The #HustleTales of Esther Kalenzi, founder of 40 Days Over 40 Smiles Foundation

Current gig(s):

My work revolves around 40 Days Over 40 Smiles Foundation and our desire to change the lives of underprivileged children. Also, I’m currently pursuing an M.A Education, Gender and International Development.

40-40-logo-x2Current computer(s):

Toshiba Satellite insert numbers

Current mobile device(s):

Nokia XL

One word that best describes how you work:

Passion

How did you end up at your current gig?

This might sound a bit ambiguous but, “It is written!” I had different plans for what I would be doing at this point in my life but divine intervention led me here and I could not be more fulfilled.

What did you think you’d be doing at this point in your life?

I studied journalism because I had the passion to tell people’s stories, especially those whose voices may not ordinarily be heard. I thought I would be a features writer for a reputable publication and possibly a freelance travel writer because I always dreamt of seeing the world and sharing the tales with a wide audience.

Are there any career decisions/life choices/failures that were fundamental in making you the person you are now, doing what you are doing now?

That’s an interesting question. Something occurred to me after I began 40-40. From my S.6 vacation until my first ‘real job,’ I had done a lot of unpaid work. Most of it was because it was internship or training, in which case I already anticipated that, but part of it was as a result of working for a corrupt boss who was swindling our pay. As a result, I learnt to survive on whatever was available. Simply put, money has never been a driver for me to pursue opportunities. For that reason, I managed to put up with situations that would ordinarily make someone run to the nearest exit. I always made sure I left after I had learnt enough.

One of my greatest assets is social capital in all shapes and sizes, from a friend who was in P.4 class, a colleague from a job I loathed to my favourite boda boda guys. At the time, when I was cultivating these relationships, I had no idea that I’d be doing what I do but the most unlikely characters have been responsible for my best experiences.

On failure, I cannot count the number of times I have fallen especially during these (almost) 4 years on this journey. However, I have learnt to be grateful for these failures because they either led to something better or taught me a lesson.

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?

Pretty sure I can live without all the apps I currently use. I actually give myself breaks from time to time to prove exactly that. However, I am fond of wordpress, whatsapp and of course google which pretty much opens one to everything else.

What’s your workspace like?

To be honest, I just need to have my tools and I shall work anywhere. Many of the tasks are accomplished in the comfort of my bedroom.

Is your start-up able to fully support you or do you have side gigs to sustain you as it grows?

According to my definition of ‘support,’ yes it supports me because it gives me great joy and satisfaction when I go to bed every night, knowing I am doing what I love and it could change someone’s life. In terms of the support I believe you are alluding to, we are not there yet, but we shall be in the not too distant future. I have no side gigs, partly because if 40-40 is to succeed or fail, I want to know that I gave it 150%. The only ‘side gig’ I can settle for is one that complements my work and does not steal attention from my heart. (40-40)

Until then, I guess I am stuck being ‘not fully supported.’ 🙂

Some of the children that have benefited from the work 40-40 does.
Some of the children that have benefited from the work 40-40 does.

Any stories of some of the struggles/sacrifices you’ve had to make to see this dream come to life?

I really would not know where to start. You need to get me on a good day and you have to be armed with a large flask of tea. I can summarise it by saying at the time I started this I was literally alone. I needed to get my friends (cum colleagues) to buy into the vision. I needed to get my loved ones to understand the decision. I had to ensure that people trusted us and the list goes on. When I had to leave my job to do 40-40 full time, it meant literally giving up everything to follow a dream whose future I could not determine.

Given the chance, would I do it again? Absolutely.

What’s your best time-saving trick/life hack?

Plan. Plan. Yes, plan ahead. Sometimes I have my day planned to the last minute and then a plan B or C for any of things that might not work out. It is a bit much but works for me.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager?

I am quite old fashioned especially in this regard. I have actual notebooks and plenty of sticky notes to keep my lists in check. I also use my phone.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?

