Africa’s women have a long history of overcoming obstacles to feed needs. So it’s a no-brainer that modern women all over the continent are stepping up to the plate, shattering glass ceilings and finding enterprising ways of feeding the digital globe’s need for local content. Today we feature Kenya’s Julie Gichuru.
Julie Gichuru: Kenyan TV producer, media personality and entrepreneur; co-founder and CEO of production house Arimus Media Limited and fashion retail business Mimi Holdings
Julie Gichuru seemed set for the corporate world when life took a turn after she’d completed her law degree and MBA in the UK. “I was desperate for a job. My parents had divorced, my father remarried and my mother emigrated to the US.” Realising that she would have to support her grandmother, Gichuru sent out her CV to various multinational banks and corporates.
Astutely, she also approached media houses. “I walked into KTN on a Thursday morning for a screen test as a news anchor; they gave me a call on Friday and asked me to start on Monday.” That was the key twist to determining her career path, confirms Gichuru, but notes that “my background in law and business was key to my growth in media”.
She’s credited with redefining the style and delivery of news in Kenya with her current affairs show. “Sunday Live with Julie Gichuru was an exciting show! I loved the pace and style of delivery – it felt more like a magazine show, and this drew in a wide and varied audience and, especially important, young viewers who had stopped watching news.”
It was while conceptualising the programme that Gichuru and her team identified a gap in news content: highlighting human and developmental issues. “This became our passion. There are so many inspiring stories of change from our coverage – that will always be the highlight for me.”
Inspirational Africans on air
Despite this groundbreaking approach, Gichuru was still frustrated by her news editors’ limited approach to news and, seven years ago, launched Arimus Media with her husband Anthony, a practicing pilot. “I wanted to highlight human challenges and development issues, I also wanted to celebrate successes so others can learn from them. I wanted inspirational Africans on air; role models who could inspire viewers to greater things.”
The production company created debating and dialogue platforms with shows like Great Debaters Contest and Africa Leadership Dialogues. This year, they’ll be launching their own TV channel.
Gichuru’s success has not come without controversy or heartbreak. As mom to five, she lost her third-born in 2005 – which is why family comes first to her. “For working women it is a challenge. We must be bold enough to set systems that work for us, push boundaries in corporate environments to ensure that they make space for growing responsible families. Simple things like a crèche at the office and flexible working hours can make a huge difference.”
Gichuru, who’s of mixed heritage – her mother is Kikuyu and father of Kashmiri, Indian descent – has also attracted criticism from some quarters for her political leanings. “I believe diversity makes society richer and stronger. I appreciate and respect diverse views and opinions and it is key that we understand the importance of this on a diverse continent.”
A strong network
Key to success, she maintains, is a strong network. “My team at Arimus are like family, I am blessed to have a passionate, dedicated team of professionals who ‘get it’. This is key to success. An excellent team of thinkers and doers who are passionate about the vision: a vibrant, dignified, equitable and progressive Africa! I am also blessed to have incredible African and global networks through various fellowships. Networks are key to growth and success. We must all learn to invest time and effort in this.”
As for overcoming detractors? “What is most important is that irrespective of all the noise, you are able to step back and always focus on being professional. Don’t get distracted by the positive or the negative. Examine the constructive. Where important to do so, call out the misogyny or tribalism; sometimes this sets an important example and creates boundaries. My advice for women in positions of power facing heat: What is your focus? What is your purpose? Use your internal compass to identify and maintain direction. Don’t be distracted or intimidated, work with your teams to deliver.”
Read Africa’s media queens part one, profiling South Africa’s Khanyi Dhlomo, CEO of Ndalo Media, here.
Honours and Awards
- Gichuru is the first African woman to receive the Martin Luther King Salute to Greatness for advocacy of non-violence following the 2007 election in Kenya.
- In 2011, she was awarded the Order of the Golden Warrior for her contribution towards nation building by President Mwai Kibaki.
- She is a Fellow of the Archbishop Desmond Tutu Leadership Programme; a fellow of the Aspen Global Leadership Network and a Fellow of the Africa Leadership Initiative.
- She was recently recognised in the WIE (Women, Inspiration and Enterprise Network) list of 60 most influential African women in the world.
This story was first published in The Media’s Africa Annual.
Lucinda Jordaan is an independent writer, researcher and editor with extensive experience in all media, covering various fields from academia and finance to education and lifestyle.Her articles have appeared in several award-winning publications, locally and internationally, and she has contributed to various books and online sites, including The Media Online.