Today, women-owned entities represent 37% of enterprises globally. Woman entrepreneurs are an underestimated force that can rekindle economic expansion in South Africa. We hear from some of South Africa’s most successful self-made entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneur: Dr Maureen Allem
What she does? Founder of Skin, Body and Health Renewal

With her holistic approach to aesthetic medicine, Dr. Maureen Allem started offering clients anti-ageing treatments from her home in Johannesburg. Her cliental grew rapidly and her home could no longer accommodate her fledging business. Today, Skin, Body and Health Renewal boasts 16 branches nationally, and is managed by experienced doctors, nurses and therapists.

Q: What you wish someone told you about business before you started one?

MA: I wish that someone had told me that being your own boss is the hardest boss you will ever work for. We tend to be much harder on ourselves and the expectations that we set for ourselves are much higher — this can be a good thing, but it can also be tough at times.

Q: What do you attribute your success to?

MA: I think that I have always listened to my clients – the work that we do is such a personal thing, so it is of utmost importance to listen to what it is that your clients want from you. Of course it is your job to also make suggestions and point out some possibilities for enhancements, but ultimately your client has the last word.

Q: Advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?

MA: Before you decide to open your own business, you must love what you do. Once you’ve made the decision, make sure that you know everything there is to know about that particular field. Knowledge is power, and in order to give yourself a head start, equip yourself with as much knowledge upfront as you possibly can. Also, surround yourself with good people and never stop investing in them.

Q: Balancing business and personal life?

MA: Because I love what I do, I always feel that I have a personal interest in what goes on at the company. For my partner, Victor [Snyders, CEO] and I, it’s not just a business, it is a shared passion. We are passionate about how we are able to transform people — that includes our clients, our staff and our suppliers.

Entrepreneur: Jacqueline Grobler
What she does? Founder, Angel Heart Beverages

Angel Heart is an artisan craft distillery that manufactures and markets high-end, ‘Jo’burg-proud’ alcoholic products. What started as a hobby quickly evolved into a thriving enterprise for Jacqueline Grobler. Jacqueline’s dream began to take form and very slowly and organically, her first product – Angel Heart Liqueur – was born.

Q: What do you attribute your success to?

JG: We have a very spiritual and personalised approach to both distilling and our clients. Supporting local industries and markets certainly gives us an edge. Using local ingredients is important to us and it supports a vast network not always seen. We’re also on a big drive to make people feel Jo’burg-proud again.

Q: The challenges?

JG: The alcohol industry is very male-dominated and ‘owned’ by big corporates. I have to work hard at being recognised as the distiller and not the promo girl. To be taken seriously, I have to demonstrate that its possible for a woman to understand the technicalities of a distillery and factory environment; having your own tool kit is part of the business. Science doesn’t have a gender, its clean and process driven, which is in my favour.

Q: What traits make a successful entrepreneur?

JG: Firstly, a willingness to go the extra mile, being honest with clients and providing an experience like no other. It’s also important not to be afraid of putting yourself out there even if it means being criticised. You have to be assertive and vocal about how you want things done. Being bossy is no longer frowned upon; it’s about how you deliver the message.

Q: Your inspiration for success?

JG: I look up to amazing women like Sally Williams and Ina Paarman. Sally Williams was assertive and had a backbone of steel. My own mother also carved her way out in a very male dominant world and she taught me to never back down when you believe in something. She also taught me to be punctual as being late is disrespectful.

Advice?

JG: First pay your dues and manage your cash flow, work within a structure, and never look down on any job; you never know when you will be the one packing a shelf with your own product. Have a very clear plan of what you want to achieve, and how you want to get there. But remain flexible because life happens. Have a sense of humour and treat every client like royalty. Last but by no means least, “Fake it until you make it.”

Entrepreneur: Sibongile Booi
What she does? Founder, Second Office

Cashing in your pension to start a company is a risky endeavour, but Sibongile persisted, and her company, Second Office (first black female-owned virtual office solution) evolved into an award-winning and thriving business — providing cost-effective business services and an office infrastructure where companies can operate and conduct meetings professionally.

Q: Challenges of entrepreneurship?

SB: To encourage the growth of female entrepreneurs in our country, we need to eradicate gender inequality. It is disheartening that women, who make up almost half of the labour force, form only a small fraction of executive officers and board directors. To be able to increase representation of women in the business world, the root causes that impede the growth of women, need to be addressed.

Q: Is there enough support from government and private sector?

