Posted on November 4, 2015
Top of the reasons why I’m passionate about publishing profiles of different people is because it’s an opportunity for me to learn from others. I draw tons of inspiration when I hear first hand about the life journey’s of everyday men and women who are relentless in pursuing their hopes and dreams. (It explains why I’m a huge fan of talk shows like Wendy Williams and The Real…or any other talk show that features human interest stories ). I’m better placed to handle my constant life battles by knowing that someone else had similar set backs but regardless of insurmountable odds, they were able to pull through. So when I met Peng Chen sometime last year, I was curious to know how he was able to transition from living in the states to starting his new working life here in Kenya. To add to the twist, Peng happily revealed to me that he had also found the love of his life down at our kenyan coast…and the said person was non other than Michelle Morgan. I still remember asking him a second time if its THE Michelle we all know…and with a smile on his face that shone bright enough to make me go blind…he gladly confirmed she was the one. My only reaction at the time was “You lucky ninja!!” 😀 That in turn prompted me to ask Peng for an interview…and he was more than ready to share about his life hustles here in Nairobi. So kindly take a seat, put your reading glasses on and lets dive in (head first) into Peng’s world. Go!
1. So Peng, lets begin this conversation by you telling us a little about yourself. Where were you born and raised up and how was your growing-up-life like?
I was born and spent the first few years of my life in a small town in South Eastern China. My parents had left China shortly after I was born to build a better life for themselves in the States. As a result, I was actually raised by my grandparents and extended family in China as a toddler. When I was about 5 years old, my parents felt a bit more settled in America and they brought me over to live with them. We eventually moved to San Diego, California, where I spent the next 13 years of my life. It was an amazing place to grow up – San Diego was right by the beach, sunny year round, and one of the most multicultural places in the US. Growing-up-life was mostly spent outdoors, playing basketball, track and field, hanging around with friends, and eating ridiculous amounts of burritos and tacos. My parents were pretty lenient for the most part; the general rule of thumb was that as long as I got good grades I could pretty much do what I wanted.
2. To be where you are today, a lot of credit goes back to how you were raised up by your parents. What kind of life changing lessons have you learnt from them over the years?
I’ve learned so many lessons from my parents over the years. I think whether we like it or not, we’re always influenced by the people closest to us, whether it be wanting to be like certain aspects of them or unlike other parts of them. My mother is one of the strongest and fierce people I know – she’s the kind of person that’s 5 foot 3 in real life but grows to 6 foot 5 when she’s angry. She taught me about personal responsibility, that no matter what happens, the buck stops with you. She taught me that everything good in life is earned and worked for…that what’s easy is not always what’s best for you. And best of all, she taught me how to cook Chinese food!
My dad is an incredible human being that’s strong in a completely different way than my mom. For him, strength is calmness and self-control. Strength is being able to stay yourself when the world erupts around you. He doesn’t seem to get fazed by anything, he just analyzes the problem and gets to work solving it.
I think the biggest way I differ from my parents is our opinions on what stability is and the importance it has in life. They’ve always wanted a more predictable life where you would put in your time and effort and know exactly what you get out of it. For me, the only time I really feel stable is when I’m moving and exploring. But I totally understand and appreciate that it’s only because they’ve provided a stable life for me that I’m free and able to run and work around the world.
3. After high school in San Diego, you got admitted to University of Pennsylvania to pursue a Bachelor in Commerce and Finance. Had you always anticipated to do this course? I’m also curious to know how college life in general was for you.
To be honest, I thought I was going to stay in California for the rest of my life. Most my friends were planning on staying in-state for college and I really wanted to join them. However, UPenn had a great undergraduate business program at the Wharton School, so when I was accepted, I thought it was too good of a chance to pass up. Heading to school on the East Coast was one of the best decisions of my life. Philadelphia was the first “city” I had really lived in and it was just amazing to see so much creativity from all walks of life concentrated in such a small area. College life was pretty amazing. I made life-long friends, experienced what love was for the first time, and had a chance to learn from some of the world’s best professors. It was really an eye-opening experience into all the things life had to offer. Philadelphia was pretty close to the other major East Coast cities so there were plenty of opportunities to take in New York and Boston as well.
4. Your career trajectory has seen you making sandwiches and frying chips in San Diego, to this point where you hold the title of Managing Director. But lets go back to the point where you made your entry to Kenya and worked with TakaTaka Solutions. What prompted this move and what kind of impact did this social entrepreneurship have where you operated?
My first job out of college was at a consulting company called Innosight. I had a couple opportunities to work on new businesses abroad and that’s when I fell in love with building companies in emerging markets. While in consulting, you typically only function on an advisory role and I realized what I enjoyed the most was the operational work. A good friend of mine, Sandra (who now runs Sugarpie Cupcakes here in Nairobi) put me in touch with somebody she knew who was establishing a waste management startup. We had a quick Skype conversation and he ended up offering me a job to run their operations here in Nairobi. I quit my job and landed in Kenya less than 30 days later.
