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Profiles

From Classroom to CEO

Wambui Mbarire has a passion for retail.
Wambui Mbarire has a passion for retail. PHOTO | COURTESY 

Wambui Mbarire has a passion for retail. She can share insights on the sector that has seen increased activity over the past decade in Kenya, from supermarkets, fashion stores to restaurants.

Part of her role as the CEO of Retail Trade Association of Kenya has been creating a bridge with various stakeholders and giving a voice to retailers.

DOREEN WAINAINAH caught up with her in between her meetings on Zoom to discuss more on how, she, a former teacher, became the voice of retail and why pre-marital mentorship is important.

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What did you study in school?

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I’m a graduate teacher. I then did CPAs at Strathmore University then I deviated from finance to human resources. I later got into management and I’ve been in it for 15 years, working in different organisations including Retrak for the past seven years.

What made you transition from teaching, into accountancy and later on management?

Teaching requires a lot of patience. I was young and still not very patient. (Laughs). So I started doing accountancy when I was still teaching. As I grew, I realised I was a people person and that is how I moved into management.

What have been some of the highlights of your career?

Let’s see…in my accounting career, I managed to move the various companies I worked in from manual systems (technology) to system based systems. There are two companies I know that I played a key role in transitioning them to very professional systems.

In my last seven years (at Retrak), it has been bringing the retail sector together. Outside agriculture, our next best biggest sector is retail.

Do you ever see yourself going back to teaching?

The thought crossed my mind. What I was sure about is that I wouldn’t go back to teach in high school. I was pretty young and I had no patience. If I were to go back I would probably teach younger children or adults. But perhaps in retirement.

How do you unwind?

I enjoy cooking, I do a lot of walking and I like to travel with my children. I also talk to young women looking to go into marriage.

Really?

Marriage is a threatened institution that has many challenges but from my own experience, I realise if we were told the things to talk about and to look forward to before entering that covenant, we’d have fewer challenges.

It’s kind of talking to my younger self on the things I would have done differently as I transitioned into marriage.

What then do you say is the secret to a happy marriage?

I usually start this conversation with a lot of people when they’re going for marriage counselling. Marriage counselling as I know it, unless it has changed, focuses mainly on how to run finances, about sex, and its importance in marriage. But that is not what is key.

What is key is understanding each other’s backgrounds because you will become the person your father or the person your mother was in very many aspects. And, when you become a wife, you can only be the wife your mother was and his expectation of you is to be the wife his mother was. But you’re not his mother and you grew up in a different environment, so you are not unless you’re told or unless it’s a discussion you had, you wouldn’t know what he expects you to do and those are the things that trigger fights.

For example, his mother cooked all meals but in your home, you had a househelp who cooked. When you get married, you will have no problem with your househelp cooking most of the time yet he will have a very big problem when you don’t cook.

Have you expanded your cooking repertoire this Covid-19 period or added new items to your menu?

Definitely. I have added extra weight due to that. There are some dishes that I want to try that I’ve never cooked. Prawns and seafood.

I want to try them before we resume our busy lifestyles. I have also tried to do a bit of urban gardening. I have planted mint and coriander in my backyard, in a bottle.

How has it been working from home?

Because everyone is at home, my husband included, people tend to think you are at home and not at work. So being on the laptop the whole day kind of irritates the people who think you are home yet you are not at home.

When I’m having work calls, my daughter sometimes keeps asking “mum, mum, what time will it end?” and she will hang around my door waiting. Children think that there is no way you can be at work yet you are home.

Do you find it very different watching your partner at work rather than the person you know at home or after work?

Perhaps in time management or being structured in the stuff he does now. Though he is in business in FMGC (fast-moving consumer goods) so he works in and out of the home. I guess he now understands my work more.

How do your friends describe you?

My friends call me mother hen. Because I fuss about everyone and I am very concerned about people and their welfare all the time. I am the peacemaker.

Somebody the other day said my face is too serious.

What is your drink of choice? Do you take wine or brandy or whisky?

Interestingly, I’ve never been a drinker. Not even through university. I have a friend who tells me I missed all the vices of campus and that they will catch up with me in old age.

I usually have challenges if I am out and somebody asks ‘what will you drink?’. But in my group of four close friends, there is one friend I will point to and say ‘Ask her.’ She’s a brandy person so we end up drinking brandy. But you will not find me pouring myself a glass of wine in my house.

What are some of the things that are still on your bucket list that you’re hoping to tick off in the next 24 months?

Doing more outdoor activities with my children. There are things that I think we should have done by now that we haven’t done, like visiting local sites within Nairobi or Kiambu and going to places like Kitengela Glass or Browns’ Cheese.

Second, I want to do a financial management course. It might be late in my life, but I want to.

But weren’t you in accounting?

You know school was meant for passing exams. I don’t know whether that has changed. Do you use the stuff you learned in school?

Then I would like to find a way to formalise my girls’ mentorship project, go into consultancy ...I hope to do that in the next 24 months.

What is one thing you say, ‘I would change this if I had a chance’?

Save better, invest better. When you are younger, you spend money on all the wrong things. It is important to strike a balance. Put away some money as saving or towards a retirement plan. Employment gives you false security. You forget that your employer has no obligation to keep you employed.

What’s your retirement plan?

Teaching young women aged between 18 and 30. I will group them in various age brackets and have different discussions with them.

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