Sally Kahiu, 37, is the head of Corporate Communications and Marketing at Kenya Association of Manufacturers.
The strategic communications and brand development expert holds a Master’s degree in Communication from Coventry University in the United Kingdom.
She shared her career path with Nation.africa.
Tell us about your childhood and family life.
When I was about five years old my mother threw a birthday party for me and invited all the neighborhood kids and their parents. She cooked up a storm, so to speak, and was in the kitchen most of the time, making sure that the food does not run out. I remember running into the kitchen to get more fries onto the serving tray. My mum then asked, “Do the other children want fries too?”
And I responded, “I don’t know what the other children want, but I’d love some more.”
My mum laughed and said, “I love that!”
You see I had a very strong sense of self from a young age. That is not to say that I wasn’t too concerned with other people.
No. On the contrary, I met my best friend to date, at the kindergarten swings when we were 4 years old. And I would not be convinced to do much that my older sister wasn’t involved in. But I had a very deep sense of what I liked, what I wanted and how could I go about getting it if possible.
And though experience has a way of shaping and reshaping this, it has remained a constant feature of personality to this date, and it is what has also kept me grounded and focused.
My Dad is a scientist. He specializes in genetics and molecular biology – he loves to read and write. He has done many peer-reviewed publications and papers to date in his field, and he is obviously one of the most brilliant minds I have met.
In my formative years, I spent a lot of time with my mother because my dad was at the University of Cambridge pursuing his Ph.D.
He instilled in me the quest for never-ending knowledge through consistent consumption of new information.
“There shall never be a time when you will know everything because the world is vast and is always changing. Aim to grow and change with it through information,” he would say.
He made history by being the first foreign student to be voted in as St. Edmund’s College Common Room Secretary, defying years of tradition against very strong odds.
And this achievement stood as a beacon for me; you can carve out a space for yourself anywhere in this world and maintain your authenticity even in the face of impossibilities.
My mother has been many things and I have watched her experiment, and diversify, invent and re-invent herself in the paths she chose. She has been an administrator, a record-keeper, an entrepreneur, and now she is a caregiver. She has never been afraid to start, try, fail and try again.
In all these phases of her growth, the one thing that remained constant has been her dedication and commitment. She whole-heartedly gives herself to anything she sets her mind to. With every new role came the challenge to re-skill, and she has never shied away from acquiring new knowledge.
Reinventing oneself and finding joy in doing so, never regretting any experience is a perpetual lesson, I learn from my mother every day.
Briefly tell us about yourself
I am an introverted storyteller. I know it sounds like an oxymoron, but that’s exactly me. There’s a misnomer that introvert translates to shy and awkward with people. But that is untrue.
An introvert does not necessarily find it difficult to interact with people, they just find their strength in solitude. They use the time alone to recharge to the best version of themselves and then, they are back out in the world again.
The overlap between my personality trait and my nurtured skills in Communications, Marketing and Academia have nurtured in me, a good storyteller.
Like I said, stories make the world go round and there isn’t a civilization in the history of mankind that did not have storytellers at the center of their transformations. And I find that extraordinary – this is what drives my fascination with the work I do.
I am a strategic communications and brand development expert. I use my skills and information to transform, change perceptions, create possibilities, highlight facts, correct inaccuracies, give credence to great personalities and shine a spotlight on great personalities that change the world every day.
I grew up in a small research community in KARI (now KARLO) Machakos. The last born of two girls. Growing up in a small, quiet community meant that we were all close-knit.
Our lives were very intertwined. For the most part that was a good thing. It meant that everyone knew you, your name and your parents. There was a sense of collective responsibility. That’s why Cities for me are a vastly different experience. A whole different world.
My refusal to accept that I was too young or too small to do what anyone could do, saw me join school at a much earlier age than most at that time.
Well, it was mostly, because my sister was to join class 1, and I was to be left in Kindergarten to ‘attain the right age’. But because my sister was my biggest influence at that time, I refused to accept that I could be separated from her because of a ‘small thing’ such as age.
At four years old, I joined class one, and at 13 years I joined Limuru Girls High School. I had constantly excelled in languages, religious studies and geography.
In these subjects the nature of man could be explained and explored, and because they always stocked my curiosity, I found myself favouring them over other subjects.
Since I have always been small in stature, I have learned to use my different skills and abilities to be seen and avoid being overlooked or bullied.
I realized that I have a strong speaking and singing voice and I used this to be articulate, eloquent and visible. In high school I auditioned to be part of the school choir and I joined as a strong alto voice. One year in I was appointed as a choir leader although to my final year.
Afterward, I joined Daystar University, and in weighing the strengths of my personality and capabilities – it was obvious that I was going to go into Communication Studies.
The moment I learned about the scope of PR, what it is – that is a form of story-telling that keeps the world moving. That creates personalities, and molds spaces and shapes understanding, I was completely drawn to it. And that was my BA degree specialization, becoming my Occupation.
Later, As I grew in my career, I wanted to define my path a bit more, and it required that I find a way to add to the knowledge gained through my experience.
I also needed to see the world and experience the personal growth that comes through immersion in different cultures. So, I pursued my master’s degree at Coventry University in the UK, for a year and graduated with a distinction.
A whole new world opened for me during my studies, I made lifelong friends, I discovered like minds across the world, I learned a new language to articulate my passions especially, my passion for Women’s freedom and personhood.
Share with us your career journey
I started off doing ‘apprenticeships’ for my parents. They instilled in me from a young age a deep work ethic. I worked as a lab assistant for my Dad and a salesperson for my Mum’s boutique shop before the age of 17.
