‘The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me,’ Ayn Rand pictures Julie Gichuru with these words.
In a chauvinistic and testosterone-driven world, ambitious and goal-oriented women are seen as a threat and hence many hold back. But Julie was not eloquent in this language. She did not relate to this kind of medieval mentality. Hence, the dynamic media personality, Change Advocate and entrepreneur she has become.
She is a story of a lady who is undeterred in the face of adversity, impervious by the fear of failure and guided by the principles of critical thinking. You unquestionably know her from her celebrated News Magazine ‘The Sunday Live’ on Citizen Tv. But, there’s more to her!
Let’s meet Julie.
You hosted the most prominent news program in East Africa—Sunday Live—on the number one TV Station in Kenya. Yet, at the peak of your career, when your show was attracting record views, you called it quits. What was the motivation behind this move? And do you see it as somewhat prophetic, given the disruption we are seeing in the media today.
“Two things contributed to my decision. One was indeed the foreseeable seismic shift in the media landscape. To me it was visible. But not enough people in mainstream media were willing to reposition and adapt in preparation. That didn’t sit well with me. I am a lifelong learner who strongly believes in the importance of innovation and evolution. So I did find it problematic that our sector would not heed the signs.”
“Having said that, the most important factor was my, own personal, journey of growth and development. I felt that it was time to learn new things, try new challenges, and evolve. I have always been highly attuned to my need for new seasons, this one was long overdue. I had tried to exit the scene twice previously. This time I made the decision to take a complete leap…so I did.”
Who were your early influences in media, and was there a defining moment that made you realize “this is it”?
“I love communication but I wasn’t initially intending to pursue a career in media. I studied law first, then business with a focus on international business and world trade law. When I returned to Kenya from the UK with a Law Degree and an MBA, I urgently needed a job. I spent a couple of weeks “tarmacking”—handing out CVs to a range of organizations including the United Nations, World Bank, and Multichoice. I sent multiple letters and CVs. Everyone said it would take me two years to get a job.”
“During my third week back home, I mustered the courage to walk into KTN. By the grace of God, I got a screen test. They were struggling with legal and business reporting and I was asked to start on Monday. It was a Thursday. Sounds great, right? Yeah, it was great but the position was not a paid position. Essentially I was in the newsroom reporting on TV from day 1—but with no salary. At the time, I was living in Dagoretti with my grandmother and the lack of income was really difficult. Fortunately, in my second month on the job Capital FM called me and asked me to go in for training, with the potential to get hired if I did well. It was a paid job. I went in and ended up getting the job.”
“Early influences? One of the most important was Phil Matthews. He was a Presenter and the Head of Programs at Capital FM. He was tough. But I learned a lot under his leadership.”
“And in terms of a defining moment, I’d have to say my first one on one current affairs interview. I hosted then Mungiki leader Ndura Waruinge on Capital FM’s weekly talk show Capital Openline. The show had been off air for a while and I asked if I could bring it back.”
“At the time Waruinge was wanted by police. There was lots of anticipation in the build-up to the show, I was petrified, then the moment came and we went live – the show was electric. The discussion was intense. It got heated! Call-in lines were ringing off the hook. Two hours flew by. At the end of the show Phil Matthews ran into the studio shouting, “This is it, Julie! This is your thing!” It was an amazing and affirming moment.”
What is the best story you have ever done as a journalist, and why?
There is no best story. To me, each story mattered. Every story matters.
In what type of situations is it better to stretch the truth (sensationalizing details to gain traction on a story) to sell a story?
“I don’t believe in that. If you have to stretch the truth then you have a problem. Why then tell that story? A story is a story. If there is an urgent message, capture that message in a unique and interesting way rather than change or disguise the message. Sometimes mistakes are made. If so, correct swiftly. Truth should never be compromised.”
You hosted President Obama on his official visit to Kenya during the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) 2015, famously remembered by your ululation. In what way (ways) are you a different person today because of that moment?
“Haha, that was fun. I didn’t even know I could ululate but I really wanted to “Africanize” that moment. I felt it was important to amplify and heighten the African connections captured in the ululation.”
“In terms of how I am different as a result of that moment… I am not. I am just me. In life, things happen. We succeed, fail, laugh, cry… But essentially, at our core, we remain ourselves. The ways in which we do change—like growing in faith, strength, discipline, and character—come from within, not from others.”
