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How well do you now Michelle Ntalami? A chat on life and entrepreneurship

Proprietor of Marini Naturals, MICHELLE NTALAMI, 34, has been making waves in the business scene at home and beyond, with her range of products for natural hair that are also exported to far away lands. Her entrepreneurial journey has earned her several accolades, among other achievements. She spoke to NJERI MAINA

Marini means naturally beautiful in Swahili. It’s a term most of us have come to associate with hair products, thanks to Marini Naturals, a natural hair care line that is manufactured in Kenya and shipped to some countries in Africa and the Middle East, as well as France, Turkey and Netherlands.

Michelle Nkatha Ntalami, the founder of Marini Naturals, happened upon it while on a Google search for nice, empowering African words, when researching a name for her range of products for African hair.

She conceptualised Marini Naturals earlier than 2014, the year the company whose vision is ‘to create a quality product from Africa with love’ was founded. Michelle’s entrepreneurial journey has earned her several accolades.

In 2016, she was named one of Business Daily’s Top 40 under 40 women. She was also one of the Safaricom Blaze mentors in BYOB (Be Your Own Boss) Season 1 in 2017, won SOMA’s Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2017, while Marini Naturals was named by CNN as Africa’s most promising start-up in the same year.

In February 2018, she was listed by Okay Africa as one of Africa’s Top 100 women, and was again named the top young business leader in Africa by Forbes’ AABLA awards.

BACKGROUND

Though most Kenyans know Michelle’s dad, Edward Ntalami, as the high flying professional who was once the acting CEO of Kenya Airways and CEO of the Capital Markets Authority for five years from 2002, Michelle remembers her dad as an intelligent man and a loving and caring father.

With her best friend and business partner Niyati Patel.

Mr Ntalami passed on in 2014 after a long battle with cancer, but his intelligence and the life lessons he instilled in Michelle, live on in his daughter. “He was big on education and never skimped on it.

He was very loving yet very strict, which I believe shaped me into the woman I am today. He taught me what to take and what not to take, as well as to know my worth as a woman and never to let anyone put me down,” she shares.

“My dad also used to call me chérie,” she reminisces with a smile. “It’s French for my love, the apple of my eye. I do miss that. But till today, I am always his chérie,” adds Michelle.

She is close to her mother as well, and describes her as her dearest friend, her nurse, teacher, mother, sister all rolled into one.

Her mother loves telling her that she will always have her back, whether it is in entrepreneurship or in her personal life, by saying ‘Not without my daughter’. This is from a movie they watched together several years back going by the same title.

Michelle’s mum used to work for the UN until last year when she retired to focus on her family as well as on personal business projects.

She was the softer one of the two parents, as she always sought to take the edge off their dad whenever the kids misbehaved. She taught Michelle to never hold a grudge and to always interact and view people as innocent until they prove otherwise.

“I get my kindness and big heart, I believe I have a big heart, from her,” she says. The entrepreneur is a self-declared family person, and she is also close to her three siblings. They were all born and bred in Nairobi.

They were raised Catholic and attended Consolata Primary School. “I have nothing but fond memories of my time there. I would not have it any other way. I made lifelong friends while there, and my

Michelle and Governor Alfred Mutua at a past event.

brothers were very protective of me.  They would scare off or beat up anyone who would mess with me. That was really nice,” she chuckles.

She would then proceed to Loreto Limuru for her secondary school education and later the University of Nairobi for her bachelor’s degree. Michelle pursued a Design course and graduated with a first class honours in 2010.

She joined Scangroup and worked at the company for two years plus. While at Scangroup, she met Niyati Patel, with whom they would become best friends and later start two companies together.

She quit Scangroup to further her studies. In early 2014, she flew to Italy to study interior design at the Florence Design Academy.

ENTREPRENEURSHIP

Growing up, Michelle wanted to be an architect or an interior designer. She is a certified interior design practitioner with certificates from the University of Nairobi and the Florence Design Academy, but, as fate would have it, she is focusing more on heading Marini Naturals. She, however, plans to use her expertise in interior design more in future.

A zealous entrepreneur, Ntalami and her best friend Niyati Patel started their first business in 2010, Brandvine Group, a branding and strategy agency.

Brandvine was supposed to be her main gig as her professional background is in marketing, communication and design. But, after starting off Marini Naturals four years later, it quickly outgrew and overtook Brandvine.

As to whether she is looking into starting a third venture, Michelle says she is working towards that. “I am a serial entrepreneur and I love the thrill that comes with doing business.

With her mum Mrs Ntalami.

I already have several ideas on what the next entrepreneurial venture after Marini will be.

But, I have to see Marini grow to the fullest, then I will gladly leave and do or start something else. And there is nothing sad about that, as life is meant for growth,” she explains.

The businesswoman also believes in doing one’s job to the best of their ability, as no skills are ever wasted and any knowledge gained, whether at school or at one’s job, can easily be transferable to an entrepreneurial venture.

