When Architecture meets Business

charity_wanjikuCharity Wanjiku is the Chief Operations Officer and co-founder of Strauss Energy, a startup dealing in renewable energy solutions. Their flagship product is a 2 in 1 roofing tile with integrated solar cells. Did this architect ever imagine she would be an entrepreneur, providing a solution to a global problem? She gives us a peek into her journey.

Question: What motivated you to study architecture at the university?
: When I was 10 years old, there was a TV advertisement for an insurance company. There was this lady in a boardroom, making a presentation to a panel of gentlemen. Towards the end of the advert, she held up a model of houses and all the men clapped for her. I remember seeing that and saying, “I want to do that thing where they make small houses!” I liked to work with my hands, so seeing a little model made of paper excited me. Imagine my dismay when I was told that I couldn’t do it because it was a course for boys! As young as I was, I determined in my heart that I would be the first girl to do that course. The desire to pursue architecture grew with my desire to prove a point.

Question: How did you end up in project management after graduating?
: After graduation, my first job was at an organization dealing in finance and project management for housing development. My first interesting lesson was that there was more to architecture than drawing and design. Project management is about organizing and order which absolutely suited my character. I am a planner by nature. I enjoyed running projects rather than design. It didn’t feel like work at all! The second lesson I learnt was that design and planning a project is mostly constrained by cost and time. This is unlike designing in university where your creativity is allowed to fly, with little constraint. I, then, decided to pursue my masters in construction management. This is the third lesson I learnt. Working in industry showed me that, though I was good at design, my niche was project management. The programme suited me since I had learnt about my preferences while working in industry. In my opinion, working for one or two years before further studies allows you to find your space in the career and hence what you want to do for the rest of your life. Overall, the background in architecture comes in so handy in construction management because I understand the entire construction process and what it requires.

Question: What other roles have you worked in?
: I have worked for Agakhan University Hospital as the project architect/project manager where my role was mainly refurbishment of spaces. I was also part of the initial team that worked on the outreach centers. We did the typical clinic design and adapted it to the space where the clinic was to be based. I enjoyed that. I also worked with UNHCR at Alinjugur (25kms from Dadaab camp) as the project manager to build a new administrative camp from scratch. This was 60kms off the Somali border, in the middle of nowhere! I was the only lady in the technical team of 6 people and I was the boss. I learnt a lot from that team and it was good experience. I have also worked as project manager in an interiors company. The dynamics are very different. It is all about the experience you get when you walk in. You get a space and space it out to the requirements of the client. It was a very high energy type of job. The projects would typically run for 8 weeks and we would run 6-10 projects at the same time. You had to have your head together.

Question: How did you become the Chief Operating Officer at Strauss Energy?
: Strauss Energy started off as a school project. It was, originally, incorporated in 2008 by my brother, Tony, and I for a completely different project which didn’t pan out. In 2013, Tony did his Masters in Energy and Energy Management, and his project was the solar tile. He needed an architectural design for a small model house to be roofed with these tiles and demonstrate how it works, which I helped him with. He, then, decided to make the project into a business, found contacts to produce it and the rest is history. My initial role back then, was as senior architect in charge of business development. I would assess the buildings and give my input on roofing, what is required and probably adding an aesthetics aspect. At some point, I took time off work to help with the design of the product. In 2014, the company I was working for made cutbacks and I lost my job. This is how I came into Strauss Energy on a full time basis.

Question: How would you describe your experience as an entrepreneur.
: Entrepreneurship is different from employment in that it is freedom with responsibility. While you manage yourself and your time, the push comes from the customers. The life of an entrepreneur is the typical iceberg principle. What people see is very little. What goes into the business is underneath. Every day is different. There are such high highs and some depressing lows. It oscillates. My first two months were overwhelming. I had a lot to do, was unsure of where to start, how to approach people or even what to say. It was a lot. I dug my heels in, learnt what I needed and encouraged myself a lot. Right now, what excites me is seeing a concept that started as a thought, having grown into a fully-fledged business, with customers paying money to use our product. We have come a long way. It is encouraging when people trust us, vouch for us and even refer to us as influencers in the energy sector! These are huge milestones. It has taught me that there is a process to business.

Question: What is the best thing that Strauss energy has offered you?
: I used to listen to entrepreneurs saying it is not easy but it is exciting and wonder what it means. Sitting on this side, I know what they meant. The most fulfilling thing is being part of a team that conceptualized a business and seeing it come to life and grow. I wonder where the business will have grown to in 20 years, when there are children that we are trying to grow into the business. Another exciting thing is breaking off from the norm. We have grown up in a society where our parents worked in a single organization for most of their lives. We are, now, the employers.

