Laura Akunga has built a business from ground up and soared to the highest heights in building her business. But even as she has won accolades as one of the brightest female entrepreneurs, she has also also faced challenges in taking her business to the top and keeping it there. Here is her inspiring story in her own words.
I dedicate the raw emotions from my diary to young African boys and girls who dare to dream big .I dedicate the uncut words to men and women in leadership, especially those who have been wounded, physically and/or emotionally in their line of duty. I can imagine the pain you may be feeling right now, because I have been there. There are days when I felt I couldn’t go on, all my hope was gone, I was weak and my tears couldn’t stop flowing.
I pray that those who read these extracts from my journey know that they can rise above loss, above pain, above mediocrity, above negative criticism, above the norm and be the best of what God intended them to be. I want you to know that you are “good enough” to pursue your dreams and passion and be great at it, whatever they are and against all odds. I dare to share my story so that we can have more everlasting start-ups from Africa, more women in leadership and transform our continent in this generation, with no apologies.
In a couple of weeks, my business, Benchmark Solutions turns 8 years old. As curtains close down on my 8 years of formal entrepreneurship, I have been thinking of ways to celebrate everyone and every institution that has ever been a part of me and my small business.
I have sought proposals from all corners on how we can “celebrate”. Most of the responses I have received are characterized with pomp, glamour, showcase of success, a great meal in a 5 star hotel, industry leaders, and the presence of powers that be. Unfortunately this is often the picture perfect image that best describes success. So I wrote back and requested for more ways in which we can also display of our struggles, our failure, our weaknesses and our threats that characterized our journey. No response has come through yet. Because I know it best, because it has been my journey, I dare to share it with you.
Those who are near and dear to me know me as an introvert. I am media shy and I need a lot of convincing to stand in front of an audience. Do not get me wrong, I am confident and comfortable in my own skin. Every week, I receive several invitations from media houses, both local and international, to do an interview. I agree to some, I decline some and I derail other interviews. Often because, I feel that the lessons that can be learnt from my story are in the fine lines that the mainstream media fail to mention or disclose. The bits and pieces of my journey that never make it to print because of “the pre-determined number of words that can fit in a page”, or “the limited number of air time minutes that my story has to fit into”.
The tears that I have shed during some of the interviews are more often dubbed away by a well-paid makeup artist who is always on standby, or cut out because they do not resonate with the words that have been used to describe “Laura Akunga” out there.
You may have come across some of the words that have been used to describe me. If you have not, let me enlighten you. They have referred to me as “Influential”, “Powerful”, “Boss Lady”, “Fierce”, “Top 40 Under 40”, “Top 3 Under 30”, “Timeless Woman of Wonder”, “Young African Woman Entrepreneur of The Year”, “Head of State Commendation Nominee”, “Emerging Power from Africa”, etcetera. All these have been great and honourable yet intimidating. Even with all these titles, I am far from perfect, I have come a long way and I have an even longer way to go. There is more behind the curtains, behind the glossy words, behind the headlines, behind the awards and behind the speaking events.
Today, I choose to paint my own picture, tell you my own story, for a moment, forget what you have read, what you have watched. It is impossible to de-link my story from my family, my history, my struggles, my pain, my loss, my faith, my God.
These are my own words; this is the “Laura Akunga” that I want to introduce to you, this is my life, this is my journey.
My business acumen goes way back when I was 12 years old. I come from a very closely knit family of 6. My late father, mother, brother Eric and my sisters Natasha and Olive. I was named after my father’s mother so he always referred to me as “mama yangu” and my mother to date refers to me as “Wapekee” meaning “the special one”. My uncles, aunties and cousins referred to me as “Nguvu”, Swahili for strength. Allegedly, I displayed physical strength and I was very protective and unafraid to defend myself and my own from my early days.
From a very early age, my parents always taught us the essence of a good work ethic. Over and above my father having a full time job serving as a Senior Civil Servant and my mother having a private practice, we had a family farm in Runda where we reared cattle and chicken. Today Runda is a suburb, but my siblings and I have very fond memories of Runda when there were batches of coffee plantations and a handful of neighbours.
