Wednesday, February 9, 2022

For nine years after earning a bachelor’s degree, Dana Njenga worked eight hours a day, five days a week, repeating the cycle week, after week, after monotonous week. But when the time came for rest and relaxation, Njenga, her husband, and three children rarely answered the call.

“It was disappointing,” Njenga said about the lack of family getaways. “Talking to my husband, it was always ‘next paycheck, next paycheck’ and then I realized he needed an easier means. He needed something tangible to see and touch before he would actually do it. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to take the vacation, it was just the headache.”

Burned out and frustrated, Njenga acted on an idea she thought would benefit busy families everywhere. She wanted to create a health benefit for employers, allowing them to tackle America’s burnout in the workforce. Already familiar with Venture School through the University of Iowa John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center, Njenga enrolled in the Cedar Rapids cohort in the spring of 2021.

The goal of her startup business is to provide vacation packages to clients who save for the trip through a series of payroll deductions. How would it work? A participating company’s human resources department would allow employees to put money in an account that would be easily monitored on a website with personal log-in. The employee would designate how much they wanted to save, even factoring in an amount to use for spending money during the vacation. Once the monetary goal is achieved, the employee selects the redeem button and off they go for R&R.

“I would work with travel agents, the airlines, all of these groups to give you more variety,” Njenga said. “You could play with the pricing so you can see what works for you or what you really want. It is like a plug and play. If you want to take five people to Disney, it will calculate how much you have in your account and how much more you need to save. At the end you redeem it, the travel agent sets it up for you, and it’s all included in that price.”

Originally from Florida, Njenga graduated from Flagler Palm Coast High School and attended Daytona State College before relocating to Iowa when her husband accepted a position at Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, in 2005. Njenga briefly attended the University of Iowa, then transferred closer to home to earn a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Mount Mercy University. She is currently pursuing a nursing degree at Kirkwood Community College while working as a patient service coordinator for Mercy Medical Center Cedar Rapids.

While attending Venture School, Njenga was drawn to the straightforwardness of Kurt Heiar, an associate professor and lead instructor for the University of Iowa’s statewide Venture School program.

Dana was a valued member of our Venture School cohort,” Heiar said. “She is a driven entrepreneur with keen business instincts.”

A particular project was instrumental to Njenga’s growth. She admits she does not possess a door-to-door salesperson mentality, so when she was assigned to interview at least 100 people to obtain feedback about her business idea, she became nervous. Instead of wearing down with worry, she added a few questions to her list to ask air travelers during required COVID-19 screenings at the Eastern Iowa Airport.

“I would ask if they thought they would be rested when they came back,” Njenga said. “Some would be like, ‘Heck no, I don’t plan on coming back rested. I plan on having a good time and being exhausted.’             

“I used that as my means of interviewing people by asking questions and finding out what excites people when they are leaving. What age group is excited about going on vacation, but doesn’t care if they are rested…the couple that can’t wait to get out there and rest and they don’t have the kids with them the whole seven days. There were a lot of interesting responses that helped guide me on which way to go with this venture.”

Njenga’s children range from ages 19 to 23, so the window for taking memorable family vacations has passed. She doesn’t want other families to suffer a similar fate.

“I missed the time and didn’t get to do it with the kids,” Njenga said.

Instead, she has used her business model to enjoy recent individual excursions with her husband to Jamaica, a girls trip to Florida with her oldest daughter, and hang-gliding with her youngest daughter and sister in-law.

“We went and had a great time and there was no debt on the way back,” she said. “That is the great thing.”