Ambassadorship, in all its forms, is deep-rooted in Kithio Mwanzia’s family.
The son of a former Kenyan ambassador to the European Union and the grandson of one of the first Chamber of Commerce presidents in the Kenyan Republic during post-colonialism, Mwanzia grew up around public policy, community service and business advocacy.
Today, after serving for three Ontario Chambers of Commerce, he continues the legacy for public stewardship in his new role as network manager for the Southern Ontario Network for Advanced Manufacturing (SONAMI), a Niagara College-led consortium of academic institutions providing a pool of resources and expertise to support the manufacturing needs of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
SONAMI has recently entered its second phase after a significant reinvestment from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev), on the heels of a successful first phase. The award-winning network is a partnership between Conestoga College, Fanshawe College, Lambton College, McMaster University, Mohawk College, Niagara College, and Sheridan College – with plans on growing to 10 partners, enhancing its reach to help SMEs innovate.
“With this expansion, the network will not only help SMEs remain competitive, but it will also continue to provide more students with the opportunities to gain essential skills by working on leading-edge applied research solutions for industry partners,” he explains.
As network manager, Mwanzia oversees the performance of all partner institutions to ensure successful project outcomes, while also helping manufacturers adopt cutting-edge technologies into their operations so they can create innovative new products. As well, he is responsible for working with the SONAMI steering committee to devise a plan for sustainability beyond the five-year funding envelope from FedDev.
True to his lineage, Mwanzia also sees his role as an ambassador for the SONAMI network – as an emissary of sorts between SMEs needing help with research and development, and the academic institutions who are at the ready to engage.
“I see ambassadorship in four key areas: between industry-academic partnerships; between the institutional collaborations working together around common goals; for high-quality student experiential learning and also for economic prosperity and business success,” he says.
In laying this foundation, he is establishing relationships within the seven advanced manufacturing ecosystems (chambers, economic development corporations) surrounding each academic institution to get a clear picture of the needs of the SMEs and how the array of technology capabilities from each SONAMI member can best match those requirements.
“I’m understanding the culture of these ecosystems, how they want to function, what their ambitions are, and how we can help them achieve these goals,” he says. “Each network member has specialized capabilities, and I’m identifying companies that can be connected with our academic partners.”
“With this expansion, the network will not only help SMEs remain competitive, but it will also continue to provide more students with the opportunities to gain essential skills by working on leading-edge applied research solutions for industry partners.”
Mwanzia’s commitment as an economic champion has a strong history, having worked 12 years in the chamber of commerce milieu.
Most of those years were in management positions and in a variety of capacities. He was director of Public Policy and Government Relations, first at the St. Catharines – Thorold Chamber of Commerce, then the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce, where he later served as interim chief executive officer. Prior to returning to the region – and Niagara College – he spent four years as the president and CEO of the Guelph Chamber of Commerce, earning the title of one of the youngest chamber CEOs in the country – at age 29.
Mwanzia was honoured with several awards, including the Top 40 Under 40 Awards for both Guelph and Niagara, and the David Betzner Award for Volunteer Service.
During his career, he had the vantage point of observing first-hand the R&D challenges that can hinder growth and innovation for smaller manufacturers.
“At the time, there weren’t many funding solutions for businesses … they would identify a project, but engaging in an application process could last several months if not a year,” he explains. “SONAMI is designed to be able to move at the speed of business.”
To his SONAMI post, Mwanzia also brings a global world-view instilled by living in several countries during his younger formative years.
Being born in New York while his father was posted as the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Kenya, his family moved to Khartoum, Sudan; then Brussels, Belgium; and later returned to Kenya, where Mwanzia completed high school.
In deciding on his post-secondary education, he chose Brock University because, as an international student, he was looking for a place he believed had a “good sense of community.”
While there, Mwanzia earned a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and a master’s degree in Public Policy – a designation he received while also working full time.
His university experience was not without controversy. He entered the race for vice-president of University Affairs, with the Brock University Students’ Union (BUSU), but was tossed out of the election because the returning officer ruled that international students were ineligible to run for executive positions.
“I thought that seemed strange since all of us were there as part of a collective commons, so why would there be a population that isn’t allowed to participate in the election at the highest level?”
And so, Mwanzia spent time researching and discovered such a ruling was in fact, not correct. He threw his hat back in and was elected to the executive. He was 20 years old at the time.
He went on to become the first international student also to be elected as president and chief executive officer and chair of the Board of Directors with BUSU. He later received the Outstanding Young Alumni Award from his alma mater in 2018.
This tenacity, to Mwanzia’s friends, earned him such adjectives as “dynamic, passionate, and driven.” In both Niagara and Guelph, and through the networking pursuits linked with his chamber positions and his extensive volunteering for non-profits and boards, Mwanzia became well-known and recognized in various circles as a confident leader and a policy-making powerhouse.
Yet he is quick to note that while his professional life demands a certain deliberate composure, there is more than meets the eye.
“I can come across as a little serious because of the nature of my work, but I’m a pretty fun-loving guy,” he quips. “I enjoy socializing, good conversation and a good laugh.” The latter is evident by his signature baritone laugh, reminiscent of James Earl Jones.
“I can come across as a little serious because of the nature of my work, but I’m a pretty fun-loving guy.”
This juxtaposition aside, those not in his social crowd may be surprised by his other chosen field had he not had diplomacy in his blood: the live stage.
To his delight, he got a small taste for theatrics a number of years ago when he was part of a community engagement program with Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Shaw Festival, and he had the chance to read a scene with a professional Shaw actor. He was hooked.
It’s the high-pressure environment of live theatre that calls to Mwanzia. “There is no take-two in theatre,” he explains. “The actor or actress has to deliver and captivate your imagination in one try.”
This was not his first time in a stage performance. Back in Kenya, he landed the lead role of Captain von Trapp in his high school’s production of the musical The Sound of Music (the irony is not lost on him). While he fit in rehearsals between his rugby games and practices, his co-star, a Swedish exchange student who played Maria, took things more seriously and actually went on to have a notable acting career.
“But I can still sing ‘Edelwiss,’” he points out proudly.
When he is not volunteering around Niagara, or taking in the theatre, he socializes outside – mountain biking or kayaking with friends during warmer weather. He did make a commitment to himself to pick up a winter hobby this year – so a pair of snowshoes is waiting by his door, for when the time is right.
In the meantime, he is on the lookout for that perfectly suited stage role in a community theatre group.
To learn more about SONAMI, visit the website: sonamiontario.ca