SB: Although it is often acknowledged that our government should do more to grow women entrepreneurship in South Africa, government as well as private enterprises are increasingly putting programmes and funds in place aimed at empowering the women of South Africa. Government agencies such as the Small Enterprise Development Agency (SEDA) and the Eastern Cape Development Corporation (ECDC) are coming to the forefront to provide non-financial support in the form of marketing, training and access to markets.

Q: Your inspiration for success?

SB: My mother instilled the importance of savings and only spending the money you have. This has helped me to minimise borrowing within the business. And without savings, Second Office would have never been conceived. Savings give a business the opportunity to respond to the challenges that arise.

Q: Advice?

SB: Relationships are an important aspect of business. Entrepreneurship is about solving problems. Don’t try and do things on your own. Learn to delegate or get the help required to assist. The first few years of business were challenging as I tried to do everything on my own. It wasn’t until my SEDA coach helped me to understand how to delegate so that I could focus on the strategic direction of my business. Having an advisor, coach, mentor or even successful female entrepreneurs as role models can help a business owner to set and achieve goals.

Entrepreneur: Renay Tandy
What she does? Founder, NGAGE

Renay Tandy and her husband Russell started NGAGE after they realised the need for a public relations agency that understands technical industries, such as mining and engineering. Since then, the husband-wife couple filled a gap in the market for an agency that loves the mud and dirt of communications, and often go more than 2 000 m underground for a press release. NGAGE is also the proud recipient of several industry awards.

Q: The challenges?

RT: My biggest challenge came when I was 22 years old and I decided to start my own agency. In the largely male-dominated PR field, women are stereotyped as events planners, which is far from the truth. In this profession, you must know your clients and every aspect of their business. A great advantage is being able to multi-task effortlessly.

Q: Traits of a successful entrepreneur?

RT: Women need to be able to adapt quickly to changes within the industry. Gone are the days of PR professionals being solely responsible for supplying content for print publications. Today, PRs must provide engaging digital content across multiple platforms.

Q: Who do you consider as your inspiration?

RT: I draw inspiration from three people: My father, who is an amazing entrepreneur and businessman, my mother, who has devoted her life to our family and supported and loved us unconditionally and lastly, my amazing and supportive husband and business partner, Russell. We are a team, at home and at work, and our skills and personalities complement each other so well.

Advice?

RT: I’ve seen many of my former colleagues start their own businesses, and before even signing their first client, they rented fancy office spaces, employed a large contingent of staff and developed an expensive website. They often don’t make it past the third month and, if they do, they end up downgrading to cheaper offices and incurring a lot of debt. In the first three years, Russell and I kept expenses as low as possible, until we established a reputation and built up a solid list of clients. Good entrepreneurs need to be well rounded, and able to do everything in the business, and also be prepared to work hard to succeed.

Entrepreneur: Abigail Klopper
What she does? Founder of Abigail K Photography

Travel photographer Abigail Klopper refined her offering by specialising in women’s portraiture, but with a slight twist. Through her photography, she noticed how women, through their own admission, were often insecure, self-critical and deemed themselves ‘non-photogenic’ during their sessions. Along with a successful online course, Abigail inspires women to elevate their confidence through Confidence Sessions to perceive themselves differently and ultimately, achieve more in business and life.

Q: The challenges?

AK: The biggest challenge is mindset. It took me a long time to realise that my business and personal growth was limited by my own mindset. It took many years to shake off the ‘naïve young women’ identity I created for myself. I considered my business as a hobby because I wasn’t the main breadwinner, and therefore, my efforts were, in my own mind, minimised because my monetary contribution was less significant. But when I realised my potential and changed my mindset, I saw, and continue to see, the effects in my business growth.

Q: Traits that make a successful entrepreneur?

AK: Emotional Intelligence (EQ) has become more valuable and a necessary character trait. In the social media era, authenticity is the name of the game and being able to show up in business authentically and vulnerably takes a good deal of E.Q. Historically, women have always been the connectors, relationship builders and nurturers. That’s something female entrepreneurs can use to their advantage while offering support to a larger community while at the same time, garnering support for their business and brand.

Q: Your inspiration?

AK: There are so many inspiring entrepreneurs, business owners and women from all over the world who have impacted the trajectory of my business, whether they know it or not. Marie Forleo (Online Business Coach), Sue Bryce (Women’s Portrait Photographer), Carrie Green (Founder and Owner of Female Entrepreneur), Donna McCallum (South Africa’s own Fairy Godmother), the list goes on…

Advice?