I don’t really own any other portable gadget but it would have to be an iPod, given the chance. I listen to music from the radio, the laptop, phone but I would love to have it in ‘it’s own place’ all the time so I can access it whenever (and not have to worry about the phone battery or other..) The reason is quite simple really, I love music and to be able to access it all day, every day makes it even better 🙂

In case you were wondering what gift to buy Esther Kalenzi...
In case you were wondering what gift to buy Esther Kalenzi…

What everyday thing are you better at than most?

Mmmh, communication, perhaps?  I could do better, obviously, but I consciously make an effort in this regard.

What techniques can you share on how you are able to be effective at communication?

Do the work. Almost everyone I know who complains about communication is terrible at it. They expect people to read their minds yet they themselves do not go out of their way to communicate. I think one has to make a conscious effort starting with the little things, calling when you are running late (instead of telling a lie), checking on someone when they disappear from the radar for a while, (you know you’d want the same done for you) checking in with a team member before making a decision for them and the list goes on. There are so many things we take for granted but once they have accumulated, you find that it affects all your other relationships yet a simple piece of honest feedback could have solved your problems.

How do you recharge?

It depends on what I am ‘recovering’ from. Anything from dancing, prayer, writing or a spa treat to spending time with friends/family to get my mind off things.

What do you listen to while you work?

I am not very picky when it comes to music so it could be Tupac or Tori Kelly and I would still be good to go.

How big is the team of people you work with and what’s your formula for managing them?

I would say about 20 overall although they are not always in the same place at the same time. I have no formula! Goodness, I can’t even say that I am good at ‘managing’ them. It is a work in progress really. The one thing I try to do is to applaud in public and criticise in private. I love for the whole team to know when someone is doing a good job (although I also speak to them personally) so that they can aspire to that. I try to let them know they are valued because currently I cannot give a bonus or certain incentives. I try to ensure that we work as a family, pulling each other up, supporting one another and generally being more human than robots. I can tell you, it has its perks and disadvantages but we keep learning and getting better.

Some of the 40-40 team members.
Some of the 40-40 team members.

What are you currently reading?

“Tea time stories for women” Linda Evans Shepherd. But if I am to be honest with you, it has been greatly overshadowed by a couple of assignments I am working on :/

What usually leads you to buy a book? Books you’ve read recently that have impacted on you deeply? What kind of impact did they have?

Some of the books I have read have been on recommendation and others, just plain curiosity based on the story or relatability. I am drawn to fiction for its ingenuity and ability to create new worlds, but also non-fiction to bring perspective to different experiences and the uniqueness or similarity, for that matter, of human beings everywhere.

I love Chimamanda Adiche’s books. They are deep, poignant, thought provoking and have the ability to just make you close the book for a few minutes, take it all in and then continue. Beyond her writing, I am intrigued by her as a person. You might have watched her ted talk “We should all be feminists.” It makes several valid points with a simple resounding message for us to work towards a world with equal opportunities.

That talk brings me to the book that impacted me last year; Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean in.’ It was mostly about women and leadership, in the work place and also as part of the family setting, matters that are pertinent to me for obvious reasons. While not all of the examples are relatable, it was quite interesting to see that some issues are just global, whether you are a C.E.O in the U.S or a working mother in Uganda. It was a well-written book and had thorough research or real life stories to back the message. One of the things I loved the most was that she allowed herself to be vulnerable, a thing that some people seem to think is criminal. They ‘brag’ about their success and treat the ‘small people’ with contempt, barely realising or admitting that they faced several challenges to get to the top. I’d like to see more honest ‘success stories’ from both young and old people, especially Ugandans, people of influence whom we look up to. Overall, it is an insightful book for both men and women, especially in the working world.

Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?

Definitely more of an extrovert. On some days, and in some ways, I tend towards being an introvert though.

What’s your sleep routine like?

Funny you should ask. It is not very stable. In fact, I have had several insomnia episodes and always comfort myself by saying “We sleep when we die.” Nonetheless, the 8 hours of sleep dream is still very much alive. Also, I would love to re-learn how to nap. My body’s idea of a nap is me lying in bed and remembering every single living memory or to do list in existence. It is funny, really, when it isn’t sad.

How do you strike a balance between work, family, friends and other social obligations?

