Hellen Kahenya: Self-Taught Interior Designer with a Magical Touch

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HELLEN KAHENYA, FOUNDER, H. KAHENYA INTERIOR DESIGN.

Talk about passion and Hellen Kahenya’s name will pop right up. She is a creative who is gifted and is confident in her talent. Kahenya believes there is absolutely nothing that’s stopping her from pursuing her passion to its optimum. She left a well-paying job at VisionFund – a microfinance company of the World Vision Kenya in 2012 to start her own Communication Consultancy (Communication Works) and later on H. Kahenya Interior Design in 2016. In her own words, “if you desire to start a business after employment, consider your skills set and your passion, then give it your best years- when you are young and energetic”. We recently visited Ms. Kahenya at her office at SK Offices, along Raphta Road Westlands and we had a brief chat with her regarding her career and entrepreneurship journey.

Who is Hellen Kahenya?

I am an Interior Designer out of passion and a communication strategist by training. Whatever I choose to do, I do it with passion, applying myself fully and give of myself wholly to the process. Above all, I’m a mother and a Christian. My faith has defined my journey a lot. I take each day as it comes; hoping that others could stick along and gain something in the process.

Tell us about your educational/professional background?

After form four, I started drawing portraits of flowers and I would give them to my sister who would in turn sell them off to her colleagues in the office. But my sister was a hustler and she roped me into her embroidery business. That is where I learnt embroidery techniques and drawing repetitive patterns; I loved it! Especially because I got paid for assisting her. I managed to save some money which I used for registration and admission for a Bachelor of Science Degree in Business Administration. I later pursued a Masters Degree in Strategic Management at the same University.

I joined the Tourism Trust Fund in 2003 as an intern. I was later absorbed as a fulltime employee to manage the affairs of the CEO office and the PR Agency. In 2006, I joined KADET (Now VisionFund) as an Executive Assistant to the Director and to set up the Communication function. While at VisionFund, I pursued a professional Diploma in Public Relations; an online course by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR). It was an amazing experience and there was so much to learn. My boss was gracious with me as I set up systems at the pace of my studies. But as I neared the end of the course I was encouraged to consider agency experience at Tell-EM PR. This was the same firm that supported Tourism Trust Fund and as fate would have it, I was part of an amazing and very experienced team that supported Nokia, Visa, CBK and Tourism Trust Fund, my first employer!

I got married in 2008 and I considered a break from work as I leaped into this new season. While on the break, my former boss at Vision Fund called me back to head the Communication department. This is where I honed my communication skills; I learnt so much from stakeholder engagements, to internal communication, to brand strategy and all things brands! I was at a good place. But by 2011 I was a mother of 2 and I was already feeling the pressure: Pressure to nurture my children and be with them…at home and pressure to take on more assignments at work. I was restless. In 2012, I decided to resign from my job and venture into consultancy. I set up Communication Works in 2012; communication agency that would later offer communication support to microfinance institutions.

How did you get started as an entrepreneur?

I spent the first 4months looking up my networks, setting up the company profile and attending scheduled meetings to pitch for business. However, getting clients was not easy. I sat through many meetings and waited through very many promises before discussions converted into actual business. I had my first client in 2013. The business grew and I secured a few other accounts. Communication is my first love. I feel connected whenever I take on a communication assignments. It is a central function that easily reveals the strengths or struggles of an entity. Indeed Communication does work!

Tell us more about H. Kahenya Interior Design?

I enjoy hosting people in my house, and each time, my visitors would be impressed with the setting in my house. Some would recommend that I pursue design as a business yet others would ask for ideas for their own homes. I was always intrigued to hear feedback about my house because my investment was always below the expected or imagined. I wanted regular change in my spaces so I frequently changed furniture around the house; and I loved the possibilities I saw each time I changed things around. But I also loved how I felt; I felt satisfied! I began to entertain the idea of setting up an Interior Design business. I did my research, I saw the need and I was ready to take the plunge.

As I was thinking of how to start, I hosted a lady who later requested me to design select spaces in her house. I scheduled a site visit and I finally felt like IT! Before I could leave, she asked if my business was registered. I told her not yet and that I was still pursing it as a hobby. She looked at me straight and muttered, “I cannot leave my house in the hands of someone who is not confident enough to believe in their gift’.

I left her house and immediately begun the registration process for H. Kahenya Interiors Ltd. I lost the business but I found my passion in 2016. I would take pictures of general sections of my house and post them on mainly Facebook. Because I wasn’t active on social media, it took sooo long before anyone could notice what I was about. It was agonizing to constantly check media and find no likes, no followers, and no views…I simply didn’t exist! I had to admit that I was gifted and no likes meant nothing in as far as my gift was concerned. So I continued to post and slowly the audience grew. I wanted organic growth so I did Facebook Live and Youtube videos to engage with the audience. It was overwhelming yet deeply satisfying. More and more people became aware of the brand and today we do more than interior décor; we interpret architectural drawings and guide clients on interior finishes, we design interiors to match client habits and patterns, we renovate to modernize houses; and we occasionally stock unique home merchandize that add life and character to spaces. We have partnered with Twakutukuza Trust to run a love makeover campaign for cancer patients every year. In this, we fundraise for the project and we work with a family member to execute it as a surprise to the beneficiary. It is our outpouring of love to these patients.

What motivates you in your business?

My identity in Christ, has played a big role in my quest to run an ethical business. I learn something new each day as I strive to offer better service, better experiences for every opportunity. The understanding that I am a steward of this gift drives me to inspire others whenever I can. I do this through internship opportunities that we extend to Interior Design Students every 3 Months. Happy and Satisfied clients keep me going; each time a client states that the outcome is better than their wildest imagination, then I know that we not only delivered a beautiful space but also captured their hearts!

Have you faced any challenges?

Yes! Many. Running a creative business is not easy. Sometimes clients downplay the designers time and effort and do not want to pay for it. This is not good for the designer and for the client’s project. Trust is an important element in this work; trust that the designer has the client’s best interest at heart and client commitment that the payment will be made in full within the agreed timelines.

What are your future plans and aspirations for your company?

A lot of money is wasted and lost whenever individuals set out to build their homes. The process from the start to finish is often not clear to many. H.K interiors plans to create awareness to this group of people and help them to make better decisions during construction. This is a critical group that is offering more opportunities for the industry to thrive. I also plan to host our second Interior design Session on…Starting your Own Interior Design Business. Further, we are in talks to build capacity to interpret architectural drawings for residential properties for better space utilization and personalization.

Advice to aspiring interior designers?

There is room for everyone. Package your skills set, find your courage and start! Keep off the temptation to pass off internet pictures as yours. Instead, invest in a camera or a smart phone with a good camera and use your own pictures to promote your business. Then be patient; the business will come. And when it does, will it find you ready? Invest in yourself; spend time reading design magazines, watching design channels and walking with a mentor/coach.

Advice to those who want to start up?

Do not go into employment and wait until you are retired to pursue your passion and make money from it. If you do this, most likely it will not work. If you want to start a business, give it your best years when you are young and energetic. Think about the business you want to start. Do your research and learn from those that are already in it. Are you passionate about it? Is it getting you out of your comfort zone? If you don’t know what your passion is, listen to what your friends and people around you say of you.

Young people should not be afraid to start and run businesses; some may fail but some might flourish; that’s an entrepreneur’s life. The only way to know is to start. The government will not create jobs for everyone.