Most Powerful Women

What I learned working for Martha Stewart

May 23, 2013: 12:10 PM ET

FORTUNE -- Beatrice Mwasi was looking for a spark. The founder of Sanabora Design House had founded a leather workshop in Kenya a decade ago and transformed it into a broad accessories and home goods business with more than 3,000 affiliate producers throughout Kenya. But her company's growth had slowed, and Mwasi felt frustrated.

That's just when the U.S. Embassy in Kenya reached out to Mwasi to apply for the 2013 Fortune/U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership. The program, supported by Vital Voices, is an extension of Fortune's annual Most Powerful Women Summit. Mwasi applied, was selected by Fortune from among 109 applicants, and then was stunned when she learned who her mentor would be: Martha Stewart. "I thought, No way. Maybe they're talking about another Martha Stewart," says Mwasi, tearing up as she remembers the moment.

During the past month, Mwasi and 27 other rising-star women from 17 countries were in the U.S. shadowing participants of the Fortune MPW Summit. Of all the mentees--at companies such as Citigroup (C), IBM (IBM), and Google (GOOG)--Mwasi's experience stands out because she's now on a first-name basis with NBC Today host Matt Lauer, met Stewart's famous dogs, and also took home to Kenya lessons from the living brand herself and the crew at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSO).

beatrice-1Consistency. "For her, entrepreneurship doesn't end within the office walls," says Mwasi about Stewart. Mwasi spent a weekend at Stewart's home in Bedford, N.Y., and was amazed how the Martha brand syncs with Stewart's personal life. "She runs her home the way she runs her business: well-organized and structured," Mwasi says. "She believes we can make life what we want to see."

beatrice-5The power of no. "In Africa, we're more accommodating," says Mwasi about life at home vs. life in the Martha universe. During a "how-to" shoot for Stewart's home goods that are sold at Home Depot (HD), Stewart stopped the cameras over a particular floor mat that she deemed unacceptable--and the video didn't get done that day. "It's good to be firm," Mwasi concluded. "I realized you don't have to feel pressured to compromise."

beatrice-4Collaboration. "I admire how they translate an idea quickly into products," says Mwasi, who went to MSLO's weekly Ops meetings. "Ops" is short for opportunities. Department heads come together to report on their businesses and brainstorm opportunities. Mwasi also liked the "talking walls" at MSLO headquarters: giant inspiration boards that employees can write on to crowd-source design ideas.

Before she went back to Africa, Mwasi asked Stewart about surviving her five month prison stay in 2005. Stewart told her that she drew inspiration from role models like Hillary Clinton and President Obama--who demonstrate how to "stand tall" when the going gets tough.

Now home in Kenya, Mwasi plans to reorganize her management team and raise the bar on her company's policies and systems. Armed with fresh insights about American consumers, she hopes to sell her products in the U.S. Is a co-designed Martha Stewart/Beatrice Mwasi line in the works? "We haven't discussed that," Mwasi says, laughing. "But Kenya would be honored."

Join the Conversation
Fortune's Most Powerful Women
Fortune's Most Powerful Women For the latest on the most influential women in business, philanthropy, government, and the arts, like us on Facebook.
Guest Posts
Fortune Most Powerful Women Fortune Most Powerful Women The rolodex that redefined power
Profile in The Washington Post
Sheryl Sandberg: Sheryl Sandberg: Don't leave before you leave
COO of Facebook
Wendy Clark Wendy Clark Exec learns firsthand how the homeless live
SVP of the Global Sparkling Brand Center at Coca-Cola
Video
Marissa Mayer's 3 biggest decisions as Yahoo CEO With company stock up over 100% since she began running the company 16 months ago, Mayer reflects on her choices to date. Watch
Chelsea Clinton on running for office: 'I don't know' The vice chairman of the Clinton Foundation talks about her diverse career path and growing up in the spotlight. Watch
About This Author
Colleen Leahey
Colleen Leahey
Fortune

Colleen Leahey joined Fortune in May 2011 to cover leadership, technology, and small business. She also focuses on building the Fortune Most Powerful Women franchise in the digital and live media space and manages programming for the MPW Summit. Previously, Colleen worked at The New Yorker and Bicycling magazine. She is a graduate of Georgetown University and lives in Manhattan.

Email Colleen Leahey | @cmleahey
MPWomen go Global

The Fortune/U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership brings rising-star women from countries around the world to the U.S. for three-week mentorships with participants of the annual Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit - among them Ursula Burns of Xerox, Laura Lang of Time Inc., Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, and Tory Burch.

Read more

Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.