As we sit at the restaurant of the Aero Club of East Africa, the hustle and bustle of the airport is palpable. The loud whirring of plane engines with accompanied cold winds as they land and take-off takes some getting used to.
Aviator Lucy Karanja doesn’t bat an eyelid as she explains that the noise and cold are very much expected in her line of work. She’s bubbly, articulate and well poised. She’s the co-founder and CEO of Capital Connect Aviation Limited, an aviation training school based at Nairobi’s Wilson Airport.
At just 28 years of age, Lucy has the great achievement of being the first black woman to establish and run a flight school in Kenya; a worthy feat considering aviation is a male-dominated field, and from Lucy’s experience, one that is run by tough, no nonsense, ex-army types. It is perhaps for that reason that Lucy has constantly had to prove herself through professional excellence.
Lucy Karanja is the epitome of courage and perseverance; she has proven against all odds that one’s dreams can be achieved, with hard work and focus; notwithstanding the hardships along the way that serve to make one resilient.
She is as an Orthodox Christian, following the ways of the Old Testament.
She was born Lucy Wangari Karanja, the second born daughter to Mary and Joseph Karanja. She and her four siblings grew up in a well-to-do close-knit household in Thika town.
“We had a comfortable and fun childhood, our parents had good jobs and were hard-working, so they were able to send us to good schools,” says Lucy, adding that she owes her success as a business owner to her ever-supportive and passionate parents.
She attended primary school at Moi Academy Primary School in Thika. At age 13, Lucy moved to America with her mother and two of her brothers, leaving father and the rest of her siblings in Kenya.
“We didn’t enjoy living in America, not because we struggled, but it was a different environment that we were not used to,” she reveals.
Before long, they moved back to Kenya and the family was reunited just in time for Lucy to join Greensteds Academy to pursue her high school studies. She graduated in 2005.
Lucy pursued her first degree in business management at an Australian University. She briefly describes her time in the foreign country as tumultuous.
“While in Australia, my father fell ill and I felt that I needed to be home to support him. I had just completed my degree and graduation was near,” she says. Lucy chose to graduate in absentia so that she could come home to support the family.
Lucy and her elder sister then partnered up to start a poultry farm in the family ancestral home in Makuyu.
“It was profitable, we had about 2,000 chickens every six weeks; but I found it incredibly boring because once the chickens were fed there was really not much else to do for the rest of the day,” she says.
It was when Lucy met her partner Sam, that she found the courage to leave behind poultry farming and delve into a more exciting career.
“I got a strong urge to visit a friend who was also my business partner at the time. I had a feeling there was something there for me. That’s when I met my partner Sam for the first time,” she says smiling, adding that it was unexpected.
“I found him so adorable, but he didn’t say a word to me, so I thought he wasn’t interested. Then I found him staring at me. I thought he was creepy. He somehow ended up driving me home and we hardly talked.”
Three weeks later, way after Lucy had dismissed him, she ran into a spot of trouble and he was one of the people there to help. She eventually mustered up the courage to talk to him.
“So we got talking and we haven’t stopped talking five years later,” she explains.
Together they have a daughter, cheerful two-year-old Ella-Marie. The couple plans to tie the knot in the near future.
As any mother would, Lucy speaks of her daughter with endearment.
“Ella is one in a million. She so funny, kind and smart and could count to ten when she was only one year old,” she says proudly.
Lucy was inspired to take up aviation by her partner Sam, who is also a pilot.
“He (Sam) encouraged me by saying that I can be a pilot, so I was convinced to enrol in an aviation school in 2011 and to my surprise, my brother too, enrolled,” she says.
She tells of her experience in flight school saying that it was a challenging experience because her instructors were mostly ex-army men who were quite rough and abusive to a point.
“I don’t think the instructors were sensitised enough to realise that the rest of us are not in the army. Some of the instructors would hit us and shout at us even in-flight,” she says.
Lucy was one of four women in a class of 15 students, a number which she considers strong given that aviation is a male-dominated arena.
“By the time we began flying, our count had dropped to two women.”
She describes the reasons as threefold; first the course was quite expensive, second there was intense pressure from the instructors and they were also sceptical to let the women fly solo.
Due to the rough treatment at her first flight school, she moved to a different school where the instructors were milder but as effective. Lucy got her first opportunity to use her managerial skills in the marketing department at a local aviation college.
According to Lucy, most aviation companies are owned and run by pilots, who are not necessarily good managers.
“That’s why my business administration background puts me at an advantage, I also think being a woman also gives me an edge because we are more caring and intuitive than our male counterparts,” she says chuckling.
Thereafter, Lucy and partner Sam were head-hunted by another company to start up an aviation school in Kisumu.
“It was the first of its kind in Kisumu, and I am proud of it although I didn’t stay there for too long,” she reveals, saying that she and Sam left after one year under rocky terms.
It was then that Lucy’s partner got the idea to start their aviation company, Capital Connect, last year.
“My partner felt that we had enough experience to start and manage an aviation company. It was a big step, which scared me, so we prayed for guidance and managed to do it,” she says. “I had also just given birth to Ella-Marie a few months before that, so I didn’t understand exactly how we were going to do it.”
Just a year later, Capital Connect Aviation sits on a half acre plot at Wilson Airport and has about 30 students enrolled into various programmes; which is enough to propel and sustain the school.
Apart from being the most affordable aviation school to enrol in, Capital Connect Aviation is also a tendering company, which supplies nautical and aviation equipment.
“Flying is not cheap. Some schools ask for hefty deposits before students can start flying. We offer top notch pay-as-you go services at the fraction of the price of other schools with no hidden costs,” says Lucy.
Being a male-dominated field, there is some level of sexist discrimination towards female aviators.
Lucy says this is tough but she deals with it by staying positive, laughing and keeping her cool by letting snide comments and looks roll off her shoulders.
“Being the underdog, I try not to look at myself as a woman but as an aviator in general. So if someone comes to me with a negative attitude, they are not attacking me as a woman but as a professional,” she says.
“We may not be equal in other people’s minds, but we are in the same playing field and I have the same right to be here as anyone else.” Lucy keeps herself grounded though prayer, laughter and forgiveness.
“I have learned not to rush into decisions. If there is a problem, for instance, I will wait it out and see what other options are available. Most of the time, the first response is often not the best decision,” she says, adding that Sam is her greatest advisor in most matters.
Being a new player in the aviation business, Lucy feels Capital Connect Aviation has a lot to prove in the industry. She and her partner have high hopes for the future of her organisation.
“We want to run a business that outlives 20 of our generations to come. I don’t want our company to be a memory, it needs to exist and inspire people to fly.”
As young as she is, Lucy still has plenty that she wants to pursue in life one of which is to inspire people, particularly the youth, to reach for their dreams and strive for excellence in whatever they do.