Christine Ouko believes that entrepreneurs are born, not made. She always had an eye for business
Christine Ouko believes that entrepreneurs are born, not made. She always had an eye for business and as a teenager, she braided people’s hair for a small fee during weekends.
However, Christine’s entry into the world of entrepreneurship came after she was abruptly fired after 15 years in employment.
Though she had always dreamt of owning a big business, she first went into employment after a short business course to help her mother raise her four younger siblings after their father passed on.
She was working as a personal assistant to a director of a regional company when she got fired.
“I had one child, had lost two children and was pregnant with twins at the time. When he fired me, my boss said it seemed like my work was to just give birth to babies,” she recalls.
She left with only that month’s salary and no plan. She had her twins and when they were about five months old, a friend invited her on a paid trip to Egypt.
She’d heard that there were good quality products in Cairo and seeing it as her first business opportunity, she borrowed some cash from her husband to buy duvets, towels and kitchenware.
She hadn’t done any market research and only realised her mistake when she got back and saw that she’d bought things that most people did not need.
Then, when she sold, it was mostly to friends, half of whom ended up not paying.
A year later, in 2009, she noticed that commercial buildings were coming up at a fast rate in her Westlands neighbourhood in Nairobi.
She began approaching the managers of these buildings and started supplying juice and snacks to the occupants. By 2010, her catering business was receiving orders from schools.
“I thought I had nailed it. That I had finally succeeded in starting a successful business.”
As the business grew, it was becoming increasingly difficult to balance it with being a wife and a mother of four young children.
She decided to hire an extra pair of hands and was lucky to find a chef. Six months in, he left to start his own business, taking all her clients with him.
Shocked and hurt, Christine closed shop. She was, however, still hopeful and when she was told about a couple who were looking for a partner so that they could buy a travel agency a few months later, she jumped at the opportunity never mind that she knew nothing about the travel industry.
“I invested all the money I had left over from my catering business. I was the travel director at this new company and it was exciting learning all these new interesting things,” she recalls.
All was well for a year. As fate would have it, her partners who had been in the industry for decades longer began taking advantage of her ignorance. Soon, the company was losing money and running overdrafts. She knew she had to get out and she began creating an exit plan.
“I have a way with people and I had accumulated my own list of clients. I also realised that I was passionate about the travel industry. What if I could start my own travel company?”
She imagined that if she hesitated, she’d change her mind so she pulled out of the partnership and registered her Global Business Travel Management in 2012.
While it was freeing to work alone, she was still relatively new in the industry so she joined networking groups, among them OWIT (Organisation of Women in International Trade), where she met women who have walked the path before her to mentor her.
“It isn’t all work. We also have social events where we meet, let our hair down and just share our experiences as women.”
It has been two years since her business took off and she shares that it hasn’t all been smooth sailing.
Her biggest hurdle has been the insecurity in the country (especially earlier in the year) which affected the travel and tourism industry.
She was able to get through these periods by scaling down on business expenditure.
Apart from organising holidays and other trips, her company has ventured into medical tourism which is timely now that hundreds of patients are seeking medical treatment outside the country each year.
“It hasn’t been easy but it is worth it. I get to spend enough time with my children and I am making the kind of money that I could only dream about seven years ago.”