Wanjiku Chebet Kanjumba is an aerospace engineer, entrepreneur, and the first Kenyan Project PoSSUM “scientist-astronaut candidate program” graduate.
In an interview with Wanjiku Chebet Kanjumba, we discussed her education, plans for the future and her company Vicillion.
You are the first Kenyan Project PoSSUM “scientist-astronaut candidate program” graduate from the Advanced PoSSUM Space Academy. Can you walk me through your background and how you were able to achieve this remarkable feat?
When I was younger, I was interested in science and learning about how the world worked and objects from outer space. So, I wanted to combine my passion for learning about space and how things work – and the answer was Aerospace Engineering. So, I joined Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to do my Bachelor’s and Master’s in Aerospace Engineering. I applied to the program and got accepted because of my technical background. Project PoSSUM was relatively new at the time, and not many people had graduated from their academy, and it just happened that I was the first Kenyan to be accepted to the program. It was a dream come true.
You are the co-founder of Vicillion, project development and engineering firm. How were you able to leverage your experiences over the years to provide solutions to different problems?
Vicillion, on the outside, looks like a typical consulting company, but we have it structured differently; in reality, we are a technology research and development lab. We are avid problem-solvers – as long as we are imperfect as a species, there will always be problems to solve or improve on, and we are leveraging that fact.
What led to the creation of Vicillion, and what source of funding is available to you?
I don’t think I have ever been interested in general employment. However, I had the chance to be employed full-time in one of the top airlines in the United States, where I worked with the engineering department to handle their fleets’ maintenance and aircraft performance. The overall experience was enjoyable. I was able to fly anywhere around the United States without paying for a ticket, and I also visited various tourist sites. I worked with people in different age brackets in my department, so I analysed diverse perspectives. Although the experience was great, I realised that it was not meant for me. I didn’t see the point, personally, of working for any corporation my whole life, where I would not be able to impact people’s lives and engage in endeavours that matter to me.
So, I started developing some ideas I had, but I couldn’t get the necessary funds. Then, I met someone with a similar experience – not having enough funds to actualise his plans and lacking the required technical expertise to execute them. So, I pitched the concept of Vicillion to him, and we combined our resources and started working on the company together.
Presently, at Vicillion, we do not require a large amount of funding because we do not develop products; we are a service provider. Of course, we will in the future provide products, but if we need financing, it would most likely be to scale our products rather than develop them. This is because we want to maintain control over the kind of products that we create at Vicillion, rather than losing control to investors. However, I understand the frustration of working on a project and not getting the fund to get it started. That is why we strongly encourage young people to join Vicillion. We are a technology research and development lab, and they will have the opportunity of working on projects that interest them and help them make a difference in the world.
Can you highlight some of your achievements and milestones at Vicillion?
Vicillion is still in its infancy; we incorporated in February 2021 and started recruiting our decentralised network of agents in April. We are focused on building a talent pool of the brightest minds to work on complex problems. So far, we have made significant progress in recruitment, and we have some potential contracts in the pipeline with some high-profile clients.
Aside from myself, co-founders, advisors, lab directors, and VPs, our talent pool exceeds 30 professionals from various corners of the world in all six continents.
Women are under-represented in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields in Africa. How do you intend to use your position to inspire young African women to pursue careers in space science?
It saddens my heart every time I think about that. But, as a species, we can accomplish amazing things when we work together, irrespective of our background or status. I am a firm believer that we can all learn something from each other. I want to use Vicillion as that inspiration to make us all believe that nothing is impossible, especially when you set your mind to it. We will work on creating platforms to encourage young women to engage in STEM programs in the future.
What other challenges have you faced in your pursuit of excellence, and how have you overcome these challenges?
Pursuing my education has not been free of obstacles. Studying in the United States is very expensive, and I was supported mainly by my widowed mother; my father died from cancer when I was 12. She had to sacrifice a lot to educate me, and there were times when things were challenging when I did not have enough money for food or was not sure I would even graduate. It was not easy, but God has been faithful to us immensely and saw me through my Bachelor’s and Master’s programme in Aerospace Engineering. I am also working on my own company, aiming to write my name in the sands of time.
What other projects are you currently working on?
Presently, I am working on Vicillion full-time because the idea is that once Vicillion can operate without the need of its founders, we will take a step back from the operations to focus on some other projects. I also want to do my PhD in Japan, where my dissertation will be focused on one of my projects at Vicillion.
Would you like to add any other thing?
The mind is a powerful thing, and we set our limits. If you live with limitations on yourself, you won’t accomplish much, but the world is your oyster if you put no limits. There’s nothing worse than living in regret, so take a chance on yourself; you are capable of a lot more than you think.