Fired From Her First Job at 23 To Becoming An Award Winning CEO

Daphine Okonji - CEO Elle Interior Designers (Photo Courtesy)
By Tabitha Makumi,
She’s been through what most people would consider as a dreaded career nightmare. Five months into her first job after graduating from Strathmore University, she was fired from her administration job. 

“I can’t even put a finger on why it happened in the first place,” shares Elle Interior Designers CEO Daphine Okonji when I meet her at her offices in Kileleshwa.

“I was working for a small HR Firm and one day out of the blue I was summoned into the Director’s office and in a few words I was told they didn’t need my services anymore. It was a small firm so I couldn’t run to the HR and start complaining about my predicament.”

So, what did she do? I probe. “I cried my heart out since I had given the job my all. From Monday to Saturdays I would show up and give it my best, but sometimes life just happens.”

Flash Forward and she has a different story.

While a lot of people aspired of becoming doctors, lawyers, pilots and what have you, Ms Okonji had a different vision altogether.

“I always wanted to become a business woman. I didn’t know what kind of business I wanted to be in, all I knew was that I wanted to do business.”

It’s after she got fired that she decided to explore her options. After clearing campus, she had a small stint running a guesthouse and in the process developed a passion for interior design.

“Some of my friends who had a chance to see  my final products noticed my talent and suggested that I should try out my luck in interior design.

“The good thing with Interior Design is you do not need crazy capital to get the ball rolling.”

She reveals that she only used her savings which amounted to K’sh5, 000.

 “It started out as a small vision where I would help out friends with their homes and with time it has blossomed into this big business.”

Today, some of her commercial clients  are Vivo Energy, Swift Global, Tato (Chinese Company) among others.

And she does have a couple of awards to show off her hard work.  In 2013, Strathmore University honoured  her the Outstanding Young Female Alumni award, while Young Enterprise Africa (SME) honored her with Outstanding Young Female Entrepreneur award .

So what does she attribute her successful career journey to despite having a bad footing at the beginning of her career?

“I put God first in everything I do and I try to read as widely as I can to acquire and improve on my business acumen.”

She adds that she has an invaluable support system offered by her family.

The mother of one reveals that her husband who used to work as a Financial Analyst in the oil industry quit his job as a Financial Analyst to help her in the running of the business which now constitutes of an interior design college.

“He is very good at analyzing the financial aspect of the business while as I am good at marketing and strategizing.”

Would she ever think of going back to employment?

She cringes at my question and then, “No way! I have employed a lot of people here who consider this business to be their bread and butter so what would happen to them if I decided to up and leave?” she poses.

What’s her advice for those hoping to start their own ventures?

“Never go into business just because you want to make money. That’s what hustlers do and their success is always short lived because they do not think beyond breakfast. A real entrepreneur goes into business because they identify problems that people face and come in with solutions to solve them.”

Her final words?

“Do what you love and love what you do and most importantly don’t make excuses and say you are too young, inexperienced or whatever. Those are just pity parties that people like to throw for themselves.”