Profile of Purpose: Making a Difference

Wandia Gichuru’s fashion brand for African women empowers both customers and employees in Kenya.

January 07, 2022

Meet Wandia Gichuru, co-founder and CEO of Vivo Activewear, a women’s fashion brand in Nairobi, Kenya. Gichuru observed that no one was making clothing with African women in mind; everything available was imported and ill-fitting, and it didn’t reflect the culture of the women who surrounded her. She’s creating fashion that uplifts African women, and is doing so with industry-setting labor practices. So it’s not only clothes they’re making; Vivo is creating a new paradigm for products made in Africa for Africans.

Gichuru always wanted to effect positive change, but until she got the idea for Vivo, she didn’t realize that she could do so by pursuing her passion. “I remember having goosebumps and thinking, ‘Oh my God, I don’t have to try and find another way to make a difference. I can make a difference right here.’”

Vivo’s doesn’t just take care of its customers, it also looks after its employees. In an industry that can be notoriously harsh on workers, Vivo offers five-day work weeks, food, and health care to employees, over 70 percent of whom are women themselves.

As Vivo continues to grow, Gichuru is learning firsthand what kind of impact a social enterprise can have. “I could see that building a significant business in a country like ours, changing the narrative around what local product could mean and what difference that could make to multiple lives in many different ways.”

Listen to Gichuru’s mini-profile to learn how to make a difference while pursuing your passion.

Grit & Growth is a podcast produced by Stanford Seed, an institute at Stanford Graduate School of Business which partners with entrepreneurs in emerging markets to build thriving enterprises that transform lives.

Hear these entrepreneurs’ stories of trial and triumph, and gain insights and guidance from Stanford University faculty and global business experts on how to transform today’s challenges into tomorrow’s opportunities.

Full Transcript

Darius Teter: Hi this is Darius. Before we get started, I just wanted to let you know that we’re taking a break from our full episodes over the holidays. We’re hard at work producing season two, but we’ll still be releasing fascinating stories and key insights on a regular schedule, so keep your eyes on the feed. It has been a long, eventful, and sometimes tough year, but I find the stories of our entrepreneurs inspiring. Their resilience, their strength, their ability to bounce back from adversity is a lesson for all of us. So from all of us at Stanford Seed, we wish you peace and tranquility as we move into 2022. Be safe, be strong, be well.

Welcome to Grit and Growth from Stanford Seed. I’m your host, Darius Teter. This is the third Profiles of Purpose in our continuing documentary series. These short form stories are told entirely from the perspective of business owners, and they offer firsthand accounts of the struggles and joys of building impactful businesses in challenging markets.

Sometimes creating an impactful business is as simple as serving people whom the market has ignored. By that definition, Wandia Gichuru has certainly made an impactful business. Her fashion brand, Vivo Activewear, based in Kenya, saw an industry that gave African women the leftovers: castoffs and imports that weren’t designed for their bodies or their lifestyles. Vivo Activewear responded by designing clothing specifically for African women, giving them confidence, and leading the charge on fashion made in Africa, for Africa.

But that’s not the only way Vivo is having an impact. They’re changing how companies treat their workers in Kenya. We’ll hear from Wandia and several of her employees on the steps that Vivo has taken to support its staff and how they plan to go even further in the coming years.

I’ll turn it over to Wandia.

Wandia Gichuru: I never really was one of those kids who knew exactly what she wanted to do. A lot of people say, So, did you always want to be a fashion person? Did you dream of being a designer? And I’m like, no, never. I found a notebook from when I was around 12 and I would draw dresses and make clothing for paper dolls, but all I really wanted to do was a job that would make a difference.

My name is Wandia Gichuru and I’m the CEO and co-founder of Vivo, which is a ladies’ fashion brand based in Nairobi, Kenya. What’s special about us is that we designed specifically for the modern African woman, so taking into account our different body shapes. Sizes are different. Skin tones are different, lifestyles, and style preferences.

When I started the business. I struggled because I didn’t understand how it could really translate to making a difference to anyone else. In parts of Africa, the ready-to-wear clothing space has been dominated by imports of product that was never designed for us.

