Twenty years ago, Wandia Gichuru was 27 years old. She was working for Citi Bank, based in Fedha Towers in Nairobi. She was thinking of, and eventually decided to go for her MBA.
At the persuasion and encouragement of a black South African woman she had met earlier, she registered at the University of Cape Town and spent the next one year in the land of Nonkqubela. This was in 1996. After her MBA, she came back to Kenya.
It was a strange but exciting time in South Africa. Nelson Mandela had just been elected as the president and everyone was buzzing. Even foreigners. Wandia was among the foreigners. She loved her time there so much that nine years later, when she was 36, and expectant with her first child, and was given the choice of either delivering in South Africa or London; she chose to go back to South Africa.
She turns her neck and looks back, at the table behind her. There is nothing much to see. A young lady and young man are having brunch. It is mid-morning, the interview is on the balcony of a nondescript restaurant along a nameless street in Nairobi but her mind has travelled back to 1996.
“I was not really interested in joining the corporate world once I finished my MBA. I was drawn more towards the development sector. When I came back to Kenya, I joined World Bank. From World Bank, I joined DFID, the Department for International Development, in London.”
She spent the next ten years with DFID. Moving from one country to the next like an international nomad. Mozambique, Sudan, Uganda, New York...and the list goes on. Working and living a transient life.
It must have been a good life. “The country I liked the least was Sudan. It was extremely hot and restrictive for a liberal woman. Uganda was special because that is where I discovered motherhood.
I got pregnant there and my children took their first steps on Ugandan soil. New York; I was single and had a great time. I fell in love with its high energy and its diversity.” She is lovely and playful and childlike.
Before all of these, she was a child, of course. Born in Canada, to a Canadian mother - who is currently visiting - and a Kenyan father - who has since passed on.
“As a child, I never really thought of what I wanted to become when I grew up. I just focused on being a child. Even at adolescence and early adulthood, I just lived.” Luckily, her parents valued and loved education. So they enrolled her into Kilimanjaro Primary School followed by Loreto Convent Msongari for her high school and then off to Canada for an economics degree at the University of Western Ontario.
The second born out of a family of three boys, she never had sisters to play with, but she says high school offered her sisters and shaped her life.
“If you check my speed dial, out of eight, five are my high school and childhood friends. High school shaped my life; taught me about friendships. Some of my best friends today, are people I met in high school. I have people I met when I was 12 years old and today at 47, we are still friends,” she says.
What has kept them together that long? Lack of pretence she says. They tell each other the truth no matter how dark, red or white it is.
And they have had tough times, and easy times; they have had high ups, and deep downs and through it all, they have been there for each other.
Smiling, she says, “I can have honest conversations with my girlfriends. I can show up as myself and they won’t judge me.
Betty Kairo and Harriet Wanjiku-Kahuku can attest to that.” Her new friends are from 15-20 years ago; the old friends are from 30-35 years ago.
Ten years of working for DFID made her realise that she wanted something different out of life. She grew restless, wanted freedom from employment and being a sentimental person, the up-and-leave form of her young life was getting to her. She wanted to settle and Kenya came up first in her list of options. Her last posting ended in 2009 in the sweltering heat and dusty air of Khartoum, Sudan.
When she arrived back into the country in 2009, she spent the first three years getting reacquainted with the country, going through a training to become a certified life coach and entertaining a business idea. Out of the business idea came Vivo Active wear and out of the life coach training came an informal-over-coffee coaching practice.
Wandia co-founded Vivo Active wear with a friend, Anne-Marie Burugu from their personal experience.
They used to attend dance classes-zumba and salsa classes — but couldn’t find things to wear. So they decided to set up a Vivo to sell health and fitness wear and then moved to regular clothing. Today, Vivo has more than 35 employees in six shopping mall outlets; The Junction, Yaya, Galleria, New Muthaiga Shopping Centre, City Mall, Nyali and Professional Centre.
Business, like most things in life, she says, is limitless if you have a decent idea of what you are up to, put in your time, energy and resources.