One of Kenya’s best loved anchors opens up about success, criticism, motherhood and her new agenda for Kenya’s youth. By Carol Odero
She must be used to hearing this but I thought she would be taller. Julie Gichuru is diminutive. When she walks in, her high heels disappear into the hem of her jeans, pooling under her feet and grazing the floor. She looks all of 21 and her thick hair, aided by extensions because she cut it off a few years back, falls down her back. She is so chirpy and perky it’s contagious. Do not be fooled. She has been known to bite.
Today, she is group digital manager and television host at Citizen TV and her shows have been known to claim their
pound of flesh.
When I ask how old she is, she throws back, “How old do I look?” Were it not for the heavy lifting of political and societal cultural weights she does so effortlessly, one might underestimate her. “There is nothing wrong with people looking at you and thinking you are an airhead. In fact it is a good thing. That way they are the ones who have to deal with you when you finally show your smarts.”
Her career is unrivalled and she has worked in some of the biggest media houses in Kenya. Perhaps because of her girl next door demeanour, she is also something of a Kenyan sweetheart who registers on the stylish personalities radar regularly. Her soft voice and youthful almost girlie looks make her vastly approachable.
Is there a grand plan and a business mastermind at hand, one wonders? “I am the kind of person who does not plan what I do in my career. In fact my husband would find it quite amusing that we are even having this conversation.”
True Love’s last meeting with Julie was in 2006. She was introduced to us as a grieving mother, having lost her son in the most unfortunate of circumstances. We cried with her, felt her pain, and saw her healing begin. Nearly five years later, she has more to offer. This time joyous and celebratory.
For one, she is working with UNICEF on a Baby Banda campaign, teaching women about breastfeeding. “I remember breastfeeding my two babies once in a doctor’s waiting room with women looking at me oddly before asking the doctor if that was normal! My mother kept asking me why I was still breastfeeding my son Kimoshe at four. I had to remind her that it was my baby and it was my house.”
UNICEF simply called her out of the blue. She gets a number of these calls. She gives talks about digital things, motherhood, parenting, women and careers, motivating young people and moderating on issues of national cohesion.
She is also a fellow and trustee member of the African Leadership Initiative, part of the Young Global Leaders, under the World Economic Forum, and has won a Salute to Greatness Award from the Martin Luther King Foundation in 2008. Aspen Global Leadership Network and African Global Leadership made a bid for her participation and now she flies around the world, taking part.
Her involvement came after the post election violence during which time she participated in peace initiatives. She was then nominated and asked to train as an Aspen moderator. The other was done by a committee with Queen Rania. They sent her a message and said her name was put forward as a contender. Where does she find time? “I always think there is an opportunity to learn or teach something. There have been many things that have come my way but I have to ask myself if it fits in line with who I am.” She has to find time for her main job though between digital and hosting. “I think very soon it is going to be at an inflection point because of all the things I am doing.”
As for failure, she did attempt to run a magazine, a venture which backfired. “I ended up with a lot of debt and spent three years trying to pay them off.”
From the age of 10 she wanted to be a criminal lawyer. With more than a passing interest in drama, she wrote plays, won public speaking awards and considers herself a poet. However, James Falkland who at the time was heading Phoenix Theatres, mentioned there was no future in theatre as it earns no money. She chose law.
It was evidence law that did it for her. Injustice greatly provokes Julie and the law she learnt only enhanced the inequalities by showing them up. It offended her so greatly that when she finished, she went on to study business administration. She came back to Kenya and there was the option of going to Kenya School of Law and financially depending on her parents.
Instead she went to Capital FM for a voice test. They called her back within hours asking her to start on Monday. “I realized the other day what I am doing is a combination of the things that I love. The things I do are so related to what I studied. There is an element of drama, and I just ended up being where I should be.”
Julie is in the throes of Sunday Live, a television show she says would be impossible to do without the dedication and expertise of the team that work with her. “We have an editor who is solely dedicated to hunting down the rich people for the segment ‘Who Owns Kenya’ and a research department. We sit in meetings, coordinate and share ideas. Team effort is critical otherwise I would not be able to do what I do.”
Her shows get her into trouble. “I think we have a couple of court cases and threats. I get complaints from people who tell me this is not the kind of wealth we need to celebrate but there are people who have made it in Kenya through hard work, but some have not. We can give some indication of this with the information we acquire and I think it is important to tell people who is behind that bank or the owner of that institution.
Kenyans have the right to know these things. A lot of things happen in this market. There is a lot of insider trading going on and people act like they do not know it. We are just saying that you have the right to know. Some of them are very hard to follow through and there are individuals we finally had to pull out on when it got murky. We knew that would happen going in but Kenyans should not feel this is sacred information.”
