Rising from a Humble Background

Who’s is Irene?

I grew up in Kisumu. A place called Manyatta. I’m the first born of four children. My dad died when I was about four years old. My mom - a small scale businesswoman – was the sole breadwinner.

My childhood was marked by a lot of reading and a lot of games too. My mother -a disciplinarian - was so much into academics. She had targets; you were not allowed to be anything less than number one. That was very tough because I wasn’t the brightest student in the class. It proved really hard to maintain that through the years. I scored 411 out of 500. But she wasn’t there to see those good grades because she died when I was 12-years old.

To find yourselves as orphans and you being the first born must have been tough.

Yes. It was a very trying moment for me because she was my rock that I leaned on. But this is the reason that I was also motivated to work hard in school. Being a first born and being a girl, so I also had to make sure that they were comfortable and do the house chores just for them to be in school in time and stuff. I could say I spent a lot of my time doing house chores as opposed to studying which I used to do when my mother was around. My grades dropped initially. Going to Starehe Girls’ Center helped a great deal because, really, my future depended on doing well. And then getting into Starehe because I knew I would get a sponsor who would take me through secondary school.

It must have been an eye opener.

Yes. Very, very different. With all these brilliant students from all over the country. And being new in Nairobi of course. Life in Starehe was comfortable. And competitive. It wasn’t the same environment I was used to. Where I was used to being the best student and all accolades were on me. Here I had to compete with students who scored like 450, and I had 411. Starehe made me feel normal and common. The biggest lesson at that school was the nurturing. And also freedom. In Starehe, the thing that struck me most is the fact that there were no school rules. The school rule was; anything that is contrary to common sense is against the school rules. It really gave me a sense of having more responsibility for myself, for my actions and everything. There I was made the student leader and that molded and nurtured my leadership within the school. And the teachers there were like second parents. It was like a second home. The moment I went to Starehe, I didn’t really get to miss my home as such. Because it felt like it was home, there were very caring, they were always there to support, to guide, to mentor, to coach. It felt like a haven for me. Based on many interactions with former students there and of Starehe Boys, I was encouraged and it also made me believe that I would be anything I wanted to be.

Then GGBC came in?

Yes, 2009. I was in form four. I was merged to a mentor, Margie French, she’s from New York. I think that was one of the biggest blessings that I had during that time. Because not having had a mother for a while, Margie represented the mother figure in my life. She made me realize how much potential I really have. She pushed me to be better and to tackle challenges. She helped me with making decisions. While in Starehe I also had the chance to give back at a children’s home. I also mentored girls at St. Martin’s Kibagare, just after Kangemi; coach them on academics – because I was just fresh from form four– and guide them on life. After that I mentored a girl at Enosain Kakenya Center of excellence. It’s girl-child empowerment program.

I think most girls really do get encouragement from hearing your life story because it’s not very different from their life story. Now I’m an employee at Unilever in the customer marketing for oral care and deodorants, I give back by teaching children in primary school how to brush their teeth and how important oral health is to them.

So what’s the big plan?

I’m in Unilever Future Leaders Program, a three year program and I’m concentrating in trying to learn as much. This program gives the graduate trainees an opportunity to really go through different departments within the organization. I want to understand fast moving consumer goods and how all these different departments really motion to make this company a great company. Eventually in the next five to six years, I want to be the first female director.


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