Das Beste oder nichts. The Best or nothing. This is the slogan and selling point of the German automobile marque, Mercedes-Benz. But it’s more than a slogan. It’s a promise. A promise to deliver ‘the best or nothing’ through everything they do. Mercedes-Benz vows to be the best in every aspect of its vehicles, from innovation, performance, design, safety and environment. But this is not a story about the peerless car…
This is the story of Dr. Fridah Simba, the Director of JKUAT Mombasa Campus.
Dr. Fridah shares in the sentiments of German Engineer and co-founder of Mercedes-Benz, Gottlieb Daimler, the man who coined the term ‘The Best or nothing’. It’s not only her personal mantra and philosophy, but also her belief that JKUAT Mombasa Campus is the best, and has to keep being the best, otherwise it would have no business existing in the first place. Theirs is to offer and be the best, or nothing. Keeping to the University’s slogan of being a trendsetter in Higher Education, Research and Innovation, Dr. Fridah opines that diligence, great customer service and efficiency are the key tenets upon which the Campus runs. Which is another way of saying she runs a tight ship down at the Coast. She is allergic to incompetence, and finds any evidence of lack of due diligence repulsive. Non-performance doesn’t ply the routes of her DNA. It’s just not her modus operandi. She wants results. She wants things done.
But that’s not all she is…
If you were having a bad day and Dr. Fridah Simba walked into the room, all your problems will surrender and seek refuge elsewhere. This is not an opinion. It’s a statement of verifiable fact. The Director is a dispenser of positive energy and warmth, both of which she exudes effortlessly. It’s impossible to resist her contagious spark of positivity and good vibes. It will rub off on you, one way or another. It will challenge you to do better, to be better, to look at the brighter side of life. It will reignite some embers of ambitions and aspirations otherwise long buried somewhere deep within you.
In between the University Senate meetings at the Main Campus, I catch up with her shortly after finishing her presentation. We’re having this interview on Valentines Day, and I’m saying that because she tells me that this morning she prayed for love. For God to put abundant love in her heart, so she can share it with everyone she meets today, friends, colleagues and strangers alike. Looks like God answered her prayers. I can feel the love.
I seek to find out how a girl born and raised in a village in Embu rose to become a Campus Director, the only female Campus Director in JKUAT. How a passionate High School teacher challenged herself and upgraded her passion from High School classrooms to University lecture halls. How she dared to dream, from a Bachelor’s Degree in Education, to a Masters Degree in Entrepreneurship, and a PhD in Business Administration and Strategic Management, all by the age of 30.
Let’s start from the beginning…
I was born to parents who were teachers, which inspired my passion in teaching. After my studies I went to teach in a High School in Kiambu, but after one year I decided to quit. One of my mentors, Dr. Mbugua, recommended that I needed to do a course, so he photocopied for me a JKUAT advert, and urged me to apply for a course in MSc Entrepreneurship. I applied and I was admitted. My lecturers then, Prof. Bwisa, Prof. Namusonge, Dr. Mugambi noticed something in me that I couldn’t see at the time, and we started doing consultancy with them.
How did this open your eyes to greater possibilities?
I remember Prof. Bwisa coming to class one time and asking us who was free, and I volunteered. We did a consultancy for JKUAT on teaching of Entrepreneurship in all schools in Kenya. I made a few coins and said to myself if this is what Masters can do, then I need to pursue it to the end. That is when my interest in working in the University was sparked.
What’s your story with JKUAT Mombasa Campus?
When I got on board Mombasa Campus, it was just starting and Dr. Mugambi was charged with steering the institution as the Director. I had been working with the Interim Boundaries Review Commission at the time when he called me to come on board. I declined, because he wanted me to be an administrator, but my target was to be a lecturer. And on that note, I want to tell especially the young people that know the vision and passion of what you really want. Don’t be swayed simply because an opportunity has come. I eventually got on board as a Lecturer.
What would you say has shaped your story at the Campus? Proudest milestone in that regard?
When I went to the Campus, I was tasked with steering the short executive courses programme besides teaching. This has been the biggest milestone we’ve achieved so far. I remember Dr. Mugambi telling me ‘This is your baby’. The short executive courses were not doing very well in Mombasa at the time.
So what was your magic?
I made a few calls to relevant partner organizations, and in the first batch, we had forty students turning up. The University management was impressed. We run the courses four times a year. That year by December, we had over 100 people enrolling for the courses. The VC then, Prof. Mabel Imbuga, was impressed, and wanted to know who was behind it. I was on contract then. I was called for an interview and I got my permanent position.
Would you say that was your big break?
Absolutely. Managing the short courses is what gave me a grounding. From there I decided to pursue my Doctorate, and I was urged into this by Dr. Mugambi. I wanted to attain my PhD by the age of 30, and I did. So yes, this is possible. Let the young people know that. From there, I progressed to become the Deputy Director, and finally the Director when Dr. Mugambi left.
How does being a mother influence your work?
Oh yes I’m a mother of one boy, Netanel…very handsome boy. He keeps me on toes.
Greatest lesson he has learnt from you?
Resilience and hard work. Whether it’s in the doing of his homework or anything he does, I tell him he has to keep pushing to get something in life. Nothing comes for free. He loves football, and is a great fan of Manchester United, so one Christmas we went to Manchester, UK, and I took him to the stadium. He knows the players, all by name. I would find him googling about the players and telling me how they live a good life, and I keep telling him it all comes down to hard work.
How has his love for football rubbed off on you?
Well, I’m still not as passionate as he is, but he made me watch the World Cup last year, and I think I liked Neymar. I like the rhyme of the name, so if I have another son, I’ll call him Neymar. If have a girl, I’ll call her Natalie. Netanel, Natalie, Neymar, sounds good.
