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01/04/2013

Muthoni Ndonga, CEO and founder of Blankets & Wine, talks about her journey.

Muthoni Ndonga has been singing from as far back as she can remember. She auditioned for choir in high school at Moi Girls’, Nairobi, then went to St Mary’s School for her International Baccalaureate (IB). She told the Saturday Nation her full story.
 
“On paper, I went because I wanted to go to a really good university abroad to study law or political science. In reality, I went because I could study theatre arts in IB.”

I could not imagine that you could study a subject that involved writing music and performing plays. St Mary’s was the best thing that happened to my education. It literally changed my life.
After that, I joined the University of Nairobi to study economics. Six weeks into the programme, I realised that there was no way on earth I could continue. I was so bored. Mercifully, the day I made up my mind to quit and tell my parents, the lecturers went on strike.

The next day I got a job with the African Youth Parliament and on that day, my father died. That sequence of events made me pause and realise that the finality of death leaves me only one option; to experience fully as
much of my life as I can before it ends.

Birth of a career
I joined USIU where I studied philosophy and international relations. There, my friend, Njeri Mwirigi, and I formed a group called TYTE. We wrote our own songs, trained a band, and got all our friends to help with our launch event.

St Mary’s School allowed us to use their stage, and Ted Kwaka (Big Ted) kindly gave us sound and lighting. We even had a smoke machine. Our first three-day concert sold out. That is when I realised that I loved the stage.

I had picked up drumming in primary school, mainly to stay awake during Mass. It now became something I needed to absorb my excess energy on stage. So just like that, a career was born.
As a performer, I saw an opportunity in the market to create an event where Kenyans could come out and enjoy live music in a unique and family-friendly atmosphere. So five years ago (a year after I graduated), Blankets & Wine was born.

It was a novel idea at the time, but when I set my mind on something, only heaven can stop me — and even then, I do not go down without a proper fight.

Halfway through my first year doing Blankets & Wine, my friend, Emukule Ekirapa, told me, “If you want to make Blankets & Wine, do it 100 per cent and look only to yourself to make it work. Do not go knocking on sponsors’ doors.

Build yourself up until they come knocking at yours.” He was right. In life, there is no one like you. Do whatever you set out to do so sincerely and so well that eventually, they will come to you.
Then you can set your terms and everyone will fall in line with your agenda. It is true in business, in love, and virtually anything I can think of.

Lessons in business
I am still a performer, but I put that part of me aside for a while as I literally learnt on the job how to build an event, turn it into a brand, convert brand equity into a tangible offer to a sponsor, organise and mobilise people, hire staff, and know when and how to let them go.

I have learnt to live well below my means so I can live to see another event. I have learnt how to negotiate, how to convince, and when the two must not be confused. I have learnt how to trust my intuition when selecting line-ups.
Blankets & Wine has been one endless lesson for me. It is as if I have been doing my Masters and PhD combined.

Regarding musical acts from outside Kenya, you need to have a solid reputation. You must give your word and keep it without any exceptions. Thankfully, we have got these elements down, so bringing in performers is not as difficult as people assume.

The challenges were huge from the beginning. I had to learn everything from scratch and rely on the goodwill of artists, suppliers, mentors, and the protection of guardian angels. I had to teach a whole city about this idea and convince them that it was for them.

It has been a steep learning curve but the love and acceptance by Nairobians plus the hard work of my super sweet and capable team makes it come together every month.

Amazing community
I sometimes cannot believe how far we have come — artists, musicians, suppliers, and Nairobi as a whole. My heart swells every time I am on stage seeing all these wonderful people spending their time, money, and love on us.

The way I feel about this amazing community called Blankets & Wine is indescribable. I really cannot explain it. Believe me, if there was a better word than love, that would be it.
Many people ask me, “How did you start”? I say, “By doing it!” So get off your couch and do it. Start today. Whatever you feel passionately about, you can use it in the service of humanity.

I want, at the end of my life, to look back and see a beautiful quilt of experiences that all point to my truth; that I am an extension of the Creator, and as such, I spent my life creating.

They ask, “But how did you know it was right?” It is simple. When you do this thing you like, does it make you bubble with joy? Can you lose yourself for hours doing it and not even realise that time has flown?
When you daydream, do you see yourself doing it? Do you feel wonderful and whole, and nothing else matters? If it is meant to be, it will become exceedingly obvious. If it was not for you, at least you will know, and you will be happy in the process.

I say, go ahead and do it, already. Be uncompromising in your expression of joy. Stop negotiating with life. Dive right in. Today!

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