Editor’s Note: This series, The Icon, Founder360° CEO and Head of Content Vallency F. Otieno chats with entrepreneurs on how they rose above obstacles, defied all odds in their journey to start and build trailblazing firms and becoming reputable business leaders in the region.
At the age of 23, Mary Njoki started a journey of building a company that would reinvigorate how PR and communication is done in Africa. 6 Years down the line, Glass House PR is one of the most sought-after and reputable PR and Communication companies not just in Kenya but within the continent and beyond.
Not only have they bagged industry awards but they have also caught the attention of a dollar billionaire, a Fortune 500 company and prominent personalities within the continent.
By building Glass House PR on the foundations of transparency, integrity, and excellence, Mary Njoki has been able to help a diversity of clients from SME’s to big organizations increase their revenues by enhancing clear communication, intentional engagements and building valuable relationships with their stakeholders.
She has previously been awarded Africa’s Top 40 Under 40 Women Leaders 2017 by Amazon Watch Magazine and Young African Women Leadership Excellence Award by center of economic and leadership development.
This year, Glass House PR received an award for the ‘Most Innovative Agency in Digital Communication and Media Management 2018’ by Global Business Insight, an award the celebrates business leadership, innovation in finance and investment and sector success across the world.
Neither was she born in a gold cradle nor her rise to eminent success founded on a piece of cake, but her path was lined up with countless setbacks and colossal hurdles.
With sheer hard work and passionate quest to build Africa’s top PR firm, Mary Njoki has defied the odds of being a village girl to a top business leader in the region.
Right after high school, Mary Njoki was not able to join college because her mother who was a primary school teacher could not afford to pay for her post-high school education despite having passed her final exams.
“I grew up in Ngarariga village in Limuru. My mother, then a primary school teacher, could only meet the expense of basic needs my elder brother and I and that’s why I joined Graffins College in Westlands as this was affordable then.”
“I spent 2 years in college after which I used to do data entry jobs at Graffins College. I used to tell people that I am a programmer and I would get simple jobs like web design and charge like Kshs, 10,000.”
Mary Njoki’s first place of work used to be Softlink Options where she would at least earn US$ 150 (Kshs 15,000). Because of her persistence and hard work, she was transferred to the marketing department which was more of a promotion.
“Within this department, I used to sell software to other small businesses. It was a pretty tough job but for some reason, I was successful in it because I was able to create valuable networks along the way. My boss introduced to more networks where I could pitch and get more business.”
At 19 years old, she was able to make the company more sales and ultimately became the best employer in the company. She then got another job opportunity from one of her networks where she would now sell hardware.
“This was an unfamiliar territory and along the way I got bored and I started questioning myself if indeed this was something that I wanted to do.”
The First Move
It was during her stay at this second company that she would start to volunteer at K-Krew, one of the largest Christian fellowships in Kenya. She would offer PR and Communication services without necessarily knowing what it really entailed.
“I realized that I enjoyed what I was doing while volunteering for at K-Krew. And this is when I decided to join Daystar University to study PR and Communication with the help of my brother.
It was during this time, that she noticed that the PR and Communication market in Kenya needed a customized approach and incorporating digital media into the picture would be a perfect strategy.
In 2012 January, Mary Njoki received a text from her then boss at the second company that she was fired among other people for reasons unknown to her.
“I woke up in the morning to find a text that said I was fired from the company. I wasn’t sad or hurt as such, in fact, I was happy about it.”
At the age of 23, Mary Njoki started working at her 3rd job. This time, it was more of something she was interested in and something she loved pursuing; the Orange Company, a PR company run by a Certified Image Consultant and Etiquette Master, Nthenya Masuko.
And it was in this company that the lioness in her would roar out all her passion for PR and Communication. She would grab the opportunities at hand and maximize to build up her knowledge capital of the industry.
“We had this event where I was chosen to lead media relations and my worked involved preparing attention-grabbing media releases; and because I had made some few contacts within the media fraternity, I was able to make the event get sufficient coverage and the client was happy and excited about it.”
“I had more than intermediate know-how of the industry. And I would draft proposals to the management on how to better our strategies.”
But Mary did not know that her passion and desire was not a desired attribute in the company she was working with.
“While I would draft proposals on how to input digital strategy into PR and communications, the management was of a different approach, and this caused a lot of pull and push rendering the work environment unfitting to work and grow. I got tired and in June 2012, I resigned.”
