Manuela P. Mulondo on Women Leadership & Enterprise

#360Mentor is a continuation of the #40DayMentor series. In this episode, Robert Kabushenga (RK) speaks to Manuela Mulondo (MM) on Women Leadership & Enterprise

RK: Good evening Manuela and welcome to #360Mentor

MM: Good evening Robert, how are you doing?

RK: Great. Thank you for agreeing to do this.

MM: Thank you so much for having me.

RK: Let me ask the obvious question, were you born a Mulondo?

MM: I was born Pacutho from West Nile Uganda. My dad being an Alur and my mum a Muhima.

RK: The reason I asked, I was watching the skit of you and Brian and you were arguing whether if the two of you separated you would still go with the name. I was amused by that. That’s one issue that never comes up.

MM: True, we never have these conversations. But it is good for married couples to talk about it.

RK: Manuela, what do you do?

MM: I am a workplace gender equality advocate. I am the CEO and founder of the Cradle. The cradle is a child care, lactation and education centre designed for the workplace. I am a co-founder of Bump Love, a TV web series. I am a mother to two absolutely beautiful children. I am a wife. A daughter and a sister. All those things are who I am.

RK: How is Brian? At home as a person?

MM: Interesting question. I keep telling people that his laughter and fun can be switched off. I don’t know how he does that. And these are some of the things that brought rest in our marriage. There are times I would like an alpha male and we like being led by an alpha male and so there are instances when the funny Brian didn’t work for me when I needed him to make certain decisions without laughing. But then he took it to a whole other level which I fell for too. I love both sides of him. His ability to switch on and off gives me reason to look forward because I don’t know which Brian is coming. For most people he comes across as a happy person. But he is a very very present alpha male.

RK: But he is a good man. But let’s get back to you, Manuela. Brian was trying to steal your thunder.

MM: His thunder is my thunder. So we’re good.

RK: Tell me something, how many are you in your family?

MM: We are 10 children we know of.

RK: Would it be fair to say that you grew up in a large hold and are you the oldest?

MM: Yes. I was born in a huge household. My dad was probably the first person to come out of the village to Kampala. So everybody that came from the village had to come through my dad’s hands as they launched out in Kampala.

Our dad had four wives and our mum was the last of the wives. I am the eldest of my mum’s children and we are three. But I am the 7th for my dad’s children.

RK: Your dad was a total man.

MM: Please, don’t go there.

RK: Hahaha, school time, where did you start from.

MM: I started school at Nakasero Nursery. I do not remember much apart from crying so much the first day I went to school. And then I went to Kitante Primary School where all eight of my dad’s children were. From Kitante, I went to Our Lady of Good Counsel Gayaza for O’ level and then King’s College Budo for A’ level and then Makerere University. That was the trajectory.

RK: What did you specialise in at Makerere?

MM: Psychology, Mathematics and Statistics.

RK: Let me not say many things

MM: Okay, let me give you a quick background. By the time I finished primary school, my parents had now separated. And I went into Our Lady of Good Counsel which was the school my mum could afford. The  four years I was there, I did extremely well. I was really a good student. I had a scholarship with FAWE Uganda and that was one of the schools they could give scholarships into. That’s how I ended up there. I did really well. I worked hard every year so that my brothers’ fees could be paid.

After that I got into King’s College and I did really really well. but remember FAWE was not giving scholarships for Budo. But for me, they did. The reason why I got the scholarship is because I always wanted to go to King’s College. After Primary seven, while I had the grades, my mother did not have the money for me to join Budo. So I went to where the scholarship could take me and that’s Our Lady.

I also passed O’ level very well. But if I went back to Our Lady, they were going to give me Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics.

RK: What did you want to do?

MM: I didn’t know. We didn’t have a lot of career guidance. There was just this young girl from the north who does extremely well in both the arts and the sciences so she definitely has to do well in the sciences. I don’t think anyone ever asked me where I felt comfortable. I liked physics, chemistry, mathematics, history, economics and literature. It was really a confusing time for me. It was the first time I got bouts of depression because everybody thought I  could be doing something else and I was not doing it. I was hoping that if I ran to Budo because my  grades were amazing for Our Lady to give me PCBM, Budo would give me PCM/ TD. At least that was bearable. I was still confused with what I wanted to do with myself. 

