How I went from branding T-shirts to changing lives

“Sometimes you’ll be afraid to do something; well, do it afraid,” says Chege Thiong’o, the co-founder of Empire International.

His company is a social enterprise that offers training, strategic solutions and team building to companies and organisations, with the aim of raising their productivity and output.

Their mission starts with asking: “How can we help you do what you do better so that you increase your impact in your field of choice?” Chege says.  

The 36-year-old formed his company in 2009.

“When we started, though, we weren’t doing trainings, we were branding T-shirts. And then one day we stopped and asked ourselves, ‘is this really what we want to do for the rest of our lives’?”

The answer was no. Chege’s real dream was to empower people in the work space to ensure their personal growth and improve team synergies.

New mission

He decided to do something about living up to this dream, and Empire International’s new mission was born. Between 2015 and 2016, the business carried out 13 trainings. Each cost between Sh70,000 and Sh180,000.

“The biggest challenge was gaining trust and building relationships in the market because this industry is very subjective,” Chege says.

Despite these early challenges, the business has slowly gone on to build a brand by emphasising its capacity to understand a client’s needs and tailor-make products that meet these needs.

“The first thing we do when we take on a client is discover, in a one-on-one meeting, what challenges they’re facing in the workplace, what they want to improve or instil. It could be discipline, motivation, trust or initiative,” Chege says.

“Once we have this information, we meet with the employees and do an assessment from their point of view as well. Do they agree with the employer or do they have a different opinion about the challenges they’re facing? We have found that the best way to make this assessment is through activities because you can learn a lot by watching someone.”

Empire International then designs a package that includes group events, games and a follow-up report after the team-building process.

“We prefer long-term engagements because people don’t generally transform overnight. So even after we present our findings and solutions to a client, we advocate working with their teams over a stretch of time,” Chege says.

“We impress on every employer that their first customers are their employees, because if these people won’t buy what they’re selling, customers won’t either.”

One of the main challenges of training, he adds, is that sometimes what the client wants and what the business needs are two very different things.

“A client will tell you they want team building, and they want a hike and tight-rope walking included. But, based on the needs of these employees, neither one of those events will be beneficial. You need to then find a way to build value around what the client specifically asks for.”

Driving force

Inspired by the transformation his company was able to provide for the clients they worked with, in 2015, Chege started a separate branch of Empire called Aspire, which focuses on empowering the youth.

“Our vision is to equip young people to become the driving force of society. How do we get them to live their full lives by bridging the gap between education and their places of influence when they get out into the world?”

In line with this, Aspire got a contract with the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), which was launched by President Barrack Obama as a way of investing in the next generation of African leaders.

“Our mandate was to build a product that could teach these young people about leadership. Perhaps our most iconic activity was making all participants scale up the side of a building using a rope,” says Chege.

“It doesn’t sound like that has anything to do with leadership, but when you think about it, as a leader, you encounter several situations that are scary and make you doubt your capabilities.”

By each of the participants scaling the high rope, they learned one of Chege’s mantras: “Leadership needs fortitude and sometimes you will be afraid. Do it afraid. A nation’s future might depend on you handling your insecurities.”

Chege comes alive as he discusses the youth and the lessons that Aspire wants to impart on them.

“We have a treasure hunt where we deliberately lead participants to several dead ends. The lesson is that life can feed us lies or take us down paths that seem to serve no other purpose than to waste our time.

“But once that’s happened, what next? Do you get frustrated, give up, complain or pick yourself up and try again? When you come to a wall, do you break it down, scale it, go around it or turn back because there was a wall in your way?”

Real conversations

Aspire currently has programmes running in universities, colleges and high schools. Daystar University is one of their main clients.

“I think one of the most vital things for the youth is having real conversations about their dreams and purpose in life,” says Chege.

“When we asked Form Four leavers who they wanted to be, most picked public figures like Lillian Muli or Julie Gichuru. It wasn’t necessarily because media is their passion, but because these are the people they associate with success. We want to teach them that for a dream to blossom, it’s important that the dream be truly yours. You can’t just copy someone else.”

This isn’t the first time Chege is working to instil purpose in young people. He was involved with the National Youth Parliament between 2003 and 2006.

The National Youth Parliament is a programme that runs a mock government, enabling the youth to mirror real leadership positions and take on roles like Youth Minister of Finance, Youth President and so on, as well as sit in parliamentary sessions.

“I found it such a great innovation because it gave young people the opportunity to experience leadership,” says Chege.

“As mentors, we would study their challenges and hopefully fix them before the young leaders one day run the country.”

But even with Aspire taking shape, Chege wasn’t ready to stop finding new ways to live out his passion to help people live up to their potential.

In 2017, he set up Spotlight, which brings together experienced professionals and young people who aspire to be in the same industries.

Through workshops and forums, they talk about the realities of business, what paths these young people need to take, what challenges they can expect and how to overcome them.

“The next Jeff Koinange is somewhere out there. How do we find them? Nurture them? That’s the Spotlight mission; to be the go-to career development platform that connects young people to resources, opportunities and the marketplace.”

There have been two Spotlight forums so far, impacting 300 participants, 20 of whom now work closely with Aspire to help it achieve its long-term goals.

“We have to invest in the youth. Our future depends on them,” Chege says.

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Empire International