- August 23, 2018
Founder and Managing Director of Supamamas, Christine Khasinah-Odero is a force of nature. Intelligent, charismatic, confident and full of energy this 37- year-old multi-award-winning entrepreneur talks to Damaris Agweyu about her entrepreneurial journey and what it means to live a rich, meaningful and authentic life.
When calling you for this interview, I said I wanted to ‘explore your mindset’. In response you offered me rich soulful laughter and said, “My mind is very complex”, unpack that statement.
(Christine lets out another one of what I will come to refer to as her signature laughter) For one, as far as business is concerned, I run mine in a way that many would argue does not follow conventional logic. Sound advice would, for instance, dictate that it would be prudent to first look at your budget before determining the style and scope of your event. In my case, I follow my gut and work backwards. So first and most importantly, I visualize exactly what kind of event I want and then I do whatever it takes to pull it off. I don’t come up with a plan B, I don’t worry about my current resources, I just put my all in that one idea.
But you do need resources to pull off an event?
Absolutely. But for me, resources don’t determine how big I can dream. The best resource anyone can have is their mind, from the mind comes ideas. To give you an example, I once had the idea to put up an event where Tabitha Karanja, the CEO Keroche Breweries, would be the keynote speaker. I didn’t know Tabitha, had only heard of her and had been told repeatedly that she is a very difficult person to find let alone get to speak at an event. The odds were stacked against me but my heart was set on her. In the end, I discovered that I knew someone who knew someone who works for Tabitha.
6 degrees of separation
Degrees of separation. They say that anyone on the planet can be connected to anyone else in just six steps. So through just five other people, you’re actually connected to the Queen of England or even a goat herder in Afghanistan. In your case, it was Tabitha Karanja.
I haven’t heard of the concept but it makes sense.
In your opinion, is hard work underrated or overrated?
(Christine takes a long pause) I’m trying to think, what is hard work? I’m running my own enterprise, I have the option to sleep in but I don’t, I put in a lot of hours, sometimes there is a blur between weekdays and weekends- I love to work.
I find a lot of pleasure in doing what I do so the hours in a day don’t really matter, I used to be those 5.30 am people that Robin Sharma talked about and in those days my first batch of the day was done by 8am, so you open your mail in the morning and I am the first person in your inbox (signature laughter) but when I got my second baby, it was no longer practical, one needs to get some sleep to function. But I have a very strong work ethic and thoroughly enjoy what I do.
Where do you get your strong work ethic from?
My dad. He worked for an insurance company for over 30 years starting from the very bottom and by the time he was retiring he was the deputy MD- actually he would have been MD but turned down the position. He used to be in the office and settled by 6.30 am.
This concept of following your gut and working backwards, has it ever failed you in business?
It’s worked most of the time. But you know I am a true optimist so the times it has failed me, I just learned from my mistakes and filed my lessons for future use. I always give myself the opportunity to try and try again. The word ‘can’t’ is just not in my vocabulary but I’ve had to learn this the hard way. Do you know that my first business failed in a record 3 months?
I’ve read this- bits and pieces- tell me more.
(Signature laughter) Wow! Where do I start?
From the beginning.
That’s far, are you sure?
I have time
Ok so in my mind I was supposed to work for some big FMCG company. The year was 2004 and I had just landed from the UK with an MBA from Liverpool University. Reality hit me when I discovered just how hard it is to get a job in this country. After months of struggling on my own with little success, my mum got me a job at an ice-cream shop but as my values did not align with the company’s, this was short-lived.
I got another job at a financial investment company but soon discovered I was just not a numbers person. I later landed a Marketing Manager Position in a Tours and Travel company and everything was going well until the 2007 post-election violence. The tourism industry was especially hard hit and I saw the signs that I was going to lose my job. The optimist in me told me to start my own tours and travel company- Cosma Tours and Travel, I called it. Cosma means beautiful in Italian. I designed and printed out brochures, got my equipment, co-leased a little office downtown and waited…And waited. Did I wait for that phone to ring! All this time, I am paying rent and have no other source of income. And then to add to my long list of challenges, I got pregnant with my first child. I just closed shop- what else are you going to do?
Was it a timing issue?
Maybe. But I never looked back and asked myself, could I make another go of it? I just shut it down and that was it.
But you still had entrepreneurship in you?
At that time, not really, the main thing was to find work so I could have some income. So I took to tarmacking, literally. My pregnancy was not yet showing so I started with the side of Karen where Karen hospital is going all the way down to where Galleria mall is. I printed out copies of my CV and left one at every office I came across. You know the famous Kenyan phrase: “nipatie tu kazi yoyote” (just give me any job). I remember passing KSPCA and thinking to myself, so what will I do if I am called to work here, was I ready to wash donkeys if it came to that?
