One day in 2013, Pamela Gatwiri was grooming herself before her shift as a cabin crew member. She liked to look good but her job also came with certain grooming standards; her hair had to be neatly tied back away from the face. She was not allowed to have dreadlocks or weaves on her hair. Her eye shadow had to be certain shades of brown or gold and red lipstick was a must — a very bright red.
But there was one requirement particularly on her mind that day; her nails had to have fresh clear polish, a french manicure or a specific shade of red. “Of all the routines, I fell in love with doing my nails. I did my nails since it became increasingly hard to constantly visit the salon with constant travel. Additionally, I was not comfortable doing my polish in a foreign country when we went for trips that lasted longer.”
Pamela admits that as a result, she always had nail polish in her bag. In a passing moment that day, I thought: “Since I love nail polish so much, why not have my own brand someday?” For someone who had a thriving career as cabin crew, it should have been a fleeting idea that, like many others, died off or is relegated to a post-retirement to-do list. But the thought later hit her till she could not take it any more.
“When the thought crossed my mind, I welcomed it, just as I had that of interior design, wine making, real estate, music, bag design...knowing all too well that in the event I pursued any of these dreams, it would be in my 50s, after retirement. In fact, I pursued a diploma in interior deign just in case. Then a few months later something strange happened: a friend who was starting her own nail bar here in Kenya asked me if I could supply her with gel nail polish from Dubai on my trips in and out of the country,” Pamela narrates.
At her friend’s request she started to wonder if and why there was no gel nail polish in Kenya. So whenever she would come back to Kenya, which was often, she would visit the beauty stores. “I previously never visited Kenyan nail polish stockists since I bought and used the UK based Jessica range of nail polish as they had the exact reds required of cabin crew,” she explains.
On her numerous visits to Kenyan stores, she noticed a gap. “Most stock on shelves were international brands and, more often than not, the nail polishes would sell out without being restocked,” she observed.
Then as she was contemplating her next move, yet another friend approached her. This time her friend’s toe nails had turned black, and irredeemably so. When she asked what nail polish brand her friend had used, she could not remember. The polish, her friend confessed, had been a cheap street purchase.
At that point she vowed that when she got to manufacture her own nail polish, it would be a brand to reckon with and free from harmful ingredients such as Tolene and SLS said to be carcinogenic. So she began her research on how nail polish is manufactured.
Pamela says her love for nail polish started in her childhood. “When I was younger I had a thing for collecting nail polish,” she recalls. That, coupled with her love for travel, landed her a job as a cabin crew member. But that did not come without its own set of challenges. “The genesis of my love for travel was when we went for a school trip to Turkey via Qatar,” she says of how her admiration for the cabin crew.
That was when she was a student at Limuru Girls. When she later joined Daystar University, she and fellow students went for another trip on the same route. “The trip only seemed to fuel my dream of becoming cabin crew, but I did nothing about it. At least not immediately.” She points out that when she graduated from Daystar in 2006, with a double major in Accounting and Business Management, she landed a job as the first accountant for a car company. “I applied for a job at Emirates and three months later, I was called for an interview, which I passed and went into a three-month rigorous training to meet the Emirates standards, ending my 6 month job as an accountant.”
Life as cabin crew
“Growing up in Nyeri as a second born in a family of three boys, I was never the brightest but ended up being the most exposed,” she explains of the opportunity that her job accorded her.
“I studied in Nyeri Moi Complex then we moved to Nairobi so I moved to Nairobi Primary then went to a boarding school in Othaya — St Thomas School — to finish my primary studies. The constant switch between schools was a distraction, so it took time for me to adjust. The fact that I was a slow learner did not help the situation much. I struggled with books and I was not a well performing student. Then there was the fact that I did not do well in a large classroom setting. I knew I wanted to be the best at what I did, but did not have a, ‘When I grow up I want to be...’ kind of ambition... until I got the cabin crew job.”
While she enjoyed her experience as cabin crew, she explains that it is not all about the glam. Based on varied opinions, it has been concluded that height and a certain beauty standard set by God-knows-who, are are prime consideration in picking a cabin crew, but she offers a different point of view on that one, at least in her experience.
Personality is key, she says, and while a 5.6-inch height is said to be a minimum requirement, ones wing span is taken into consideration. “There is no point in being tall yet your wing span is so short that you cannot reach the overhead storage compartments. That, plus you have to be a people-person and service-oriented. Otherwise, the rest you can be trained on or changed.”
Quitting her job
Then in mid 2014, amid fear of the unknown, she quit her job and decided to pursue this dream. “At the time I quit my job, I had a huge loan I had taken to invest in property. I would have needed to stay in the job for two more years to clear the loan,” Pamela says.
But the passion was burning too strong to have to wait two years. “I figured that in two years, I will have covered so much mileage. So I quit anyway and used most of my bonus to clear off the loan... and there was no going back from that point on,” she explains of the fear she felt of getting into an industry where all she knew was that she loved nail polish. “A lot of my friends and some family members questioned why I was leaving a stable, well paying job, with others reasoned that I was too young to get into business.”
But she left anyway. Among the people who supported her dream was her husband, media personality Tim Njiru.
“When I met Tim, I had hinted that I was thinking of quitting cabin crew. At first he could not understand why I wanted to leave my crew job but as we dated and got married, he figured I had made up my mind that I wanted to settle back. He supported the decision of me coming back home and pursuing my business so that made my setting up of Pam Nails easier.”
In the following months, Pamela spent a lot of time in research. “I enjoyed the research the most, for I felt it was part of the creation process.” She however warns that it needs a lot of patience.
“I did not want to get into the chemical composition of the nail polish — at least not until we were an established brand — so I enlisted the help of a cosmetic scientist”. In the end, she landed a manufacturer in the USA, producing Kenya’s premier nail polish brand that is cost effective and non-toxic as was her initial plan.
On how she met Tim amid her busy schedule, she offers: “I met Tim at a friends wedding in 2011 October and we got married in October 2013 at the same wedding grounds we met. We did long distance dating for over two years till I decided to settle back home end of July 2014 so that we can be together. We felt it was easier for me to move back to Kenya than for him to move to Dubai and get a job there,” she says.
Being her own boss
Running the business has come with its own share of challenges, location being her greatest setback. “I would want my product to be in all stores, but the cost is too great,” she admits. Staff turnover is high and most people are yet to associate with the brand. She sets her business apart by manufacturing trendier nail polish in terms of colour selection — her range comprising up to 50 nail polishes.
“The range has very few reds, since I wanted to give something out of the norm.” In addition, her range includes a matte top coat that gives any colour a matte finish.