“Don’t Downplay Your Talents or Underrate Your Skills”, Margaret Waithaka on Finding Your True North
Compelled by a passion for a purpose-driven life, Margaret Waithaka has worked in the field of career guidance and advice for over ten years now.
She is a national panel member of the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD), championing career development as part of pertinent and contemporary issues in the Competency-Based Curriculum.
She has co-authored Discover Your Career; a workbook approved for use in secondary schools. She writes in the local press and online platforms on careers.
A certified career counsellor, Margaret gives talks and trains young people, teachers, youth workers, and parents on career guidance matters. She consults for various national and international institutions.
She is a member of the Career Development Institute, UK and the founding board chair of Career Guidance Institute (the Association of Career Guidance Practitioners in Kenya).
Margaret shares, with Damaris Agweyu, her journey towards finding her true north and helping others do the same for themselves.
“Follow your passion, and success will follow,” you are a huge proponent of this precept.
Huge. But its more than just following your passion blindly; it’s about aligning your innate talents with the skills you acquire over time to create a sustainable and fulfilling career. I am passionate about helping young people find that perfect balance.
Did you receive any career guidance when you were young?
No. Like any other girl who grew up in the village, I believed that any career that would give you a decent income was the key to success; following one’s passion was not something people talked about. Interestingly, I toyed a lot with a career in hospitality or any service industry.
After my high school exams, I got called to Moi University to pursue a BA degree. My placement letter came with a pamphlet with information about a new university course: Bsc Information Sciences. It was the first time I had heard of it. The pamphlet explained the nature of people who would excel in this field, the kinds of jobs they could potentially do and the places they could work. I remember reading that pamphlet with my friend, who then told me, “Maggie, this is so you!”
She was right.
When the window of opportunity to change my course presented itself, I took it. That pamphlet was the only career guidance that I got. I ended up majoring in publishing and book trade, and my internship was in book publishing.
What was your first job?
After graduating, as is usually the case, I was ready to accept any job that came my way. Mine was selling advertising space for The Kenya Times newspaper. After some time, I realized that while I was good at it, I didn’t enjoy it. So I moved to the editorial department, where I would be writing and editing feature stories. I later went on to work for The People newspaper as a sub-editor then moved to The Standard Newspaper, where I was the first Saturday magazine editor.
After a couple of years, I was poached by a PR firm. Although my job would be very different from anything I had ever done, I trained myself to become the best that I could be. I loved my job. By the time I was leaving formal employment, I was the PR manager at Communications Concepts Limited.
Why did you leave?
In 2002, the business was struggling. The first department to close down was research; the second was PR. When we were made redundant, I was pregnant with my second child. But before I went on maternity leave, I reached out to some of the clients whose accounts I had been handling directly. I wanted to start my own firm; were they willing to bet on me and become my first clients? I proposed. Two of them agreed- Marshalls and DHL. And that is how Square Gold Limited was born. I worked hard to land a few more clients, and by the time I was going on leave, I had a fully operational office.
Much later, I would leave the world of PR and cross over to the Education sector. This, I discovered, would be my true north. I am now fully immersed in the career guidance and development space. Due to my passion in the sector, many people who know me today don’t think I’ve ever done anything else.
How did you discover that this was your true north?
On a subconscious level, I always wanted to give back to the community. And I have always felt that the best time to help people is when they are young; in this case, they can become self-reliant as adults. So when my PR firm was making some good money, we hived off some of it to start a foundation. We called it Square Gold Education Foundation.
We would seek out and educate needy and bright children. I found this work deeply fulfilling. So much so that I was no longer focusing on my PR company! When I realized what was happening, I paired up each of the students I had with donors and individuals who could carry on with the task.
I also decided I wouldn’t do the work under a foundation but rather, as a department under my company. We called it Erevuka Kuwa Sonko. Meaning attain knowledge and grow yourself. We brought together several people who work with young people to help out. We would ask the children, “What can you do well?” They didn’t know. “What business can you do?” No idea. These answers led me to believe that there must be something that is lacking in the education system.
Young people are continually urged to get into entrepreneurship and become job creators. But when it comes to success rates, the stats tell a different story. Out of every ten businesses, only two will survive. So, where is the problem? I did some research and found that over 75 per cent of Kenyans are in the wrong careers. People are not getting career guidance.
And so careers became the heart of Erevuka Kuwa Sonko, a name which, for obvious reasons, was later changed to Erevuka Kuwa Bingwa. The idea is that you can become the king of your jungle. When you know what your strengths, abilities, and interests are, you can excel in whatever it is that you choose to do or what you are wired to do. Now I was telling people the what, but not the how.
I went to visit my sister in the UK, who told me about a tool she had used to assess and determine what career would be best suited for her. That was it! This was what was lacking in our country. I was later introduced to a lady called Victoria Wainaina. She had this assessment tool. She also had a strong HR background which I lacked at the time. It made sense to partner with her on this journey. Together, we started a company called True North Career Map.
After some time, True North Career Map didn’t work out, but we grew another company from that, Discover Your Career. The idea is first to find out your interests and abilities through psychometric assessments. And then, based on the results, we plug in and give advice on which career path will serve you best.
Eventually, Vicky went back to formal employment, but my dream continued. She introduced me to my current partner Mercy Gichohi. Mercy had been a teacher for 20 years and had just started her PhD in education management. She knew the market; she had the skills. I had been approaching things from a research point of view, and here she was with all the practical experience. Our connection was a godsend. We hit it off immediately and got to work.
The gaps in our education system became very clear, and one of the biggest ones is careers. Mercy and I came up with job shadowing programs for young people and started training teachers in each county about career guidance. But at the end of each training, they always said they needed more training. We realized there was still something missing. And it was around this time that we formed the College of Career Guidance and Development.
Meanwhile, back at the PR firm?
Square Gold? It was stagnating. Over time, I’ve learned every skill you learn can be brought forward to help you with something else in the future. My Dean at the University taught me that, and I have always known it from the time I graduated.
When I realized I was not achieving much in Square Gold, we stopped doing corporate PR and moved into development areas. We partnered with a global partner VisionRI to offer communication solutions in different sectors in Africa. I offer consultancy while experts do the work. That is where the company is at now. I am no longer involved in its day-to-day, but I brought all skills I had learned in PR into what I do today.
Now I am fully immersed in the Career Guidance space. It is rewarding work, but it is also demanding work. We have a lot of ground to cover.
I found, for instance, that in markets like the US, UK and Australia, they have career guidance as a course like any other. Students can study it from the certificate level all the way to the PhD level. America has had career guidance as a course for the last 100 years! Meanwhile, here in Kenya, it’s an afterthought. Teachers are told, “today, you will be a career teacher on top of your other duties”. Where will the teacher find the time? Do they have any training or even interest? Do they have resources? Most of the time, the answer to these questions is no.
I joined the Career Development Institute in the UK and got lots of information and help. Eventually, Mercy and I came up with a curriculum benchmarking from what other countries were doing. The curriculum I currently in KICD for review and validation to meet certain thresholds for a diploma course.