Saturday July 21 2018

Suddenly unemployed and without a backup plan

Having left her communications job close to six

Having left her communications job close to six years ago, Eseza Mulyagonja has found her footing in business and consultancy. Photo by Kelvin Atuhaire. 

By Joan Salmon

Eseza Mulyagonja worked a communications job at an International NGO operating in four countries in the region with associates in West Africa, and in the Far East. With that brief profile alone, one would wonder why she had to leave such a job. The money and exposure that comes with it, is something many would kill for.
However, Mulyagonja says, “I was tired. One of the things that tired me was the travelling; I don’t like travelling that much. I like to be in the comfort of home and if I travel, I need to be in charge of where I am going and what I will do while there. I did not have much control over that yet the journeys were many.”

Also at the office, sometimes things were not working out right. Mulyagonja felt that some of her relationships there were getting toxic.
“These were exhausting. I was really on an emotional rollercoaster,” she says.
However, the final straw was when her boss collapsed and died. She knew then that she could not take it anymore. His death put her in a worse emotional state.
That aside, her personal development was wanting: “I did not think I was on my desired path; I had hit a plateau.”
She explains, “Despite having several personal goals, most were not achieved. Though I had done my first Master’s degree, I needed to do a postgraduate course in Europe because I was feeling rusty and believed that if I went out there, I would get more exposure. It was a fully funded communications and media course at The Hague. However, that fell through, largely because of the toxic relationships at the office. With that, I decided there was nothing left for me at that job and I needed to get out.”

Time to exit
With the decision to resign made, Mulyagonja submitted her resignation letter in September 2012. The HR manager was in shock and asked why she was quitting. Her response was, “I am tired.”
That was not a satisfactory answer so she asked another, “Do you have something, maybe another job to go to?” To that, Mulyagonja said, “I am going home.” “But Eseza,’ the Human resource manager protested, “you cannot just go home! You need to go to something. Besides, nobody values a person who contributes nothing to the well-being of the family. What will you do without money?”
Hoping that Mulyagonja would have a change of heart, the manager asked to hold onto the letter till the end of the year. She flatly refused, stating that her mind was made up. Once the two months’ notice elapsed, she left.

“I went home a tired person,” she says with a far-off look. At home for close to a year, Mulyagonja got her much-needed break, doing only the things she pleased such as lying in bed all day, watching TV, playing music, praying and studying her Bible.
During that time, she neither had the energy to think about another job nor did she want one. “I felt exhausted on all fronts,” she sighs.
However, never one to sit around without adventure for very long, in October 2013, she started thinking about the next step and the ideas were already trickling in. Everyone had an idea to front; ‘Why don’t you start a communications consultancy firm?’ ‘Why don’t you find a job?’
Unfortunately, she was not shopping for a job and wanted nothing to do with communication at that time. “I especially did not want anyone breathing down my neck or driving me anymore; I was so tired of that and needed to take the reins of my life back,” she laughs.

Birth of a business
And as she mulled over the ideas, something eye opening happened, “A cousin came from the UK to visit with a suitcase full of used clothes. She sold them for the price of new within just a week. With this, a resolve was made. “If she can sell used clothes at that price then I can sell new ones at the same price,” thought Mulyagonja. That is how her clothing business named Anathoth was born in October 2013.
Asking her about the origin of the rare name, Mulyagonja says, “The name was a case of inspiration; I am a Bible student that takes the Bible and my Christian faith very seriously; I came across the name as I studied the Word. Anathoth is Prophet Jeremiah’s hometown but most importantly, it means a place where prayer is answered.” Unsure of the direction her business would take, Mulyagonja believed that if she asked God questions, he would answer. “I have surely seen prayer answered in this place; when I pray, things happen,” she says with glee.
On opening her doors, Anathoth operated from home. However, she soon realised that it was not wise to run a business of that nature from home.” To start with, my dream went beyond the standard little boutique. I anticipated growth; from just a few dresses to many more, and then branches,” Mulyagonja shares, “Then there was privacy and security; issues you cannot guarantee with clients coming in, and out of your home.” With that, the business had to move to a purely commercial location.

Challenges in business
“Our first location was Hotel Equatoria Shopping Mall where we stayed for only six months. I discovered that it was neither the place for my clothes nor my target clientele,” she lets on. Her experiences there were not pleasant; heavy traffic that made the place inaccessible, limited parking space, wrong crowd, Walk to work and Kisekka demonstrations that were characterised by chaos and tear gas. All this pushed her clients away making business almost impossible.On some days, Mulyagonja and her assistant would sit days on end without making a sale. “Those that came only got offended by the prices as they understood neither the quality of the items nor the price.” With these challenges arose a lesson that she would carry with her always. When you are thinking about a product, you also need to think about the kind of clientele you are targeting. Anathoth clientele was definitely not in Equatorial mall thus the need to start looking for a new location.

