Kenyan Businesswoman in America Thrives in Entrepreneurship
Traveling abroad as student for the first time can be a terrifying experience and a large number of Kenyans who take this route in search of furthering their education and careers often return home without a degree or job, but for Jacinta Mutonga, the journey to become part of the Diaspora has seen her establish a strong family while becoming a successful entrepreneur and the founder of her own business.
To say she has been a success story would be an understatement, but the road to her current situation has been very tough since the moment she set foot in America.
Mutonga moved to the United States (US) in the fall of 1993 in pursuit of a Bachelors degree in finance from the Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington (WA) through the help of an American missionary in Kenya who encouraged her to consider coming to the US to study.
“He helped me apply for colleges in Washington State and I stayed with his family when I first moved here,” she said.
Although excited to study and live abroad, Mutonga said that the transition from Kenya to the US was not smooth at all.
“American life was nothing like I expected it. It was hard getting used to the cold winters, the food, understanding American slang words, the education system and not having a car,” she said.
“I went through the depression of being so far away from home, missing family and Kenyan food and feeling like an outsider in the small town in WA where there were no Black people,” she revealed.
She recalled the struggles she had having to commute to school and work on a bus during the dead of winter.
“I vividly remember one night I was waiting for the bus after evening classes and I was so cold that I swore if someone bought me a one-way ticket to Kenya right at that moment, I’d have gladly taken it,” she said.
She explained that living and working in the US is no bed of roses unlike what many in Kenya think, pointing out how difficult it is to settle down in the US as a new immigrant, while attempting to cope with financial, emotional and psychological road blocks.
“Many times you don’t have a support system and you feel incredibly lonely and homesick, especially if you land in a place that doesn’t have other Kenyans,” she stated.
“It’s very easy to get depressed and withdrawn or turn to things like alcohol to cope,” she added.
Mutonga’s greatest stress as a student was being asked for money and material stuff from relatives and friends back home who didn’t realize how hard she was working just to hover above the poverty line.
“I felt extremely guilty saying no and a lot of times I’d put off paying for my college fees so I could send a few hundred dollars home causing me to be perpetually behind in my college tuition payments,” she acknowledged.
“I do not wish that kind of burden on anyone, but once I was out of school, I continued to put my siblings through private universities in Kenya and send money for other things. It’s big responsibility, one that never really ends,” she emphasised.
Mutonga was able to put herself through college without any financial assistance from her family and friends back home, a feat for which she takes great pride in.
“I earned a degree in Finance and it wasn’t easy at all, because I had to work at least two jobs at any given time to pay for college and to feed myself,” she explained.
“As many of my Kenyan friends here will tell you, it takes a lot of hard work and drive to do it,” she added.
Despite her busy schedule of school and work, she co-founded www.AirfarePlanet.com with her husband George Mwangi in February 1998 from their apartment while they were juniors in college.
AirefarePlanet.com is a travel company offering discounted international and domestic airline tickets, and she said the timing of creating the business was perfect because it was right around the late 1990s Internet boom, allowing them to to reach a broader audience than they would have if they had launched before the Internet era.
They are in the process of discontinuing the travel business however, because the industry is going through too many changes as airlines find ways to sell directly to consumers while cutting the costs associated with distributing fares through agencies.
“When we just started out, I remember applying for a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan from the government and they denied us the loan because we didn’t have collateral,” she explained.
“We were college students and didn’t own anything other than our text books. We ended up using my student loans to start the business and it was a blessing that I had just won the green card lottery, meaning I could qualify for student loans,” she added.
According to her, the day she got her green card was one of the greatest days in her life because she had been stressing about having to pay out-of-state tuition, being unable to work off-campus, being able to stay in-status and being able to get a work permit after graduating.
“The number of companies that will ‘sponsor’ qualified immigrants has gone down tremendously in the last few years and I cannot even tell you the number of jobs I see advertised that say ‘company will NOT sponsor work permits or green cards’,” she explained.
“That leaves many highly educated individuals with no way to get high paying jobs and the companies that sponsor immigrants in fields such as Information Technology (IT), are often run by other immigrants, who tend to take advantage of these workers once they help them land contract work since the employer takes a cut of what the employee makes,” she added.
To avoid going through such issues, her and her husband launched a second business venture called Call Desk Inc. in 2008, which offers affordable, virtual receptionist and lead generation services to businesses throughout the United States.
As a businesswoman and entrepreneur, Mutonga is very passionate about providing jobs and contributing to the American economy.
“Unlike what you hear from politicians on the immigration debate in America, immigrants like us hire Americans, pay taxes and generally contribute to this economy,” she stated.
“We are not simply just here ‘taking away jobs’ from Americans. That’s pretty much the case for all the immigrant business owners I know, so whenever I hire a new employee, I feel like I’m helping contributing to this economy,” she added.
With the success of their business ventures, Mutonga and her husband, who also works for the government as a hired contractor, have been able to raise their two kids (11 year old son and 8 year old daughter) in relative comfort in McLean, Virginia which is just outside Washington, DC.
She’s been able to pay for her mom to join her in the States, but the rest of her family remains in Kenya and this has made it a challenge raising her children in a way so that they’re connected to their Kenyan roots.
“We speak Kikuyu and eat Kenyan food at home, but when they leave the house they are in an all-American environment, so our goal is to make sure they form an identity as Kenyan Americans who are proud of their Kenyan heritage while still fitting into the American culture,” she explained.
“We also have friends from many ethnic backgrounds and since moving to the DC area, they are schoolmates with kids from all over the world and I have noticed that they are more comfortable with their Kenyan heritage since they no longer feel so ‘different’,” she said.
For now, Mutonga’s goal is to remain in the US until her kids have gone through high school, but she said she’d love to move back to Kenya if the right opportunity presented itself.
“I think the private sector in Kenya is thriving and I think it’s generally easier to start and run a business that requires a lot of technology, than it was when I left Kenya,” she explained.
“Right now the business I’m in would be hard to do from Kenya. Our clients, who are mainly small to midsize American companies, hire us specifically because we are based in the US and they want their calls answered in the US since there’s generally a backlash against companies having their calls answered in places like India and the Philippines,” she acknowledged.
Despite these challenges, she remains determined to see her vision become a reality and she believes in her business/life philosophy which is: Hope is not a strategy. You can’t sit around and hope things will work out. You have to go after what you want.
By Charles Gichane. Charles is a contributor to Mwakilishi.com. He is also an author of a blog called MyYoungSholar.