Every Monday we have our Pearls And Heels segment where we feature women and their careers. Our Pearls And Heels lady today is Dr Esther Njoroge. Dr Esther Njoroge is the Regional Director for Africa at Smile Train. Smile Train is an international children’s charity with a sustainable approach to a single, solvable problem: cleft lip and palate. Smile Train partners with local hospitals and organizations and provides funding and training to empower local doctors to provide 100% free cleft treatment in their own communities. In her position, she oversees the growth and maintenance of Smile Train’s partnerships and programs across all of Africa. Smile Train is active in 30 countries, with plans to establish programs in all 42 countries of interest in the next couple of years. They have partnered with over 200 hospitals in Africa, treating an average of 8-9,000 children annually. Esther is a medical doctor by profession, a public health specialist and an accountant. The most important hat she wears according to her is being a wife and a mother of two.
1. Describe your typical day?
There is no typical day for me. Working in 30 countries and reporting to an office in New York, every day is different. On a day that I am working from Nairobi, which would come close to ‘typical’, my day starts with a prayer and a quick scan through my emails. I respond to urgent matters and build on my goals for the day. I then proceed to any meetings set in the day, I like having my meetings in the morning. Breakfast is almost always taken in transit. On the days I don’t have meetings; I work from an office at home. I diligently take my lunch break, this allows me to play with my children and re-energize. Between 4-6 pm, these are the times I take telecons from New York. I exercise in the evening, by walking at least 3 km daily. Between 6-8 pm I switch off and spend time with my children, helping with homework and dinner. By 8 pm (which ends up being 8.30) they are in bed and I put in another hour or two of work before turning in.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I always wanted to be a pilot. Growing up in the village, I was fascinated by the planes flying overhead and wanted to fly them one day. When I sat my KCSE and we were discussing my university choices for a degree with dad, I realized he wanted me to study Medicine but being the gentleman he is, he would never impose that on me. So I thought about it and wondered, how would it hurt if I studied Medicine? I packed away my dream of being a pilot and pursued Medicine, a training I ended up enjoying tremendously and still do. I still harbour the dream though, maybe one day I will train as a private pilot for pleasure.
If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently?
I wouldn’t change anything. I believe I am where God intended me to be, touching children’s lives and changing the world one smile at a time.
What would you say are the top three skills needed to succeed at your job?
Excellent self-management, Decision making and Leadership.
Self-management. Working from home and being my own boss requires me to be able to manage my time extremely well and be able to prioritize, plan ahead and anticipate change.
Decision making. Being a funding organization, we are constantly receiving requests to fund various projects both from our partners and other players in the field. Deciding what is valuable to the organization, which projects to fund and why, and how to carry on our business in the most efficient and cost-effective manner is key. We endeavour to push every dollar to the farthest extent and achieve the most from our funds, which means a lot of evaluations and decisions.
Leadership. My team and partners are looking at me to guide this ‘train’ to achieve our goals and objectives. I am the custodian of our strategy, guiding my team across Africa, encouraging them to be the best they can be and always working towards reaching every child born with a cleft as early as possible. Leading by example and being part of the efforts of my team. In my position, I am continually learning, and my team teach me a lot.
As a professional how is it working in Nairobi? Is Nairobi open to what you do or what could be better?
Nairobi is way ahead of the pack compared to other African cities I work in. For example, Internet connectivity is something we take for granted until you visit some countries where you can’t even access a sim card! Nairobians are friendly and welcoming. Often doors are opened in places I did not expect and people are willing to help in any way they can. The traffic jam is a challenge and can be better for us all, the man hours lost in traffic are a direct financial loss to any organization. Government offices can be a frustration.
What motivates you?
The impact my work has on the child, the family and the community. The tears of joy from a mother when she sees her child for the first time after surgery, knowing their life has been transformed forever keep me going.
How do you define success?
Success to me is achieving a balance in five areas: Spiritual well-being, physical health, Career, Relationships and finances.
Who has been your greatest inspiration?
It has to be my parents. Bringing up 10 children who are successful in their different ways and morally upright is no mean feat. If I can replicate that kind of success in the different aspects of my life, I will go far.
What is your favourite aspect of your job?
Meeting Smile Train beneficiaries and hearing their stories. For 8 years, every story has been different yet the same. One of isolation and rejection before the surgery and reconciliation after the surgery, building families and healing communities.
What would you say are the key elements to being successful?
Hard work, hard work, hard work and diligence. Nothing comes easy in this world, every day you must purpose to be better than you were the day before. I always say you make the bed you want to lay in, and you have the opportunity to change your destiny by working hard. Wherever you are, in any kind of profession, be your best. If your job is to sweep the street, sweep it like it will never be swept again. Hard work is always rewarded.
What advice would you give somebody just starting out in your line of work?
Focus on having an impact in your sphere of influence. Your small contributions and the next person and the next, collectively make the world a better place. Strive to give more than you receive, God blesses an open hand.
What has been your most satisfying moment in terms of your career?
Growing the Smile train program from a handful of partners and surgeries 8 years ago to where we are today, with over 200 partners and treating 8,000-9,000 patients every year.
What makes you happy?
My family. They are the source of my joy and pride.
What are your hobbies? What do you do in your non-work time?
I watch movies, a hobby my husband and I share. Nothing beats a Monday night date at the movies. I read books, I especially enjoy biographies. Recently I have added running 10 km races to the list-soon to be upgraded to 21 km!
Where do you see yourself in around 10 years?
In 10 years I see myself a wiser, more seasoned version of who I am today. I will be holding a second master’s, possibly an MBA in health care management and maybe working on my PhD. I will be bringing up teenagers and the joys that come with that.
Potentash Founder. A creative writer. The Managing Editor at Potentash. Passionate about telling African stories and stories about the inclusion of minorities. Find me at email@example.com.
“We're all stories, in the end.” ― Steven Moffat