Honestly, I don’t know. In one day, I was done with the first side of Karen road and on the following day, I went for the second side. I was so worn out and discouraged… Gosh, you’ve taken me back so far, I am getting emotional now…
So let me get this right, you have an MBA from Liverpool University…
And an undergrad degree from USIU and postgraduate papers from Marketing Society of Kenya and Kenya Institute of Management.
And here you are walking from office to office leaving your CV asking for a job, any job.
Yes. Education-wise I was badass, but this wasn’t translating into a career. So here I am on day two of tarmacking, this time I am covering the second side of Karen road and I see a big signboard that says Schumacher 4×4. I had no idea what this was but as with every other office I had come across, I needed to leave my CV there. The Maasai guard at the gate was reluctant to let me in. “People don’t just enter here”, he wagged a finger at me. But I politely told him my mission and asked him to just let me try. He did and that was when my luck changed.
You got a job
I got a job. I later found out it was a high-end garage that services 4 by 4 vehicles owned by the very affluent in Kenya. When I met the man who would be my new boss, he was quite surprised that I had all these credentials but was ready to do any job. I would become the Head of Admin and Marketing but on the day I started work, the PA/admin lady left so I took on her responsibilities. Most of my working hours were spent typing invoice after invoice, calling clients to collect their cars and doing whatever the boss told me to. Eventually, I was also given the responsibility of banking cheques and handling the petty cash when the boss was away. It was tedious work but I did it all with joy- I would go the extra mile on everything.
And the boss was ok with hiring you while you were pregnant?
He didn’t know. I wasn’t showing at that time but by month 7, there was no hiding, I had to declare my status and he said to me, “No problem, just go have your baby in October and be back by December“.
No maternity leave?
Not really. Remember this is a garage and 99% of workers are men. Besides myself, the cleaning lady and the lady who cooked for the mechanics, everyone was a man. How do you start speaking that language of maternity leave especially when you really need the job? And after one and a half years, the lady who was making tea and cleaning the office got fired- guess who replaced her?
Yup. After I gave birth to my boy, I would run home over lunch-hour, to try and get some breastfeeding in but again, this was a place where you could not miss a single phone call so you can imagine how tricky it was.
And to think once upon a time I was a Manager at a company where I had drivers at my beck and call now here I was picking up phone calls and having people spell names like Catherine to me, “Did you get my name right“, they would ask…and I’m thinking, did you know I was in the UK? My point is, there is a way people look at admin workers- as if they have low IQs. It was a humbling experience.
One day after cleaning the office, I went to make coffee at the back office and that’s when I had my moment, actually I broke down. I asked myself, is this the kind of life my father expected of me when he paid for me to go and study in the UK? That day I balled my eyes out. I thought I can’t be the only mother that is going through this, there must be another woman somewhere else who just wants to be uplifted in the way I do. I put myself together, took the boss his coffee and in the middle of that storm, Supamamas was born.
Your company was founded on the need to uplift mothers?
Yes. I felt like I needed that for myself too.
Had your self-esteem taken a beating at this point?
Surprisingly no. Even when I had clients look down on me, even when I was mopping floors and making coffee, at no point did I feel less than what I am. Not once did I feel defined by my circumstances. My boss was always very respectful towards me but I always knew there was something greater in store for me.
Did he accept your resignation with grace?
He was confused. In his mind, he treated me well, paid me well so why was I leaving? In the end, he told me if I could hack it in business for 2 years, then that was where my future was.
So now the Supamamas chapter begins.
Yes. I formed the company together with 5 of my friends who were also mums. But no sooner had we started than problems emerged. I quickly realized that we all had different visions for the company. While they wanted to have Supamamas become a part-time mum’s club. I was seeing a fully-fledged business, I was ready to commit as I didn’t have anything else to fall back on. My operation style rubbed them the wrong way. I was, how I can put it, ‘too much’. The partnership didn’t work out. So there I was again, no job and no business. I was just so tired of failing.
It was awful; I went to my close friend’s Carol’s house and cried my eyes out. All this time, my brain was in overdrive, I noticed that that the initial “Supamamas” was registered with a space between “Supa’ and “Mama” – plus it had no “s” at the end. This typo is what saved me. When I was done crying, I decided I would build my own version of Supamamas.
Without the space between Supa and mamas.
Yes. It was a small victory but so many other challenges lay ahead. My first solo event was a disaster, it rained cats and dogs and not more than 15 people showed up. Again, I found myself in a very dark place and even told myself I would never touch that business again. The Christmas holidays were just around the corner so I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to explain what I was doing to other people who were, thankfully, too preoccupied with the festivities to ask the tough questions.
But then January came and it was dark. February was dark. As Valentine’s Day was just around the corner, I thought of planning an event that would make single mums feel appreciated. In doing so, just like that, I snapped out of my dark days. The event was attended by 23 people- that was one of the best days of my life.
I love my kids to bits, but I have clarity that my sole purpose when I checked into this universe was not to be a mum, period.Christine Khasinah-Odero
You’re a very resilient woman, obviously. How do you deal with challenges in your life?
