If you happen to have dinner at Olpul— the new steakhouse in Two Rivers— you might see a lady occasionally schmoozing with patrons; asking about the wine or the steak or if everybody is having a swell time. Bright smile, massive wit. That will be the proprietor Mary-Ann Musangi.
She’s great with people and she’s also learning to be great at being a restaurateur. Olpul— a Maasai name meaning ‘celebration’— is her second restaurant; she also owns Secret Garden, a continental restaurant cafe in 14- Riverside Drive, Nairobi. A little over five years ago she didn’t know much about restaurants.
She — a holder of an MSc in Management from the University of Surrey, UK — had, for 15 years, been in branding management at Coca-Cola, KCB, GlaxoSmithkline and Ogilvy & Mather before quitting to be a mother and take a stab at entrepreneurship.
She’s also a director at Sidian Bank and sits on various boards. It’s also not awfully important, but worthy to mention, that she’s Chris Kirubi’s daughter.
She met with JACKSON BIKO at Olpul.
I’m curious, what’s the first question you thought I would ask you?
(Pause) Who is Mary-Ann?
Well, let’s answer that then…
(Laughs) I’m a mum. That’s my first job and priority; being a mother and a wife, and then a daughter. I’m proudly Kenyan. I love to work hard. I’m very passionate about what I do.
Part of what I’m doing with my brands like Olpul is to show the richness and the beauty of Kenya. We don’t have to import brands from America or England or South Africa or Dubai. We can develop and create them ourselves. We have meat that is very high quality that can be exported. We have ingredients that are first class.
My belief is that we need to showcase Kenya a little bit more. We as Kenyans need to be proud of Kenya a little bit more.
How old are you now?
(Makes a face) I’m 46.
At this age, what’s the one thing that you hoped you’d have achieved but you have not achieved?
(Pauses and sighs) I wish I knew how to invest at an early age — after I started working at the age of 23. Education on how to invest and grow your wealth is very, very important. Whenever I meet young people – and I love talking to young girls especially — I tell them, “you’ve got a job, look for an apartment. I don’t care where it is, right? Syokimau, wherever. But start saving at your own pace instead of giving your money to somebody else.’’ That is the learning that I didn’t have because by now, oh my gosh! I would have a lot of houses. (Chuckles).
Is there something you are struggling with now at this age?
Well, my business. I want my business to thrive. I don’t want to have only two restaurants, I would like to have a chain of restaurants. I would like to open Olpul in London because of the quality of the brand. I have had people from the US, New Zealand, Australia coming in here and they are just like, “wow!” So this is something that I believe would work very well in any country across the world.
What’s your weakness as an entrepreneur?
(Sighs) I’m a softie.
Really? That’s not what I’ve heard.
No really, I am. I’m such a softie especially when it comes to my staff. I’m a ka-madhe. If they come to me with a sob story I will feel for them. I guess being soft on your people can sometimes…hurt your business. But I like to see the best in people.
If you were to sit down with one person, dead or alive, who’d that be and what would you ask them?
Oh wow! That’s an interesting one. (Long pause) Oprah Winfrey. She’s a strong woman. I’d ask her how she copes with the bad days and how she keeps going. I’d also ask her how she ensures that success is not just your own, but for the people that you work with, the people you encounter.
When were you most challenged in your career or personal life?
The transition from employment to self-employment. It’s about having courage to do it and believing in yourself that you can do it. But it’s not easy moving from employment where you were guaranteed a salary at the end of every month. It’s very difficult to move from that security. I had a lot of support from my husband and he really was my backbone through it all. He still is. Because you go through good times, you go through bad times.
What has motherhood taught you?
What has marriage taught you?
I’m so lucky I have such an amazing husband. He’s… so nice. (Laughter)
Nice is good...
He puts up with me. (Laughs). You know, I’m from a divorced home so I never got an opportunity to experience a family life in that respect. So for me, I was very scared getting married because I didn’t know how that would work. Nobody really taught me. I have a very patient husband, easy... We are similar in personality and it’s just like living with your best friend. Honestly, he’s very supportive, he’s there, he works with the kids… it’s been a home of fun.
Do you find that people look at you through the prism of your father?
They do and it’s very difficult in the workplace because I encounter people who already have made an opinion about me even before they’ve met me. I’ve had to prove myself that I’m here because I can do the job not because I’m Chris Kirubi’s daughter.
How are you and your father alike?
We’re similar in character. The work ethic, the stubbornness… (Laughs). My dad is always pushing it. He’s a man who should have retired by now but he will not. Every day he gets to more boards, more organisations, he gets called to other countries to talk about Kenya; the economic environment, the business environment… so he can’t stop, he won’t stop. I don’t think he should. If he still has a lot to give, he should continue giving.
What’s the one lesson you’ve learnt from him?
(Long pause) You have no excuse to give up. No excuse at all. My father was an orphan. He grew up on the streets. Yes, people say he’s proud, but he deserves to be proud considering where he’s reached, from where he came from.
Do you get angry when you read the things written in the media about him?
You would too if someone wrote untrue things about your family, wouldn’t you? But you grow a thick skin and learn to ignore the untruths.
Tell me about your mother.
She’s a lovely lady. She’s very low key. That’s where probably I get that from. She’s very hardworking too. She’s retired now. She loves her kids. Her life is her children.
What would you say is your biggest extravagance?
I’m not extravagant at all. That shocks my husband. (Laughs) I’ll not go out and buy 20 pairs of shoes. But the thing is if I go out and buy something, I’ll buy very high quality. I’ll buy one item, and it will be very expensive.
What’s the most invaluable advice you’ve received so far in your life?
Don’t take yourself too seriously. (Laughs)