Being an adult is a lot harder than I imagined it to be. I remember when I was growing up, I couldn’t wait to have my own freedom and be in complete control of my life. But the transition from teenage angst to all the decision making that comes with young adulthood was anything but easy. I was overwhelmed, and often, still overwhelmed by all the choices I have to make regarding the direction I want my life to take. Without proper guidance, you might end up making a lot of the wrong choices.

That’s what The Arena is about. It provides a space where young people can interact with each other and other people who have walked the journey before them. This helps them make smart choices going forward and fully realize their dreams.

The founder of The Arena is Tessy Maritim. Aside from The Arena, she writes for her own blog. She was also previously a student leader at the university of Manchester.

I interviewed her to find out about the awesome work that her and her team are doing for young people in Kenya through The Arena.

What inspired you to start The Arena?

The inspiration for The Arena stemmed from wanting to create a space for young people to come together, learn and exchange with one another. When we began in 2013, no-one was doing this, so we saw an opportunity to develop a unique platform for young people to engage.

Our name ‘The Arena’ is from the ‘Man in The Arena’ quote by Theodore Roosevelt that encourages people to step into the proverbial Arena despite the risk of failure, ridicule or rejection. Our work is evolving and growing but to define The Arena- we aspire to lead a movement of smart, conscious and empowered young Africans focused on maximising themselves and the communities they live in. We do this by creating events and digital media to inspire young people to make empowered decisions for themselves and the world they live in.

What are some of the initiatives that The Arena facilitates and what inspires those initiatives?

I’ll start with our most recent initiative, which is MatchMentor. MatchMentor was born out of a need from our community for mentorship. They asked us to create a platform that would allow them to find mentorship. We launched our first edition of MatchMentor, ‘Media and Journalism’, in November 2016 and have since held another one on the Creative Economy. Our next one is actually this month- Saturday 29th July and focuses on Social Changemakers.

This includes people who are interested in careers, conversation or volunteering to change their communities. The most exciting and unique feature of MatchMentor is ‘Speed mentoring’, developed from the concept of speed dating, which gives attendees the chance to engage one-on-one with each mentor attending. This way, they can ask questions, share and learn at an intimate level. You don’t get that at any other event!

Other than MatchMentor, we’ve done events on financial independence, ‘My Money Story’ and did one event in Eldoret, ‘Neranik Ong’eng’etie’ in December 2013. As a team, we’re so enthusiastic about moving beyond Nairobi county and seeing and engaging with young people in other parts of the country.

How did you pick the team that is part of the Arena. Did they apply for the job or did you ask anyone who is interested to join you?

Initially, I worked with a few friends but that has changed over time. Now, everyone who is part of the team has applied. There’s so much to learn about putting together a team, it’s beautiful and difficult at the same time.

Where do you get the funds to plan your activities and run the organisation?

Firstly, through ticket sales to our events. Secondly, through corporates and other organisations who believe in our work. In 2015, we were 1st runners-up at a business start-up competition at the University of Manchester. We won some money from this which helped us run the organisation. Sometime soon, we are planning to do some crowdfunding, having seen how effective it has been for other organisations similar to ours.

How does Kenya differ from other countries that you’ve been in terms of the support that we give to young people to help them realize their dreams. b) Are we doing enough and what do you think needs to change

I have had the privilege to travel for education over the past 5 years. I’ve lived in two cities, both in the U.K., Manchester and Edinburgh. From my observation, Kenya has a huge entrepreneurial spirit, which is not necessarily a good or bad thing but I think it speaks to the context we live in- largely dysfunctional systems and structures has meant that we’ve had to ‘innovate’, ‘entrepreneur’ and ‘hustle’ our way out of many problems.

What needs to change? The politics in this country. Many of us seem to have this mentality that we can just ignore politics and politicians and operate in isolation but politics is an undercurrent in every sphere of our lives. I’m so excited about young people mobilising on issues that matter to them and would love to see more of that.

Who are some of the mentors that are part of The Arena? How do you select them?

We select mentors in two ways- firstly, by brainstorming as a team and secondly, by asking our community. Mentors have been so enthusiastic about our work and we are grateful for their support.

Some of the amazing mentors that we have had are Cajetan Boy, Muthoni Njoba, Emmanuel Jambo, Wambui Kamiru-Collymore, Abigail Arunga, Ng’endo Mukii, Mufasa Poet, Victoria Rubadiri among others.

Our upcoming Social Changemakers event is on Saturday 29th July and it also has a pretty dope line-up: Irungu Houghton, Boniface Mwangi, Samanthah Maina, Kennedy Odede, Wawira Njiru, Wanja Kibuki, Njeri Kabeberi, Scheaffer Okore, Nduko O’Matigere, Daisy Amdany, just to name a few.

What are some of the achievements of The Arena so far?

From the feedback we’ve received from people who attend our events, our biggest achievement is our speed mentoring platform at MatchMentor. Now, we are working on honing it and making it more efficient.

What are the challenges that the Arena has faced and how have you overcome them?

Challenges have been in:

a) balancing work with other commitments. Many of us on the team are working or studying so prioritising can be difficult at times

b) creating a steady revenue stream. We currently don’t have a structure for revenue for The Arena which makes it difficult to build a sustainable future. We are working on that.

What future plans do you have for The Arena

We want to build an amazing community of young people from across Kenya who share a commitment to new perspectives and an excitement for Kenya and the continent at large. We also want to be excellent at creating content and delivering impactful events for the aforementioned community.

How can young people get involved with The Arena?

At the moment, you can get involved with The Arena by attending our events and learning from the amazing mentors. Our upcoming one, as mentioned is for people interested in Social Change. It takes place on Saturday 29th July at Desmond Tutu Conference Centre. Advance tickets are Kshs 700 available via Mpesa Paybill 531300 Account Name The Arena Kenya. It’s worth it, I promise you!!!

Apart from being part of The Arena, what else do you do?

I work in International Development! That’s what I studied in school. I’m also a big sister to two lovely ladies, a daughter to two wonderful parents and a friend to a few- so when I’m not at work or being part of The Arena, I’m spending time with them. I also like to read and attend art exhibitions.

Who are your role models? And why do they inspire you?

I’m inspired by so many people but my first and foundational mentors are definitely my parents. I relate with them like friends so seek a lot of guidance from them on inconsequential and important issues alike.

What advice can you give to young people on following their dreams and realizing their potential?

Read, expose yourself to knowledge, learn about the world around you! It shapes the way you think and will keep you fulfilled.