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MKU boss journey to the top

By Simon Gicharu
I feel extremely humbled to be with you today on this memorable occasion. Allow me to start by most sincerely thanking Gulu University Council and Senate for inviting and awarding me this Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science.

It is indeed a great honour for me to be a graduand at this congregation, and an alumnus of this esteemed institution.
I wish to congratulate all the graduands for their hard work, which culminates in this auspicious ceremony.
I also wish to appreciatemy wife, Jane Gathoni Nyutu, who is here with me today, and my children Kevin, Elizabeth and Nelson for supporting methrough this journey of self-actualization.
To the entire Gulu University fraternity, my family, colleagues and friends, I graciously accept the Honorary Degree Award.

Ladies and gentlemen,
Of all the awards I have received before, this Doctor of Science Degree is perhaps the most precious for me, since it addresses two important areas in the story ofmy life. These areas are Education and Science. 
I wish to share with you a short story of my life, hoping to demonstrate to you that in this world, everything is possible but nothing is guaranteed. Success or failure is purely a matter of choice; the story of your life is yours to write.

PART ONE: My early life
I grew up as an ordinary rural boy ina village called Gathiruini in Central Kenya. As the eldest child in a family of six, my parents tasked me with many daily responsibilities that included taking care of my siblings and feeding the family cow. I experienced many challenges but my parents always assured me that the only hope in overcoming these challenges was through education.
In my secondary school years, I learnt the importance of saving and investing money, which has been a cornerstone of my success throughout my life. I was the manager of the school canteen and using the money I was given by my parents to pay school fees, I would buy bread to sell at the canteen and after paying the school fees, keep the profit. I also formed aDrama club for fellow students and charged them a fee to participate in monthly entertainment events.

PART TWO: Ambition Development
In 1987, after I graduatedfrom Kenyatta University with Bachelor of Education Science degree, I got a teaching job with the Teachers Service Commission. I was excited and just like any other young man, I got into marriage life immediately.
But I had this fire of ambition burning inside my belly. I wanted a better-paying job, and a nice, comfortable office where I would always be smartly dressed in a suit.
I sent over 5,000 job applications to various companies. I was so determined that I followed up on these applications in person to find out if they had reached the appropriate offices. But no job offer was forthcoming, and in some instances, I received the letters of regret many years after I had left employment.    
I decided to become the master of my own destiny and started a small agency that trained young people on entrepreneurship. The agency had a capital of 220 dollars, which was a loan from a local building society.
I didn’t see it that way at the time but with this 220 dollars, I had planted the seed that would one day grow into Mount Kenya University. 
At that time, I was still employed by the Teachers Service Commission.  Through my training agency, I applied for a British Council scholarship for an enterprise management course in the UK.
In 1995, I went to the UK without permission from my employer and I was consequently fired. On return, I never lost hope. I had a young family to support. My wife was a teacher and the idea of her leaving me at home and providing for me was unbearable. A true African man’s ego could not allow that to happen.
I started doing small businesses that included distributing milk and eggs in local shops and kiosks. Many of my friends laughed at me, saying that I had stayed in the UK for six months and came back with “nothing.” On several occasions, I was stranded with a pick-up full of milk that I had nobody to sell it to. I was the milk hawker who had once gone to the UK.
In 2000, I converted the agency into a commercial college called Thika School of Management Studies. Our main courses were on Management and Business. But the college was not performing as well as I had anticipated and had to undergo business re-engineering.
I introduced training in applied sciences.But nobody wanted to enroll for such courses in a college whose name suggested that it was only teaching Management programmes. So, in 2003, I changed the name of the college from Thika School of Management Studies to Thika Institute of Technology.
I remember that one of the tools we used in training the technical courses was an old Suzuki car engine. The college was located at the topmost floor of a commercial building that had no lifts. The engine was too big to fit the narrow staircase. To get it into the classroom, we had to dismantle it, carry it upstairs as parts and then assemble it. The students were not very patient with me.
We often clashed, and at one heated moment, I told them that I could very easily convert the college into a restaurant and forget about it for good. But they did not want their graduation certificates to read the name of a restaurant so we made peace and continued.
In Kenya at that time, only a few government-owned colleges were accredited to offer academic programmes in Health sciences, Pharmacy and Medicine. Yet this is where the demand for tertiary education really was. As a private college, we were losing our relevance. We had to undergo a revolution so as to keep our heads above water.
When we sought accreditation to offer a Diploma programme in Pharmacy in 2004, the door was slammed at us. The regulatory body did not believe that a private college had the capacity to train pharmacists. But I convinced the Minister in charge at that time, arguing that the lecturers we had recruited also taught at government institutions. He concurred, saying that almost 40 years after Kenya’s independence, it did not make sense to limit private colleges that had demonstrated ability. Thus, in 2005, we became the first private college to be accredited to offer the Diploma in Pharmacy programme.
Every struggle I have gone through has beena lesson in the journey towards success.

