JENNIFER BARASSA, 60, started Top Image with a capital of just Sh30, but now the marketing firm is a corporate giant. She shares with NJOKI CHEGE about her inspiration to greatness and her daughter’s battle with cancer
The first thing I notice when I enter Jennifer Barassa’s expansive office at Wilson Airport is her gray hair. Normally, her peers would panic at the sight of a single strand of gray hair but Jennifer who is Bidanya Barassa’s (former M-Net Face of Africa supermodel) mother, wears hers effortlessly fashionable. This is clearly a woman comfortable in her own skin, and age.
There’s got to be much more to this woman who is 60 and proud and living a full life, which she envisioned as a young girl growing up in Maringo Estate, Block E1, in Nairobi.
“I come from a large family. My father was polygamous, but we were happy,” Jennifer begins her story.
Jennifer nostalgically recalls her childhood when she and her siblings would rise at the crack of dawn to take turns to light the jiko and make tea for breakfast.
“Oh, those were the days when milk would be dropped at the doorstep by a milkman. The milk was in a classic glass bottle and covered with a foil at the top. Those were the days when Elliot was the only bread. We were lucky my father would afford such basics,” she reminisces.
Saturdays were not complete if Jennifer and her siblings did not scrub clean the veranda as they listened to KBC General Service.
That was then. Today, Jennifer is making waves in the world of marketing and advertising.
It all began in 1960 on the day that Jennifer laid her eyes on one Pamela Mboya, then known as Miss Pamela Odede.
“Pamela’s family lived in the neighbourhood. In 1960, Pamela arrived in Kenya from the USA. She was this tall beauty from the USA, driving a yellow Volkswagen. That car is still etched in my mind to date,” says Jennifer.
Like any other little girl in the estate, Jennifer fell in love with Pamela’s yellow car.
Jennifer’s inquisitive nature got the better of her and she dared to ask her mother if one day, she would drive a car like that.
“My mother told me; ‘Of course you can!’ All I had to do was study hard,” she recalls.
That was all Jennifer needed, a nudge in the right direction. She would attend Dr Kraft Primary School, Ngara Girls for her O-Levels (1968 to 1971) and Asumbi Girls (1972 to 1973) for her A-Levels.
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In primary, when she was not soloing and bagging trophies in drama festivals, she was dunking and scoring in the netball team. She was the head girl at Ngara Girls and later deputy head girl at Asumbi Girls in South Nyanza. In 1974, she joined Kenyatta University for her bachelor degree in Education, which she completed in 1977.
Jennifer taught English and Literature at Lenana School, making her the first African woman to ever teach at the school.
Her ambitious nature would not allow her to teach for more than two years. She confesses: “I wanted to make more money, and I started applying for jobs. This was in 1979, when the then President Moi decreed that companies increase their workforce by ten per cent.
“I got a job as a sales representative at Kodak and nobody could understand why I would leave a noble and flourishing teaching career to sell films in the street.”s
But her critics were silenced when, six months later, she was promoted to a marketing education co-ordinator and subsequently bought her first car.
Customers and bosses liked her, and five years into the industry she was promoted to accounts manager, after which she moved to be the sales manager at Boots Pharmaceuticals (now Beta Health Care).
Jennifer worked at managerial level for various blue-chip companies including Johnson and Johnson (1989), Sterling Health (now GSK) and McCann Ericksson (1994), until she chose to go solo. In 1995, she started her own company — Top Image — which began as a promotion agency.
“I started it in my living room in Hurlingham. It was a one-woman show, but thanks to my networking, doors started to open,” says Jennifer.
A year later, she opened an office at Wilson Airport with only one staff, who doubled up as a receptionist and a secretary. Looking at where the company is today, it is difficult to believe that Jennifer started the company with only Sh30.
Never gave up
“There were no computers back then. Therefore I wrote a handwritten proposal, which I paid Sh10 to be typed, and made two copies for Sh20,” she reminisces.
Top Image started by merchandising for Kenya Breweries (now East African Breweries) and Total Motor Show before it took up below the line advertising.
When Top Image first moved to the Wilson Airport offices in 1996, Jennifer and her secretary used to wait for up to three weeks before receiving a single phone call. Jennifer never gave up. She knocked on all doors and by the end of the year, the company had made its first million.
Today, the company has branches in Uganda, Tanzania, Cote D’Ivoire, Rwanda and Nigeria and plans to spread wings to Zimbabwe.
Jennifer is proud of her client base, which includes market leaders like Safaricom, Bidco, Samsung, Google, Visa, and MTN just to mention a few.
Top Image has been instrumental in M-Pesa agent management from launch to date. Jennifer has also been a consultant with World Bank on branchless banking that has seen her traverse the world.
And she rarely has time for leisure given her busy schedule, which involves sitting on various boards which include, Constituency Development Fund, College of Insurance, United States International University Chandaria School of Business, Business Advocacy Fund for Danida/Danish Embassy and several other private companies.
Her remarkable success has seen her firm bag several awards including being named in Top 100 Mid-Sized Companies Survey in the 2008/2009 financial year.