By Sanjit Kaur
I’ve always believed a ‘no’ never hurts. It’s an attitude I embraced the day I walked into a travel agency in my native Nairobi, Kenya, as an 18-year-old and offered to work for free. It also served me well nearly two decades later when I applied for a job at Kumon Math & Reading Centre as a newcomer to Canada. Without this mindset, I would not have bought a franchise and made a life for myself that is very different from the one I left behind.
Finding my passion
Although I was born in Nairobi, my family is of Indian origin. My siblings—three sisters and a brother—and I lived a comfortable life, attending a private Catholic school that was based on very strict British curriculum. Education was a priority for our parents; however, shortly after I finished high school in 1982, poor business decisions on my father’s part, along with dishonest business partners, brought financial hardship on our family.
As the eldest of five, it fell on me to help support my family, but first I had to learn a skill. Unable to afford university, I enrolled in a secretarial program at a nearby college, paid for by my uncle. It very quickly became clear, however, that a career as a secretary was not for me. A chance encounter with a friend one day seemed to offer the answer I was looking for—her job at Ryan International, a local travel agency, intrigued me.
I was 17 years old at the time, and working in the travel industry seemed so romantic. Meeting with the agency’s owner, Heather Jordan, I explained I wasn’t interested in a career as a secretary, I had no experience as a travel consultant and that I would work for free while she trained me. She was taken aback. After all, who walks into an office and offers to work for no pay. After taking the weekend to think about it, Heather offered me a job. As I always say, a ‘no’ never hurts and, of course, neither did getting this big break, for which I will always be indebted to Heather.
Back then, we didn’t have computers and had to calculate fares manually. You also had to write out tickets by hand; if you made a mistake, you had to start all over again. Heather was more than just my boss—she was a mentor to me. She also brought out my competitive spirit, as we tried to outdo one another to see who could get the least expensive fare for a client. I loved working as a travel consultant, so much so that I earned a diploma in travel and tourism from International Air Transport Association (IATA), the trade association for the world’s airlines. My career not only offered me a sense of accomplishment, but it also helped put my siblings through high school and college. In spite of all the hardship at home, we had a pretty happy household. When you don’t know any better, you’re happy with what you have.
A dream job
Nairobi is a very cosmopolitan city and a travel hub for most airlines with stops in Africa. Organized safaris were (and still are) very popular, which kept us very busy at the agency. But nothing compares to when Pope John Paul II travelled through Africa in the mid-1980s, with international press like BBC, NBC, VOA, ABC and CNN following his every move. Dozens of journalists and camera people camped out in our office as we organized their flights. Not only did they need to get to the next stop on the Pope’s tour, but they and all their equipment had to get there ahead of him to set up. There was no arriving after the pope and there was no leaving after him either. Those were exciting days, likewise when Meryl Streep and Robert Redford came to town. Ryan Investments, sister company to Ryan International, was responsible for the Kenyan-based filming of the movie, Out of Africa, and all travel arrangements for cast and crew went through our office. We were all a little star struck at seeing two of Hollywood’s biggest stars, albeit from a distance.
My first job felt like a dream. I was so fortunate to work in such an exciting industry and was giving it my all. This has always been my attitude in my work life. I’ve given 120 per cent to every company I’ve worked with and treated it as my own, so much so, I tried to come up with ways to grow the agency. One was to suggest we add hotels and car rentals as services. Heather liked the idea and encouraged me to develop it. I took the initiative and introduced hotels and car rentals, camping safaris, anything that would generate extra commission.
After four years with Ryan International, I decided it was time to try something different, though still within the travel industry, first as an assistant manager for a travel company and then as my own boss. In 1987, I started my own travel company, Rock n Tide Safaris. Without a strong business mentor in my father, I pretty much learned by trial and error. Unfortunately, my business did not flourish as it should have and my parents had other plans in mind. Following my return from tourism fairs in Zimbabwe and Botswana, my family announced a proposal for an arranged marriage had been received. With four girls in the house, there was pressure to marry me off so my sisters would have better prospects at finding spouses themselves.