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Salome Chiira opens up on her traumatic childhood

By Steve Umidha

Medical queen Salome Chiira has become the face of living one’s best life. Unfortunately she’s had to survive a lot of trauma to get to where she is today.

She is famously known for changing the face of Radiant Group of Hospitals and along the way, continuously shattering glass ceilings in a way obscured among her peers.

I quickly learnt something about Sally when we sat down for an interview recently – her distinctive sense of humor. The mother of three is effervescent and quick-witted with a sharp intellect that she admits has helped her respond to situations deftly.

She talks and acts tough. Sally is a go-getter, no question. Her members of staff adore her unique style of management and when you get to interact with them, it is obvious they can take a bullet for her.

But more confounding was her tenacity to build a career unlike any other and her ability to overcome any hurdle along the way.

“I learnt this early on, that life has no shortcuts and you have to be prepared for whatever, so I take chances, I take well-calculated risks, every day,” opens up feisty Salome, in her exquisite outfit, perfected with startling knee-high black boots.

Women entrepreneurs like Ms. Chiira continue to face the multitasking whirlpool of running a business and are thriving, even in the face of adversity in their entrepreneurial pursuit.

During her early days, Salome would double her small earnings as a salesperson while in secondary school and college — selling love note books to fellow students and as a photographer, taking photographs using a camera bought from her savings.

“As early as the age of seven, I knew the importance of saving. I would collect black coffee in my dad’s farm and he would pay me some cents for it. So, this thing of knowing the value of money was entrenched in me as a small girl,” she opines.

Today, Salome’s life may be brimming with riches, recognition, and prestige but unfortunately, that was not always the case. Her childhood was quite the contrast; when you hear her gut-wrenching stories of rural poverty, sexual and physical abuse, and teenage pregnancy, it is almost difficult to believe that the suffering young girl was the same Sally, a self-made millionaire, we know and admire today.

Early pregnancy

Salome was just 14 years old when she got pregnant in 1991.

“I got pregnant as a teenager, and due to this, I was forced to sell vegetables to earn a living before I went back to school to complete my secondary education and later pursue a career in nursing,” opens up Salome during an interview.

She reckons that the unplanned pregnancy was one of the toughest periods she had to endure as a teenager, a life changing fact that forced her to drop out of school in Form Two while studying at Kangubiri Girls High School in Nyeri County.

As a result of the pregnancy, Salome remained away from school but would return a year later – this time in Mutira Girls High School, Kirinyaga County from 1992 to 1993. Her classmates leapfrogged her forcing her to play catch up.

The next two years (1994 and 1995) would, however, be her defining moment – a period that offered both hope and despair.

Luckily, Salome successfully accomplished her secondary education scoring a strong mean grade of B in her Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE).

But that joy was short-lived.

Almost gave up on her quest to pursue medicine

For anyone who knows Sally, she has a high tolerance for risk and doesn’t waste too much time worrying about setbacks.

She was determined to further her dream career in medicine, but it was not possible at the time, as her dad was forced to tutor her younger siblings instead.

“My dad was very supportive but only lacked the capacity because of my younger siblings who were all joining secondary schools at a time when I was going to college,” she narrates.

As a result, she would end up taking a house maid job making just enough to cater for herself and the son.

Despite the fact that she needed the work and that there seemed to be no meaningful future ahead of her, the young Salome opted to stay on. But it came with added responsibilities – answering incoming guests’ calls on behalf of her employer. This, she says, required her to routinely devour etiquette while juggling between her day-to-day errands.

Her diligence, coupled with expressiveness and confidence while on those phone calls, which were always defined and precise, would later turn out to be step one on her long road to immense.


Strange call

One morning while undertaking her routine house chores, Salome says a usual phone call went on and she habitually reached out to answer it.

“It was the call that changed my life for the better. It was a call to my employer, who was not in the house at the time,” she narrates.

The caller, impressed by her fluency and understanding of English language, inquired, “You speak so well why are you not in school?” He was a senior bank manager at the time, Salome says, curiously summoned her to meet him at his office.

Armed with just a name, contact and location, Salome discretely met the elderly man — who was working for a local bank.

“Upon narrating her story to him, withouht hesitation, he offered to pay my school fees and tuition fees for my diploma in nursing at Kenya Medical Training Institute (KMTC) in Embu between  and 1999,” says Salome.

In 2001, she got a job at a non-governmental Organisation (NGO). Salome yearned for further education and proceeded to Aga Khan University, where she undertook a degree in nursing between 2007 and 2010.

So, how did she acquire the Radiant Group of Hospitals? Radiant Hospital’s initial owners had failed to get a financial rescuer at a time the facility was in a sorry state and in need of a facelift.

It was a tough period that had also seen employees leaving and suppliers running out of patience owing to delayed payments.

Ground-breaking risk

In 2005, Salome and five of her friends pooled their resources and bought the hospital, contributing Sh500, 000 each to raise Sh2.5million — revitalization capital.

However, that dream would fail to live up to the high expectations, prompting her to buy out other stakeholders who also had medical backgrounds.

“None of them was willing to dedicate their time to run it. They had given up on the business despite risking their resources in the hope of salvaging it.

I managed to pay each of them Sh300, 000 in first installments in the first year and the balance over a period of 12 months,” she reveals.

She took a three-month leave from her well-paying NGO job to fully focus on reviving the facility.

She decided to spend time at the hospital to experience firsthand the challenges the facility was going through and during that period, she found herself working as a receptionist, a nurse and even a marketer.

With additional loan from the banks, her savings and top-up from her spouse, Salome embarked on a tedious, but a worthy journey spanning over 10 years of rebuilding the hospital brand.

“I approached a local bank for a loan. My father offered our only piece of land as collateral to the bank. I was also fortunate to get additional funding from my spouse,” she adds.

Today, she’s the proud owner of Radiant Group of Hospitals, with a fully functioning board chaired by the banker who paid her first education tuition at KMTC, Embu.

It employs more than 100 employees across its value-chain. Plans are also afoot to expand the facility to selected regions across the country.

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