As part of my requirements for the final year of my degree at Daystar, I did my internship at Kenya Airways – Customer Relations Department. I learnt a lot from my supervisor Joanne at that time. She was patient at teaching and making sure that I build my confidence to do the job expected of me.
Once I graduated, I worked for East Africa Portland for a short while in the HR Department, thereafter in Real Estate until I got my first job in PR in Lavington. Here I was introduced to media relations and events planning and execution.
Afterwards, I joined Africa Practice East Africa as an associate consultant. Because the company has a regional and international presence, this position enlightened me to a broader view of strategic communications, and the international standards expected of a communicator.
I worked with brands such as Diageo, Telkom, which required a diverse application of my skills, and that introduced me to a multi-cultural setting.
It was during this time that I took a sabbatical to re-skill myself and experience the world – by taking my Masters at Coventry University in the UK.
When I came back, in 2012 I worked for a short period of time at Corporate Talk Group, as a Consultant. A few months into this role, I was selected among 12 participants world-wide as a Research Associate for the Five College Women’s Studies Research Center (FCWSRC).
The FCWSRC is part of the Five College Consortium based in Massachusetts USA. The Five Colleges Comprise the University of Massachusetts, Smith College, Amherst College, Mount Holyoke College and Hampshire College.
In my role as Faculty for the Center, I contributed to the institution’s focus on examining the field of gender studies and the impact of new media on research, teaching, and activism within global perspectives. This included exploring the impact of new media on: access and rights; uses of technology and surveillance; visual literacy and cultural expression; public spheres and cyberspace; digital technology in academic research and practice.
I really enjoyed this role because it mostly included teaching and public speaking on new discoveries I was making in my studies. I really loved the environment as well; South Hadley has many academics who exchange ideas across cultures and this changed me as a person tremendously.
When my residency came to an end I came back into the country and immediately connected with Africa Practice. My role was expanded as I worked for diverse renowned local and global brands including, ARM Cement, PayPal, Legatum Institute, Bloomberg, Mastercard Foundation and TradeMark East Africa.
I had a lot of interaction with Trade and Manufacturing related issues in this role and this ignited my desire to want to focus on this sector. The idea that I could lend my skill to a sector whose impact to the economy and the lives of citizens was tangible, appealed to the idealist in me. I transitioned to Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM).
I joined the Association as the PR, Communications and Marketing Manager. Here, I led in setting up department structures and identifying the requisite talent to drive the department to meet its desired objective.
It is during the course of performing in this role that I was elevated to the Head of Corporate Communications and Marketing. A title that I hold presently. I get job satisfaction and fulfilment every day. This role continues to ignite my passion, often giving me opportunities to learn and grow.
What do you remember most about your career journey?
I remember those who were instrumental in lifting me up through kindness and by opening doors for me. I also remember the joy of discovering parts of myself in each role I undertook. I have no regrets as far as that is concerned.
What has been a key driver of your growth? Lessons learnt, celebrations and failures. Attitudes, habits, principles etc.
Knowing that everywhere I go, and each role I take, I will always bring something to the table that no one else will. And these roles will teach me something that I cannot learn elsewhere.
I am also always hungry for new knowledge. Which is why my current role is perfect. Because not only does it fully utilize my skills, but it constantly challenges me to switch up, know more, and give more.
Who are the people or relationships that you can single out that were useful in your career growth and how did they influence your trajectory?
My parents of course – because they introduced me to work, discipline and commitment.
Miss Rachael Turere from High School – who saw the leader in me and appointed me to take her place as the School Choir Leader
Dr. Karen Remmler – Who encouraged me in my research and opened up opportunities for me in Massachusetts
My former boss (Africa Practice), Mr. David Maingi, now Division Manager at AFDB Group. His style of leadership was exceptional, and I remember thinking, “That is who I want to be, as a leader”.
David was knowledgeable, driven, focused and most of all led with his heart. He knew his people. He would never assign a task that did not match with your personality and skill simply because it needed to be done. He also encouraged me in my journey.
My current boss, Ms. Phyllis Wakiaga. She has a great mind and is a strong leader. I always wondered because of experience if it possible for leaders to be strong without being forceful. I learn that from her every day. Phyllis is also a big believer in paying forward – that is her ethos.
What would you tell your younger self?
A great singer of our times said that ‘If you don’t have any shadows, you are not standing in the light.” I would tell my younger self to use this quote as my Mantra to stand in the light of who I am. To see beyond present obstacles and witness what the world has to offer. And that a closed door doesn’t mean never – it may only mean – Not right now.
What would you advise the youth in Kenya and Africa today?
Do not be afraid to innovate. You are going to disrupt the world of work in away that hasn’t been seen before. I will also tell them your talent can indeed make you money. So do what you love. Use the internet and anything at your disposal to show the world how valuable your talent is.
Believe in your talent that is the only way to get others to believe it. Your youth is also a great strength. Do not walk into a room thinking, ‘I have no experience so no one will listen’. Speak your truth – bust speak from a point of information and wisdom.
Approach new experiences with open hands to learn and to grow – and become a better person each day.
I plan to continue to grow my leadership role, learning from my past and current mentors. Especially with a focus on paying it forward to the young women I come across in my life.
I will also continue to learn – learning never ends – hence I will grow my skill through more learning in formal institutions and certifications.
Ten years ago, I was a part of the lively spoken word and poetry scene in Nairobi. I performed in poetry events and at some point even won a competition.
I plan to reignite that part of myself because it was a significant tool for self-exploration and discovery.