Joanne Mwangi is one of Kenya’s most respected entrepreneurs, and has won numerous awards for her efforts in building and transforming a small marketing agency into a leading regional group.

Joanne Mwangi, founder of Professional Marketing Services

Mwangi’s firm, Professional Marketing Services (PMS), offers a wide range of services including advertising, public relations, event management, trade and consumer promotions, trade merchandising and marketing strategy development. The company has since grown to include four subsidiaries with a presence in Kenya, UgandaRwandaBurundi andTanzania.

In 2010, PMS Group became the first woman-owned business and the only one since to be voted number one in the Top 100 SMEs competition in Kenya. In 2009, Mwangi beat women entrepreneurs from 75 countries to win the Organisation of Women in International Trade’s Woman of the Year award.

Mwangi ventured out on her own 18 years ago after realising her ambition to climb the corporate ladder was hindered by her gender.

Mwangi was then at her third job, working at American multinational Colgate-Palmolive Company. People with lesser knowledge and experience were hired as her bosses and earned more than she did.

“At that time the world was different… being black and being female were things that blocked your progress. It was the worst possible combination,” says Mwangi. “I realised I [had] to be either a trailblazer breaking through that glass ceiling or knock my head on that glass ceiling for the rest of my life. I have always been ambitious. I didn’t want to be just a mid-level manager. I wanted to rise to the very top.”

Mwangi attributes her success at PMS to the lessons she acquired at Colgate which she describes as “the best employer I ever had because they took the trouble to train us”.

“They wanted us to be world-class marketers. Colgate is the reason I would give, more than even my degrees, for my success,” she says. “I was marketing manager [but] I was taken to the factory to learn how the product I was selling is made. They gave me an all-rounded perspective and that helped me a lot when I started my entrepreneurship journey.”

A tough beginning

Mwangi started her journey in marketing straight out of university when she joined a local newspaper to sell advertising. With a dismally low success rate, Mwangi’s job was “depressing” and she sometimes cried when proposals were rejected.

“Anybody in marketing knows that the two hardest things to sell in this world are insurance and advertising space. So I think I started in the hardest possible environment. It toughened me. I just had to grow thick skin. I had to learn that rejection is not personal. It was the product that they were rejecting, not me.”

Mwangi tells How we made it in Africa that leaving the corporate world to start her own business was “extremely difficult”.

“It was not easy. Being self-employed [at the time] was the least glamorous thing in Kenya. It was only failures who were self-employed. Anyone who was worth anything was employed in corporate Kenya, wearing a tie to work.”

But Mwangi says she was optimistic during the early stages because she had enough money to keep her going for at least six months. However, when her savings dwindled she went into “panic mode” and contemplated going back into formal employment.

“One lady, who was also an entrepreneur, told me not to quit before 18 months. In my mind I figured I still [had] 12 months to hang in there. It wasn’t yet time to give up. Of course, there is no magic to 18 months, but it gave me an end date. On the seventh month I got my first good deal.”

Handling the success

Deals starting flowing in and so did the money. This became Mwangi’s next big challenge. At 26, she was dealing with being an employer and managing millions of shillings in the bank. The business, she says, was operating matatu-style, referencing the chaotic public transport vehicles common in Kenya.

“It was total confusion. All of a sudden I was dealing with money yet I had no real financial background. I was mixing my personal money, the business money, everything. It was a complete mess, but in this hot mess I was learning.”

A major challenge Mwangi faced, and one she thinks many entrepreneurs encounter, is limited management capabilities. Quoting American author Stephen Covey of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People fame, Mwangi says many entrepreneurs spend all their time chopping the tree and have no time to sharpen the axe.

“It was a struggle. I wasn’t improving me.” She overcame this by attending trainings, reading management books and eventually going back to school to study finance.

“I realised the heart and soul of your business is the finances because business is about making money. I had to learn. In school I hated maths, [but] today it is my favourite,” says Mwangi. “After learning all these things it gave me the confidence that I had what it takes to run the show.”

Succession planning

Three years ago Mwangi made a deliberate decision to reduce her involvement in the day-to-day management of PMS. She started delegating more work and took the company through change management training.

“[My team] were used to Joanne being mother hen. I told them I will be coming in to sign cheques, to review proposals… but day-to-day operations, I don’t want to know. At first it was not easy for me because I was so engaged in PMS. I felt like I was becoming irrelevant. The good thing is I could now focus on strategy.”

Doing this, Mwangi says she was able to discover new lines of business and ways to further expand the firm. Her sights are now set on expanding PMS across the continent through representations, partnerships and by riding on the back of current PMS clients who are expanding regionally.

“At a pan-African level, one of the things we need to embrace more is mergers. I would rather have a small percentage of a massive pie than 100% of a little queen cake,” says Mwangi. “We need to combine forces.”

Moving forward, Mwangi says her ultimate goal is for PMS to go public or merge with another entity.

“I just feel that it would very wrong for me to keep holding on to the company and not allow other people to come in and bring in their strategies and knowledge. That is what will keep this company forever.”

adapted from


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