Every trial has its fruit; one only sees this many years later
For over 30 years, Dr. George Njenga, the Executive Dean of the Strathmore University Business School (SBS), has been part of the Strathmore family. He shares with us his journey thus far and gives some tips in between that students can clinch as they journey through the university called life.
I fondly remember when I was five years old being taken to Meru Primary School driven by Dad and Mum in a Morris Minor armed with my little food pot prepared by mummy. I enjoyed primary school and grew fond of Asians as they would exchange their meals with us. This gave me a taste of Indian food which is one of my favorite cuisines to date. I enjoy their naans, chapatis, curries, ice-cream, and milk. I later went to St. Patrick’s High School where I was more of a sportsman than an academic. I grew my teamwork skills while being a member of badminton, basketball, squash, and table tennis.
I am the second born of 10 siblings, 2 of whom are late. In 1985 our family life had taken a turn for the worse and by 1989 we had lost all our family fortunes. My Dad was completely discouraged. By the time I had completed my A levels, I had the sudden responsibility of playing mediator between my parents and siblings. I also discovered that my Mum had taken a loan to ensure I completed my Strathmore College studies. One day as I walked home while pondering on my life issues, I made a resolution to restart my life in a different way. During my walk, I met Dr. Joseph Sevilla who asked me if I was interested in a job and I said, yes. And there started my life with the Strathmore family.
Making the right choices early on in one’s career
On 3rd July 1986 after completing my CPA Part I, I was hired by Strathmore College as an assistant accountant earning Ksh. 1,500 monthly for 3 years. I later joined Ernst and Young upon completion of my CPA K. During my apprentice years, I learned:
- To always seek advice from someone older than you. In my case, I got advice from my uncle, Mr. James Muthundo, and Dr. James Mcfie on what course to study, and Mr. Wency Faria on whether I should consider the position at Ernst and Young. Good people, much older and well experienced, can advise you on your strengths, weaknesses, and help you chart your career.
- Not to be hasty to take-up lucrative offers. This I can attest does not last in the end. In 1987 I was offered a lucrative (assistant accountant) job by a certain company. It had all the perks: more than fifteen-times my salary then, a house, a car, and power. This was also one of my low moments, as our family businesses were failing. It was tempting. After speaking to my advisors and praying, I finally responded with a no. Three years later, the then chief accountant was arrested for fraud.
- To choose a profession and be good at it. When I was studying at Strathmore College, I remember my friends from the University of Nairobi, coming to tell me of the fun escapades of university life. I had chosen Strathmore College, rather than the University of Nairobi, and I knew I had to stick to my decision. I was also aware of the difficult financial situation and I knew it was up to me to make something out of my life. I stuck through my decision and it paid off.
- God always opens a door, do not spit at it. Working and studying at Strathmore College allowed me to earn diverse skills in accountancy, teaching, and mentoring. My salary also helped me pay for my upkeep and send some money to my Mum when I was able. In the most difficult situations in life, God opens a door. Take it.
Birthing of the business school
By the time we began the business school, I had spent a decade walking with God as a celibate member of Opus Dei, completed a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) at USIU-A, and was the Director of the School of Accountancy. I had come to realize that my passion lay in entrepreneurship and helping people grow. My passion for the accounting profession was dwindling. Further, I could not find a great business school locally that offered governance and leadership. Many Kenyans went abroad to study business. In October 2004, with the blessing of the Vice Chancellor (VC), Prof. John Odhiambo, I stepped down from my position and began SBS. The one thing I requested of the VC was a certain level of autonomy to bring the idea to birth and this was granted.
In the beginning, we developed an MBA curriculum and partnered with five business schools and some associations. We signed up with IESE Business School, University of Navarra, on 31st March 2005. The first programme was the Advanced Management Programme (AMP) class of 2006, with twenty-six students and in partnership with IESE. Later in 2007, our first MBA class took off. I must say the beginnings were fun. Dr. Vincent Ogutu was then the Director of MBA. We did everything. We assisted with housekeeping, teaching, hotel bookings mentoring, mentored and assisted students…there was no task we did not involve ourselves in. When I look back, I now realize those were growth years for all of us.
