Joanne Mwangi is the multiple award-winning founder of Professional Marketing Services, growing it from a small marketing agency to a leading brand in the industry. The top achieving entrepreneur’s mission is to empower women and youth in business, a calling that has thrust her into the position of founding Chairperson of Federation of Women Entrepreneurs Association, in addition to mentoring and providing job skills and opportunities to aspiring youth.
At a time when Kenyan streets are teeming with jobless youths, creating over 20,000 jobs is a phenomenal feat. Yet that is just one of the many feathers in the cap of Joanne Mwangi, the only Kenyan woman to have scooped three prizes at a go in the prestigious Top 100 Medium-sized Companies Awards. Mwangi, who was declared the 2010 Entrepreneur of the Year, Best Service Award, and Top 100 Medium-sized Companies Award winner, attributes her success to being a woman. She described the awards as ‘gratifying’ and a testimony that hard work pays. “We are better placed than men to get ahead because we are underestimated.
Therefore, when we do something extraordinary, everybody wants to work with us because they think we’re too good.” The alumna of Alliance Girls’ High School and the University of Nairobi holds a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree from the United States International University. She is founder and chief executive officer of the Professional Marketing Services (PMS) Group and the founder chairperson of the Federation of Women Entrepreneurs Association (FEWA).
FEWA is an all-women apex body of entrepreneurs, investors, business owners and their business associations in Kenya. It is committed to accessing funding, lobbying and advocacy for women in business in Kenya. The fifth of nine children, Mwangi’s ascent began in Standard Four, when she sold vegetables at her mother’s kiosk with her siblings. They also served as waiters at their father’s eatery in town. After a stint at Colgate as a brand manager, she gained experience that prompted her to go solo. She started PMS Group in 1997, but running a business was looked down upon as too jua kali (informal). Besides business being “extremely difficult,” her employed friends were doing much better than her. Frustrated, she retreated into formal employment. She took up a job at Kenya Tourism Board (KTB) as managing director – but just for a year.
At KTB, she was in charge of marketing Kenya to the world. “I discovered I was smarter than some of the foreigners I worked with and this gave me confidence to go back and restart PMS,” says Mwangi, who has nurtured PMS from a micro-enterprise to a medium-sized enterprise company. The firm employs more than 50 staff at the head office and around 500 on contract countrywide. The company specialises in advertising, branding, public relations, event management, trade promotions, consumer promotions, trade merchandising and marketing strategy development. The entrepreneur, whose MBA is in marketing, is proud of creating over 20,000 jobs through PMS. “My aversion to poverty is what drives me to create these opportunities, particularly for young people who want a fair chance in life. I’ve been able to create jobs for both boys and girls on completing their O Levels, to provide promotional and marketing services for our clients.”
The youth, who take a series of business courses, are vetted before being hired either short-term or long-term. She considers training and equipping school-leavers with business skills as her most important contribution to them. “If they come in as unskilled labourers, they leave as semi-skilled. They can then start their own businesses, thereby solving the problem of poverty.” Her earlier stab at the Entrepreneur of the Year Award had placed her 23rd, which, she felt, was good enough. Curious to find out how they had made it to that position, she came to learn that a company’s financials mattered a lot. She decided to focus on strengthening the financial systems and processes of PMS and to improve the company’s efficiency.
“As an entrepreneur, you must learn to listen and take professional advice,” she advises. As at mid 2014, no woman had won the award after Mwangi. She wants another woman to win, “so that we can show young girls that it’s possible to break the myth that entrepreneurship is a man’s world and that it is difficult.” Systems and processes have become a culture in her business, and Mwangi is now more focused on growing the PMS value chain and encouraging more women to join the competition. She says that the next threshold for women in business should be to earn a billion. “I’m committed to reaching the billion mark and joining Club 101, because there are no women in that club. I’m determined to break that glass ceiling so that we can leave a legacy that young businesses can do it.” Club 101 is an elite category of companies whose turnover has crossed one billion shillings under the survey Kenya Top 100 Mid-size Companies, sponsored yearly by Nation Media Group’s Business Daily and consultancy firm KPMG.
On her journey to the top, Mwangi had few female friends in business to measure herself against. “I benchmarked myself against the men, since I was pegging myself against the best, who happened to be men.” A business luncheon invitation by the Organization of Women in International Trade opened her eyes to the reality that there were indeed successful women in business, but who did not get media coverage the way men did. She joined the club and was so active and passionate about its tenets that she was voted vice-chairperson in absentia. With a passion for branding, one of the most important brands for Mwangi is Kenya. Therefore, FEWA brings together Kenyan businesswomen and associations in joint programmes and initiatives. The group has a full-time secretariat with technical capacity to run and deliver services to its members.