When I was done with that, at university I was admitted to study physics but I really didn’t want to. So I applied for a change of subjects and did psychology, mathematics and statistics. I thought psychology was an art, mathematics a science and statistics in the middle.

RK: I think you were totally wrong. I don’t see how psychology is art but you said you were confused

MM: That is what my young mind thought. That’s why I did it. I thought I was multi gifted. Multi talented but didn’t know what to do. I was really confused as a university student.

RK: As soon as you finished university, where did you go?

MM: I went through the usual path that most of our graduates go through. There were no jobs. I remember seeing an ad for a human resource consultancy firm. I did what a university graduate does, it was a sales job. My friends had always told me I could sell sand in the desert. Or snow in winter.

RK: I think they were right.

MM: This was because I was hawking juice for my mum.

RK: When were you selling juice?

MM: After my parents had separated, my mum had just got in an accident and could not get back to work as she could have before. She was looking for what she could do in terms of the line of work to be able to raise school fees. Thank God I was able to get scholarships and an annual scholarship to be able to raise my brothers’ school fees.

RK: Wait a minute, you Manuela? Who was looking for the scholarships; you or your mother?

MM: She looked for one with FAWE and got it. That is the one that would pay my fees every term. However, Our Lady gave a scholarship to the student that beat the entire school at the end of every year for one term.

RK: So you were entitled to two scholarships basically.

MM: Yes. I had one I signed up for and then there was one where I had to be academically sound to get. At the end of each year they would look at all our averages and see the person that beat the entire school. So I had to beat the entire school every year. I woke up every morning to beat the entire school so I could get that scholarship for my brother.

RK: Oh wow!

MM: That’s looking for a scholarship. She didn’t have the money for school fees and all that. It was the hardest time in our lives. I had never seen poverty like that. Some stories I remember were; one day living in an abandoned house and then finding that the roof had been taken off. You went to school but on return the roof over the house was not there.

One time we were living in a home where people came to make sacrifices. To pay homage. They brought a lamb and they were going to sacrifice it. It was midnight of 31st December.

RK: No way!  No. No.

MM: We had to run out.

RK: Wait. What was the coping mechanism for all of you in all this incredible hardship?

MM: Christ has always been our rock and our anchor. I got born again before my mum did and our brothers after us. God has been our anchor. It has always been his promises, his faithfulness and knowing that this too would come to an end but we didn’t know when. It was really tough. It was tough praying in those seasons. You pray that the rain won’t fall. You have to sleep there. You’re homeless people living in a random house so they remove the doors, what do you say? You can’t quarrel. You can’t move out. I don’t know.

RK: I am completely speechless. I don’t know what to say anymore.

MM: There is this one my mum and I laugh about. One time they blocked the toilet. So every morning as she said goodbye to us as we went to school, after saying all the nice things, she would remind you to make use of the school toilet. “ If you have to poop, do it at school.”

RK: Don’t bring anything home.

MM: We were those people who had to use the toilet no matter what. Conditions required that we had to. We lived in Kamwokya. So it was easier to walk to Kitante. There was an abandoned house on Kira Road, so we entered and saw drama.

In all those conditions, my mum was looking for money to help us survive. We miraculously finished school. In that period of S1, she visited a friend of hers who used to make nice juice. My mum asked her how she makes the juice and she showed her. She didn’t have a blender; she had to borrow one. It was with that blender that she started to make juice. We would help her. We would sell it along Kampala road in mineral water bottles.

There are two things that she kept even in poverty. She said

1.       you always have to be clean

2.       you always have to be classy

I don’t know how she did that. But in your poverty, your clothes have to be clean and you  have to be smart.

RK: Now I have understood who sorted out Brian Mulondo. For a boy who came from yellow, seeing him this smart, I was always wondering.

