Juliet Nyaga: Don't try to fit in 'giant shoes'

Juliet Gikonyo Nyaga, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of The Karen Hospital, Nairobi during the interview. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

She might own a boat one day – a catamaran, to be precise. That’s the one that she dreams about when she thinks about one of her passions and possible part of the next phase of her life.

“I’m still trying to do my boating classes. I think my husband thinks I’ll one day buy a ship and sail away to another continent!” she says with a laugh.

“But there is something about boats and water that fascinates me. Have I done much about it? No, but I read about it. I don’t know what it is about boats and water. I can see myself taking a small adventure. Not far. From like Mombasa to Zanzibar. I’m not trying to go around the world, but there is something that intrigues me in that area.”

Juliet Nyaga is that kind of fascinating character, with an intriguing thought process delivered through her gift of the gab. 

For now, she is the captain of a different kind of ship. When she took over at the helm of the Karen Hospital from her mother, she must have sensed the question that was on a lot of people’s minds, because she addressed it in her speech and she recalls it when I ask if the thought of filling such giant shoes was daunting.  

“My motto is, ‘Take those giant shoes and put them aside. Don’t try to fill them.’ Whatever you’re trying to do in life, look at those giant shoes, see what makes them, but I say don’t try and slip your feet into them. Put them on the side, coat them in gold so you can always see them, but don’t try and wear them,” she says.

She speaks as cheerfully as if we were in a coffee shop chatting as old friends, even if we are seated in office at the top floor of the hospital, where she has just come from a meeting in another area of the hospital.

“My mother likes high heels, I want flats, but am I going to wear these heels because people have told me to wear them? I say, my mother’s shoes are iconic. Now I need to create my own iconic shoes or at least my own comfortable shoes.”

That’s not to say that she and her mother, who was the CEO and founded the hospital together with her father, have no similarities. There are, and she still asks for guidance from her and runs things by her, given that she has been her mentor and biggest influence.

“My mother’s favourite line, which she even taught my son was ‘You win some, you lose some.’ So the idea of winning everything was never there. You were never supposed to be the best in every subject in school, you were never supposed to be the best in every sport, you were never supposed to be the best in every extra-curricular activity. You have your strengths and your weaknesses and you must accept that,” she says.

The mentality of ‘You win some, you lose some’ helped her get through with her struggle to have a second child. Her first pregnancy at 23 had been a breeze, a textbook example of how pregnancy and birth should be.

“So when I got married at the age of 33, I was like, ‘Yay, it’s time to have more babies! And it’s going to work like clockwork just like the last time!”

It did not.

“So from 33 all the way to 39 was that challenge, that journey of not having the baby by either not conceiving or not getting past the first trimester,” she explains.

She did trials of IVF (in vitro fertilization) which ended in disappointment

“In that mental capacity of saying: You win some, you lose some, I was able to say, ‘Get back up Juliet. It didn’t work out this time. Brush yourself off, let’s try it again! Let’s try and keep trying,” she says.

Eventually, they settled on surrogacy.

“Everybody’s journey is different. And if you can accept that your journey is going to be different instead of being ashamed of it or embarrassed, you will live a happier life. Don’t carry other people’s burdens on your shoulders. Just carry your own, with a sense of dignity.

“I said, ‘Okay, it’s not going to happen, I’m not going to carry this second child, it has to be through a surrogate and that’s the route I took. And I’m very happy! He’s now going to be 7,” she says, beaming with pride. “Yeah I can’t believe it! It’s been a wonderful journey.”

Women have an interesting relationship with age but Nyaga adores turning older. She’s 45, turning 46 in September, but she might tell you she’s 46 because it’s her way of telling God to make sure she sees 46. Some people don’t even get to 10, she says, so every additional year is a blessing.

Turning 40 was one of her favourites.

“I was totally happy. I had done one of the things that I wanted to do, which was have the second born, and I was still alive. There’s that bucket list that you make when you make when you’re in your twenties, like ‘I have to have a billion dollars in my account…’ It was so refreshing to realized that that was Juliet the 20-year-old, and there is nothing wrong with those dreams and aspirations, but now I know reality – it may not be a billion shillings in money, but I have a billion memories.

“You think about it and what has worked out for you? You thought a billion shillings would make you happy, but it’s actually the billion memories that have made you happy.”

When she was born in 1976, her parents were just two hardworking doctors living in a two-bedroomed flat in Nakuru, not the legendary hospital and charity-founding personalities they are known for today.

At their home (everything)had to be earned, so even by the time they had built the hospital and she was a senior manager there, the thought of being CEO never even crossed her mind.

It came as a total surprise to her when the idea was floated, and it was evident she had earned it. She became CEO of the hospital during the perilous times of Covid-19, She had been prepared for challenges because even regarding CEO, her mother had reminded her that you win some and lose some, but this was something no one in the world had had any experience navigating.

“But because I had worked in the institution by that time, it wasn’t a new institution to me. I knew all the senior managers, the doctors, the nurses, and I had worked with them.

"It would have been different if I had been taken from another institution to come and work as a CEO but at least there I got a lot of support from my team, who are great at what they do in terms of knowledge and execution,” she says.

She had a solid crew behind her who believed in her and they successfully got through the choppy waters together.

“I had built confidence over the years. Had I been a lazy worker and then gotten to CEO, they would have been like (smacks lips), ‘We know how she operates.’ But I had already showed them I was a hard worker with integrity, they were willing to work with me so that we could get through the covid period,” she says.

A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor, and now that she has successfully sailed through a storm, the writing on the wall is clear: the vessel is in good hands.

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