And who said that change is bad? With the move to Oasis Mall came a boost in business thanks to the rigorous marketing campaign and other conducive factors such as location, calm, and quiet. However, the stay at their new location was short-lived. The room was bigger than they could utilise and the rent was very high, paid in dollars by the square metre. “We needed to lower our expenses to keep things afloat,” she reveals, “Deciding that rent was what we needed to tackle, Anathoth moved to Kisementi.”
Every move and change attracts comments but unfortunately, most are pessimistic. On her latest move, Mulyagonja was told she would not get any new clients because the building which housed her boutique was associated with young people; not her typical clients.
However, Mulyagonja had learned long before that when running a business, you cannot wait for clients to find you, you look for them. She, therefore, carried on with the same marketing she had applied at Oasis mall. “As a result, we have not seen a drastic fall in our sales inasmuch as every business took a hit between the last part of 2016 and the beginning of 2017, considering the slow economy, I believe we did well on a whole. And the hunt for clients continues,” she says.

Moving on from hard start
Locations aside, how did Mulyagonja managed to resign without any plan for the future and yet manage to start a fairly successful clothing business? “I had savings, and also borrowed heavily from relatives and my church Sacco,” she says quite frankly. “You need a place you can go to borrow; somewhere you can get cheap money. A start-up business cannot grow using bank loans. There is no knowing where the money to pay up would come from.”
Mulyagonja tells the story of mobilising start-up capital; “Starting up was no rosy affair because less than a year down the road I had to deal with foreign exchange rates that were so high yet I needed to pay rent and import merchandise. At one point, I was tempted to take a bank loan but my bank manager was brutally honest. “Eseza,” she said, “I will not give you money because there is no way you are going to repay it.” These cheap money sources really helped in this time when interest rate was as high as 30 per cent,” she says.

Return to the corporate world
While the road has had its ups and downs, Mulyagonja smiles for the lessons learned, hurdles overcome, achievements got but most importantly that Anathoth can now stand on its own. “That has given me room to focus on the professional side of me inasmuch as it was something I had thought I would never go back to,” she smiles, “Out of my passion for communications and business, I created a company called Audacious.”
Audacious came into being in May 2016 after Mulyagonja realised that most consultancy work out there was mainly about organisational development and not much for communication and business coaching.

“It is a consulting firm with a team of five, and we do both communication and business coaching,” she explains, “We focus on getting people to discover the lost art of communication; writing and speaking.” The packages vary from person to person. They include book writing workshops and coaching sessions for those interested in book writing, professional and business writing, as well as social media, other forms of online content development and creative writing. “It is a lot of writing and because I love to write, it comes naturally,” she adds. ‘I also teach essay writing for high school students aged 14 to 20 and it is exhilarating dealing with teenagers,” she reveals.

In case of desire to quit
To those wishing to go into retirement, Mulyagonja cautions, “It is safer to think and plan your exit; do not just walk away. Mine was one in a million. You need to build resilience to withstand the criticism when you exit. Many will not understand why an intelligent and educated person would leave the corporate world. Ensure that you have substantial savings to sustain you for some time
Make sure you have a clear cut plan; to know exactly what you are going to do and how you are going to do it lest your establishment fails. Get knowledge on how to run the kind of business you want to run.”

Career growth
Eseza Mulyagonja is actively engaged at the Institute for National Transformation (INT); an organisation that aims to raise no-excuse leaders for Africa.
“After attending the Oak Seed Executive Leadership training, my whole perspective about leadership changed,” she explains, “I began to see that the issues affecting Uganda and Africa as a whole are about leadership. If we want to change the way we lead, we ought to take full responsibility as a country and a continent, aspiring to be excellent at what we do in stewarding people and resources. In so doing, we can turn our country and continent around and indeed create a better future.”
She has learned the need for leaders in any position to become conscious and deliberate about what they do, throwing out the blame game and excuses but rather, proactively crafting solutions that work.
“I have learned not to back down. When I start things, I see them through to the end. I learned to care and see disadvantaged people as real people and I am more empathetic. With that, I am always looking how to change things rather than sit around and complain,” she shares.
As facilitator for Communication and Media at the INT, she focuses on broad policy issues such as the current mobile and social money tax; how those increase or diminish the common man’s quality of life and how progressive these are. “It is such questions that we ask ourselves on a daily basis,” she explains.

She also volunteers at the Uganda Jubilee Network, an NGO that focuses on leadership and governance.
“We challenge ourselves in the spirit of excellence,” she lets on, “For example, you are in a position of leadership; you have people and resources at your disposal , how best do you use them for the better?”
Mulyagonja looks at things God’s way; rather than her way. Her faith keeps her grounded.”
Although, many years ago she missed out on a postgraduate course, she is doing a three-year MALeadership course with Uganda Christian University, Mukono affiliated with Development Associates International, an American Leadership Development Association in Colorado Springs in the US.

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