MM: Robert! Anway. Every morning, we had to go downtown to Owino to pick out clothes, but she would always pick out the best clothes. She would bargain for the whole day for the shirt of 2k until they gave it to her at 500/=.

When we started selling juice, we found people were selling in kavera, my mum was not going to have that. We were selling in mineral water bottles. We were making the juice at the top of Mutaasa Kafeero Plaza. There were restaurants around there where we could get bottles and wash them up with warm water and soap. I am remembering them and I want to cry. They would be so many bottles.

I would buy a sac of mangoes from Owino market and peel them. Then carry the peeled mangoes to Mutaasa Kafeero. I remember one time a guy in Owino that collects rubbish told me, I was making Owino dirty.

RK: Really! How bad can life be?

MM: From then on, I was chased from Owino. I bought the mangoes and carried the sack to Mutaasa and made the juice. Then we would sell it along Kampala Road.

RK: What do you mean selling juice on Kampala Road?

MM: I would hawk the juice.

RK: You Manuela, you are a mutembei? You’ve come from far.

MM: I was those kids where you would roll up your window in traffic because they were troubling you. People in cars were not buying the juice so I started selling to the people on the streets. My biggest market were the men who would sell books along Kampala Road. They would buy like 20 bottles of juice and then I would have to go and fetch more.

They spread word along Kampala road on the side of the post office and the side of radio one. There are times I would go as far as Jinja road. I would even enter some of the small offices and people would buy the juice.

One time, along Kampala road, I met my S4 teacher and he found me arguing with one of the guys who had not paid me my money, just 500/= and he looked at me and said “is this Manuela?” I said yes. You’re selling juice and you’re the best in Wakiso district?” He asked me how much the men had taken and he gave me all the money. The men celebrated but for me I went and told mum about the results. We spent the day in celebration, I didn’t go back to selling juice.

The other is of an uncle who told me about the possibility of selling in offices. So mum asked around and she was able to get into UTL, I was able to get into MTN and my brother was selling in another. We had graduated from bottles to jerry cans. We were using disposable glasses. Even the prices increased. I remember going through all the floors of MTN towers, all 12 floors selling juice. That’s one reason I will never leave MTN. They really supported us through their employees. We grew so much. My mum was able to buy land, build our first home. Immediately she roofed the house, we moved in. She ushered us in.

RK: There was no chance that the roof would be removed.

MM: None at all. It didn’t have windows. So we put boxes. No floor. I will never forget the first night. We were ready for the rain. We’re in our own home. That was my juice producing journey.

We have long since moved on to making juice for weddings.

RK: What principles did you extract from that experience? How have they helped you scale the heights you’ve scaled?

MM: Hard work. I don’t know anything else but hard work. I have learnt to enjoy and bask in my work. Sometimes Brian tells me to stop. Hard work has been so important for me.

The other thing I have seen is entrepreneurship. My mother was not qualified for any kind of job but she built us a home. When we bought our first car, the windows couldn’t go down but there was a car that would transport our juice. We would leave home with our juice frozen but reach the function when it is melted because the car was so hot but we were in the car. I have seen what entrepreneurship can do especially for women. Single women. I have this first hand.

The third is God. Robert I tell you, Brian keeps laughing at me but for me, every day, I have to sit in the presence of the Lord for two hours. I have seen God come through for me. I have seen God answer very hard questions for me. Chill these stories of just talking. I have seen the hand of God. I have seen miracles.

RK: You’ve really helped Brian, if you didn’t have these principles….

MM: Hahaha, Robert, it’s Brian not me.

RK: How are you still coping with the Cradle in this season of lockdown?

MM: We are still locked. Our core business is that we had children coming in for child care at the centre. So since the children were coming to us, it was now our turn to go to the children.

RK: Why were the children coming to you in the first place? Give us a background about this childcare initiative.