As it were, in many African Cultures, as a well-respected Kisii Elder, owning cattle was not unusual; it was very respectable and admirable. My father reared grade cows in the 90’s and the early years of 2000. I remember my father and my brother looking forward to A.S.K shows to go and bid for costly grade cows which would later be dropped off at our farm.
Between my three siblings and I, we each had different responsibilities in the family farm. As my brother and sisters took care of delivering, freezing and packaging the milk to a nearby dairy, I was tasked with keeping the financial and accounting records. This is when my passion for business started.
It did not take me long to realize that the cost of producing the milk in terms of buying the cattle feeds, paying the farm staff (my siblings and I included) was much higher than the money we collected from the sales. When I mentioned it to my parents, they challenged me to find a solution to this problem.
For weeks, I pondered how we could reduce our farm costs and increase our sales: how could we add value to the milk and charge a premium cost? I knew if I cracked this question I would have my answer. So at the age of 12, with the help of my mother, I enrolled in a small technical school to learn how to make dairy products such as sour milk, yoghurt and cheese which I marketed to find wholesale buyers which I did, mostly restaurants and small shops. To further reduce the farm’s cost of production, we automated the farm operations and even commercialized the cow dung. As Runda became Runda, I bet you most lush gardens in Runda were landscaped using our well processed cow manure. My parents could not have been more proud of me.
As our backyard farm became very profitable, it was time for me to attend Limuru Girls Secondary School and later United States International University (USIU) where I studied International Business Administration in Finance.
Little did I know that by my second year of college, I was about to face the hardest and darkest hurdle of my life. It all happened so fast. My father had just returned from a high level meeting in Perth, Australia with what we thought was a jet lag. His fatigue just would not go away. In the days to come, we learnt that my father had a bone marrow infection, a form of cancer known as Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. 10 days later, my father, who was my everything died unexpectedly and my world crashed: my father had taught me so many things except how I would live in a world without him.
There I was, 19 years old, fatherless, fearful and afraid. I was in denial, I chose to ignore my loss and not deal with my pain. After all, life had to go on. I was so detached from my emotions, we buried my father during my exams and I scored a GPA of 4.0 that semester, all straight A’s. That is how numb I was on the inside. My mother and my siblings dealt with the pain and loss in their own special way. My boyfriend Mark (now husband) who was studying abroad at the time took time out of his studies to come and help me “deal” with my loss but I was simply not ready to “deal”. I think they wanted to see my cry but I had no tears.
This is when MY PROCESS into entrepreneurship began. I was aware of my loss but all I wanted to do was occupy my time with things to do, noble things, respectable ways to spend my time. I did not give myself a chance to mourn. I wanted to work, to find ways to support mama and my siblings.
I had a very brief stint of work and opted to try entrepreneurship with a childhood friend of mine, Shiko. She remains one of the greatest pillars in my foundation. My friend Shiko taught me everything I knew about branding and communications. We later charted independent paths to chase our dreams. I enrolled for an additional concentration in Marketing at USIU to strengthen my skills in corporate branding and marketing services. This is when Benchmark Solutions was registered and born.
I was hurt and bitter. I went to church, but only because my father would have liked that and my mother would be pleased. I felt that God had been unfair. How could He allow that to happen? The Bible said that God never allows us to go through things that we can’t handle. What made Him think that I could handle such a loss? My father and mother built churches, my siblings and I sang in church, we tithed faithfully. Why us? What had we done for him to allow such kind of pain?
Today I know that God allows trauma to happen to us so that we can know that HE IS GOD. And this loss was only the beginning of the initiation process for what was ahead of me, best described as “A battlefield”. Little did I know that down the road I would experience more loss, pain and agony and he would still position me and raise me to arrange transactions in favour of African countries, far beyond home, among decision makers and leaders most of whom are twice and thrice my age.
