When Kendi Mbabazi Mwendia was three years old, it’s safe to say she was an accomplished artist. One time, her parents came home to find all their living room walls with drawings of the famous ‘Tom and Jerry’ cartoon characters. Much to their amusement, shock and probably anger, it was worth noting that her work was an absolute master piece, for a three year old anyway. This new development also came as a surprise for her parents because Kendi had had issues with reading. So when they discovered she related better with pictures and drawings, they let her be. By the time she was five years old, Kendi had upgraded her drawings beyond cartoon characters and once again her parents came home to find a beautiful garden and a portrait of every family member drawn on the walls. Recognizing that their child had a gift, they were keen to nurture this talent in her. During the school holidays, her mother would always take her to art camps and festivals; thus her life and art became one.
When she graduated and moved forward to her A level education, Kendi began to think that perhaps she had a talent for art after all. Not just to catch up with her peers in the reading class, but to actually make a living out of it. This came about as she was doing her final project for her A levels and she did a stunning piece of art, mural if you may, that took her teachers by complete surprise. As she presented her piece, not only did it garner the attention her teacher knew it would, but her art was sold in that very instant. A happy Kendi going home with a few thousands shillings safely tucked in her pocket was a moment she would remember forever. However after her A levels, Kendi joined United States International University to pursue a bachelor’s degree in International Relations, putting her art life on hold. She looked towards having a career in the corporate world, chasing her ambassadorial dreams that she had when she was a little girl. Upon graduation, she quickly got into the employment field and settled for an 8-5 job. Two years later Kendi found herself in a pickle. Whereas she loved her job, and was doing great at it, she also loved her art, and had gone back to painting. So she formed a working plan. She would wake up at 4am in the morning and paint before she left for work, and come evening, she would rush home straight from work to paint some more, as she enjoyed painting when the sun was still out there. It was this love for her art that made her to eventually decide to leave employment and follow after her passion and dreams.
I guess every budding entrepreneur always needs a nudge from a friend, a mentor, or a parent. Kendi being no exception got a nudge from her sister. After quitting her job, Kendi visited her sister who was residing in South Africa, and as a last born in a family of three, everyone had been asking her what her plans were. Her sister was keen to point out that maybe it was time to focus on her art and turn it into a business. Kendi agreed and began to work out a plan to achieve that. Her brother-in-law became involved in the process, giving her advice and tips on how to price, market and present herself and her art. Speckled Glass was born. In our world today, not everyone has embraced art as a means to an end. Some if not most, view art as something that does not pay, whereas some see art as a luxury and for the chosen few. As a result the artists end up struggling to make a sale to earn their living. Kendi decided to be aggressive in her marketing and in her demeanour. When she began in 2012, she was just 22 but she made business cards for herself, registered her company as a business, and took to the streets.
Her costs at the start were minimal. For starters instead of renting a studio, she worked from home, and she sold her earlier paintings to raise capital to start her glass art. This she did by participating in monthly exhibitions. Her first year in business was slow. Selling her art was no easy fete. There were good months but most were bad. She dealt with irate buyers, unreasonable suppliers and marketing herself was the hardest bit. She realised that her art and persuading people to actually buy it were two different things. By the close of the year, she felt as if she had aged by two years. She was wiser but struggling business wise.
Her second year into the business happened to be her best. It has been said many a time, what doesn’t break you makes you stronger. It started when she attended the Art, Wine and Cheese Festival in the Park. Upon interacting with her work, the organisers asked her to do an event with Coca-Cola; which turned out to be a huge success. Later on Kendi realised that she could grow her art by teaching it, and so she began to teach glass art at the festival, doing two things for her; giving her the much needed traction to build her name in the industry and an extra income when sales at the art front are slow. In the same year, she discovered the art of interior design, and she partnered with some interior designers to provide glass art to their work. This became a huge market for her. Her work was good and she was in serious demand. Halfway into the year Kendi was called up by a hotel that was opening up in the CBD and commissioned to provide a bulk of the art for the hotel. Most of it was installed at the high traffic areas like the reception, the entrance hallway and coffee lounge, taking her business to another level.
To date, Kendi has worked in over 42 interior design projects and provided glass art for over 23 corporate companies. Her clients include Coca Cola, Abercrombie and Kent, PWC, Deloitte, Oracle, just to mention but a few. A whooping success for the 27-year old, who dared to dream, dared to try and dared to stay on course even when all was not working. She embodies the statement of consistency plus hard work eventually yielding results. Kendi had never envisioned art as her end goal to life, but now she is certain that this is it for her. For her glass art, she sources all her materials locally as she is keen to support the local vendors. She is a firm believer in being 100% Kenyan all the time.
For marketing, Kendi has relied on referrals all through, and stresses on the importance of maintaining a good relationship with all your customers for they will always remember you. She emphasises the importance of doing a really good job when tasked. “Do it so well, they never forget you,” Kendi says. Social media has also played an important role in the growth of her business. On structure, her father is a partner in the business. He handles the operational side of the business, whereas Kendi handles the creativity bit. Her struggles in the business have been plenty, but one that she has never forgotten was when she was starting out, and struggling to market herself. She had displayed her artwork in a flea market but the organiser did not like her work, which led her to being thrown out. Humiliated, Kendi had picked her things and left, but was not defeated. “I have learned to have a thick skin on some things,” she says. Even as she narrates the ordeal to me, her bubbly and witty personality takes over much so that there is no bitterness or anger in her tone, “It’s part of the package,” she says. “People will always criticise your work, try and bring you down, but you have to rise above it, and be graceful about it,” she tells me as we laugh at her ordeal.
Kendi also learnt to have excellent relationships with her suppliers, so that whenever she needs materials and doesn’t have enough money, or she’s doing a project and her payments are delayed, she will still finish the project in good time and pay her suppliers later. Something she is really grateful for. When you treat people well, they in turn do the same to you. Looking back, her learning curve has been steep. “Starting a business at 22 is not easy,” she muses. “Some people look at you and think that since you are young, you have no idea what you are doing.” Sometimes she has lost work because of that.
In five years’ time, Kendi sees her business in two other countries; South Africa and Uganda. She envisions Speckled Glass being a signature name in every Kenyan household and office. Her biggest inspiration in the business journey has been her father. Given that he is also an entrepreneur, they have worked really well since Kendi began her business and her family has been her biggest supporter.
To unwind, Kendi loves to do yoga, and anything sporty, as this relaxes her and gets her creative juices flowing. It is worth noting that Kendi taught herself her glass art, never going to any formal art school, save for her school years at Rusinga School. Everything she learned after that was through self-teaching, experimenting and being bold and creative. She is a firm believer that you can achieve anything you put your heart into. To budding entrepreneurs, especially the young ones, Kendi believes that you can be great and you can succeed with a little discipline and consistency. And as a parting shot, she leaves me with two quotes, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time,” and “Art is not what you see , but what you make others see,” by Thomas Merton and Edgar Degas respectively.
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