Sheila Mwanyigha is to Kenyans what Oprah Winfrey is to Americans – a beloved media personality turned enterprenuer, editor and sage. She famously reigned radio, before she transitioned to television and has now claimed the social space with her magazine Rembesha and her channel, Sheila Lives Out Loud. Dynamic, accomplished and stylish, we caught up with her to see what this #GirlBoss has been up to.
Please tell us a bit about yourself and about what you do
I am the managing director of Rembesha Kenya, a digital and print hair and beauty magazine and directory. I’m also a journalist with more than 15 years of experience in radio, television, print and social media where I now produce and host my online channel Sheila Lives Out Loud. I love to read and to spend time with family and friends.
How did you come to be who you are/do what you do?
It all started with music. I am a singer and my stage name is Nikki. I got into singing to pay for my university education, then one afternoon while being interviewed by Caroline Mutoko on Capital FM, I landed an interview with the programs controller of a new radio station that was set for launch in Kenya. After the hour-long interview I started my on air training on what would be the biggest radio station and game changer in the history of Kenyan radio, Kiss FM. After 4 years I joined Nation FM, which rebranded to Easy FM and took on more challenging roles and responsibilities outside of on-air presenting and producing. I am one of the few RCS programmers across Africa who can create and program a radio station sound from the bottom up.
Whilst at Nation, I got the opportunity to work on television starting with Studio 53 on M-Net which aired across Africa. This was quickly followed by 5 seasons of hosting Tusker Project Fame a music reality television show that was broadcast live across East Africa. I was also the co-host of the television morning breakfast show, AMLive on NTV for two years.
I didn’t have a script or plan for the opportunities that I had, but I showed up to each one ready to learn and do my best and each task opened up another door. I know now that much of what happens to us is really beyond our control. What we can influence is how we respond to what comes our way, no matter how big or small.
What challenges did you face? What lessons did you learn? And most importantly, what did you learn about yourself?
I have lost my job twice. Being in such a public industry, you can’t shield yourself from the negative things people will say and do, once that happens. But I learned that no matter where you go and how high up you are, whatever you are doing to earn a living, is just that. A job. It is something you show up for and do your very best. With everything you have. When that opportunity is done, it’s only the door that is shut. Not you. You cannot define yourself by what you do to earn a living. You are made up of so much more. I learned to walk in faith. It really is a daily journey. I learned that I could make something out of the body of knowledge I have acquired from the years working in the different media houses. I learned that I could find new strengths and grow in new ways.
We all live with some kind of fear about one thing happening in our lives and not being able to see past what would happen to us if this thing happened. I loved my work- to the point of obsession and couldn’t imagine not doing it, but here I am doing something that I love and making something out of it! I wasn’t created to be afraid. None of us was created to be afraid.
What does being a woman mean for you? What is your experience of being a modern, go-getting woman ( girlboss)?
Being a woman for me is an event. We are such complex wonderful beings able to do and be so much more than we actually allow ourselves to do and be. I worked in a heavily patriarchal industry, but despite that, some of the biggest on air personalities were women. They just wouldn’t quit until the job was done. However women still have a long way to go in terms of opportunity and representation- I remember being offered the position to run a station on a fraction of what the male predecessor was on. I couldn’t believe the offer and asked whether the amount was based on me being a woman. The HR department was called in to resolve the matter and I turned down the offer. A week later the same position was given to a male candidate for 3 times the amount I had turned down. I stayed on and was given the technical responsibility of this new employee’s job, as he had no clue what to do-or even where to begin! I could have left, but I used the time and opportunity to sharpen my skill further.
I’ve learned that to be a woman doesn’t mean that I have to be like a man. I learned this over time and it wasn’t easy because believe me there was so much pressure to be like others, to change who I was and be something else, but the only way I was able to survive, was to simply be myself. By nature I’m a happy soul always looking to see the good in things and I’m not afraid to be gentle. And there were calls to be more aggressive, less happy, more this, more that! But in the end you can only be what you are.
The modern go-getter woman is often portrayed as this vicious amazon who stops at nothing to get to the top and has no time for empathy, or integrity, and is really a downright mean girl. But for me, the true girlboss, is everything good about being a woman. From her weaknesses to her strengths she knows who she is, and who has her back. She’s about authenticity and bringing out the best in not just herself but those around her too. She speaks up- not just vocally, but in actions that show what she believes in. She is not waiting for anyone to affirm her, she’s getting on with what she needs to do, whether she will be thanked for it or not.
Are there any women you look up to? Who? Why?
Of course! I have had wonderful women to grow with. Many have taught me who to be and some showed me who I was not. The list is long, but I shall start with my mum. She was a police officer who barely made much, but did her best to ensure my brother and I got a shot a good education. She taught me to bring something to the table. As a woman, looks can never be the only thing that you have. She taught me to be smart, and not make any apologies for it. To never have to endear or explain myself to anyone who didn’t like me. I have looked up to women like Oprah Winfrey, Wangari Maathai, Catherine Kasavuli, and a host of others who have lived unbowed, in the pursuit of their truth.
How do you define style (in general)?
I define style as the expression of you. It’s the reflection of who and what you are in adornment, in deportment, in speech, in decorum- It’s made up of so many moving parts that sum up who an individual is.
How would you describe your style?
I think of my style as timeless. It’s not set on trends and what’s hot off the streets. Rather it’s been shaped by my understanding and appreciation of who I am, what makes me feel comfortable and powerful. Everything I have is not just because it’s beautiful, but rather because it reflects an aspect or many aspects of me. It’s like looking at mirror when I look at them- I see the piece, but mostly me. I only buy pieces that call me by name, such that even now when my friends want to surprise me with something, they will tell me the piece called me by name because, well, it did!
What are some of your favorite designers/brands? What fashion/style icons do you look up to?
I love a lot of local brands! Niku Channa, Adele Dejak, DBetta Jewelry, and a host of other designers. I find that I’d rather invest in accessories that can make one outfit pop in many different ways rather than buying many popping outfits. Style icons for me would be Grace Jones, Diana ross, Jennifer Lopez, Michelle Obama, Beyonce- the list could go on, but I find these women express exactly who they are in what they wear. No matter the outfit, they exude such raw strength!
Is there a relationship between how a woman dresses and how she feels?
Definitely. If you don’t feel powerful, or inspired by what you are wearing, you’ll not project that feeling outside. Style is the expression of this wonderful event that is you and if you are hiding in what you are wearing, or are not comfortable in what you’re dressed in, you won’t be in fighting form. If you wear something that makes you feel amazing, when you walk into a room, there won’t be anyone who can match you and it won’t be because of how expensive the outfit is or how risqué, but rather how you feel in it! That’s what sizzles!
What makes you feel bold, empowered and fearless?
God. He is my safety net that reminds me to dive head first into every day, and not worry about who’ll catch me. This kind of fearless can’t be bought. But when it comes to fashion, I love black. It’s the perfect stage to play up accessories. I love designs that show off curves and leg!
How do you celebrate yourself, your achievements and your successes?
A prayer of gratitude is a constant. Sometimes I’ll pick up a yummy accessory- or two, or indulge in a treat for my family or friends.
Is there something you’d want people to know or remember about you?
I’d like to be remembered as the quiet voice with a great heart. That I found strength in being gentle and kind. That I saw the good in people, and helped them to speak up and be heard in a world filled with so much noise. Oh! And that I wore the pants off a dress 🙂