Harriet James @harriet86jim
“I used to teach children in a village in India when I was 14 years old. They had a library where most of them who couldn’t speak English would come and learn.
Since English is my favourite subject, I would try to teach them,” narrates Radhika Lee, founder and managing director of Nairobi International School as we begin the interview.
For over 30 years, Radhika Lee has inspired and impacted the lives of children as a teacher and this burning passion resulted in her launching a private international school in Kenya that seeks to do much more than just reading books.
“The values in our society are deteriorating and I want my children to have values. My children know that this is their school. They have a sense of belonging…,” she says.
Inspired by reading
Born in India, Radhika moved to Kenya when she was 24 to teach English. Her desire to come to Africa was inspired by reading Alex Haley’s book, Roots: The struggles of an American Family, when she was in 9th grade.
“I didn’t know that The Gambia was in West Africa. I only knew about South Africa because of Mahatma Gandhi. I knew about Egypt because of the pyramids and the Nile.
The only thing I knew about Kenya was the safari rally because my cousin was a rally driver. In those days there were no TVs at home, so he would get video clips and we would watch,” she narrates.
Despite the fact that she had relatives in other parts of the world, she desired to teach in Kenya.
In 1985, she got a job in a small, typical village school in Mombasa.
Her employer, a Mr Bashir, was friendly and after a short while of teaching there, he encouraged her to apply to another school in Nairobi. Radhika found a job in Ongata Rongai in 1986.
“Nairobi was challenging for me the first few months because I really didn’t know anybody. I spent first night at St Mary’s in Lavington at the home of a friend who was a teacher as well. I applied for a job and I found one in Rongai,” she says.
She moved into the school, as that was the requirement. She worked there for a while before she had to travel to India for her brother’s wedding. Apparently, her former employer kept her passport after deceiving her he was using it to process her work permit. He never did.
It was during this time of despair, that she got an offer from one of the Arya Samaj schools as an English teacher where she served for four years.
By the time she was leaving, she had been made the Head of Department for English and was responsible for leading the students to annual secondary schools’ music festivals.
She served in two other schools after this, which sharpened her teaching skills more until one time, she felt that it was time to start her own international school.
At first, she thought she would get a loan from the banks, but to her dismay none of them were willing to bet on what was seemingly a “risky venture” as there was no collateral to give as security.
It was only after a meeting with a friend, who referred her to GroFin (a venture capital company that assists small medium companies with funding) that things seemed possible.
When she approached them, they were open to the idea. However, she had a long list of demands to fulfill before she was given the money. First, she had to register a company to get the funding from them. Her company had to be limited and she partnered with her son to form it.
Next, the total capital required for the proposed school was Sh130 million. She was required to raise Sh65 million on her own before they came on board and top up the balance of Sh85 million.
To raise this money, she brought in two other shareholders. It took 18 months for her to pool all the resources needed to construct the school.
She had chosen a location for her school in the plush Lavington area and the school officially opened its doors in September 2008.
She got her competitive edge as the first school to introduce e-learning, an initiative that got her recognition from Apple Inc and gave her the prominence, recognition and traction she needed. To date, she has a staff of 135 with over 600 students of 57 nationalities from around the world.
The school focuses on ethics, character development, and spirituality, alongside ph+ysical wellbeing through sports programmes. She also launched programmes to support arts in schools, including festivals for music and dance.
In 2015, Radhika published her autobiography, which was adopted as a core text in University of Nairobi’s literature department and published in five countries. She also founded Cancer Awareness And Treatment Support Initiative (CATSI), which supports cancer treatment for low-income patients in Kenya.