Question: What challenges have you faced while growing your business?
: We have become known out there and there is interest arising from it. We are growing fast in terms of resources, that is, financial, staff and even space. The challenge, currently, is to properly manage growth. Another thing is the revenue from business. It is true what they say about entrepreneurship. It does take you 12 – 24 months for the business to give revenue. We have had our rough patches. There are times when things are not moving as fast as you expect them to and you are stuck. I would encourage upcoming entrepreneurs to plan ahead especially in terms of finances because there may be no revenue for some time. Finally, it is a hard task to find a team that understands your vision, can see where you are going and sticks with you.

Question: People say entrepreneurship is a journey of self-discovery. How is this true for you?
: I like to be in the background and be a support system for someone else who is in the foreground. Being in Strauss energy challenged me to get out of my shell and take up a role that I never quite thought about. I am mostly in the limelight, which is uncomfortable for me. I have had to overcome this. I am actually praying about it. It is important, as a woman, to find where you are best placed. Figure out your strengths, find out where to plug in and improve your weaknesses. Working with Tony, I have realized where my strengths lie. He is the vision bearer for Strauss and is very strategic in his thinking. He will see far with no idea how to get there. I am very operational. I will make plans of how to achieve the vision. We both do what we are good at and it works perfectly this way.

Question: Funding is a drawback for many women aspiring to be entrepreneurs. How have you handled this?
: The business has a life of its own and needs to be supported. You are the support system. Fundraising has been a joint affair depending on who is approached and who we are choosing to approach. I have learnt that women have a lot to bring to the table and should definitely step up. Being aggressive is not a bad thing and we should not shy away and stay in the background. I have realized that your thinking grows as the business grows. Our investment ask has grown from an initial USD10,000 to millions of dollars.

Question: Comment on these two things: 1) Important characters for a leader and 2) Networking.
Characters of a leader: Patience is very important. Learning people, understanding them and learning to work with them is key.  It needs to be a very strong point for a leader because our biggest resource is human resource. I have to understand that people have their differences, based on their characters. This has really helped me to not get upset about petty things. This does not mean condoning things that are out of line. It simply means understanding their point of view. My motto is that my staff always comes first. If I take care of them, I know my customer is taken care of. As a co-founder and also being in management, I see the vision way before, but getting a buy in from the rest of the team may take a while. Explaining the vision to them and giving them a chance to internalize it will allow them to run with it as their own.
Networking: It is a high priority for startups. Businesses are people. It is the people who do the business and bring in business. Meet as many people as possible. It is a web. At GES last year, someone said, “Your next breakthrough is just 7 people away.” Our very first customer was referred to us by someone who had met Tony at a function. And through him, we have made so many connections as well. Meaningful networking is what I advocate for. Create a meaningful contact for every function you go to. If it is not you who is linking the business, pass the link to somebody else, pay it forward.. For example, at GES last year, I got in touch with some investors who felt Strauss was still too small for them and linked us to other investors.

Question: Have you had any role model/mentor on your journey?
: One of my mentors is Alison Ngibuini, who is a business woman. We were paired with her as peer mentors at Babson College in Boston. There are other women as well that I look up to and watch from afar. Business ethos and acumen is what I look out for in a mentor.

 “Whoever comes my way and leaves should leave a better person, that is my motto.”

 Question: Do you have any advice for girls who want to get into tech?
: One, do something that you are passionate about. I once asked girls that I was mentoring which career they wanted to do and why they wanted to do it. Their answers were neurosurgeon, accountant, doctor and so on. Their reason was “that is what we think will bring money”. Do something that you want to do, money will always follow. Money is so fickle, it comes and goes. Being in business is all about passion. Strauss is not paying me yet but I am still doing it because I am passionate about it. Two, if you can dream it, you can do it. I dreamt of building little houses and I became an architect. My colleague and I were roofing a school in Muranga, in helmets and safety gear, which seemed normal to us. Yet, the girls would look up at us and whisper amongst themselves. For them to see girls on the roof doing “men’s work” broke a barrier. If girls can do that, then, we can do that as well. From that, we invited the League of Young Professionals which adopted that school for mentoring. It is our hope that through mentorship, they will be encouraged them to take up the science courses that have been stereotyped as difficult. I am glad that women in STEM are being made visible. The market has opened up for employment of ladies. Women should speak up and let others see what you are doing. If you have something to offer the world, offer it. We are in the world to affect others.

My favorite quote is:
“No passion so effectively robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as does fear!” I have no idea who said it, but I’ve carried it with me for more than 10 years.

Question: Any hobbies?
: I like the outdoors, hiking and mountain climbing. I like the movies and listening to music.  I work with music in the background. I am also a member of the rotary club. I am, currently, trying to get myself to read more. I also love my ‘me time’.

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