Geraldine Sande would come to realise that completing a gruelling degree – which her mother could barely afford – wasn’t the greatest challenge she’d have to undertake. Completing herself was.
Geraldine was ecstatic when they announced the newest member of the Student Body Committee. All the hard work in between lectures and long nights at the library had paid off. Her grand plan was nearly complete. Not that she had paid that much attention to campus politics, though. But she did have a vested interest in the outcome of the election.
See, a few months prior, she had been introduced to a student on campus who, they said, was in a position to help her in return for her assistance in helping him in his campaign. Here was the deal: if Geraldine applied her talents to his bid for student office, he would help her set up a tuckshop on campus. He could help with the bid for the permit and fund half of the stock.
The problem was that, as is often the case, without the necessary connections, the chance of obtaining trading rights on campus was about as good as finding a clean pot in the student residence kitchen. Which is why Geraldine set about lending her talents to his campaign in order to further her goal of financial freedom. While there was certainly nothing illicit in their dealings, Geraldine knew she was prepared to work hard in his campaign in order to set herself up. Campus certainly is a ‘who you know’ environment.
From Books to Business
To Geraldine, the idea of running a business on the side meant a way forward. And she was desperate. Her father had just passed away unexpectedly, and her mother, a lecturer, couldn’t carry the financial burden of running a household and educating three children on her small salary. Although her mother didn’t admit to this, Geraldine knew that to be the case.
Going forward, Geraldine wanted to at least earn enough from the tuckshop to cover her tuition fees. Any profit over that meant Geraldine could send much-needed money back home, which for her and her family would be like hitting the jackpot. For Geraldine, leaving university simply wasn’t an option. After all, it was her mother that had applied for her to attend the tertiary institution.
Geraldine couldn’t admit to harbouring any ambitions of becoming an engineer. In fact, if she was honest with herself, she didn’t even have much of a clue about what to do with her life after leaving high school. In a way, she was fulfilling her mother’s dream.
Her mother was an epidemiologist and believed in a new generation of women. “At that time, you know, every African family dreamed that their child would go on to become something great and break the cycle of poverty,” Geraldine said. “I didn’t know many women that went to university. Those who did usually studied something like nursing or education. I guess my mother had different plans for me. She researched degrees with the best job prospects and settled on engineering.”
At that point during the interview, I was curious to find out whether Geraldine had ever enjoyed that field of study. “Not at all,” she responded instantly. “Gosh it was so hard, I didn’t know what hit me. I studied so much I hardly slept just to keep up.”
Knowing that Geraldine graduated with distinction, her statement ‘not at all’ troubled me. In the age of Apple, Branson, Tesla and the Kardashians, ‘following your passion’ seems like the sure-fire key to success. We hear it all the time. That modern mantra about how the answer always lies within.
But sometimes faith in something greater than ourselves allows us to rise above adversity. Sometimes, the path towards the extraordinary is built upon a ‘worthy cause’, as Winston Churchill once said. Perhaps Geraldine Sande – the accidental engineering student – intuitively knew that it mattered if one generation strongly believed in the next one. And so she persevered.
Off to A Stumbling Start
Campus life really does have a tendency to reveal all sorts of unorthodox skills that students never knew they possessed until after enrolment, like gulping down a litre of beer through a plastic funnel. Or, in Geraldine’s case, persuading people to vote for a certain candidate. But not all these ‘survival skills’ are as innocuous as others. Some less fortunate students find that they are forced to seek financial refuge in ‘mutually beneficial relationships’ with older men. For Geraldine, however, that was taboo and a no-go area. Instead, she learnt to go all in, no matter how bad the hand of cards fate would deal her. And thus she embarked on the tuckshop endeavour.
And it wasn’t too difficult to do either. Although Geraldine considers herself an introvert, her charisma made it hard for the electorate who she had to convince to say no to her. “Many students don’t bother much about campus politics,” she said, “so if you want them to vote you have to catch them one by one and tell them to support a particular person. That’s how I did it.”
