when her husband and father of her two children, Arthur Mungai, passed away in 1978, she would later go against the expected norm by re-marrying; her spouse is an American management consultant, Mike Eldon. Weekends are spent relaxing and enjoying time with her grandchildren. During holidays she loves to read a lot and listen to music, especially golden oldies. She also enjoys swimming to keep healthy and relaxes through meditation. As part of giving back, Mungai is a member of the Nairobi Rotary Club, a philanthropy movement that focuses on improving people’s lives. She was the first female member and the first African president of the Nairobi Rotary Club.

As president, she helped conduct District Conferences and started the Rotary Children’s Home in Cura, her home village. The Home, which has been running for over a decade, takes care of 50 children, some of whom are Aids orphans. Through the Rotary Club, she also helped start the Adopt-a-Village project to help boost food security and promote wealth creation through teaching of farming skills that include growing of food crops such as bananas, and beekeeping Hard work and dedication has won the serial entrepreneur numerous awards including the President’s Award for Excellence in Business and Finance by Lincoln University, Order of the Grand Warrior (OGW) awarded in 1996, Service Above Self Award by the Rotary Club of Indianapolis, USA, and Queen of Sheba Award.

Through her role as a leading business woman, Mungai is the only Kenyan who has served on the World Islamic Economic Forum Advisory Board. As part of her legacy to champion women’s economic empowerment, Mungai is the Founding President of the All Africa Businesswomen Association (AABA), an organisation that promotes the economic empowerment of women in Africa. In 2016, Evelyn College of Design which counts most of Kenya’s celebrated designers as it alumni, was awarded the Greatest Brand in Education category at the World’s Greatest Brands & Leaders Award ceremony in Abu Dhabi. Mungai is a stickler for time and known for always keeping her word, a clear indication of her work ethic, reliability and determination. What does it take to succeed in business? She summarises it thus: “You must be ready to pick yourself up and learn from your mistakes.”

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