On the opening day of the HMN Accelerator retreat, the energy permeating Dubai’s light-flooded office room had been tangible from the very start: the conjunction of both depth of humility and fierce courage. Each of the women present had a story to tell, disclosed through a dignified bearing, the sunshine of a smile, or the sharpness of gaze. I have been fortunate to have had a candid conversation with them on the last day of the retreat, and here are their stories.
Keren Makari is the founder of Smart Sensory which sells multi-sensory and innovative equipment and custom-built space design services to support families in Kenya towards real-time therapeutic developmental needs of children with sensory processing difficulties.
Can you tell us about that moment when the idea for your SE first emerged?
It's quite a story there! When it first emerged, I was in med school. I went through medical school because that was pretty much an expectation from our parents. You either go down the education or the medical route. So when I finished med school in Mombasa, I went to volunteer with a foundation called Sapling Trust Foundation, a community-based foundation. They were bringing in children with autism and ADHD, giving them a space to learn, and providing therapy for them to make things easier. Most parents who would bring their kids in could not afford any therapy. The therapist working there was so frustrated because they had no equipment to assist them with the right kind of therapy. Whenever I would have conversations with them, none knew exactly what sort of equipment they needed, but they knew they needed equipment. And I thought: “seriously, there has to be a solution to this.” I went back to my room and started googling, looking for information. I realized that in the US, some equipment and devices were available that improved kids’ interaction with the environment and were used by therapists to help cases and ease symptoms. However, one thing that stood out was the cost: it was extremely expensive! I went down to discuss it with the founders, but we couldn't raise any money to make equipment. It took us about two years to get enough funds to create one sole piece of equipment. That was the moment I realized this was exactly what I wanted to do, and nothing more. It started immediately because I returned to school and studied occupational therapy. Once I finished that, Smart Sensory was established.
Why did you choose to apply to HerMeNow specifically?
I was online and I was looking for a networking platform for women CEOs, which is not very easy to find here in Kenya, and it's a very closed network. That's when I came across Bloom and saw the HerMeNow program, and I thought, “Oh, this could be what I'm looking for.”
What keeps you going everyday?
What keeps me going are these moments when our team and I go on the platform through which we reach out to moms and donate some devices, and see so many messages of thanks. That's beautiful. I think the gratitude is huge. And that’s what keeps me going.
Can you tell us what brings you the most joy in being a social entrepreneur?
What brings me the most joy, apart from just touching people's lives, is what you get in return for it. It's not always about them: it's also about what it does to you, in your heart. And nothing makes you more joyful than when someone else is happy thanks to what you've done.
Conversely, what are the biggest challenges you face?
The biggest challenge, first of all, is when you're starting your business. There are very few people who believe in the idea: you have to keep proving yourself out there over and over again for people to be able to actually see you and buy your products/services. As a social entrepreneur, you have very little return on revenue, or whatever return you get still go back to social activities. It gets quite hard to be able to gather enough funds to reach more people. So I think the hard part is that you're always looking at this massive world out there that you need to fulfill but you have very little funds, so you feel like it's only a drop in the ocean… “When will I get there?” you keep asking yourself. That's the challenging part.
What legacy do you wish to leave in your community?
I'd like to leave behind the firm belief within my community that every child born into this world has the capacity to optimize his/her potential. Everybody should be given a chance to use their abilities. Even those that do not seem like they can do anything have, in fact, so much to offer. They just need to be given the opportunity to explore.
What does "women’s empowerment" mean to you personally?
I feel like there's been a misconception about that but I could be wrong—in that women’s empowerment does not mean making a woman more of a man: it’s about making a woman fully a woman, and making her very comfortable with being one, and with the role she plays in her community. Also, an empowered woman to me is someone who feels very confident when facing her challenges, knowing she can overcome them and find solutions.