Fortunately for Julie, she is at home with investigative journalism. “When I moved to Citizen I was raring to go. Wachira Waruru told me to settle down first. It took three months to conceptualise Sunday Live. Initially, it started out as an Oprah concept but a lot of people saw an element of seriousness in what I do and we did not want to lose that.
With that the concept evolved.” Here is where Julie is becoming something of a trendsetter. This then begs the question as to why she left Nation TV, now NTV, in June 2008 where she seemed to be thriving.
“Nation was like my family. Moving on was not an easy thing. I was crying everyday once I realized I was going to move and I remember on the last day standing outside waiting for my husband to come and get me, sobbing as if I had lost my best friend. I was pathetic. He found me bawling and it was nothing other than the fact that I was leaving. But I felt I was not achieving what I needed to achieve.
When you are miserable and the core of your being tells you to make a change, is it not important to at least make that change?” How, I ask, did she negotiate a package? There is a pause as she thinks. “It is a challenge. We undervalue ourselves. I generally do not like to negotiate. I think it is below me. If I don’t think that we can find a point of agreement I will just leave it. I also do not haggle well. That, I think is a weakness. When an offer is made initially it has to be somewhere within reason. That being said we had discussed this before I went in.”
Julie is an actively involved mother of four and a wife with a parallel and equally involving life in the limelight. Surely this must be a challenge. “I have so much more time for my children now but of course as a mother there are things that you wish you could do like a stay-at-home mum who is there all the time can. But you have to find balance.
In the beginning of my career, it was really hard. I would read news two weeks in a month and work during the day. I saw my kids in the morning but not at night. There are seasons when you work really hard but there has got to be a break. It can’t just be this thing that is endless because it will suck the life out of you. You have to put in some boundaries.”
The shift in priorities was dictated by her own personal loss. “After losing David Mwaura I just thought some things are not so important. Kimoshe remembers him very well but Njeri’s memories of him are very vague. I still mourn him. I wrote him a poem yesterday and miss him yet we still feel blessed. You learn how to deal with it. It is not something that brings us down. Remembering him is something that brings us joy.” There is Kimoshe (10), Njeri (8), Daniel (4) who has taken to calling himself Dr. Dan and Joseph who turns one year this month.
Like every other mother, Julie barely has a minute to herself. “I do a facial at home once a week. I love relaxing in the tub. Sometimes I just send my kids away and tell them to give me half an hour to think and do my thing while they are reading or doing some other thing. The difficulty with doing that much preening is that the kids are young and if I spend time doing that then I feel I am taking it away from the kids.
I go to the salon right before Sunday Live and ask them to do everything in a flurry of 45 minutes.” Sunday also includes an editorial meeting, time with family and grooming for television. “I had started at the gym but stopped. I do yoga type stretches at home. When I eat junk I try to detox with fruits and vegetables. As for my last real facial, I had it before Joseph, about 18 months back. I have been surviving on good skin products. I do break out but thankfully it never leaves scars.”
She is a go-getter, not afraid to pitch her ideas to her bosses, as well as to debate, urge, argue and push them. “I want to do a lot of programming and executive producing so there is going to be a lot of convincing. I want to broaden horizons.”
But why all the hard work? There’s a perception that she comes from a rich family. The kind that should be featured in ‘Who Owns Kenya’ and she does not need to work a day in her life.
“Where do people get that impression from? I think you are talking about my father in law. It is important for young people not to expect their parents to provide for them. My father was in the army, and his Asian family settled in Kenya. The army was nothing to complain about, but sending me to university was something of a struggle. Not an easy thing to do on a secretary’s salary either for my mum. The heaviest investment my parents ever made was in their children.”
She did not disappoint them.
The number of television shows Julie has done is phenomenal. “My first live talk show was Capital Openline on Capital FM 2001.
I hosted Ndura Waruinge the head of Mungiki at that time, who had a warrant out for his arrest. It was an explosive show and at the end Phil Matthews burst into the studio and said, “This is your niche Julie! You were born to do this!”
In KTN there was ‘Business as Usual’, ‘The Inside Story’ which was Kenya’s first investigative documentary, and ‘The
Third Opinion’ after Kathleen Openda left.
On NTV she created and produced the popular political debate program ‘Showdown’ hosted in the first season by
Mutula Kilonzo and Mirugi Kariuki, and in the second season by Kilemi Mwiria and Billow Kerrow. She also created,
produced and hosted ‘The Fourth Estate’, ‘On the Spot’, ‘The People’s Voice’, ‘Voices of Reason’, and produced and hosted ‘You the Jury’.
Then she moved to Citizen TV where she is now on ‘Sunday Live with Julie Gichuru’, ‘Fist to Five for Change’ and ‘Eye on Katiba’.
But Julie is not resting on her laurels yet, she has ideas for shows targeting young adults. “I want to capture that idealism and enthusiasm. Life is a struggle. But somewhere we built a generation that blames everybody else and has an ‘uta do?’ attitude. This is where the idea of The Great Debate (yet another of her shows) has come from.”
