My new book, Beyond Barriers, includes profiles of incredible people who have turned their toughest challenges into their greatest strengths. One of these incredible people is Rona Kotecha, Executive Director of the Mara Foundation. This is her story.
Rona’s family lived in Uganda during the reign of the violent dictator Idi Amin. Three weeks after her birth, Rona’s parents fled the country during the mass exodus that followed his rise to power. They settled in the United Kingdom and attempted to build a new life for themselves.
The town where Rona’s family wound up was an industrial city in England. Her parents decided to start market trading, so they traveled to nearby villages and coastal towns to sell women’s clothes. Because it was a family business, Rona began helping her parents, working in market stalls at the age of ten. She went to school during the week, but her evenings were spent purchasing goods with her parents, and her weekends were spent working in the market. On the weekends in particular, she worked very long hours. On Sunday, her workday typically started at 4 a.m. since they had a long journey to the coastal towns.
Rona got used to playing an active part in the family business. She not only helped her parents make ends meet, but she also helped her siblings with their homework. She learned early on the discipline of hard work and the value of time and money.
She had very little time to play, though it’s doubtful she would have done much playing even if she’d had the time. Through her family’s struggles, Rona had developed a deep sense of responsibility. She knew what her parents had gone through to leave Uganda, how they’d arrived in the United Kingdom with almost nothing, and how hard they had worked to provide their children with a better future. Rona had learned that there’s more to life than hanging out with friends and having fun.
Because of her deep sense of responsibility, she never felt burdened by working in the family business, taking care of her siblings, or helping with chores at home. She decided not to follow her friends to university so she could continue to support her family and look after the family business. She worked seven days a week, bouncing between the markets and a store the family acquired. In the process, she accrued valuable experience.
Living Core Values
In 1993, the family decided to move to Rwanda, where Rona’s father, supported by her mother and sister, started a new business. Rona stayed behind in the United Kingdom, working while finishing her education part-time. In 1994, her family went through the terrible Rwandan genocide, losing absolutely everything they had worked so hard to build.
By this time, Idi Amin had been out of power in Uganda for many years, so the family returned to Uganda to start over yet again. Her father took out a loan to start a business there. Even though they still had very little, they remained resilient through the pain, loss, and changes. They even managed to help others in their community. All of this imparted to Rona the lessons of generosity, sharing, and humility.
Rona’s brother Ashish decided to leave school at fifteen so he could support the family. He started a technology company, supporting the family business by helping Rona’s father import goods into Africa. Rona moved to Dubai to support the growing family business. Though she didn’t have the skills to master some of the tasks required in the expanding business, she taught herself everything she needed to know. Together with her siblings, she took the family business to the next level.
As the business grew, Rona took on greater and greater roles. Today, her family operates a multisector company in Africa, Mara Group, a pan-African business services company that has expanded into the Middle East.
Creating a Social Enterprise
After working in the Middle East for a few years, Rona moved back to London, got married, and raised a family. Even then, her sense of responsibility and service led her to continue innovating. Rona’s brother dreamed of finding ways to empower entrepreneurs and create change. That was the inspiration behind the Mara Foundation, which launched in 2009.
In 2012, Ashish asked Rona to lead the foundation and scale the Mara Mentor initiative. Despite being a mom to three-month-old twins and a two-and-a-half-year-old, Rona decided to accept the challenge. Mara Mentor, a social enterprise focused on mentoring emerging entrepreneurs to start up and scale their businesses, provides mentorship, resources, support, and tools to help entrepreneurs become successful.
In taking on these responsibilities, Rona went through an internal roller coaster. She worried that she was letting her kids down by spending so much time on her new endeavor. She wondered whether she could manage both a family and a growing business. Despite the difficulties, she never gave up. She developed confidence by continuing to take steps forward. She learned new skills and adapted to change in both the marketplace and her family’s expectations.
Rona has made a profound impact on the lives of many people, and she enjoys what she’s doing. She has discovered that the secret to dealing with self-doubt lies in learning and growing. She has also become a wonderful role model for many people, including her own children. Her eldest, now eight, has asked if she can follow in her mother’s footsteps of empowering others by joining the Mara Foundation.
Ultimately, Rona wanted to change the narrative of what’s possible in people’s lives because her family had survived so much. Though she ventured into areas she knew nothing about, she learned and adapted, driven by her deep sense of responsibility and service. Now she gets to celebrate the impact she is making in the lives of so many people.
The story doesn’t end here, however. Rona dreams of expanding the reach of the Mara Foundation to millions of people globally. Hers is a story of conviction, of never giving up, no matter what challenges came her way.
For more advice and stories on how to turn your challenges into successes, check out my new book, Beyond Barriers.