FEWA focuses on policy formulation, but most importantly on information dissemination. The Marketing Society of Kenya fellow considers lack of information the biggest challenge facing women in business. “Most women don’t read newspapers, so they miss out on so many opportunities!” FEWA helps to disseminate information in understandable language, besides enabling women to access markets.
In November 2014, Mwangi became the first Kenyan to clinch the position of Chairperson of the Federation of National Associations of Women in Business in Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (FEMCOM). FEMCOM is an arm of COMESA which brings together 19 countries with the aim of promoting programmes that involve women in trade and development activities in the region. How does Mwangi juggle her time between family and businesses? “I put a lot of time in both, such that I forgot to take care of me. I never had time to pamper myself, but now I’m older, wiser and able to prioritise better.”
Besides work, her typical day involves spending time with family and taking care of herself. “My first priority is me. I wake up early and drop my son at school then head for the gym before going to work. I’ve learned to delegate, so I leave the office early to have time for an evening chat with friends and be home in reasonable time.” The mother of three loves dancing, sports and fitness classes. She loves the gym, golf and running marathons. She also loves cooking and reading African literature, mostly Kenyan writers. “I love supporting artistes and writers and understanding other people’s perspectives of the world.”
Margaret Kenyatta, the only woman Mayor of Nairobi and sister of President Uhuru Kenyatta, was her childhood role model. The mayor visited her school while Mwangi was in Standard One and told the students to work hard. Mwangi vividly remembers the mayor arriving at the school in a motorcade and how men attended to her in a show of power uncommon for women in those days. Joan Waithaka, her headmistress at Alliance Girls, is her other role model. She instilled in her the belief that anything a man can do, a woman can do even better. “I emphasise the word ‘better’ because she didn’t say we were equal to, but we were better. At that impressionable age, she shaped our minds to have self-confidence.” Other women Mwangi admires have not received any publicity, while some are old and live upcountry. “Their words of wisdom have made me the woman I am,” she says.
Mwangi is a mentor to many under-35 entrepreneurs. She attends their forums, gives talks and sits on their bqoards. She shares her life lessons so that they can avoid making the mistakes she made. Another reason she readily mentors young people in business is to ensure that, “when things fall apart, they have a fall-back,” she says. Her philosophy is: “We have so much abundance that we need not worry about other people taking jobs from us. Their successes will not take away my success.” Mwangi’s favourite saying is, ‘a candle loses nothing by lighting another.’
Since women in business is a subject dear to Mwangi’s heart, it is part of her corporate social responsibility, and she has dedicated a lot of FEWA time to ensuring that women get business opportunities. She belongs to various associations where her subscriptions help to strengthen groups. Mwangi is excited about the way the government has opened up business opportunities for women, youth and people living with disability. “This will make a tremendous impact on the volumes and value of businesses run by these people. This also means that the small businesses that have been struggling to work with the government are more likely to succeed now than they did before.”
Words of Wisdom
“For your business to evolve, you should always be ahead by learning current trends and recruit people with skills that you don’t possess.”
“God’s plan is always for one’s good; there is nothing new in this world, and everything we go through is a revision of what was.”
“Be a responsible global citizen and know that the things you do will affect your society and the world at large.”
“The world is fair and just. People who are at the top are not necessarily people who come from advantaged families. Everybody gets an equal opportunity to get the very best and live the very best.”
“Remain humble and remember that no matter how successful you are, you are not special; you just happened to be fortunate and everything happened at the right time for you. Lend a helping hand instead of showing off.”
“If you believe you can or you cannot, either way you are right. Your belief is what shapes your future.
She regrets that most women don’t take advantage of advertised tenders. “There is a need to advocate for women’s participation, given that the economic policies, ongoing infrastructure projects and the devolved county system is positive.” Of her family, she says: “I’m very proud of my children.” Her daughter holds a master’s degree, her second-born son is a first degree holder, and her last-born is in high school.
The holder of the Head of State Commendation for promoting entrepreneurship has one goal: to leave behind an organisation that will outlive her; a sustainable firm that can demonstrate to Kenyan entrepreneurs that success is possible. She would also like to see more women enter non-traditional industries such as oil, gas and energy because they are the next frontier in business. “This is where the money is and where the men are venturing, so skills in these fields are required.”