Alumna Feature: Stephanie Koczela

Graduate runs two businesses in Kenya helping the impoverished

(courtesy Stephanie Koczela) Koczela talks with members of the business Penda. She started this organization three years ago in Kenya, acting upon her life-long desire to help others.
(courtesy Stephanie Koczela) Koczela talks with members of the business Penda. She started this organization three years ago in Kenya, acting upon her life-long desire to help others.

Ever since she was a student at Lake Bluff Elementary School, Stephanie Koczela, 2004 alumnus, knew that she wanted to help others. As a young child, she wanted to be a baby nurse, and now she works to provide healthcare to all people.

“I … ultimately felt really passionate about wanting to make a difference,” Koczela said.

Koczela graduated from Shorewood in 2004 and then attended Madison, where she received a degree in international development with a focus on healthcare systems. From here, she had began a fellowship with Kiva, a microloan business providing financial opportunity to people all over the world, and worked on running Kiva field operations in parts of Africa.

While in college, Koczela spent a year in Kenya, working with the community. It was this experience that drove her to focus on a career in that country.

“I fell in love [with Kenya]: it’s just home,” Koczela said.

Koczela started her first business in Kenya in 2007 after one of the women she worked with in the Mathare slum tried to sell her a purse. The company, Witethye, sold 3000 bags in three years, and the profit has helped many women to become more financially secure.

“I felt like there was this incredible opportunity to use recycled materials and locally made craft to produce really high quality grocery and beach bags for America,” Koczela said. “My vision was to run a company to support these women.”

In 2011, Koczela identified that there was a need for primary care in Kenya and began work on her second business. She had personally felt the effects of the poor healthcare in the nation: within one year she attended 20 funerals.

“People get a cold and they die, people get diarrhea and they die [due to the lack of primary care],” Koczela said.

The name of the resulting business is Penda, meaning love, which saw its first patient on Valentine’s Day, 2012. The company uses midlevel providers to deliver high quality health care to low income families in Kenya.

“The vision is that people in Kenya pay for their health care right now … and so Penda’s idea is to make healthcare as affordable as possible,” Koczela said.

Although Koczela has now lived in Kenya for eight years and speaks Swahili, there have been barriers for her to overcome, such as being a woman who is a business leader and getting enough funding to start the company.

“It’s challenging to work across cultures but we’ve been doing well,” Koczela said.

One of her favorite things about Kenya is how everyone always greets each other: whether it is on the street or at a gathering, each person takes the time to ask others about their lives and families.

“It’s just a society that is much more social and I love that,” Koczela said.

Koczela plans on staying in Kenya and continuing her work as the founder of Penda.

“We would like to grow [the business] throughout Kenya and one day throughout all of Africa,” Koczela said.

“My whole life is full of meaning and purpose and I love that about what I do,” Koczela said.

by Nathalie Bolduc

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