What my father did as a Senior Civil Servant in the Government of Kenya in his 50’s, God wanted me to do in my 20’s as a Young African Woman Entrepreneur in my 20’s. Truly God has a sense of humour.
I juggled between running a small business and studying. I convinced my mother that I could take care of my education and personal expenses which she reluctantly agreed to. I was working during the day and attended classes in the evening.
I had to find accommodation on campus. In USIU, mostly foreign students were allowed to live on campus. This is how I know I am an exception. I had a discussion with the boarding master and he gave me a room on campus. As angry as I was, I was going to take up God on His word, He is never changing right? I needed Him to prove to me that He is the Father of the fatherless.
At the onset, very few companies were willing to give Benchmark an opportunity to serve their corporate branding and below the line advertising needs. For obvious reasons, we were not known, but we pushed on. I was in the office at 6:15am every morning and I left at 6:45 pm, in time for my 7:10pm class. This was my life and hard work never goes unrewarded.
I remember when I was sitting for my final paper at USIU, I had an assignment from Bank of Africa. They had mandated my small business to undertake their branding needs in time for a Pan-African meeting that was being held in Nairobi, our contact person was Mr. Godwin, as usual; there was no room for failure and we did not disappoint. I walked into my final paper that was scheduled for 2 hours extremely late, with only 30 minutes left. It remains God’s wonder how I graduated from USIU with honours.
By the Grace of God we were able to deliver and perform well, our client base grew and we had secured several clients, both big and small. I was fortunate to earn a salary that enabled me to meet my financial obligations and retain a team. As a small business, a reputation is all you have, with each and every stake holder. This is when you build a reputation with your suppliers and negotiate credit terms to run a business as you manage your incoming cash payments against outgoing cash payments.
To become a great company, you require a deep understanding of three intersecting circles. In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins refers to this as the Hedgehog concept. These include; what you are deeply passionate about? What drives your economic engine? What can you be the best in the world at? It took me several years to finally get my hedgehog concept.
Corporate branding and marketing services was a service that as Benchmark we were very good at. It was profitable too. It was during our provision of branding services that we expanded into foreign markets. It was not a strategic choice that I made to venture into new markets, it was purely client led but very strategic for my small business.
It was Technoserve in Kenya that referred us to their offices in Uganda to try our services. It was Deloitte who when opening up their offices in Ethiopia gave us an opportunity to serve them in Ethiopia. It was Pan-Africa life and SMEP who set us up in almost every county in Kenya as we delivered their goods to serve them better. It was Pacis Insurance Company who influenced our appetite to do business in Nakuru as we served them during a golf tournament. It was Shama Academy who tasked me to visit Nyeri as we served them. It was UNFPA in Kenya who by serving them alongside Ms. Nancy Kalekye in Kenya, referred us to their counterparts in Rwanda.
It is through USAID in Kenya that we ended up breaking into South-Sudan. It was UNDP and UNODC in Kenya who introduced our services to their counterparts in Tanzania, and all along, Urgent cargo Handling Limited, doubled up as our clients and logistics service providers, shipping our deliveries out of Kenya. The list goes on and on. To date we have served 201 institutions.
My small business grew fast, on the flipside; I was never deeply passionate about this service offering. It was easy to attract clients and genuinely do our level best to deliver on our promise. We stuck at it as I did not know any better. The needs of our clients grew and we decided to find new solutions for them outside Africa. This was when my love affair with China began.
Choose to go. Go where no one has gone before, where no one else will go today. You can go in search of answers; only to find more questions. You might discover something unfamiliar halfway around the world, or uncover something unexpected far closer to home. Sometimes you might need to look back to see how you got here and where you might be heading. And just when you think your journey has reached an end, you’ll be surprised to find its only just beginning. But you’ll keep going because it’s your journey, wherever it goes.
China revealed to me a lot about global business, entrepreneurship, strategic partnerships and growth. For a while, we imported merchandize from China but I kept going back because I felt there was more that China had to offer. As a business, we took on more risks, growing exponentially. I was not paying much attention to the numbers. We even ventured into corporate social investments and gave back to the communities we served in. We began assisting other companies break into new markets and we were great at it.