MM: In 2012 I took part in the Business Apprenticeship Entrepreneurship Competition Africa. That was like my call to the public eye. I didn’t emerge as winner but I was the 2nd runner up. But there were two people that decided to give me money. One of them was Amos Wekesa, God bless his heart. He gave me USD 5000. The idea I had then was an experiential learning centre. A place where children can learn. I have always been an experiential learner. Learning visually and through experiment. But with 5000 dollars, I was not able to. But he told me to keep the money to wait for any opportunity to top up on it. So I put the money in a fixed deposit account.

A few months later, Brian Mulondo and I got married and six months down the road we conceived. At the time I was working with the Bank of Africa. I was enjoying the corridors of power with black high heels and a red bottom, I had arrived.

So when I conceived I told Brian, I needed a place where I could leave our child where they could be raised not just kept. As a person trying to grow my career, I would like to be in a place where my child is in a place where they are being taken care of by me. a]A child who is well mannered.

RK: The kind that tuck in their pyjamas.

MM: Hahaha, you know what I’m saying! Those children! A well rounded child. I was trying my best in my career at the bank. I was spending 12 hours in a bank with campaigns running. I used to go to so many day care centres to see what they were doing. I would ask questions. But you would find the caregiver just sitting waiting for the child to play on their own. Not interacting with the child. In the background I had been working with children for years. I was teaching in Sunday school. I knew what I wanted but no one was providing it. To be honest, Robert, I moved everywhere. This was over eight years ago. None of them were doing what I wanted.

I remember coming home one day  completely frustrated. Then Brian said you have USD 5000 somewhere, why don’t you create the place you’re looking for? So I called Amos and told him what I was going to do with the money and he gave me his blessing. That is how the cradle was born.

When we were starting, I called 100 career mothers and different focus groups for our research. We asked them: if you had an opportunity to raise your child, what would you want them to be like, what would you want them to know?

And the responses encompassed four areas.

1.       They wanted to know their cognitive goals.

2.       Physical growth: a child crawling at the right time, potty training

3.       Character

4.       Spirituality

I remember sitting before God and telling him about this, then he reminded me of  a scripture in Luke which says; And Jesus grew in wisdom, stature, in favour with God and in favour with man. This was in line with what the mothers had asked.

So I had to design a curriculum encompassing the four areas. Robert, to say that the results are amazing is an understatement, mums come with testimonies of what their children do. I knew it would work but to see that it would work this great, is amazing. That’s how the cradle started.

RK: So how did the  lockdown affect this initiative of yours? What did you do about it?

MM: The model we were working with was that parents would bring their children to the centre in Ntinda. We would have parents from as far as Entebbe. Children were coming to  us. When the lockdown happened, we could not go to our children. At that point people were doing online classes on zoom. We were already using whatsapp. We would create groups with anyone concerned with the children where we would give them feedback on the child’s performance during the day.

In lockdown, we could still use whatsapp. We could send activities for the children through whatsapp. Then we decided to try out zoom but we work with very young children, newborn to 4 years. Their concentration is very low if you are talking but if you are playing, you will have the whole day. We would run races on Zoom. The parents would measure the distance where the child would run. The teacher would set up the timer and the race would start. That’s what we did.

But many people were holding on to their cash. So they wouldn’t pay for online studies. It will pass. So we still gave them activities of materials they would need. That’s where we started.

After a while, we realised that the income was nowhere near where it used to be before. But then there were questions which were coming through. Parents would ask about weaning their child. Because we were already at the cradle, we used to run the actual weaning of a child. At 6 months we would start to introduce the foods. And we had a schedule for that. I realised that we already had a meal plan, if properly designed, we could sell it to parents. And there were so many covid parents at the time. So we started to sell digital downloads. We sold meal plans, children’s schedules. Parents didn’t know how to deal with their children. We already had a schedule.

RK: Meanwhile, the parents themselves didn’t know what to do with each other.

MM: Robert, actually they knew but the children were there. But let’s not go there.

So we sold the plans and they were downloadable. Then something else happened. We had pants who were now working from home and did not want to know what to do. But we also had a caretaker plan. So we sold that and the snack plan, we made a picture book of  a snack. We sold activities for 30 days. Those were digital downloads.

