In 1989, Jay and Ninaa Shanghavi founded Vintage Tours and Travel and ran it successfully until 1996 when they sold it to a South African company for a decent cheque. For a year, they twiddled their thumbs and travelled the world as they continued running some four semi-permanent luxurious camps in Tanzania that they own. When they settled down, they started The Good Earth Group, a hospitality company with unique F&B concepts. Nyama Mama restaurant — a retro-African diner — was opened, then came Blue Door Restaurant (an over-25 nightclub with electric dance floor) and then recently Mr Yao, a classic fine-dining Chinese restaurant.
They met JACKSON BIKO in their massive Great Wall private dining and had Jasmine Oolong tea from their tea-salon.
I’ve always noticed that in your community you wear these colourful bracelets, like the ones you have on. What’s their story?
JAY: It’s given by priests after particular religious functions as a blessing. He’s the one who puts it and you don’t remove it until it comes off naturally and when that happens you either drop it in the river or sea or something. It’s a good luck thing. I got mine after we opened this place.
So, if you have 10 businesses you will have 10 bracelets?
JAY: Yeah. You can have that. It is no problem. But it is a personal choice, you are not compelled to. Young people are atheist nowadays. But a lot of them also have 10,20.
What does “Good Earth’ mean anyway?
NINAA: Well, we are all good people in this world and earth is our mother. So, we’ve always said that where we stand on, is a good earth. We employ very young people who need to stand on this earth as well. A lot of them are not graduates – we’ve not always looked at graduates to be part of our group – I think the future is about people who have attitude, who have to have hunger for work, and a strong vision and conviction of becoming something. I never had a degree. I failed in my A-levels but my vision was to become a CEO of a company. So, for me whether you succeed academically or not is not a big thing for me, you deserve a chance at life.
Everybody wants to start some sort of a restaurant. It seems like a very sexy business. What don’t we know about running a restaurant?
JAY: (Laughs). It’s not an easy business. You’ll be criticised everyday. You have to be consistent. There is a lot behind it. People just think that putting food on the table is what makes you the money but there are thousands of things that happen before that.
NINAA: Jay handles the day to day and it’s not easy at all. He’s got the tougher part. Mine is more on the strategy and execution of new projects are there, social media marketing. So, it’s more of a fun and meeting people, engaging in new ideas with the team.
NINAA: (Laughs). We met in England over 41-years ago. Well, I was running a travel agency. So, I was his boss. In 1989 we came back to Kenyan, saw a gap and started a new travel business together. At that time, the travel business was such that there was foreign exchange control. So, if you want to buy a ticket, you need a Central Bank approval. If you want to go on a safari, on tour overseas, you need an approval. We started Vintage Tours and Travel at the age of 21. Very young.
Are entrepreneurs born or is it something that you can go to school and learn?
NINAA: They are born. It is a natural talent that can be groomed. It is inbuilt. But you learn along the way, things that you can’t learn in a class. I have learnt that I’m a risk taker but Jay isn’t. Normally you won’t see him in front, he’s comfortable enough as a man to let me lead. He doesn’t have a man’s ego. He always encourages women to come in front and lead.
How difficult is to be married and to run a business together, being in each other’s hair all the time? How do you make sure work doesn’t follow you here or work doesn’t follow you at home?
NINAA: There is no science to it. We have our moments and then we just give some space and then we go back. It’s something you learn over time.
JAY: My experience is that one has to learn to give in, either way and you have to move on. I think it is a give and take attitude. Business will test you, I mean we have been bankrupt four times; the closure of Bullion Bank, Kilifi bombing, the 9/11 terrorism and the 2007/8 post election violence. It’s good when your partner knows what’s happening, when you are in it together. It can tear you apart, but it can also bring you closer as partners in marriage and in business.
NINAA, what do you like and least like about him?
[Laughs] He is very honest and an extremely hard-working man. He also empowers women. I least like his short circuit. When he gets mad…yeah. [Laughs]
JAY: I love that she is fearless. She’s aggressive and isn’t scared of taking risks.
NINAA: No kids. Our kids are all the people we employ. They give us headache everyday. We realised a long time ago – in our 30s – that we are workaholics and never thought kids were not for us.
JAY: There was the option of adoption but we decided that we would not able to look after them properly and given them time and attention they deserve. We now look after kids through charities. We – together with friends – started “Food For Life” mission 20 years back. We feed kids daily in the slum areas, something 7,000 children every year.
The decision not to have children given that period in time and your conservative community must have been very unpopular.
JAY: Well, generally it wasn’t accepted at that time by our community, especially in our religion, it wasn’t a good thing. I would say it caused a problem.
When you guys eat out do you find that you’re more critical because you’re in the restaurant business?
JAY: We are more lenient because we know how tough it is. But when we criticise we don’t go public about it because we also own restaurants and we would like the feedback to come in the proper channel.
Why do you think the Asians are very good in business?
NINAA: I think it’s because our forefathers were born traders. We grew up seeing our fathers and our grandfathers run businesses. So, it’s been in the blood. If you grow up like that, I mean, that’s all you know. And our grandfathers and fathers led simple business lives running businesses in Biashara street; they’d break at 12:30pm and go home for lunch and by 5:30pm they’d close shop and socialise in community halls, or walk and exercise.
JAY: Now you are lucky to leave at 8:30pm. There is no focus in social life and things like that. Technology has taken over, you have phones in our pockets and that comes with emails and calls. When we started we used telex.
What do you guys fear now?
NINAA: Obviously, the fear is debt. Like how the government has a debt, we also have a debt. Another fear is that we never get partners who can help us scale this business globally.
JAY: Mine is that whenever we are slightly coming up, things on the other side are looking to go down. I fear that the economy lets us down because every time we have looked to be picking up something happens and business gets into problems. We want the economy to hold so that people can have money to eat in restaurants.
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