Zain Verjee has had one of the most successful journalism careers among her peers. She was a main anchor at CNN for 14 years but at the peak of her career the Kenyan-born journalist quit her lucrative career to start her own venture, aKoma.
aKoma is Africa’s premier digital storytelling platform and was launched in August 2016 on akomanet.com. She speaks to JACQUELINE MAHUGU on transitioning from successful employment to entrepreneurship.
What is your reason?
I had been at CNN for most of my professional career, and I was lucky enough to have met and interviewed so many interesting people on the world stage, travelled extensively, especially across Africa, and really build a name for myself.
Yet, I was a nomad – constantly on the road -reporting from volatile situations, in CNN studios dotted across the globe, at events. After a while, this lifestyle really catches up with you, and I reached a point where I wanted to focus a little more on my personal life, as well as give myself new challenges where I could pursue a passion and make a difference.
Find out your reason. It will fuel you.
Don’t just jump ship
I didn’t just wake up one day and throw it all away. There was a period of two years where I considered my options, mentally developed, and redeveloped a business plan.
I spoke to a number of colleagues and business mentors who helped collect my thoughts and drill down on what I really wanted to achieve.
I knew that I wanted to concentrate more on the untold stories of Africa. After much homework, fact finding and immersing myself in the digital media space, aKoma was born.
Start despite the fear
The fear does not go away. You just learn how to deal with that and juggle budgets, time and people. The fear propels you to work harder and more efficiently. It helps you navigate your day, making you consider where your time and efforts [and money] are best spent.
When it’s your own business, you make the money go a lot further and you have to really consider every Dollar or Shilling you spend; I make a business case for every cent I spend, but it has to be that way at the earliest stages of a new enterprise.
Have a ‘now or never’ mindset
That was my mindset. That was really the final push factor for me. I’ve never been one to sit back and just take what life gives me. I felt that having gone as far as I could in my career with CNN, and having achieved more than I ever thought I would, I decided it was no longer in my best interest, both personally or professionally, to just keep going through the motions.
I was looking for a new challenge in media and publishing, but wanted it to be centred around my passion for re-telling the African narrative.
Don’t waste time
I didn’t take too much down time and neither should you. Work like your life depends on it. I’m a very active person and I didn’t want to lose any time in getting started on my new career trajectory.
I spent some time in California and New York learning and looking at what made some digital media companies successful. I continued the last year of a Master’s degree in Creative Writing at the University of Oxford in the UK.
It wasn’t necessarily a break, per se, as the course was intensive and I had to really push myself into thinking about stories and narratives in a different way than I was used to. The shift from hard news and politics to creative storytelling was a big one for me.
But I wanted that kind of a creative challenge and I most certainly got it.
Stay open-minded as you transition
I would say that you never really know what to expect. Each new experience that comes with setting up on your own, or in my case with a business partner, Chidi Afulezi, is a daunting one. We have to learn and grow and take the hard knocks of start-up life together, head on.
In your job, have a reputation for success
I feel that the 14 plus years I put in at CNN gave me an almost unrivalled career trajectory. I’ve been fortunate enough to interact with CEOs of multi-billion dollar multinationals, Heads of State and visionary leaders, both across Africa and around the world.
Over the years, I’ve built up a trusted network of people I can access and get advice from, and stand toe-to-toe with in terms of achievements, so I feel that I am still more than able to ‘hold my own’ with my peers, I just happen to be doing something a little unorthodox, and a little scary. But that’s ok.
This is my journey.
Before your business can pay you back, you will need something to tide you over. I have not had a salary since I left CNN.
The company money gets ploughed back into the company to drive the growth we need, and fund the tools that are essential. My savings keep me afloat.
It won’t be easy, but it will probably be worth it
Entrepreneurship is all it is cracked up to be. It is every bit as hard, gruelling and emotional as they say. But the reactions we’ve had, the opportunities we’ve secured, the movement we are building is rewarding. And we’re only at the start. So hold on.
Read More: SDE