“If Kenya is a hotbed, it is a hotbed of budding entrepreneurs, a hotbed of positive zeal & energy.”
Those were your introductory remarks during the GES 2015. Of course, it was a response to CNN’s infamous ‘hotbed of terror’ headline. What, would you say, is the most common myth about Kenya and Africa at large, and can you debunk it?
“Africa is a place of opportunity but it can be hard to see that opportunity and leverage it for numerous reasons. It takes great effort to break through systems that discourage innovation and are stacked in favor of the status quo. But if we can, there is no greater place to harness growth.”
“At Mastercard Foundation we have an incredible mission under our Young Africa Works strategy – to ensure that 30 million young Africans find dignified work by 2030. This is a huge challenge but it is achievable. It is possible when we work hand in hand with young people. They will unlock the opportunity and growth. They just need some support to do so – through education, skills, access to finance, and through support for structural shifts required to allow for transformation.”
“Here’s the thing: We are our own greatest opportunity. If we support each other we all thrive and the continent grows. Again – WE are our greatest opportunity. That is what I want everyone, especially us, to understand about Kenya and Africa at large.”
In a world filled with fake news, how do you ensure the legitimacy of your sources?
“I have been out of the news environment for over three years now but the rule of thumb is to confirm with at least two sources. Sometimes, in an effort to lead in breaking the story, particularly online, this is overlooked. But it is certainly a best practice.”
What/When would you say was your worst moment ever as a journalist? When was your proudest moment?
“My lowest moment as a journalist was covering the 2007/2008 post-election period. Of course, that was a difficult time for all of us. What was inspiring was the way the media came together and rose above the competition to do what was in the best interest of the country – calling for resolution, unity and peace.”
“I don’t know if I have a particularly proud moment… hmmm… I think being part of enabling change and transformation in people’s lives is something that was important to me. Anytime I was able to contribute to this kind of impact was an incredibly fulfilling moment. Kenyans for Kenya is a great example of one of those moments.”
Being famous in Kenya and even around the world comes with huge expectations and a lot of pressure. People expect you to have everything figured out and will crucify you if you are not ‘perfect’. How do you cope up with this pressure, especially in protecting your personal life?
“I do not believe in perfection. I understand that people have their own viewpoints and that’s OK. It is not up to me to meet the needs, wants or expectations of millions of people. It is up to me to be true to who I am and to be the best wife and mother that I can be. It’s that simple. When you have the right approach the pressure points shift.”
I read about your struggles, especially after you graduated, starting with your parents’ divorce and having to balance your demanding and energy-sapping job (packing pancakes for 12 hours, nonstop) while studying for your MBA. What advice would you give young people out there who are on the edge of their patience and hope, trying to find a purpose for their lives, based on your experience?
“I know it doesn’t look like it when you look at me, but I worked a job that literally peeled the skin off my fingers. As I stood in that factory with my fingers stinging with pain, I kept telling myself I was investing in my future—and to keep going.”
“I would visualize what that future could be.”
“My plan back then was simple. I told myself “get the best education you can. Go as far in learning as you can. Work several jobs to get there if you have to. That education will take you where you need to be.” That was my armor for battle in the world.”
“To those struggling and losing hope: have a plan, ensure your plan will take you where you want to be, and then start to walk the path you have mapped. In the darkest moments visualize your greatest success. Let that feed you. You can achieve anything! I truly believe that…And find your armor. What is it that will open the doors to your success? Invest in that.”
What is your best tip for making the world a better place?
Simple, do something good every day. That’s a great start. ?
Julie is the Head of Public Affairs and Communications at the Mastercard Foundation.
She is a communication specialist with a 20-year career in the fields of broadcast, print, and digital media.
She has received numerous awards and recognitions. Avance Media listed her as one of the 100 Most Influential African Women of 2019, and New African listed her as one of the 100 Most Influential Africans of 2019. Julie was born in Nairobi, Kenya.
She attended university in the United Kingdom where she earned her LLB Law and MBA from Cardiff University’s Law and Business Schools respectively.
Julie is a Archbishop Desmond Tutu Fellow, an ALI fellow under the Aspen Global Leadership Network/Africa Leadership Initiative East Africa.