Geraldine Waruguru likes the pulse of elevated places. The First Officer at Kenya Airways has cruised at above 40,000 feet for most of her adult life. I am least surprised, therefore, when she suggests that we do this interview from the roof of her office that overlooks the Nairobi National Park on the one side, and Wilson Airport on the other.
“I feel much more at ease out here,” she says, taking in a lungful of the soughing wind.
Geraldine, 36, is a pilot, a perfumer, and a mother of a seven-year-old boy.
She has flown passenger planes around the world for 14 years. Before Covid-19 came and halted her plans, the first officer on Boeing 737 was hoping to complete her exams to become a captain by the end of this year.
Global tours have been an opportunity for her to shop in some of the best outlets across cities. A perfume enthusiast, she can spend Sh20,000 or more on a fragrance.
“I always admired big perfume brands. I was curious about how they were made and what went into them,” she says.
After 10 years of flying, Geraldine made a leap of faith to set up a perfume brand, Scents by Geraldine, in 2016. But first, she needed a partner to help her produce it.
“I contacted several perfume manufacturers around the world. A German company responded, and in 2017, we had the first edition of Whole by Geraldine,” she says.
She priced the fragrance brand at between Sh4,500 and Sh6,000.
So, what goes into the making of fragrances?
“You must know what ingredients and notes work well together. You have to research on scents. I buy a lot of other perfume brands for study purposes,” says Geraldine.
She adds that insight on what notes would appeal to the user is key. “You must also be clear about the message you wish to put across through the scents.” She tells me the quest for a private space was her motivation to go into entrepreneurship.
“As a mother, family woman and a professional, I felt I was tending to others while giving little attention to myself. I wanted to do something different that would allow me to be myself.”
Getting a foothold
Does she feel in control of her life now?
“I comfortably take care of my personal and family needs. But when it comes to business, I’m confronted by the challenge to do everything right to stay afloat.”
She describes it as exhilarating being in the flight deck. “You’re always on the move, having to think and make quick and bold decisions.”
Is she bold? “Look at my hair,” she says, pointing at the mass of her blonde coiffure. “You may not be bold when you start, but this type of work environment forces you out of your shell.”
I wonder if she has felt trapped in a shell she could not help herself out of.
“Just when my business had gotten a firm foothold in the market, Covid-19 came and disrupted everything. I’d like to take certain tough actions to save my investment,” she says.
Some of these decisions have worked, others have failed.
Employment, she says, inspires a sense of comfort, until a disaster unhinges one from their reverie.
“Before Covid-19, many professionals were comfortable in their jobs. With massive job losses and pay cuts, everyone now wishes they’d started something on the side.”
Her experiences, she says, have taught her to attempt what might first come off as impractical. ''We shoot ourselves down even before we’ve tried something.”
So, what between flying around the world and making perfumes humbles the most?
“Meeting people,” she says. “I fly people back home to reconnect with their families and others to work. As a perfumer, the idea is to craft scents that people resonate with. Scents that evoke their deep sense of self.”
The effects of the coronavirus have sunk economies the world over. Airlines, including Kenya Airways, have sent their employees on unpaid leave. For someone who has eight employees on her payroll, it is hard to skirt the subject of job loss. Has she sent any of her employees home?
“Instead of laying off any member of my team, I persuaded them to work on half-pay. They obliged. We’ve been communicating a lot as we assess the situation. I'm thankful for their patience and understanding.”
I ask her what her biggest struggle during the lockdown has been. The question elicits an embarrassed laugh from her.
“Eating less,” she says. “Being at home for so long has allowed me to try out different recipes. I’m passionate about baking, barbecuing chicken, and ribs. It’s hard to avoid the temptation to eat.” Cape Town, Amsterdam, and London rank highest in the list of her favourite destinations, where she gets to sightsee and shop.
“Cape Town is scenic, well-organised and clean. Whenever I visit a city, I like to sample their local transport and to get a sense of how they live.”
On family, Geraldine says sometimes she is away for work for weeks. I am curious to know what her seven-year-old son thinks of her job.
“He’s proud of me. When he was younger, I’d walk with him to the car with my suitcase. This was to make him understand that I have to leave for work.”
How is motherhood like to her? A grin lights up the face. “It’s exciting. It’s also a full-time job. I’ve been learning on the job, sometimes by taking short online courses.”
It would be unfair to not ask her what her biggest investment in herself has been. “Guarding my heart,” she remarks, which prompts me to ask if she has been heartbroken. “Yes, I have, like everybody else. This made me more aware of my needs as a person and as a mother. At the end of the day, you can’t give what you don’t have.”
Does she see her son as part of her perfume business legacy? “I’d want that. But most importantly I wish to raise an independent man who’s able to make his own choices in life.”
Having flown for 14 years now, what other skies is she targeting in life? “After you’ve covered one sky, you discover other bigger skies out there. I’ve been in business for nearly five years. I believe there’s too much entrepreneurship sky for me to cover.”
As we wrap up, I ask her to put her business hat on and tell me whether she thinks, four years later, her investment has been worth it.
“It’s a work in progress,” she says and admits that, naturally, “consumers tend to trust designer perfumes made by well-known brands. Changing consumers’ perspective isn’t easy.”
The titanic task, she says, is to convince buyers that there are quality and genuine perfume brands available locally.
“We're getting there,” she says.