Then there was a need for toys. We had a carpenter who would make toys for us in the Cradle. Parents were looking for these too. We sold the toys. And that was a hit. To date, we have a waiting list for the toys, people are looking for toys people can play with for a long period of time. In those days, children would have time off for their toys. But you would find that toys would only last for two days, they now last for minutes. With wooden toys, they lasted longer.

Then when the lockdown was lifted, we started sending our caregivers into homes. And the parents who wanted personalised care for their children. but then we had parents who wanted their children to play with other children so we asked parents who had bigger compounds to allow us to use their compounds. We  used to pay them per child as a  contribution to their rent.

RK: What has that done for your cradle community?

MM: I feel that I have grown. There are children we could never have had at the cradle that are now part of the cradle family. Right now, even if they open up schools, we are still going to keep the cradle homes open. We are going to tweak them a little and open actual centres in places like at apartments. We are thinking of franchising the model so that these centers can be owned by other people. We are doing this for teachers or parents that have lost their jobs, the centre is open. All one has to do is to come and we talk about the numbers.

RK: Clearly this is innovation at work, how would you describe innovation? What makes innovation work? How does a good idea become an innovation and then a business?

MM: I actually use a model of innovation called the SKEMA method. It looks at your product, method and yourself. Can you substitute? Can you combine? Can you put it together? It’s an acronym for those key words. I ask myself  a lot of questions based on this method. I ask myself, how can I do it differently?

When it comes to innovation, I have never known anyone as innovative as my father God. He created absolutely from nothing. There is no model of innovation like from the one who decided – ‘Let there be the sun, the moon and the stars’. I always believe that because I am made in the image of God, I have the DNA for innovation in me in everything I do.

Shamim Matovu: There are a lot of us women growing our careers, what advice would you give us on how to be great mothers and career women at the same time?

MM: Everyday I wake up, I wake up to call out, to motivate, to challenge the woman’s ability. God’s given potential to raise Africa’s demand capital. We are not raising children for ourselves, we are raising children for Uganda, Africa and the world. Right now, I am not in my mother’s home, I am working for uganda. Robert, you are serving Uganda.

This child is for this country. The reason why I exist here is to help mums like myself. I don’t have everything figured out, but I believe I have seen light at the end of the tunnel. There is no such thing as work life balance. Everything that works out is about choices. The way to organise this balance is by being intentional. I know the time I am going to spend with my children and I pre plan it and block off that day. I am unavailable for that day. I also believe that  women don’t have to choose between their work and their life. They shouldn’t have to choose between their career and family. We should be in  a space where it is okay for everybody to be exist. Every woman carries an auteur that is going to carry a child that is going to be Uganda’s human capital. The day we understand that is the day we shall work together because these children are not ours. If I say to Robert, my boss, that I need to go home and have time with my children, he should be able to understand that. It means I am on my way to raise an incorruptible intelligent child that will one day run a similar organisation like the one my boss runs. Or they will be the one in an office of power. The day we realise that a woman deserves to be in a good hospital for the good of her country, she needs to immunise that child, because they are the ones that will work in these places. The day we realise that, you (Shamim) and I will be allowed to go home because that work is important.

Right now, what I am advocating for is for women to clearly define the time that they will have  to spend with their children and in their homes. But also at the same time, give their work the time that is due for them. We have 24 hours in a day. Eight to sleep. Eight to work. And eight to ourselves.

Can you work eight hours? Give your boss eight hours.

One time our former boss Ronald came to our office at the bank. We were thinking we could work longer. He greeted us, smiled with us and we were so excited. He had come down to chat with us. The next day we all had warning letters and he explained to us that by virtue of being at office past working hours, it meant that we either had not used the office resources well or had not used the time availed to us well or we had cheated the bank of its time.

I remember wondering why I had not thought of that. Robert, were you like that as a boss?

RK: Way better. At my former workplace, any parent who had an issue with their child never asked for permission. Just go and attend to them. Do you know what happened? Relatives stopped dying.