She gives an example of how her work experience at Scangroup prepared her for entrepreneurship. “In the two years I was with Scangroup, I was an account director for Coca-Cola at one point and a digital manager for Safaricom at another point among other roles.

It was hectic, but I learnt a lot of things that I utilise to date such as creativity, branding and strategy,” she says.

BUSINESS AND FRIENDSHIP

Michelle runs Marini Naturals alongside her elder brother Vincent, her mum and Niyati. When Niyati and Michelle started Brandvine Group, they had no binding contracts and operated based on trust and friendship.

In Marini, Michelle runs the company with her partners, yet they rarely disagree with each other businesswise. They differ more on personal fronts than they do on business.

“You can sign a ten-page contract drafted by the best lawyer, but if you are not someone with integrity, and similarly, if you do not trust your partner, it will go nowhere.

It has more to do with the relationship you have with your business partners more than anything else. Though it is wise to have legal documents just in case of any eventuality,” she adds.

Michelle and her co-director Niyati have known each other for over eight years. The glue that holds them together is similar core values and work ethics. “Niya and I believe in humanity over everything else.

When my dad was sick, we agreed to use our business kitty for some of the bills, and when something similar happens to her, we do the same for her. We also deeply value trust and loyalty,” she explains.

The clear delineation of duties between the two friends as they both work towards the same vision and mission also helps everything run more smoothly and seamlessly.

Niyati is in charge of production, logistics and operations, while Michelle handles strategy, marketing and business development.

CHALLENGES

The main challenge for Marini, she notes, is the lack of enough resources and capital for expansion of its portfolio. “Getting a good formulator and diverting resources to create new products is capital and labour intensive.

This has forced me to slow down on diversifying the Marini portfolio, as I consolidate the resources needed,” Michelle regrets.

Also, with the mushrooming of more locally made hair care products and the advent of the online space, how does Marini ensure it stays ahead of the curve?

“You have to keep re-inventing yourself and ensure that your brand is appealing. We look at the product as a whole from the formulation to the scenting to the packaging. We also love jumping on emerging new hair trends to sort of remain on the bleeding edge,” she explains.

The company has invested in a marketing team as well as a production and operations team to help push and reinvent Marini Naturals.

It recently unveiled brand ambassadors and influencers who represent every woman, man and child, so that Michelle is not the sole face comes to mind when someone thinks of the products.

They include popular rapper Fena Gitu and television presenter Martin Kimathi. To the entrepreneur, you can be an influencer even without thousands of followers, so long as you engage with your audience.

She also believes in empowering people through her products. She hopes that people will be able to practise self-love as they use Marini Naturals. “Your hair is a natural part of you.

Just like your skin or your toes or fingers. It is made to grow that way, whether curly, kinky or tough. Do not look down on your hair. Embrace it and love it and it will love you right back,” Michelle counsels.

BEYOND WORK

“It is important to take care of yourself both internally and externally. Internally by watching what I consume; I eat healthy and cook my food myself, and work out every day from Monday to Friday.

Externally through balancing work and leisure,” she offers. The go-getter is an adventure and adrenaline junkie. Whenever she gets time, she loves to go hiking, skydiving, bungee jumping, rock climbing and water rafting.

She also loves spending time with friends and family as a way to decompress, and enjoys cooking and taking care of her family and loved ones. “I do not like to be a boss at home. I am more than happy to cook and take care of someone. I love to own my role as a woman at home,” she says.

As to whether she is seeing someone, Michelle explains that she prefers to keep that part of her life private, but enthuses that she is a firm believer in love and marriage.

This year, she was named the top young business leader in Africa by Forbes’ AABLA awards.

She strongly believes in companionship, marriage and relationships, as she grew up with the example of her parents, who were lovebirds till the very end.

She reminisces about how her mum and dad would joke for hours, each building on the other’s last joke in Kimeru, till they were both in tears.

“I saw mum take care of dad till his last day, which validated to me that marriage and love is real, and that it is much more than the good times. It is sticking it out through the bad times too,” adds Michelle.

The best advice she has ever received happens to be from both her mum and dad. “My dad always told me, ‘Why flutter with the chickens when you can soar with the eagles?’

He never believed in mediocrity, and always urged us to give everything our best. My mother in turn says the same thing but in a different way. She tells me, ‘Don’t stop till you reach the top’,” Michelle recalls with a fond smile.

As a parting shot, the proprietor urges budding entrepreneurs to give their all towards actualising their dreams.

“Take the road less travelled; try to beat out your own path. Everyone wants the easy things, but only the few who stick it out with the hard choices find true success. Remember that there is no shortcut to success.

You only get out what you put in. It takes hard work and resilience. It took me a tragedy, losing my dad, to finally start my business.

It has taken me four long years of hard work, learning and bettering Marini the brand as well as myself to finally be where I am today. Put in the work and everything else will follow,” she concludes.

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