The Entrepreneurial Mindset: Inside the mind of a Balloon Programme Coordinator

Joshua Zwetsloot spoke to John Ndehi, one of Balloon’s Programme Coordinators, based in Njoro, to find out about his story and how he came to join the Balloon Team.


“Be unstoppable”. These were the closing words of our interview with John Ndehi, the project coordinator of our Balloon Ventures programme in Njoro. Upon first meeting this authoritative but modest man, none of us had the slightest idea of the drive and determination that lay behind his joyous face. Yet after our 1 hour interview we left absolutely inspired and ready to take on the world.

His story is an astounding one, and not one you’d expect from someone to whom success seems to come to naturally. Having graduated from Kenya Polytechnic in Analytical Chemistry John, having started his own business, found himself as a hawker on the streets of Nairobi losing touch with the professional world. He became a man of survival, working only to live, and worst of all having no passion for what he was doing. In John’s mind this was unacceptable. Striving for better, John and his best friend worked together to get John a job that would challenge him more, especially mentally.

An opportunity arose, a job for which John was completely unqualified, teaching chemistry and biology. Despite his doubts over getting the job at the school of 800 pupils, he applied. Not only did he get the job, but within 3 years he had risen to the role of Deputy Head Teacher. Despite this unprecedented rise through the ranks, John felt he was no longer growing, his personal development had ground to a halt. Ever hungry, John decided it was time to move on.

With his area of expertise now lying in teaching, John was on the lookout for opportunities. Upon meeting his Uncle in Njoro he found the perfect role. There was just one hitch: Despite his wealth of experience in the field he lacked one vital component, an actual teaching qualification. However, the more we spoke to John, the more we saw a recurring trend in his life. If he wanted something badly enough, he got it. This case was no exception. Before John knew it he was behind a huge desk in an equally huge office as a school Principal. The popularity of the school soared and within a year the number of pupils had practically doubled to 188 from 98.

Cue Balloon Ventures. John met Doug (one of the founders of Balloon Ventures) whilst still Principal of his school at a Youth Sacco (Savings and Credit Cooperative Organisation) in Elburgon. His initial thoughts, “what is this Mzungu [a white person] doing?!”. Little did he know what the future held for him and this “mzungu”! Inspired by Balloon’s programme, and wanting to pursue entrepreneurship himself, John signed up as an entrepreneur. He registered a company for 45,000 KSH and utilised his knowledge of chemistry to make money producing soaps and detergents, a business that he is still pursuing to this day.

On completing the Balloon programme John, having shown his competency in business, was recruited onto the ‘Masters training programme’. An 8-week programme design to nurture and train up-and-coming entrepreneurs. All four of his entrepreneurs got funding.

John outside the SACCO

John didn’t want to stop the good work there. It is at this point that Smarty Sacco was born, founded by John and his best friend Samuel Karanja (the chairman of the Sacco) to support young people, who are currently doing business in Njoro, with Balloon Ventures in mind to come and support them in the future. Smarty Sacco can be found in Njoro to this day with budding entrepreneurs running in and out all day long like bees in a hive! Its motto, “Think big, start small”, emblazoned across its wall reflects so perfectly the story and mindset of its co-founder. However, Smarty Sacco had a much humbler beginning. Prior to Doug’s visit, Smarty Sacco was a piece of paper. A certificate issued by the Ministry of Cooperative Societies. Its first ever meeting was held at Farmers Inn, a hotel on the outskirts of Njoro.

At the very beginning John had no idea how the Sacco was going to run. It had 10 clients. 1 year and 3 months later Balloon brought their very first International Citizen Service (ICS) programme to Njoro. John had already been working for Balloon as a project coordinator for four programmes in Kericho County. After the fourth placement John was moved back to Njoro and is currently on his ninth placement and still going strong.

John emphasises that Balloon has played a vital part in his personal development, growing his confidence in all areas, particularly with respect to resolving issues and conflicts, of which there are copious amounts throughout the duration of a programme. Balloon has also helped John to respect individuality. He now understands that every person is different and should be treated this way, especially with regards to the personal development of others, which he considers a key part of his role. John has seen entrepreneurs enrol onto the programme with little or no hope and not much in the way of business acumen. Yet they have completed the programme with a thriving business, brimming with hope and eagerly anticipating what tomorrow might bring. This he attributes to a ‘leap of faith’: you have to be willing to try something and believe fully in yourself and what you’re doing. This success has generated a huge amount of respect for Balloon Ventures and its programmes throughout Njoro, which is reflected in the huge number of entrepreneurs signing up for the programme.

On top of that the Sacco is going from strength with 7.5 million KSH passing through it since its founding in March 2014 – and this figure is continuing to grow. From having no plan, John now has a 20 year plan for the Sacco. His ultimate vision is to have ‘Smart’ banks all over Kenya. The only question he asks himself is “what’s stopping us?”

The words of inspiration from John were seemingly endless. However, our interview was brought to a halt when we were told to quieten down as our excitement got a bit too much! However, I feel it fitting to include a quick summary of the lessons we can learn from John’s journey in his own words. “If you want something to happen you have to be the engine”; “Live for something. Go out for a reason and in the evening ask yourself, ‘Was the objective met?’”; and, finaly, “Be unstoppable”.