Through reading, running and humour- there are two people I can call for a good laugh, my dad and my friend Charlyn.
Tell me about the running.
I took it up seriously after I got my second child. I was struggling with finding ways to reclaim my own life so I joined a fitness group that was planning to do the Kilimanjaro marathon. My baby was just over a year old, I was still breastfeeding but that wasn’t going to stop me.
Reclaiming your life means what exactly?
I am one of those people who have purposed not to be defined by motherhood. I am Christine and then there is motherhood. Running for me is taking time for Christine. I prepared my family for my upcoming absence and did what I had to do. I wanted my kids to know that when mum says she will do something, mum will follow through whether it’s for mum or for them.
How many hours to complete the Kilimanjaro marathon?
2 hours 36 minutes.
No, it was a challenge but I enjoyed it. In fact, when I came back, I made a mental note to myself that I would do the Kigali marathon 3 months later. So again I prepped my people and off I went. But this one was brutal. They don’t call Rwanda the land of a thousand hills for no reason. I’ve never done a tough run like that. I finished in the bottom 20 but that didn’t matter, those hills represented the challenges I had to overcome in my life. This run took me just under 4 hours but it was one of the most defining moments in my life because it was a lesson to me that no matter what, if Christine starts something, she will finish, no matter how hard it is. I hold myself to very high standards.
What do you value most in life?
My peace of mind
That’s an unusual answer for a mother to give.
The kids are not mine, they don’t belong to me, God gave me the opportunity to take care of them – a role I treasure and do in the best way I can. I love my kids to bits, but I have clarity that my sole purpose when I checked into this universe was not to be a mum, period. God willing my kids will one day leave home. When that happens, I don’t want to be left figuring out what to do with my life or who I am.
Do you believe there are women who find great purpose and joy in motherhood though?
Absolutely! I believe the problem comes in with women who lose their true selves in motherhood. Yes, I am a mum and a busy one at that. There are times I tell my kids, I am going to work on my computer but once I’m done, we shall do stuff together. But when I am working, I am working. Is it ok to go for me to go on a marathon and come back a happier mum? Absolutely. Is it ok for me to go on vacation alone? Yes. Sometimes people see me alone on vacation and they ask, “watu wako wako wapi?” (where are your people?) and I tell them they are at home, they just look at me like I’m from another planet (signature laughter).
And this logic marries with the Supamamas mission?
One hundred per cent, Supamamas is about helping women on their journey to self-discovery, freeing their minds from unrealistic expectations and self- imposed limitations.
You’re fiercely independent.
Yes. My dad taught and showed me that there was nothing I couldn’t and shouldn’t do. He has never held me back; he just let me be who I am with no judgement. Let me tell you, when you have your father’s support there is nothing in the world you cannot do.
You’ve mentioned your dad a lot, where is your mum in all this?
(Signature laughter)That’s a good question and by the way, we don’t have a bad relationship. I am daddy’s girl and am sure all my sisters would claim the same! My dad and I have a lot more in common personality-wise, we click easily. But I’ve come a long way since I became a mum, I appreciate my mum more and I think my dad is very lucky to have her because she keeps him in check. Sometimes I wonder if she ever wanted more in life but you know their generation was different, women like Wangari Maathai were different.
Which woman do you resonate with most?
That would have to be Dorothy Ooko, she was my lecturer at USIU, she was the first truly independent woman I had met. I had seen my mum being taken care of by dad, in Dorothy I saw adventure. She mesmerized me with her vivacious personality, strength, grace and red VW golf. I thought to myself, wow I want to be like her. She was and still is a great role model.
You sound like someone who has a vision board.
I do, (signature laughter) but not right now. Once I ticked off like 80% of my previous one, I brought it down.
What are some of the things on your previous board that came to pass?
Tabitha Karanja talking at my event, there was also an event with Joan Mwangi as the speaker, my current car- I always wanted a black version of the VW Golf that Dorothy had, the top 40 under 40 awards…
Are you coming up with a new board?
Yes. I would love to have Michelle Obama as a speaker, Supamamas to make the top 100 enterprises; I would love to go to New York for a few projects….. I can see it all. I just need to stick it up, get to work and the universe will conspire in making these things come true.
What are the main challenges you’ve noticed that Kenyan women face?
Struggles with self-worth, self-doubt, relationship issues, career growth and career choice issues, plus pressure from society to conform…the challenges are many and my platform helps them connect with others who can help them get through them.
When did you realize you had ‘made it’ in business?
When I flew to South Africa on a ticket that had been paid for by my business … Oh, and SA was also on my vision board.
What do you do that is not about you?
I am driven more by purpose than money so for me giving is in my DNA. My formal platforms are the Rotary Club of Lang’ata where I’ve been a 3- time Fundraising Director and Supamamas where I have carried out a lot of CSR projects. I also give in very random ways. I feel so blessed and love to give back; I don’t know how I could do it any other way.
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