“When I was in Capital, I knew it was time to leave radio because I started seeing stories as pictures in my head. Now I see Kenyan stories as movies in my head. When people talk I can see the landscape and I can see the shots and I see myself doing a lot of movies from behind the scenes.”
With her movement back and forth, did she get any training for digital? “It is about ideas. In a world facing an economic downturn, the people who are indispensable to a company are the ones who can multitask.” This is apparently her greatest strength.
“Early on in my career someone told me I should be worried because there will be many Julie Gichuru’s coming up. I said no, there will be many amazing people who do amazing things but there is only one me. You must always have faith and confidence in yourself. Remember why nobody can fill that gap. If someone is able to get into your role then it means it is time for you to move forward and ahead and it also means that person is ready for the next growth phase.”
Her approach works as well because of her simple philosophy. “I imagine a woman in Turkana with four kids like me, kids the same age as mine. How does she feed them? I think I speak for the voiceless so I do not really care which side of the political divide you fall. At the end of the day, if this woman had a chance, what would she do? So I keep it almost simple-stupid. That way even if people complain that I was soft on a personality, I know what I am doing.”
That means withstanding the pressure and eternal judgment that she knows especially follows female anchors. “You have to deal with fickle and weighty matters and find the stuff that builds you as a brand from the negative to the frighteningly adoring. I am fortunate I had a partner even before I got onto radio. We already knew each other.
I am so thankful for my husband. If, for instance, I do not notice someone waving, he will tell me, ‘Julie, wave to that person over there. Now turn to your right and wave to the others over there. He manages it (her public persona) well and is very confident in himself. If I did not have that kind of support, I don’t think I would be able to do my job the way I do. I would be pulling my hair out on a daily basis. I go home and ask him how the show was. If he says ‘not good’ I think, bummer. If he says ‘it was great,’ I think, great.
When we meet people in Nakumatt, Westgate or Kikopey, I take photos with people and I leave him with the kids. He is really patient. That is really great.” So, no stalkers then? “None. When I get a gift, it says Julie Gichuru and family. It’s clear. There is no room for any misunderstanding so I do not have to deal with that. I am such a mathee!”
A light assertion aided along by moments such as her on air announcement of her pregnancy. “People had been speculating about my pregnancy. We were doing a show on teenage pregnancy and so I locked it in saying when you have your systems in place as a woman it is a blessed thing to be able to have a child in that environment then introduced a segment on teenage pregnancies. I got a text from this guy saying that that was shameful, he could not believe that I said that on air and he was offended.
It was interesting because it was such a blessing to me.”
Her Sunday Live attire is designed to bring in younger viewers who think news is a dull, boring adult affair. Also, Julie says that, “Kenyans idolize politicians so guess what I’m going to wear sweet skirts, skinny trousers and girlie dresses. I will play with it so that you have something else to talk about that is different and so that Kenyans can stop focusing on politicians. It is a whole mind shift right in line with my ideas for the new generation. I want to work with young people.
When I thought about that, I felt a welling up, and I felt that this really was my life’s calling. I hope to make strides in that area.”
Finally, again, she suffered another recent loss. “I lost my mother in law several months back. She had Alzheimer’s. It was a very difficult few years at the end. She was the kind of person who was so busy and engaged, bringing laughter, food and would emit such energy that by the time she left, you would feel revved up. We were very similar in many ways. For me she was everything that a woman should be. Strong, entrepreneurial and loving. If only I could just be half the woman that she was. Our challenge is to finish her work. I also have a very close relationship with my parents.
We live close to my dad so the kids get to see him regularly. My mother is in the States and she has just written a book about post colonial Kenya and will be here to launch it. I look forward to seeing her.”
At 36, she says “I can’t wait to turn 40.I think that is when you are in your element and you have grown enough to be comfortable in your own skin. I think it is going to be the best thing ever.” Her life still, in as much as it involves work, is centered around her family. “The funniest thing to do is watch tv with my kids. I love cartoons and I introduced them to Star Wars and they show me the latest animations. For me it is all about the warmth and love that is created. I keep thinking soon enough I will be alone with my hubby. I try to guard my family and it is important to me that they are protected at all times.”
Would she say she is successful? “Yes but not because of what I do. Because I am happy, satisfied and content.”
Julie’s Get Ahead Tips
- You have to struggle for about 4 to 7 years before you come to success. Then again, once you have made if, then the real work begins.
- Have a plan and a business concept that works. That is your foundation and stepping stone so it must be solid.
- Be ready to put in the time.
- Do not expect to see immediate results. If you do you are in a business that is exceptional.
- Build a lot of goodwill by having focus and determination. This is what will attract others to you.
- Be willing to share what you have be it wealth or information.
- You need people to be successful.
- Account for your investments in time, effort or money.