JKUAT Mombasa Campus has been crowned as the Most Preferred Training Institution in the Coast at the Mombasa Business Awards two years in a row. To what do you attribute this preference?
The leadership and the quality service that we offer our clients. Our Campus is customer-centric. We have trained our people, from the security team, secretaries, to the lecturers, that they need to have excellent customer service. Efficiency in service delivery and customer service is the mantra that runs throughout the Campus. Other than this, we stand out in the quality of the programmes we offer, from PhD programmes, MSc, undergraduate, as well as the short courses.
Greatest lesson you’ve learnt from managing Mombasa Campus?
The greatest lesson I’ve learnt is that managing people is very difficult. In fact, that is the most difficult thing. Striking a balance between different opinions and viewpoints and getting to a cohesive front is often challenging, but it’s a rewarding experience. You learn a lot.
Is it lonely at the top?
It is, and challenging too especially because when you’re in a leadership position, everyone is looking up at you and hoping to get all the answers to all the questions…you are expected to be a superhero of sorts.
The short courses program of course, and also the sustainability of the Campus and ensuring it’s running smoothly. This is greatly as a result of a good team work, and I’m grateful to have an effective one that works diligently. We have good synergy that you can’t find anywhere else.
How do you achieve that team work?
It really just boils down to everyone taking their work seriously and cultivating a culture of efficiency. But on top of that, every Wednesday I meet with my team…and that’s usually not an academic or management meeting. We just talk about our lives and social progress. Who has been blessed with a baby, who is graduating, who is having a few challenges here and there, is everything okay at home, is someone getting married? This ensures the staff feels valued and appreciated.
Are you happy?
Yes, I am. I’m happy with my career journey so far. Sometimes people come, find me in the office and ask whether I’m really the Director because I look young. I’m happy because I’ve been able to impact the lives of people. At the end of the day if I’m able to solve a client’s problem, give a solution, help a student decide the course they should do, see them graduate and advance in their careers, that’s my self-actualization.
What do you wish you had more time for?
My family of course. Sometimes work takes a lot of time you know, but it’s all for a good cause. I also wish I was able to change people’s perception…how they handle each other. I get very agitated when for instance someone needs a service in a public office or anywhere for that matter, and they are not properly handled… If I had more time, I would try and impact people to cultivate an inherent sense of diligence in all they undertake. Efficiency is key…do what should be done. You’re ultimately answerable to God.
What drives you?
I look at myself as a role model to the young people. So I always ask myself, what kind of example am I setting to them? Secondly, what makes me wake up every morning to go to work is the fact that I know I’m going to change a life.
What do you do on days you wake up but the drive to keep going doesn’t wake up with you?
Of course there are such days. Life, and work is never devoid of frustrations, but that is where a good team work comes in handy, because you have the assurance that one way or another, the show must go on. In such times, I also find it useful to reflect back on what you’ve been able to achieve, why you started doing what you do, and why it’s important. That’s enough to keep me going.
Sadly I’m in Nairobi, and my flight back to Mombasa is tomorrow morning, so I have no plans, but I have been showing and sharing love with people nonetheless. But back at the Campus we have a tradition of treating each other every Valentines. Last year it was the ladies treating the men, and this year it’s the men treating the ladies. We have a way of bonding and ensuring we remain a cohesive team.
Hopes and dreams for the Campus?
There is land that the University acquired some years back, and I hope that within my tenure we are able to initiate the building of the Mombasa Campus. We’re currently paying a lot of money in rent per year. This will ensure sustainability, and our growth to the level of being headed by a Principal, with all structures established and even get to start more programmes especially those targeting the Maritime sector. I have to say there is a lot of support system from the top management led by the Vice Chancellor, Prof. Victoria Ngumi, and I know we will get there.
Do you think you’re doing enough?
Yes. But enough is not 100%. There’s much more we can do, and much more we’ve put in motion.
What are you most grateful for?
I’m grateful to God for the gift of life, and I’m grateful to God for bringing the right networks in my life…Networks that have made me meet like-minded individuals with whom we can build this nation, together.
Do you miss your twenties?
Of course there are small fun things that we used to do with my girls that I can’t do now. I miss being a young girl. Now I’m carrying the Doctor and Director title with me everywhere I go and I have to maintain and represent the image of the University.
How do you keep in touch with the girl in you?
Well, I still have the privacy of my house where I can play loud music and dance, and I have close friends, my girls, with whom we can just hang out and have fun.
What do you admire most about yourself?
The fact that I’m very sociable. I think there’s nobody I can’t talk to, and that has made my work easy.
If you had enough time, what else would you do?
I would pursue Diplomacy, or study something in International Relations. Actually one of my dreams is to one day become an Ambassador.I think I can play a very strategic role.
‘The 48 Laws of Power’ by Robert Green, and ‘Leadership Beyond Boardrooms’ by Dr. Mugambi.
I’m afraid of heights, and I’m afraid of failure.
Best advice you ever received?
Be true and stick to who you are.
Do you think being a mother and a wife sometimes slows you down in your professional pursuits?
True it does, but it depends on how you view it. Being a mother is another career on its own, a full time career, which is as involving as it is rewarding. What I do is try my best to schedule my time properly to make sure none of my priorities miss out.
Bahamas and Mauritius. I looove to travel.
We have the best team at Mombasa Campus, and I’m proud to be the person leading that team. We work together to give our very best, and welcome all our prospective students and stakeholders to come on board and work with us. Ours is a story of excellence. Finally, to the young people reading my story, do know that nobody starts on top. It takes hard work, persistence, prayers and resilience that gets you up to where you want to go. You can’t climb a tree from the top.