Njeri Rionge sold yogurt in her early days to high school kids during break times from the trunk of a friend’s car. Throughout this period, she was employed as a hairdresser with a clientele consisting largely of high net worth individuals.
Rionge would realize another opportunity that involved shuttling to London regularly using discounted courier tickets to “purchase resale luxury” merchandise which were not available in Kenya at that time.
“I sold this merchandise to my clients,” she told Forbes. Despite her perseverance to succeed she has not always known what she wanted to do.
“I touched many things before I touched the thing that I turned to gold,” she told BBC. “I did hairdressing, I did buying and selling of clothes in London and then the thing that created the opportunity for success.”
The opportunity that would turn “gold” came in the form of Wananchi.com in 1999, at a time when very few people had internet access.
“Wananchi was a roller coaster ride in which we sought to challenge the assumption of regulators, the government officials and competitors that the Internet was not only relevant for the elite,” Rionge said.
Rionge started Wananchi with first tranche of $500,000 and the second tranche of $3m and the company eventually went on to raise up to $238m. As well as being responsible for raising the initial start-up capital for Wananchi, she structured the private placement for early-stage growth which was split into three tranches, as well as the funds used for a merger and acquisition for one of their competitors.
After the success with Wananchi, Rionge went ahead to found Ignite, a management consulting firm dedicated to helping African businesses leave lasting legacies.
Ignite expanded under her leadership to include Ignite Lifestyle (a health care consultancy), Insite (a digital marketing firm) and Business Lounge (an incubator that provides support for Kenyan startups and foreign companies looking to enter the country).
Wananchi is the company that Rionge’s name is almost synonymous within Kenya, and why she’s known as a ‘tech entrepreneur’ in some circles. With her business partner, they grew the business from a typical start-up to become the largest Internet Service Provider (ISP) in East Africa, with a network of five regional offices, and a recognized brand in a particularly challenging regulatory and economic environment.
Rionge, who’s currently the CEO of UpCountry Africa Fund Assets Corp, said the greatest impediments she encountered as a serial entrepreneur are managing the brand value and promise of each brand while building a business.
“The Internet and social media present great opportunities to quickly communicate developments, changes in activities and interests. If these communication pieces are ignored or not managed they tend to bring about confusion within organizations and with their customers. The rules of engagement have shifted and yet much of our organizational cultures remain rooted in outmoded styles of operation that have little relevance in a globalized market place,” she said.
She said the biggest lesson she learned in business being “responsible” for the good, the bad and the ugly. One must pay attention at all times and take responsibility “for all that you and your organization does throughout its tenure,” Rionge said.
On her philosophy in business and life, she said: “I judge myself based on my performance vis-à-vis today’s challenges and opportunities. I am passionate about growth in others and myself. I am humbled and gain enormous strength from the many young dynamic people I have had the privilege of working with over the years. Success for me is defined by increased value – not simply financial rewards. This is still to be tested in this phase one and the follow-up phases.”