Well, let’s see. I can’t say for a fact that I have nailed this one. In fact, I am not sure anyone can say for sure their life is ‘balanced.’ It is quite relative. However, I try to plan my weeks with special focus on what is urgent, important and/or necessary. To some extent, I am lucky because my work involves some of my closest friends, although it is imperative that I make time for them outside work as well as the ones who are in different circles. I try to ensure that when work is not so busy, I catch up on quality time with my loved ones.

I must admit, this is a constant work in progress.

Any mentors/role models that you are working with/have inspired you and what lessons have you managed to learn from them? 

I will start with my mother, without whom I’d be non-existent, literally. I have learnt so many lessons from her, just by watching her. Her dedication and hard work without making excuses even when she had reason to. I remember working at a job where I needed to be in office at 9 a.m but often missed a lift because her rule was to leave at 7 a.m whether there was a storm or she slept at 2 a.m. the day before.

To this day she is up at the crack of dawn and goes about her business without so much as a complaint. She lifts people up daily and will celebrate every achievement like it’s her own, mourn every sorrow with almost as much sadness as the bereaved. Her love and acceptance for people from all walks of life have made me a better person. Never once did she have to tell us to love because her example has more than sufficed. Have you read the poem by Mother Theresa, “Do it anyway?” It preaches an extremely difficult message to adhere to in ‘real life’ but I can tell you that my mother personifies that poem. On this 40-40 journey, she has been my biggest fan, my confidant, source of encouragement and I dare say, without her prayers, I would not be where I am today. As Abraham Lincoln said ‘I remember my mother’s prayers and they have always followed me. They have clung to me all my life.’

Another mentor who deserves mention is Michael Niyitegeka. I can’t for the life of me remember our first meeting in person although we ‘crossed paths’ on twitter. Unlike many Ugandans I have encountered, this gentleman practices what he preaches. The consultation hours he has given my team and I are worth thousands of dollars and yet he makes it seem so effortless. I also know for a fact that we are not the only people he has mentored or offered to support, a quality I admire. I am a firm believer in raising as many people as you can to the top if you have the opportunity to. It is extremely important to have at least one person who believes in you, has time for you and is also not afraid to tell you when you have gone wrong, this is what Michael has done for us.

Let me share a short story of how he indirectly saved my day. I remember going to give a talk where I was extremely intimidated sometime last year. I was undoubtedly the youngest person in the room and all the other speakers had been working in their fields for long. Introductions started with “For 15 years, I have been running…” During the first break, I tried to make myself comfortable by asking people about their work (hoping they would in turn be interested in mine) with very little luck. Eventually, this gentleman with visible grey hair walked up to me and asked if I was Esther Kalenzi. I was stunned to say the least! He explained that he had seen my name on the list and remembered Michael telling them about 40-40 while in Fort Portal weeks before. I honestly almost dropped a tear. We spoke for a bit and it gave me great motivation. I have never before gotten so much feedback from the audience as I did after that talk.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

I am not one to use superlatives loosely so ‘best’ feels quite strong. For now let us go with “Ask and you shall receive.” Closely followed by “If you don’t ask, the answer will always be no.”

Who else would you love to see answer these same questions?

Rich Wagaba

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I wish I was funny enough to come up with a joke for this part. No, I got nothing. Thanks for having me here

Dormitory built by 40-40 fundraising efforts.
Girls dormitory at Elohim Child Development Association built by 40-40 fundraising efforts.

If you have any additional questions for Esther, feel free to drop them in the comment section below. She will try and answer those she can. Click here to read other Hustle Tales

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The Hustle Tales (adapted from LifeHackers, How I Work series) asks people that are doing epic things how they go through their daily routines to make sure whatever is needed to get the job accomplished is done. If you are interested in doing one these interviews or know someone you think should do one, inbox us with the details and we’ll see if we can make it happen.

Written by Hustle Tales

The Hustle Tales (adapted from LifeHackers, How I Work series) asks people that are doing epic things how they go through their daily routines to make sure whatever is needed to get the job accomplished is done.

If you are interested in doing one these interviews or know someone you think should do one, inbox us with their details and we'll see if we can make it happen.

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