Armed with her laptop, US$ 600 (Kshs 6,000) savings and the yearning to redefine the industry, Mary Njoki decided to set up her own company, Glass House PR. And she would begin reaching out to the networks she had made in her previous engagements to close sales.
“My first company was a property company which used to pay me US$50 per month for my services. I used to do social media management services for them for 3 months. Then I was able to secure my 2nd client, then the 3rd client and the business had kicked off.”
Glass House PR was now fully running a company with interns and part-time employees driving relentless innovation and creativity while pushing boundaries and becoming a reputable voice within the media industry in Kenya.
The company would bring a breathe fresh air into the PR Industry by bringing together a blend of services by integrating a custom approach for each of their clients. The company would include digital media in their strategy to allow their clients to create dialogue and interaction with their customers enabling reach their business and communication goals.
“The company was growing, signing clients every now and then and I would capitalize on the existing networks to create new sales avenues. I ended up working with Uche Ugu, a renowned and famous Christian musician in Africa whom I met in one of my visits to Ethiopia for a conference; and I was able to reciprocate the same kind of deal with local artists like Julianni.”
“The first year of business had me do a lot of pro-bono work at a minimal fee in order to position the company. And at times, I was tempted to go back to the job market, but I knew that I was building something bigger and greater.”
Whatever job or opportunity would come her way, Mary Njoki would grab and capitalize on it not necessary because of the money but these jobs would help position her brand for future success.
She has had the opportunity to work with local companies like Fatloss Lab, Kodi Kodi homes etc. to international companies like Facebook and Viber.
“There were wins and near losses, which we turned into lessons which included an opportunity we had to work with Google; They called us to go and pitch but towards the final round of shortlisting, they discovered that we were yet to be established as per their standards; And this was a learning experience for us at this particular time as we discovered that international companies perceive PR in a different way from local companies.”
Through Glass House PR, Mary Njoki has been able to explore opportunities and meet people she would have never imagined. In 2016, she had the opportunity to share a stage with American Billionaire Chris Sacca at a conference and tour the Silicon Valley in the U.S.
In the life cycle of any business, you will always expect challenges to come uninvited and sometimes when they do, they come to hit hard. And this was no different from the growth of Glass House PR.
“It was late 2014 when I met an interesting man called Heshan Da Silva who had been previously featured on Forbes as a young billionaire. We signed a business agreement to not only represent him but also run the communications aspect of an entrepreneurship mentorship program he was running dubbed Heshtalks. Through Glass House PR, I was able to represent him well.
But later on, after several tip-offs and discussion from her other business associates, it came to her realization that his client background story lacked consistency in truth.
“In one of the interviews, he mentioned that he had invested in more than 1700 companies but he couldn’t name more than 2, and this would change depending on the interview he was in”
It was when he wanted to start a live “shark tank like Tv show” on the radio that things rose to the surface.
“He never complied with tax regulations apparently because of his believed he was doing “philanthropic work” and upon asked for tax exempt certificate from the tax authorities, he couldn’t produce one.”
All these new developments was a clear indication that her client was a sham and Mary Njoki could no longer represent him.
“I wrote an email telling him that I will no longer be representing him as a client till he comes clean with the real story. And it was then that I decided to release a press statement of my company disassociating from this client.”
“As much as it was a painful process for us, I can say that it was also a learning opportunity because we have now developed a ‘Crisis Solution in Communication Paper’ for scholars and we will be releasing it very soon.”
Her company has worked with brands in virtually every category, ranging from healthcare to consumer products, travel, real estate and entertainment etc. and in late 2017, Glass House PR released a product they called PR 2.0, a tailor-made product for SME’s to allow them to position their brands without breaking the bank.
With 6 years full-time experience in running a company, Mary Njoki shares some of the lessons that she believes any young and budding entrepreneur ought to embrace.
- Thinking you know it all will cost you.
Ask for help and advice whenever you need it.
- Lack of consistency
When you start, don’t cool down the fire. Move at all times even when making mistakes, because you have the opportunity to improve and become better as you keep being consistent.
- The thought that a business can survive without PR.
As a PR and Communication magnate, Mary believes that this should be the center of how companies build awareness and engaging the right audiences leading to long-lasting relationships.