Simon Gicharu regards himself a gambler, a habit he says almost got him expelled from Kiawaria Primary School in Githunguri.
“I was into money-making. In secondary school, I formed the Gathiruini Bomas Club and fellow students paid fifty cents to watch dancers,” he says.
For his troubles, he made Sh2 weekly. And his life story is full of taking chances. He almost quit school while in Class Six, repeated various classes, but somehow managed to get an admission to train as a teacher in Kenyatta University.
However, he did no keep his teaching job for long because he was fired for going abroad for further studies without permission.
Now, he is among the first Kenyans to establish a private university, an empire he built from a two-roomed college somewhere in Thika.
At this point, I am curious to know how the business mogul managed to expand a college with a few old model computers to one of the most modern private universities in Kenya and beyond.
Gicharu says he had an opportunity to study abroad through a scholarship and he was shocked at the number of Kenyans seeking education abroad. “In 1995, I won a British Council scholarship to study entrepreneurship at Cranfield University in the United Kingdom.
During my stay, I was concerned about the large number of Kenyan youth who travelled looking for learning opportunities and some who struggled to meet their tuition fees, dropping out of college,” he says.
Excited about putting his skills to use, Gicharu walked into Equity Bank and asked for Sh20,000, which he used to set up Thika Vocational Computer Literacy Center.
He rented two rooms and he was lucky that an NGO donated 10 computers since his passion to impart skills on young people had been established. He also enlisted services of volunteers who were keen to put into use their ICT skills.
“It was in 1996 and information technology was starting to become mainstream in education,” says Gicharu adding that he had started a pharmacy, but he did not make money out of it.
“You have to have a passion, focus and some knowledge about what you are doing. This is a valuable lesson I have learnt,” he says. From a vocational centre, the institution became a commercial college offering management and computer training programmes in 2002.
Later in the year, Mt. Kenya University was granted full registration approval as an institution of higher learning. In 2006, the Commission for Higher Education validated and approved Mt. Kenya University request for collaboration with JKUAT to offer both diplomas and degrees. Gicharu says in 2009, his dream of building a university of repute in Africa started when the institute was granted permission to establish a full-fledged privately funded university with Thika Institute of Technology as its precursor.
It was granted a charter two years ago and renamed Mt. Kenya University. Now, it is a multi-billion institution. “Looking back, the biggest achievement I have made is being able to change the lives of young people. It is not about money,” he says.
Mt. Kenya University is constructing a Sh900 million science and technology centre along the Thika-Garissa Road. He named the institution Mt Kenya University because:
“When you are at the top of a mountain, you have the whole world below you.” The focus now is research and collaboration with industries.