The basic premise of TakaTaka Solutions was there was a huge need in low-income communities for a sustainable, local, and green solution to household waste disposal. It’s a sad fact that only 1/3 of people in Nairobi currently have access to waste disposal services. City Council does a terrible job of providing this basic necessity to the majority of its citizens. As a result, companies like TakaTaka Solutions exist to help fill that gap by providing affordable, accessible, and sustainable waste collection services in low-income communities. I started off working in Kangemi and Kawangware and by the time I left, we were employing over 40 local youth and collecting and disposing of household waste for over 3,000 households. From doing door-to-door sales, to pulling handcarts of waste around Kangemi, to chilling out with staff and eating some local nyama choma, it was a fantastic experience and I’m proud to say the service still goes on today.
5. You then left TakaTaka and took the role of Managing Director of Easy Taxi Kenya. Were there any kind of challenges as you made this transition? What kind of impact or lessons did you draw from your stint here?
I think the reason for the change was just the desire for more responsibility and itch to try something new. The biggest lesson I learned at TakaTaka was the importance of leading my example and showing that there’s nothing you would expect of others that you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself first. The other lesson I learned was how important the private sector was to solving public problems. From waste management, to money transfers, to public transportation, I think innovation and change in these sectors have all been driven by the private sector. Easy Taxi represented another opportunity to change the way business is done here in Nairobi and that was incredibly exciting.
6. So you are currently the MD of Easy Taxi Kenya since last year and doing amazingly well. Before we jump into the details of your work, share with the first timers a brief profile of Easy Taxi as an organization and what exactly you guys do.
Easy Taxi is a mobile application that connects taxi drivers and passengers together in a simple, convenient, and reliable manner. Rather than having to search your phone for all your taxi contacts and figure out which one is nearby or available, Easy Taxi automatically finds the closest available taxi driver to you, anytime, anywhere. You can even track your taxi’s arrival on your smartphone so you know exactly where he is and how long he’ll take to arrive. We’ve also introduced Easy Taxi Corporate to the Nairobi market which allows companies to make cashless rides for their employees and get automatic receipts and billing for their finance team.
7. As an online-based business, was the decision to operate Easy Taxi in Kenya made on the fact that we are currently riding on a digital revolution that’s rapidly changing how business is conducted? What else made Kenya the right place to set up base?
Kenya was the right place to set up Easy Taxi because of three main reasons. One, there is a huge NEED for transformation and increased efficiency in the transportation market. The gridlock, the lack of reliable transport, and unclear pricing models are all signs that there is a major problem that can hopefully be partly addressed by Easy Taxi. Secondly, Kenya has great existing base of mobile users who are able to use mobile apps and it’s rapidly growing. And lastly, we had very strong interest from the taxi drivers themselves for a new change in their business. Having their support was absolutely critical for this process.
8. You’ve been at Easy Taxi for close to two years now. What kind of challenges have you faced while running things here? And how have you managed to overcome them?
The biggest challenge at Easy Taxi was ensuring a high service standard for each and every ride. Rather than employing drivers and renting cars as most taxi companies do, we’ve built a family of taxi drivers united in the common goal of making taxi rides more convenient, reliable, and accessible. As a result, implementing rules like paying by the KM, standardizing car types, and insisting on common quality standards was a farm more difficult process since you’re basically convincing over 500 individuals (and counting) to agree to a common principle. But I think in the long run, that’s the best way to operate. You need everybody to buy into a common vision and the only way to do that is to hear out everybody’s opinions and come to a compromise. The coolest part is that the Easy Taxi drivers have formed their own elected body of leaders to help mediate issues among themselves and liaison with our offices, which makes all of our lives so much easier.
9. What is Easy Taxi’s vision for the near future as you continue your operations here in Kenya and the wider EA region?
I think the goal for Easy Taxi in the coming months in Kenya is to expand into every major city. Whether you’re in Mombassa, Nakuru, Eldoret, or Nairobi, you should be able to use the same Easy Taxi application to find an awesome taxi experience. In regards to the wider EA region, I think we’ll take a wait and see approach to see which markets are mature enough for us to invest in.
10. Kenya has been touted as the entrepreneurship hub of Africa…and if hosting the global Entrepreneurship Summit this year is anything to go by, then this declaration is not too far away from the truth. Would you agree with these sentiments considering you’ve worked here for a while now? What key observations about running a business in Nairobi have you noted?
