WE #ZOOMIN : ASHA MWERU OF SINAPIS

“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” Maya Angelou

This popular quote distills what Asha Mweru, Regional Expansion Manager of Sinapis Group, tells me about her lessons in business and work.

‘I had a stint running my own business while in Uni and it was tough. I was learning on the job. I was very young, and I had to handle things like getting yelled at by an irate client without losing my temper. I grew up very fast.’

We’re sitting at Nairobi Garage // The Original, at Piedmont Plaza on Ngong’ Road. We’re curled up on a comfy couch, looking (I hope fervently) like two friends catching up over coffee.

I first heard of Asha a long time ago, on some entrepreneurship forum, and I was intrigued. Who is this young woman achieving so much? Luckily, she and her team are Garagers, so I finally got to meet her and pick her brain.

My first mistake when Googling her was to type ‘Asha Mwilu’. Confused by the picture of the famous local news anchor, I finally realise the problem and switch gears.

‘It happens all the time!’ she laughs when I tell her of my blunder, ‘I even get name tags at events with her name on them. It’s OK, though. She’s a phenomenal woman to be mixed up with.’

I silently wonder if Asha Mwilu gets the same mix-ups.  Maybe I’ll get to ask her one day.

Asha is so full of energy that I barely notice that she’s shorter than me. Her spirit fills a room, her smile lighting you up from the inside. She is friendly, like most Garagers, but you can tell that she is used to being in charge, and getting stuff done.

The organisation that she works with, Sinapis, is a faith-based early stage accelerator that works out Nairobi Garage.  Sinapis focuses on early stage SME’s.

‘Additionally, we believe that the entrepreneur’s abilities are often of more consequence than the business idea itself. Thus, while most organizations provide only financial capital with very little business training and support, Sinapis provides a holistic training program specifically designed for early stage entrepreneurs,’ says their website.

‘I think one of the best feelings in my work is when an entrepreneur comes up to us and thanks us for helping their business take off and thrive,’ Asha explains. ‘When somebody says that they would not have succeeded without our training, I feel like it was all worth it.’

I take her back to where it all began. Her university days.

‘I started studying engineering, but I was unhappy. It just didn’t feel right. I wanted to do something else, something more dynamic and people facing.’

She was pushed into IT after quitting her engineering program. At first, unsure, she was apprehensive. That soon changed.

‘I loved it! I was finally learning stuff that I was interested me and it was amazing. On top of that, I met my best friends in that class. There was just so much I didn’t know! If I had the skills I have now, I really believe it would have made a big difference. I might have stuck it out for a little longer.’

She decided to learn more about business, before trying it out again. In her search, she came across an ad for a PR person at Sinapis.  It was perfect, but the problem was, she felt like she wasn’t qualified.

‘Neither my education or experience made me a qualified PR candidate but when you’re running a startup, you play a role in almost every single activity of the company so i wasn’t clueless. What i lacked in skill i would compensate with an insane drive to succeed and learn, so i showed for the interview, did my best and here i am today .’

This led to the wildest ride of her adventurous life. She was pushed to her limits, and tasked with jobs she didn’t know she could do. She rose through the ranks pretty fast, soon with jobs she didn’t know she could do. She rose through the ranks pretty fast, soon becoming Regional Expansion Manager at 27 years of age.

‘It has not been easy. For example, we wanted to make more impact. We wanted to see more entrepreneurs have access to world class business training customized for their needs.  The only way we could make that happen was to scale up but we still had to maintain the same high quality standards and try achieve this with the same resources. This was it. The do or die.’

She chose to do.

‘It was a crazy time. I have an awesome boss who pushed me, never allowing me to slow down or quit. It was also one of the most fulfilling times of my life. No day was quite the same as the other.’

I’m not surprised when she told me that they succeeded – I’m beginning to see a pattern of tenacity leading to wins in Asha’s life. They were able to train up to 5 times more the entrepreneurs on the same budget- a veritable win, not only for Sinapis, but for the entrepreneurs.

Asha loves to experience new things and travel, describing herself as one afflicted by wanderlust and adventure.

She also loves to work. ‘Am I weird? I love to work. I mean, I really enjoy it – it’s fun for me.’

I don’t think it’s weird at all.  There’s this unattributed saying: ‘Find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.’  This, I feel, should be everybody’s goal.

I ask her where she gets her confidence from, and she replies that it has been hard won over time.

‘You do what you must, even when you’re afraid. You keep trying, and keep learning. Even if you fail, there will come a time when you realize that you have mastered that skill, and are working on something else. There’ll be a time when you look in the mirror, and say. “Hey, I’m pretty good at this!” Keep trying and have your goals!’

We find common ground in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In which she swears by.

‘Everybody should read that book. I absolutely recommend it.’

From Sandberg, she learned to ask herself, ‘What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?’

She took on more responsibilities at work, and pushed herself to do things she’d never thought she would, like bungee jumping.

‘I am NEVER going to do that again. It was terrifying!’ she says, laughing. ‘I loved swimming with dolphins, though. That I can do over and over again.’

On her coat of many colours, is a deep love for literature. In another dimension, there’s an Asha who is a writer of fiction. In this one, she dabbles lightly, but that does not stop her from reading as much as she can.

Lately, though, her obsession is Quora: ‘I can’t get enough! I can’t believe I am just finding how interesting it can be now!’

We part, with me feeling super inspired by her positive energy, and wishing this adrenaline junkie all the best in her newest adventure.