The newly elected member of the student body kept his promise. But for Geraldine, retail success proved to be elusive from the outset. She got the tuckshop, but never had money for the initial stock investment. She hunted for the best bargains to cover up her inability to purchase sufficient inventory, but it became patently obvious pretty soon into the operation what was going on.
Thankfully for Geraldine, her business partner let her business naivety slide. In any event, Geraldine had helped him a great deal with the election. Despite her business partner’s success at the polls, the tuckshop didn’t turn out to be all that Geraldine had hoped for. She discovered, as most entrepreneurs inevitably do, that it was a lot of work for little return. Sure, the profits from the endeavour were enough to cover her fees, but that’s really where it ended. And it sucked up her time. A lot of her time.
Eventually, she was forced to ask a family member to manage the shop, as she was struggling to balance her business with her books, and playing catch up with her studies was adversely affecting her grades. In fact, she even found herself fighting for permission to stay in the residence during the summer break to complete her projects.
The Best/Worst Is Yet To Come
The truth is that life’s journey isn’t linear. If we view success as a neatly-packaged and entirely predictable sequence of events, we’ll eventually run out of steam, staring into the abyss of disillusionment. For a moment, I was certain that managing to navigate the tumultuous journey to becoming an engineer was Geraldine’s greatest achievement; the monument of her life story. But it wasn’t.
I asked Geraldine whether she had faced the lowest moments of her life during those years. “No, Simon, not at all”, she responded. “I had my lowest moment in corporate. You see, I was so proud to be working for an international company. A few of my former classmates even asked me how I did it [getting that job]. I was changing… I became a bit arrogant, maybe. For a while, I only wanted to eat at Art Café and those places. You know what I mean.” And then the slide to the low point began.
Geraldine Sande experienced the nature of the business beast first-hand. The company underwent rapid change. There was uncertainty. Unsettling rumours we heard everywhere. Many people left their jobs. New colleagues and chiefs arrived on the scene. New products were introduced. Many other services got the chop. “All of a sudden, everything I’d worked for was gone,” she recalled. “Clients really trusted me. When I told them to invest in this or that technology, they listened.”
The company changes happening around her adversely affected the trust she had built up between herself and her clients. “Imagine going to a customer who, after months, eventually bought from you because of the trust you built, and then you have to tell them, ‘Sorry, we are doing something else now.’ I felt awful.”
In the midst of this corporate turmoil, Geraldine went on maternity leave with her second child. That’s when she remembered how carefree life could be. Yes. You read that right. I’m not sure how many mothers would relate or could even conceive of how motherhood could be considered ‘carefree, but that’s what Geraldine said. “I was so relaxed, and only then realised how tough the past couple of months at work had been. I didn’t know how I was going to go back.”
Clearly, something had to change for Geraldine. It’s often all too easy to forget that achievement is a journey, not a destination. When we start defining ourselves by jobs, material things, or degrees, we risk losing sight of the ‘why’ that had us plotting out a life course on the map in the first place. “I realised everything was about work in my life. I didn’t know who I was anymore. If things were bad at work it felt like my entire world was falling apart,” Geraldine explained.
My favourite part of Geraldine’s story is how she began reinventing herself. “I started with my house. I bought new furniture and decorated everything the way I’d always wanted to. My husband got quite worried about my shopping craze, but I knew what I needed to do. He didn’t need to understand. Then I signed up for personal training with Evelyn Okinyi. She was Miss Kenya Figure in 2016 – and she’s definitely the best in the country. It’s not cheap, I can tell you, but it’s so worth it. I’ve lost 15kg in the last 6 months and I feel amazing.”
Geraldine continued mischievously. “What my husband doesn’t know is that I also plundered my savings to work with Patricia Murugami. She’s the number one executive coach in the country. She helped me realise so many things about myself. I didn’t enjoy my degree in particular, but everything that happened in my life is starting to make sense.
My real passion is for trade and technology and what it can do for people in East Africa. I do some of that in my current job, but I have much bigger plans. All I can say is: watch this space.”