Lessons learned from the merger of the School of Management and Commerce and SBS
In the meantime, the School of Management and Commerce had started in 2002. By 2012, it was clear that the University had two departments teaching Management Sciences and offering Executive Education. The idea of integrating these two departments was in the air for more than three years. I was reluctant to support the idea of integrating SBS which was a postgraduate department with SMC, an undergraduate department. It was also all new to me as I had never experienced a merger of cultures before. I was ready to step down. Initially, I was convinced that integrating postgraduate and undergraduate education cultures would not be right. Postgraduate and Executive Education culture was specialized because one deals mainly with business executives while in undergraduate education, one deals with parents and young students. I thought that bureaucracy would create a hindrance. This was the reason for the ‘autonomy’ requested originally when we began. My “AHA!” moment of the integration came when I realized one cannot separate business studies from the other specialized sciences in the University. Business is the commercial and institutional application of specialized sciences. Business knowledge encourages innovation, good management and commercialization of products and services. Business plays an important role in helping grow sustainable companies. Moreover, building institutions is, largely, a business science.
In addition, we should not break the leadership path or process of a person. We should develop it right from their first year in university until they study their Ph.D. I realize now that taking away the business side from sciences, law or humanities was perhaps not right. There should be a symbiosis between them. Business should understand the institutional development and commercialization process of all the scientific products and services and, therefore, keep business as a core mandate of the entire university system. For instance, engineers innovate and grow businesses. Lawyers structure legal papers for mergers and acquisitions or draft financing or conveyancing agreements, yet business education is normally not part of their training. ICT and computer sciences develop programmes for businesses or set-up as businesses in themselves. Private sector healthcare and systems and even public policy and management require the private sector to develop their business growth models.
The future of business schools in Africa
Most business schools teach how to accumulate wealth ethically and, therefore, satisfy both the business school and stakeholders. But we need to shift our focus. We need to put the society and persons at the centre of business. We need to train leaders of companies to ensure that their employees and their families flourish rather than treat them as ‘resources’ or tools in the same way we use physical assets. What we offer in business schools should make society and the individual flourish; reach out to every person in society, eradicate poverty, respect both genders, respect children, and save the environment, etc. Remember, if for example, a company employs 1000 people, they can make or break 20,000 people who are impacted by them. I feel that one of the best courses we offer at SBS is the Programme for Family Development and Family Business Growth. I am convinced that if the family is destroyed, we will have no-one to safeguard everything else.
How did you choose your vocation?
I owe my vocation to my parents. They were a loving and happy couple. My Mum was the Chair of the National Catholic Women Association. My Dad helped her everywhere. We were brought up with Christian values and I watched as they made sacrifices for our comfort. They also ensured we went to Mass, prayed, and read the gospels. I cannot explain what happened to my parents in the end, but it is what it is.
When I turned 20, someone asked me what I would like to do with my life, and I answered, ‘to be a public civil servant to serve many people.’ I wanted a beautiful wife and children too. This question lingered with me for a while and it made me start thinking deeply about what I desired in life. After some thought, I requested to join Opus Dei and was given three months to think about it. After three months, I was asked the million-dollar question, “Would you like to join as a married person or as a single person?” and without a shadow of a doubt, I wanted to offer everything and chose to be celibate. Many opposed it, including my Mum but I knew it was the right decision. It is not an easy calling, but I remain faithful as a numerary of Opus Dei.
Dear leader of tomorrow
Remember, each person is a gift to society and sometimes people do not realize this. Do not copy others. Do not give up. Develop holistically in order to contribute to society. When a society has the right skill sets and moral culture amongst its population, there is respect for culture and customs of the society. The quality of life increases when there is equity, and more people want to contribute to its growth. Integrated parts work well. We need one another because we cannot build a home individually.
This article was written by Anne Njeri Njoroge.