PART THREE:  Consolidating the dream
In order to diversify our academic programmes, Thika Institute of Technology entered into a collaboration with Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, a public university, in 2006. Through this collaboration, we were able to offer various degree programmes. In 2008, Thika Institute of Technology received a Letter of Interim Authorityto operate as a university under the name Mount Kenya University.
When the college became a university, I realized that my private life and the institution I had founded were now two separate entities. This reality was put into law in 2011, whenMount Kenya University was granted a full Charter. I must say that alongside my wedding day, this was the happiest day of my life. 
At Mount Kenya University, we continue utilizing the lessons we have picked up along the way inorder to remain competitive and offer academic programmes that are relevant in this day and age.
I have never treated the provision of education as a business. I have always sought to balance sustainability and helping our students grow. Many of our students continue to showcase their talents at various platforms and we are now competing pound-for-pound with the best universities in the world.
One of the projects I’m most passionate about is the Enterprise Academy, whereby we give promising entrepreneurs cash grants to start their own business. Last year, we gave 10 entrepreneurs a total of US$90,000. They are now running profitable businesses and employing many people. I started this Academy in the belief that among our students there are hundreds of potential millionaires and billionaires. 

PART FOUR: Lessons Learnt
As I conclude, allow me to summarise my life story lessons infivekey points, which I hope you will use to your benefit.

1)    Develop a savings culture
There is a saying that if you take care of your coins, the pounds will take care of themselves. This has been my secret of converting a US$220 loan into a US$400 million institution with a regional footprint. Invest all the money you make, always postpone personal gratification and you will prevail.

2)    Persistence and Focus
The road to success is paved with many challenges. It is never easy. And once you surmount one challenge, you always encounter another. But the desire to continue pressing on is the single most factor that will enable you overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. During most of my working life, I have focused on providing education. I have persisted even when all hope seemed lost. I could have easily quit and looked for a teaching job when things became tough. I could have sold the university and retreated to a remote island. Success is in your hearts. Do no fear. Go for it. 

3)    Change is the only constant
In life, the only constant is change itself. To remain relevant, you must continuously re-invent yourself in your line of work. Developing Mount Kenya University from Thika Institute of Technology and Thika School of Management studies wouldn’t have been possible if I did not embrace change.

4)    Humility
One of the most important ingredients of success is humility. It is the queen of all attitudes and the soul of discipleship. Humility will open doors for you and win you many hearts. Unfortunately, many young people believe that nice guys finish last, and it is fashionable to be loud and show-off. But as the Hindu religion teaches, humility is a “struggle for self-mastery that every human being must wage if he or she is to emerge from life victorious."

5)    Do not die with your potential
Every human being is created with in-born potential that can reach one into great heights of success. But harnessing this potential takes a whole lot of factors, some of which I have listed above. In any area of work or talent that divine providence has found for you, exploit it to the fullest. You only live once. Do not die with your potential.

Mr. Chancellor sir:
As I conclude, allow me to mention the importance of science and technology in saving Africa from the claws of poverty. There is no country in the world that has developed without embracing science and technology. We as universities are the drivers of knowledge and we must initiate the processes that will enable Africa harness its potential in science and technology. We should be at the forefront in seeking a cure for Ebola. We must not allow Western countries to buy our raw materials, which they export, process, and sell back to us as finished goods for a large sum of money. 

And Finally……
I wish to dedicate thishonorary degree to my mother Alice who, unfortunately, could not be with us today. She pushed me to study hard in school, even when at times, I could not see the importance of school work. I also wish to dedicate the award to all researchers and innovators at Mount Kenya University and other institutions of higher learning.
Thank you and God bless you all.


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