I definitely believe that Kenya is an entrepreneurship hub and well deserves all the accolades that it’s been getting. However, I think people do need to be more conscious about the phase of development that we’re in here. You’re just not going to get the same level of returns in e-commerce here as you might in more developed countries, especially in regards to online advertising. One possible way to help judge the business state that we’re in is to see people’s willingness to pay for performance vs paying a flat rate. For example, in the States, any marketing company would be willing to charge advertisers based on number of impressions or clicks. But that just doesn’t happen here because there’s so much uncertainty around performance that companies are unwilling to base their performance around it. But it’s exactly this type of uncertainty that is attracting so much talent and entrepreneurship here, every new company here is trying to reduce uncertainty in one way or the other.
11. Where do you draw your inspiration to be the best at what you do? And would you have a life philosophy that you passionately live by? Share that with us.
The philosophy I try to keep in my mind is the idea of zooming in and out of your life. Of being able to take a look at the bigger picture and being appreciative of where you are in relation to everything else but also being able to zoom into the details and really care about what you’re doing at the moment. And through it all, just remembering to be thankful for what you have around you. There’s a great quote I read somewhere that says our responsibility on this earth is to spread luck to others and I find it to be so true. We don’t get choose the most important things in our lives, our families, our birthplace, our blood. That’s luck. But what we choose to do with that luck is the most important thing.
12. Enough with the serious questions…lets now turn to matters love! So the first time we met, you candidly spoke of how you met Michelle and how she swept you off your feet! Narrate to my audience what you told me…this time in detail please! ☺
I was in Diani about two years and a half years ago with a few of my friends when I first met Michelle. I still remember it pretty clearly, my friends and I were hanging out in the pool late Sunday night when Michelle and two of her friends came over. She was just incredibly down-to-earth, funny, and beautiful and I couldn’t help but be around her as much as possible that night. I really wanted to get her number but I had misplaced my phone so I was in a bit of a pickle. In my tipsy state, the only idea I had was for her and her friend to memorize my phone number and hope that they call me the next day. And to my surprise, it actually worked out. Michelle remembered the first half of my number and her friend memorized the second half. I must have spent like 30 minutes in the pool quizzing them over and over again on my phone number. I still remember her walking down the stairs as they were leaving that night and thinking to myself, I really hope I get to meet her again. It was definitely a love-at-first sight kind of moments. My prayers must have worked because the next day she did end up calling me to ask if there were any more bus seats left to Nairobi haha. I saved her number immediately and it’s never left my phone since.
13. Out of the hundreds (if not thousands) of potential suitors out there, what is it about Michelle that made you single her out as your life partner? (Clue: This is where you say the deep stuff or else you are sleeping on the couch today) ☺
The biggest thing about Michelle is her love for life and her warmth towards others, whether they are friends or strangers. Being around her makes the world seem more colorful and inviting. Having her as a partner makes everything around us seem like a potential new opportunity and experience. I love that she’s a free spirit and devoted to her passions. She’s an incredible photographer and videographer and it’s so great to see her apply those skills and pursue them all over Kenya in some amazing locations. On a personal level, she’s incredibly supportive and is so good at letting me be me. I don’t ever feel like I have to change myself or appear a certain way to her. Also, it’s pretty awesome that she rides a motorbike! Some of my favorite times with her have definitely just been riding off and camping together away from all the worries and cares of the world. I’m a lucky man ☺
1. Now that we have seen and heard about your dream woman, what’s your dream car?
Chevrolet Camaro 60s
2. Hypothetically speaking, you are stuck between a nagging woman and a woman who can’t cook. Choose one! ☺
A woman who can’t cook is fine by me. In fact, my mom had prepared me for this a long time ago. She always assumed that I probably wouldn’t marry another Chinese woman so she taught me to cook Chinese food myself at a very young age.
3. Dream destinations in Kenya that you have heard of and you would love to visit would be?
Samburu, Baringo and Turkana
4. Your preferred way of chilling out after a long day’s work is?
Taking a walk with Michelle and our dog in Arboretum and then coming home to some take-out food and a good TV series
5. Favorite movie of all time?
Gattaca and also not forgetting Harold and Kumar go to white castle
6. What’s your most embarrassing moment, especially those times when you were messed up!
I was wasted one night with my best friends in college and ended up spilling some alcohol on my pants. Since we were at my friend’s fraternity house, he said he’d just loan me a pair of shorts. The night goes by in a blur and as I’m walking home the next morning, I feel a breeze in the shorts. Turns out he had given me a pair of shorts with huge holes cut out in the back. I had basically been partying the entire night with my butt cheeks out and hadn’t even noticed. That was embarrassing.
Hope you have enjoyed the read as much as I have. Like I mentioned yesterday, its been such a great pleasure bringing you these stories which have been so much fun working on. Until next time, be safe and takecare. Much love. 🙂
Official Photographer: Emmanuel Thuo/ www.ethuoweddings.com/
Assistant Photographer: David Kinuthia
Behind-The-Scenes Filming: Jayjay John Njumbi / Chatterboxstories /
Make-Up Artistes: Charlie & Victor courtesy of Suzie Beauty Ltd / www.suziebeauty.com