Shelly: The African woman: most of the time, we will get our clothes second-hand or imports from Asia. And normally, because they are not made for the African woman, sometimes they can be unflattering.

Wandia Gichuru: If it fits the top half of your body it might not fit the bottom half. You haven’t known what it feels like to wear something that was made with you in mind. And it was the first time that I could see that, you know, building a significant business in a country like ours, changing the narrative around what local product could mean and what difference that could make to multiple lives in many different ways.

I saw that for the first time, and I remember having goosebumps and thinking, oh my God. I don’t have to try and find another way to make a difference. I can make a difference right here. And I think it’s more than just clothing and style. It’s about what makes you feel more confident, appreciated, or accepted.

Darius Teter: Wandia isn’t just making a difference for her customers; she’s changing lives within her company as well.

Wandia Gichuru: Right now we employ about 80 people, 70 percent of whom are women. I like to think that it’s a good place to work. We try hard. No one works more than a five-day week, which in Kenya is not typical.

Shelly: From my previous company, it was very difficult to have work-life balance because I worked during the weekends and sometimes even during the holidays and long hours. But with Vivo, they prioritize their employees’ work-life balance.

Wandia Gichuru: We provide meals every day for everyone who works for us. Last year, everyone was on health insurance, not yet their dependents, you know? So maybe next year, if our company grows enough, that would be the next stage.

Charlie: Now, if I get sick, I rush to one of the hospitals around. I get treated, I come back. I compare that to the place I was, that wasn’t fair. So if you are sick you have to spend your cash for the treatments.

Wandia Gichuru: We’re visited by fashion students three or four times a year. We invested in computer-aided pattern-making software last year. And we had a bunch of students visit us last month. And they said, you know, it’s so good to see this because they’ve been teaching us about it for three months, but only the theory, like no one has the software. So they just read about it and they watch YouTube videos, but they’re like, we finally have seen what it actually looks like.

Charlie: Yeah, we do new things, new designs every day. And that is a plus to me, if I compare when I came and two years now, I can say I’ve learned much.

Darius Teter: Though its roots will always be in Africa, Wandia has big dreams for Vivo beyond its borders.

Wandia Gichuru: I want to believe that Vivo products will be available anywhere in the world that you wish to have them. Sourced on the continent, made on the continent, but with a global audience in mind. And then I want to spend a lot of my time trying to see how to support and motivate and encourage and inspire the younger generation of women in business.

What drives me for sure, and hopefully the business as a whole, is the opportunity that we have to inspire women and change the way we see ourselves.

Darius Teter: Thanks for joining me on this Profile of Purpose. And thank you to Wandia Gichuru, Charlie, and Shelly of Vivo Activewear for sharing their story.

Since finishing the Seed program, Wandia and her team have rolled up their sleeves and gotten down to work. They’ve tripled both their revenue and their employees, raised more than $1.2 million in capital, and launched an award-winning e-commerce platform that carries over 100 African fashion brands. They’ve also expanded beyond Kenya, opening their first store in Kigali, Rwanda.

To check out that e-commerce platform and shop their collections, go to ShopZetu.com. And to find more Profiles of Purpose, as well as tons of other incredible videos about Stanford Seed, join the 1.3 million subscribers on the Stanford Graduate School of Business YouTube channel.

As we develop new episodes for season two, we invite you to participate in a paid focus group to help shape the future of the podcast. I’ve included a survey link in the show notes where you can share your thoughts and your availability for the focus groups. It is stanfordseed.co/podcastsurvey. I am really looking forward to learning more about you, our listeners, and to delivering content that helps you grow your business, so thanks for taking the time to do that.

Darius Teter: Grit & Growth is a podcast by Stanford Seed. Laurie Fuller researched and developed content for this episode, with additional research by Jeff Prickett. Kendra Gladych is our production coordinator, and our executive producer is Tiffany Steeves, with writing and production from Andrew Ganem and sound design and mixing by Alex Bennett at Lower Street Media.

For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom.

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