At a personal level, I had accepted responsibilities in several other organizations outside Benchmark, not realizing that I was spreading myself too thin. The industry had taken notice of me and my small business. I remained grounded and gave a hand where I could. Although everything seemed hunky dory, I felt like a fox. I was all over the place, doing too many things. I was always on the move, from one country to the next, not paying much attention to my personal health.
While I was away on official duty, I was involved in a near fatal accident. I lost too much blood. I could have lost my life but God saved me. I was forced to take time away from work to heal. I developed complications in my nervous system that I had to learn to live with. I was wounded, physically and emotionally. I was on the ground, broken, bleeding, feeling defeated, feeling unwanted. I felt alone and abandoned on the battleground! I thought I could get well soon. I thought I could get back to my old fierce self.
I had a business to run, clients to serve and a team to lead. What did God have in mind? My health deteriorated, I had several episodes of emergency visits to doctors. The best word that could best describe my life at this stage was chaos. I was a “wounded soldier” but still wanted to “fight”. I could hardly stand for minutes, I could not feed myself, and I could not drive myself because I ran out of breath. I was too weak to even pray for myself.
My family took the greatest hit emotionally, the uncertainty and worry was overwhelming. My business needed me and was falling apart; I was defaulting on my obligations. I was too embarrassed to let my stake holders know that I was struggling and on medication. I had known what it meant to be on top of my game, and here I was sinking. I felt vulnerable and exposed.
When you are at your lowest, not everyone is praying for you, when you make strides in life, not everyone is clapping for you, not everyone is cheering you on and it is okay. I had angels to guide me, and some who just violated my love and trust. I was down but not out. I refused to lose, I was not built to break, I stumbled but I did not crumble. I said these words to myself over and over again. It seemed like I woke up one day and my ground had shifted. God showed up in my life and I came back swinging. I do not mean swinging my hips, I mean David and Goliath kind of swinging.
Failure at some point in your life is inevitable, but giving up is unforgivable. Mr. Joe Biden, November 20th 2014
There are changes I had to make in my small business and in my life. ‘When you are dealing with a rotting leg, you do not swallow a pain killer. You chop off the ‘rotting leg’. It is that simple. My business was bleeding, my obligations were soaring, my regional operations were haemorrhaging, and we were under performing on our assignments. I had to make very strategic decisions, I had to CONSOLIDATE and FOCUS. I was done with ambiguity, uncalculated business risks, undisciplined growth. I had no room for failure. I had to pick myself up.
No matter how you feel, get up, dress up and show up. Even when it hits the fan.
I could no longer sustain a brick and motor business model, I had to centralize my business functions. I had to cut down my costs. It seemed reckless to hold on to a $10,000 a month head office. I had to take back control of my small business and regain my physical strength. Tough decisions had to be made. At a personal level, I had to cut down external roles and responsibilities and restructure my small business. I had to learn how to fly again.
I had to downsize my team and retain a very lean and effective team. I shut down functions that we could outsource. We would focus only on what we were passionate about, what made economic sense and what we could be the best at.
Our mission is to deliver financial solutions to African governments, banks and private companies with a goal of transforming African economies, one business at a time. We have been entrusted and successfully arranged financial solutions to a tune of over 50 Billion shillings, in favour of institutions such as The Eastern and Southern African Trade and Development Bank, giving us an opportunity to serve in Kenya and beyond. Failure is not an option and by the grace of God we will carry on. It is not by might nor by strength, but by unmerited favour of He who began the good work in us.
They say that a business takes on the personality of the founder and the visionary. These choices ushered Benchmark into a season of establishment. At a personal level, I found peace, I learnt to accept the things that I cannot change and to do away with baggage. I look back and there are some things that we still need to correct, more changes that need to be made and matters addressed.
Do not get it twisted, I may walk in a limp, require some days off in the week, and carry Neurorubine in my purse, but I am still boss enough to run my small business. I look back and I have no doubt, that only God made it possible.