When Radhika Lee was a young girl, she had a dream, and it went something like this: “When I grow up, I want to make a difference in people’s lives and have an impact on society.” You must admit, that coming from a six years old, the dream was a bit too ambitious. I don’t know about you, but as for me, at that particular age, all I wanted to do was eat and make ice cream forever! Radhika however, it seems, was on a whole different level! Radhika hails from a tiny village called Cherai, located in Kerala, India. Despite being Hindu, she spent her first sixteen years of living with Catholics and in turn embraced the catholic faith. She made her way into Kenya at 23, with only two things to get her by: a work permit, and an education. Two vital things she needed to make a living in a land far away from home.
On arrival to Kenya, she began to look for work. Back in India, she had taught at a private college and thus she was confident that at 23 she could teach. She got her first job as a teacher in Mombasa, but that did not last long. The working conditions were not in her favour. Six months later, she handed in her resignation letter and moved to a school in Ongata Rongai, hoping to settle there. Unfortunately, the environment there was more complex than the first one and three months later she was handing in her second resignation letter. Barely a year into the country, she was sinking and she needed a lifeline. It was during this time of despair, coupled with a bit of panic and months of tarmacking that she got an offer from one of the Arya Samaj schools as an English teacher. She happily served the school for the next four years. By the time she was leaving, she had been made the Head of Department for English and was responsible for leading the students to the yearly held secondary schools’ music festivals and winning awards. Her teaching journey did not end when she left that school. She was then a mother and her responsibilities had increased and naturally too, her expenses had shot up. There was need for a better paying job. She applied to a few high end schools that she felt would match up to what she wanted. After a few tries and interviews, she was hired by St. Austins Academy as a teacher and served for 15 years. By the time she was leaving she was the head of the school. She moved to Jaffery Academy as the head of school, where she served for another four years. After teaching for 24 years, Radhika reasoned that maybe it was time to start her own school. She had gathered experience, wealth and knowledge. As much as she was confident that she could pull it off, nothing had prepared her for the journey ahead.
Radhika had a plan, and she was confident it would work. Throughout her 24 years of teaching, she had gathered a lot of goodwill from both her students and their parents. When she shared with some of them about her desire to start a school, they eagerly gathered to support her noble dream. She was going to change lives, she knew it, and her dream as a little child was quickly coming alive. Sadly she had problems at home that led her to postpone her vision for some time.
Her personal domestic struggles firmed her resolve to own a school. The day she walked out of her marriage was the day she decided to hang her employment boots. The process was not easy, the challenges seemed like mountains to climb and she considered giving up! However looking at her son who would cheer her on daily, she knew that giving up was not an option. She needed funding for her venture. She was sure that she would get lending from banks, but much to her dismay, no bank was willing to bet on her, terming her venture risky as there was no collateral to give as security. For 7 months, her project stalled as she knocked on all the banks to no avail. Her breakthrough came as she was sharing with a friend about the inability to get funding for her school project. Her friend told her about GroFin, a venture capital company that helps small medium companies with funding. When she approached them, they were open to her idea. However she had so many hurdles to cross and meet their long list of demands. For starters she did not know that she had to register a company to get the funding from them. Because she was required to do so and her company had to be limited, she needed more than one person. She partnered her son and they formed the company.
The total capital needed was Kshs.130 million for the proposed school. Grofin tasked her to raise 65m on her own before they came on board and top up the balance of 85m. This took Radhika back to India where she mortgaged her home to raise part of the amount she needed. Then out of what she calls a blessing to this day, a couple of parents from her former schools stepped in to help her raise the deficit. That is how she raised the 65m she needed to convince GroFin, and after 18 months, the venture capital came on board and fund her startup. When she finally thought that her problems were over, she was hit by another hurdle. She had chosen a location for her school in the plush Lavington area, and she proceeded to follow the proper protocol for acquiring the land. Much to her dismay, she encountered massive opposition from political heavyweights who tried to frustrate and thwart her efforts. Using lawyers to fight the battle, she opened Nairobi International School as a senior school in September of 2008 with 35 students signing up on the first day. She got her competitive edge as the first school to introduce e-Learning, an initiative that got her recognition from Apple Inc. and gave her the prominence, recognition and traction she needed.
After this first success, she went ahead to start a preparatory school in 2011 as the need was there and no sooner than 2014, the parents urged her to start a kindergarten. By this time she had managed to pay off the Grofin loan. To date she has a staff of 150 with over 600 students of 55 nationalities from around the world.
On the day of our interview, Radhika had a parents’ meeting, so we had to put the interview on hold for a while. I took that time to process the information I had gathered. The lady is an enigma, a titan if you may. With all that she has gone through, she did not fold. Instead she chose to rise above it and make her life a whooping success. What strikes me most is her calm, grace and poise. Never once did she raise her voice. Even when she spoke about her ex-husband, there was no hint of anger or bitterness. I was left in the safe hands of Kingsley, the school’s Operations Manager. Like most of Radhika’s staff that I encounter as I walk around the premises, he is one of her former students. They love her and admire her, and they carry the same grace and poise that she exudes. The culture of the school is very organised and calm.
As we resume our interview, the first question that I blurt out is “How did you do it?” She shares that all through the turbulent times, she kept faith and took to writing. She kept a journal from the first time her husband abused her, a side of him she had never known. From then on, that was her outlet. To deal with her pain, to deal with her crumbling life, to deal with the daily disappointments, she prayed and she wrote. Once she was done praying and writing, she always felt a little better.
Writing … an art she began way back in 1996 when she lost her mother unexpectedly and felt so alone and unable to go on… The pages of her journals eventually became a book. At first she was afraid of publishing her story. It all seemed too personal to share with the world. Then one time she met Jeff Koinange by chance at the airport. He had just launched his book and having known her from various circles, he urged her to write, giving her timelines too. She then took an entire month of vacation to rearrange her journals of many years, and her book was released in 2015 as ‘Rainbows in My Clouds’. It’s a detailed and personal memoir of her life and is currently marked to be studied by literature students at the University of Nairobi. The book is available in all book stores and goes for Ksh.1,900. All proceeds go to CATSI, a Cancer Awareness and Treatment Support Initiative for the poor and needy cancer patients.
Our interview is over and I take a long walk home. I need to clear my head. A quote by Ernest Hemingway comes to mind, “The world breaks everyone and afterward, many are strong at the broken places.” Radhika Lee is a befitting example of this quote.
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