MM: To be honest, the number one thing that will hold a woman back is the wellbeing of her child. The day the employer starts to understand the importance of this child to the mother, is the day so many things will change in our lives. I really believe that we shall have a better country.

Angura Akao: Could you share with us your daily routine if you have one?

MM: My day is divided into three blocks of hours. My first block is two hours, I speak to God. 4am to 6 am. From 6am – 9 am, I do my chores; prepare breakfast, shower and prepare for the day. My next block is 9 to midday, that is work. 12 – 2pm is lunch break. 2 – 5pm is work. 5 – 8pm is with the children. Having dinner, praying and all. Then 9pm till morning is mine with Brian.

Catherine Niwabine: What’s your advice on co-parenting? I am caught between taking care of the child and fully giving up.

MM: I usually tell mothers who have to co-parent. There’s something egotistical about the power that money has. When a man feels that they have more money than you, they can use it to make you feel a certain way. I usually tell mothers this. It is something I once told my mother as well. She used to call our father to pay school fees. Then I told her if you know he didn’t pay last term and the term before, why are you still asking him for fees. Can you instead spend more time looking for the school fees? Mothers need to make a decision. You  will have to make a decision Catherine. If you need support, there are rules laid before you. If you do not need the support, allow the child to go, it’s okay. The  truth is the one person that can raise a child is the mum. One day they will give you your child. They expect you to fight. I believe God protects our children. He will protect your child too. 

Then if you know you can take care of your child then do it. Let’s not fight. Be different. If you are able, do it. But please allow the father to see them. Be the bigger person.

RK: The only advice I can give is to a fellow man. To the men reading this, if you ever find yourself in those circumstances, never ever put that kind of situation on the table. It will be later at a time when you need that child that they won’t need to know. And that is more painful. If you find yourself in those circumstances, pay for everything. Don’t impose circumstances. Do ask questions. Just swallow quietly. One day you will get your pay.

MM: Robert  you said that and you reminded me of my mum as a single mum. One of the things she did was to allow us to have our own relationship with our dad. The relationship I have with my dad is based on my personal experience with him. My mother has never ever told us a single story about my dad. To date, I don’t know what happened to both of them.

RK: One single piece of history about me, Manuela, I was raised by a single mother till I was 18. Until she died, I never knew what had separated them and I never raised it.

Nina Amutuhaire: Manuela, what keeps you going even on days when you wouldn’t want to wake up? What advice would you give to your 18 year old self?

MM: Wow! What keeps me going. I have gone through two bouts of depression. And there is none in particular where I didn’t have any idea that I was going through a depression. For three days I was going to work but never opened up my laptop. And one night I failed to sleep and Brian told me; “Manuela, if you don’t sleep tonight, I am taking you to Butabika. You’re not okay.” that’s when I realised that I was going through something. I am such a workaholic. I’m all about hard work. I barely rest. I am always on the go. Even when people have told me to take a break and bask in the sunlight, I have learnt to schedule my days.

Now I plan my rest. When I knew of this, that day, I set the day aside. Planning my rest has been absolutely important to me because I don’t know how to rest. Or I have not known how to rest. After this whole depression, I have learnt to rest. The fact that I fear poverty, I cannot go back to that poverty. My children cannot. My children’s children cannot go back to back out of that poverty. What I saw and felt, I cannot allow.

RK: I am going to arrange a lunch between you, myself and Grace Makoko. Because both of you are women of great conviction and faith.

Amos Kiyingi: With all this, in the knowledge you have created, what can be done for the women that cannot afford to put their children in spaces like the cradle? How do we create such a space?

MM: We have created the cradle foundation. The purpose is to get resources from our parents and from funding to create the cradle in such places and refugees’ settlements to help set up child care centres. We saw a model at wandegeya market. You have eight mothers at the market who take shifts looking after the children. All women need is space and a facilitator. We hope this will kick off when the economy fully opens.

RK: Manuela, thank you very much for spending your time with us today. You have touched many lives today and may you continue to touch many lives in the future.

MM: Thank you very much Robert. That means a lot.  

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