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  • Writer's pictureCindy Lithimbi-Ondego

Founders Series | No.2 Jo Maiden

A big thank you to everyone who came to our second event in the Founders series. The event was oversubscribed, we had a full house and a wonderful evening.

We were honoured to have Jo - founder and CEO of SOKO Kenya - as our guest. The discussion was moderated by our friend Aaron, banker by day and artist-cum-entrepreneur all other waking times. We recap a little of the discussion below.

Jo (founder and CEO SOKO Kenya) and Aaron D'Souza (Founders no 2 moderator)

The early days

Joanna was brought up in London and has worked in the fashion industry for a large part of her adult life. She moved to Kenya at 28 with the goal of opening up a manufacturing unit.

She described the first trip to Diani as a bit like “an adult gap year”, an adventure with a purpose. The purpose being to do something about the challenges and exploitation she had seen in the global fashion industry. But the funding to establish what would become SOKO fell through at the very last minute. The wheels had already begun turning, and despite this major setback, Jo came anyway. Her and her husband David pooled together their savings and the money they’d raised from family and friends, figuring they could survive a few months.

SOKO's first investor

Jo didn’t approach many investors with her idea. She approached one; a retired business man-turned-philanthropist. “He said he couldn’t support me with the proposal I had written, I had to re-write it because it was so bad” Jo said. He sent her away and asked her to come back when she had given it more thought and re-written the proposal. She did, and he gave her a grant of GBP 10,000 (~KES 1.3m) to start things off. But he didn’t invest in her because her proposal was fantastic. Jo knows it wasn’t. He invested in her because he liked her.

He invested in her because he liked her.

Likeability is something that comes up now and again in the startup landscape, particularly in the context of securing investment. But it makes people uncomfortable, the idea that no matter how hard you work, pitch or sell, your success will be influenced by something less tangible.

Carla Harris explains it well in a recent TED talk: “We’re used to the idea of meritocracy… the way you get ahead is that you're smart, you put your head down and you work really hard. But the idea of a meritocracy that every organizations sells is really just a myth. You cannot have a 100 percent meritocratic environment when there is a human element involved in the evaluative equation, because by definition, that makes it subjective”.

Likeability is real and an organisation doesn’t like you, a person does.

What we know now is that likeability is matter of emotional intelligence, which unlike your IQ, is a flexible skill that can be cultivated over time.

Risk and growth

SOKO’s story is also one of slow and organic growth. In today’s startup and entrepreneur space, that’s rare.

There’s often a perception that all entrepreneurs are glaring risk-takers, throwing caution to the wind in search of new ideas and exponential growth, often with their hand in multiple businesses. Though adventurous, it’s clear from early on that Jo isn’t a huge risk-taker. Leaving the comfort of your home family and friends and a well-paid job to start a business 1000s of miles away is a risk. But Jo also had the knowledge and experience of the fashion industry’s supply chain, strong networks, and a very good idea on where to start.

SOKO’s story is also one of slow and organic growth. In today’s startup and entrepreneur space, that’s rare. In Jo’s case, she puts it down to her personality: not being a huge risk-taker, slow and deliberate in her actions, and her wanting to be present for her young family; and in equal part her desire to build a sustainable business.

Difficult decisions

SOKO has recently finished renovations of a factory in Kilifi, where she’ll be moving her operations to in the next few weeks. With a lot of courage and immense vulnerability, Jo shared how she arrived at the decision to move the business side of SOKO.

SOKO’s goal has always been to prove that it is possible to run a self-sustaining garment manufacturing business whilst having positive social and environmental impact. They needed to increase their production capacity in order to be (financially) sustainable and practice the values that SOKO was built on: paying fair living wages; providing social services that have previously been an obstacle to women’s employment like child care; and a strong commitment to zero-waste. They needed to make big changes, which involved moving the factory to a new location.

They needed to make big changes, which involved moving the factory to a new location.

In the end she decided to move the factory for the longevity of the company, committing to moving allowances and adjusted living wages for those who decided to move. And fair compensation for those who decided to stay. At the end of the notice period, 100% of the staff committed to move. The new factory has the capacity to employ over 200 workers, more than doubling its capacity and revenue potential.

It was clear that there were a lot of emotions at play for Jo, most of which were her own. Jo described agonising over the move, particularly the prospect of splitting families. We talked about the differences in the decision making process between men and women, women often being seen as too collaborative and insufficiently decisive. But it’s clear, different processes don’t mean different or even lesser outcomes. Different is just different.

On privilege

A deliberately simplified and summarised version of Jo’s story follows. She is a white expatriate, and a woman in the manufacturing sector in Kenya. During professional association meetings, other members mistook her for a student on a school trip, she often gets taken for a harmless little girl from ‘wazees’ (old men), and she hasn’t really had any problems with government authorities. She has grown her business without selling any debt or equity, and on the back of a grant from a philanthropist who ‘liked her’. This is a unique story. Every story is unique. But this summary would be incomplete if we didn’t acknowledge the realities of privilege in the world.

During professional association meetings, other members mistook her for a student on a school trip

There are more or fewer opportunities available to a person based on their gender, class, race, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical ability and more. It’s called privilege, driven by forces within the systems in which we live and work. Often times we down play our privilege, other times we might feel guilty and defensive. Or we might choose to do the uncomfortable job of looking within ourselves, recognising our own privilege however small, actively accepting it and use our privilege in support of groups who don’t have it.

Jo is conscious of her own privilege and we thank her for being candid and honest about when her perspective and experiences were skewed or biased or non-existent because of it.

Jo (SOKO Founder and CEO), Aaron D'Souza (Founders No 2 moderator), and Cindy Ondego (Founder and CEO Mombasaworks)

A big thank you to everyone who attended, Steam Bar and Restaurant for hosting us, Paula (MW member) for live-tweeting, and Salma and Jenipher for all the back-end support. Lastly to Aaron for provoking moderation and our founder Jo for being so generous with her story.

If you are looking to hear more candid, unscripted and real stories about building businesses in this region, join our mailing list and we’ll keep you posted on future Founders events.

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