EVELYN INC. AT 40
By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted March 21, 2017)
Evelyn College of Design is celebrating its 40th anniversary all this year with a series of panels, guest speakers, women empowerment workshops and fashion shows culminating in a Gala event in early December.
The pioneer fashion and design College was the fulfillment of a dream for its founder, Evelyn Mungai-Eldon who from the age of 10 had hoped she could one day start a school associated with fashion, design and beauty.
But Evelyn was never one to dream without doing something about it. Having been born a few years before Kenyan Independence, there were few career paths for young women to follow back then. Yet Evelyn has never allowed limits to constrain her indefinitely.
She was fortunate to come from a family that believed in educating girls as well as boys.
Nonetheless, it was still a time when educated girls either became nurses, teachers or secretaries, not pioneers in the fields of design or higher education.
“At the time when we were starting the school, virtually no one [among Kenyans] knew about design. That’s why my first teachers at the College were practically all expatriates,” she said.
Yet before they came, Evelyn had begun teaching in a room on Tom Mboya Street where she had previously been running her first professional business. Speedway Personal Selections, the first human resource recruitment agency owned by an African.
So while the College’s beginnings were ‘humble’, Evelyn quickly realized that for it to grown it had to move. “We found a house Riara Road where the College grew rapidly over the next 20 years,” she said.
Yet from the start, Evelyn had a knack for business, especially for building a brand and venturing into new arenas of enterprise.
One arena was media. She started Presence magazine in the 1970s, using it as a platform to both promote the College and advocate for the empowerment of women. She ran to publication for a good ten years, even as the College attracted aspiring designers from all over Africa and beyond.
The other entrepreneurial arena that Evelyn got into was property development. After 20 years, she realized the College had outgrown Raira Road, especially after her expanding the school’s curriculum to include photography, interior design and art.
Coincidentally, she realized the land values along Raira Road were skyrocketing and it was time re-design her Raira land. She found land for the school in Lavington, even as she developed luxury homes where the college had previously been.
Surprising, becoming a property developer came quite easily to Evelyn. The skill has also benefited the college where she’s rehabbed an old colonial stone home, built well-equipped classrooms, serene outdoor study areas and even constructed a hostel where her non-Kenyan students can stay.
Forty years have whizzed by, but not without the local, regional and even global communities recognizing that Evelyn’s not only a pioneer in education and fashion design, but also in entrepreneurship and concern for women’s empowerment, especially African women.
The range of awards, accolades and prestigious appointments that Evelyn has earned over the years could fill volumes. She’s been invited to become the first woman serving on several high-powered platforms, from the African Business Round Table (initiated by AfBD) to the Africa Project Development Facility of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) to the International Advisory Panel of the World Islamic Economic Forum.
And locally, Evelyn became the first woman member of the previously all-male Rotary Club of Nairobi. She subsequently was elected the first woman president of her club in 2001.
So 2017 is bound to be the year that Evelyn’s pioneering leadership will be recognized not only within the global business world but also at home, among her fellow Kenyans.