"You never look like what you're going to become until you become it,'' Muthoni Ngugi says with a chuckle, reclining in a chair at her exquisitely furnished office in Nairobi.
Muthoni, 23, is the founder of Gaze Furnishings, a company that deals with high-end home and office furniture.
From the sheer elegance of her office, it is hard to imagine that hers was a humble start in business, even inconceivable so, that she was once a dishwasher.
To get her enterprise off the ground, Muthoni paid with sweat, tears, and toil. "I moved out when I was 18 because of problems at home,'' she narrates.
"I was in my second year at the University of Nairobi studying Finance. I was already fending for myself,'' she adds.
To start her off, Muthoni worked at a real estate firm as a personal assistant, earning Sh15,000, just enough to get by. In 2015, she waited at two different restaurants in the city.
"I'd work at one restaurant during daytime and later head to the other for the night,'' she says. Muthoni would still squeeze two hours from her compact schedule every day to teach literature at a private school in Nairobi.
That's when she thought she needed to do better. In 2016, she took a plunge, first by withdrawing her little savings, then enrolling for an online course in interior architecture.
Already, she had dropped out of the university for lack of school fees. "Interior decor and furniture have always fascinated me. I envisioned stylish furniture designs that would also be affordable. I felt Kenyans were paying too much for imported furniture,'' she explains.
Muthoni hoped to fill this gap. Six months later, she completed her course. Armed with the skills and a little capital, she set up Gaze Furnishings at the start of 2017, a move she describes as a leap of faith.
"I would come up with a furniture design then contract a carpenter to make the piece. Owing to resource constraints, I only made a few pieces, which I would then sell to get my cut,'' she recounts.
It was a tough method of business, but after months of an intense social media campaign, things started to look up. Gradually, she built a solid portfolio.
"I can comfortably say my business has now broken even,'' Muthoni says proudly. "Currently, I have 10 carpenters, two showroom attendants, and an office assistant, all on permanent employment."
Her design studio and workshops are located at Utawala in the outskirts of Nairobi.
Besides furniture, Muthoni stocks home and office artefacts and interior decor items such as marbles, artificial flowers and vases.
Thanks to her short course, she also does consultancy in interior architecture, decorating homes and offices for an extra income.
She notes that interior architecture is a delicate domain, and one has to be meticulous on designs. "You have to stick strictly to customer's specifications. To earn customers' trust, you have to be patient,'' she says.
Her clientele spans corporates looking to invest in top-dollar office furniture and homeowners hoping to give their spaces a touch of elegance.
"Sometimes I buy complete pieces of furniture and remodel them to fit my imagination. Once redesigned, these pieces are not only exquisite but also fetch higher prices,'' she explains.
With a turnover of about Sh2 million per month, Muthoni has been investing slowly in other areas.
"I am trying my hand at the property business, but with a lot of caution. I wish to go into beauty. I love the beauty industry because it is diverse,'' she observes.
The business has come with a basketful of important lessons for her. "My mentor once told me: If you operate above board, you build trust in the market. You're also able to run a sustainable enterprise. I hold these words dear.''
Muthoni believes that money brings out the true character of a person, and that "if not careful, you can easily lose yourself, your family and friends".
"I'm happy to be able to pay for my siblings' education and other needs. People around me are proud of what I'm doing. It's their moral support that keeps me going,'' she notes.
Managing 12 people is not easy, she says, noting that she has to be on top of things at all times.
"All my employees are older. While we are a close-knit team, I know when to exert my authority,'' she says.
Muthoni has since gone back to university to complete her studies. As such, she now has to juggle schoolwork with running her business.
"I have no social life!" she chuckles. "If I'm not in school or at work, I'll be at home resting or sleeping to rejuvenate my spirit,'' she adds.
Muthoni has been a devoted bookworm since she was a young girl, with a hankering for fiction and practical books.
At her young age, Muthoni can only watch her now beautiful world unfold. "It's not about the hours I put in. I am paid for value and creativity, which makes it satisfying,'' she says.