“The biggest resistance I faced as a woman in business didn’t come from external forces, it came from within: me, not asking for what I wanted,” says Sarah Wambui Kabira, the general manager and co-director at Techminds Technologies.
“As women, we are not cultured to ask for what we want. It’s something I learned, and it changed my career.”
Sarah, 35, joined Techminds as a director in 2018. Alongside the original founders, Hazel Gachoka and Ernest Wambari, they’re growing the business from an IT services consultancy into a professional services systems integrator.
Already, the company provides ICT services for a multitude of top-tier organisations, including Safaricom, the United Nations of Nairobi (Unon), Java House Africa restaurants and audit firm Deloitte.
Sarah spoke to Hustle about her decision to walk away from a top management job to pursue a career as an entrepreneur in the male-dominated field of technology.
Have you always been interested in IT?
Yes. When I was in Loreto Limuru Girls, the school introduced computers. I remember designing a check-in, check-out programme for the library. I found a lot of satisfaction in that project.
At the University of Nairobi, I studied computer science, and my class had only eight women. Five of us ended up at the top of the class, and I was first.
I was later called to MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), but opted to go to Cambridge University in the UK for my master’s degree because it offered me a scholarship.
Did it seem strange to you, excelling in a male-dominated field?
In the beginning, it didn’t feel different. We were all just engineers. It was only when I came back home in 2014 that I started noticing I was a woman in a traditionally male field.
What were some of the differences you experienced?
I was rising to management positions. It is here that I learned men and women negotiate their terms very differently. Unlike a man who won’t shy away from asking for what he’s worth, I’d undervalue myself.
Ironically, it’s my male colleagues who encouraged me to ask for what I want and to be ready to walk away if the deal wasn’t good enough.
So, I asked for what seemed like an obscene amount of money to me. I stood my ground and I got my ask.
But you eventually walked away from this salary?
Yes. I was working at Safaricom as a senior manager for product development in 2017. They were great employers, but I felt I had grown to my capacity and I wanted something different.
I met this woman who’d started her company in 2012, and in six years she’d grown her business from one room to a six-floor building.
I thought, ‘I want to do that; take something and grow it’.
I took up an offer that had been presented to me by the founders of Techminds.
My role was to handle operations as the general manager, and to expand business in the company.
In layman’s terms, what exactly does Techminds do?
We partner with systems providers like Cisco Systems, F5, Ruckus, Fortinet and Amazon, and use their software and hardware to maintain, install and trouble-shoot networks for organisations.
For example, for Unon, we’re a third eye for their network, providing consultancy services that ensure their IT networks function properly.
We also manage the Java franchise’s networks, specifically wi-fi at their branches, and improving the communication between restaurants so that their headquarters have better visibility of what’s happening on the ground.
What’s your journey at Techminds been like?
We went from a three-person team to 28 employees and a pool of 40 consultants.
To accomplish this, we had to put in our own money as working capital because the banks wouldn’t give us loans in the beginning.
We also good really critical mentorship from the Safaricom Women in Business programme, which helped us structure Techminds for success.
Was it easy getting clients?
It’s a very competitive industry, and like in any other, there are top dogs who’ve earned trust over the years. Walking in as the new kids on the block for a pitch can be overwhelming and even intimidating.
I learned to just try and use our advantages wherever we could.
It helped that two of our directors are technical, which bought us credibility.
Another thing that helped was our agility. Because we’re smaller in size, we could move quickly. If a client called and wanted someone in Mombasa that same night, we would have someone in Mombasa that night.
Do you think some things will change as you grow? Your agility, for instance?
Agility is one of the things I want to maintain, regardless of our size. I emphasise empowering employees to make quick decisions within certain limits – take the job, do it, and then come back and report.
Clients want to know their issues can be resolved quickly and efficiently.
What’s the scope of your contracts?
A contract can last anywhere from three months to two years.
Your job comes with a lot of responsi-bilities. Do you ever panic?
You panic every single day. You panic when you’re trying to get a contract, you panic after you get it because now you must deliver. But it’s about building structures at work and a support mechanism outside of work.
How do you balance your home and your business?
Same thing – a good structure. I don’t micro-manage in the workplace, I don’t micro-manage at home. I have a good nanny, and my kids’ school is right near our home.
When it comes to work, my husband and I have built a strong understanding. He knows sometimes I’ll come home at 2am because I was on site, sometimes I’ll work weekends, and many times my clients will be male because it’s a male-dominated industry.
When you have a partner who’s secure, it makes all the difference.
Do you think it’s unfair sometimes, that a woman is asked very different questions in an interview like this? For example, a man would likely never be asked about his home …
I think it’s the reality of where we are as a society and that’s okay – because it’s changing through our children, and through more and more women being in these positions.
I’m confident there will come a time when it will be normal and there will be no need to differentiate a man from a woman in any role.
What’s your dream for Techminds?
I want us to go pan-African – we are already working with a South African company, NIL South Africa Pty, to provide Cisco-certified training in the East African region.
There are so many brilliant minds in this continent, but not as many opportunities. I’d like to us be a part of the people who change that.
If I have a job in Meru, I want to hire people from Meru to do it, and grow the locations where we operate and develop all parts of Kenya, even Africa.
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