AK: Start with knowing yourself. Discover what you’re passionate about, what you enjoy, what you don’t enjoy. Take the time to get specific about what you wouldn’t mind spending hours working on. Then uncover why you need to bring that particular service or product into the world. How will it impact or help others? Don’t let fear or self-doubt stop you from taking action. Do your research, find the answers and take action. The worst that can happen is that you learn something. Read, read and read. Believe in yourself and when you feel like you can’t anymore, seek help.

Entrepreneur: Meghan Werner
What she does? Founder and Brewmistress at Theonista

US-born Meghan Werner moved to Cape Town after a work stint in Lesotho. But after failing to find her trusty digestive aid, kombucha (a fermented, lightly effervescent sweetened tea that’s been around for more than 2000 years), she made contact with a friend travelling from America. This was the start of her independently owned manufacturing company, Theonista. Initially intended for self-consumption, retail stores soon came a-knocking at her door, eager to sell her product.

Q: What do you attribute your success to?

MW: I don’t have a business or beverage industry background, and because it evolved from a personal passion, I didn’t go into it with a traditional business plan. I honestly think that led to innovation I wouldn’t have been capable of if I had modeled my approach on an existing business. We also do almost everything ourselves within our very small team, from production to distribution to social media to sales. I’m not a complete control freak — just a partial one! We’ve saved an incredible amount of money by doing things in-house.

Q: The challenges?

MW: I think simply being a woman, entrepreneur or not, means you inherently encounter some societal biases and limitations in the most spheres of life. The business realm is perhaps particularly patriarchal, and I’ve definitely encountered many situations where I’ve felt my sex influenced how both the men and women on the other end of the interaction have treated me as an independent female business owner. I am very assertive by nature though, and was also lucky to have many incredibly strong female leadership in my early professional life.

Q: Is South African business conducive for female entrepreneurs?

MW: The business environment isn’t a vacuum; trends in other realms matter too, like parenting, schooling, social policy, media — all these things impact how we treat each other and the tools we have to envision and create a better reality. Fortunately the trend in South Africa seems to be that women are being increasingly encouraged and celebrated in entrepreneurship.

Q: Advice?

MW: Believing in yourself is half the battle. You have to give yourself permission to do what fires you up, but it also helps to be somewhat practical about it. Figure out what skills you need to increase your chances of success, and reach out to other people in a similar industry for mentorship or advice if you need help getting going or making decisions.

Entrepreneur: Siba Mtongana
What she does? MD and Founder, The Siba Company

Chef and foodie Siba Mtongana is famous for her hit show ‘Siba’s Table’ on DSTV’s Food Network channel. Siba’s got a long resume of accomplishments that includes winning a SAFTA for best lifestyle and variety show; making Oprah Magazine’s prestigious ‘O-Power List’ of African women rocking the world; and winning three prestigious Galliova Awards. She’s the MD and founder of The Siba Company, a multi-disciplinary company that specialises food content creation for TV and Media.

Q: What do you attribute your success to?

SM: I think it’s about clarity of intent on what we actually do. We know we specialise in food and we have expertise and knowledge on that subject matter. I’ve also intentionally surrounded myself with experts from different industries who bring insight, experience and knowledge that help the company realise its vision in the different aspects of the business. It’s key to employ, partner or collaborate with people or companies who are pioneers in their own right.

Q: What are the challenges of being a female entrepreneur?

SM: There’s a perception or stereotype that men make better entrepreneurs. In many circles you have to prove yourself that you qualify to be there. The industry is largely white male dominated. I’ve had my fair share of challenge, not only as a female but also being young and black.

Advice?
SM: I think it’s important to pursue something you are passionate about and believe in. When times are tough with doors closing in front of you, being sent from pillar to post, passion and believing in your dream will sustain you. The industry is not easy but you must be bold, brave, and fearless, and never give up. You also need to be shrewd and wise. Last year, I was swindled out of money by so-called “business partners”. I was depressed and had to quickly figure out a plan and learn from it. That was baptism of fire for me in the world of business. I had to pick up the pieces and move on fast and as a result, I’m wiser. It’s important to know that investing in yourself or your business is not cheap or easy but well worth it because nothing beats ownership.

Entrepreneur: Khaya Cokoto
What she does? Co-Founder and MD, UmoyAir Communication

Khaya Cokoto, co-founder and managing director at UmoyAir, had hardly any business experience before she entered the industry. No stranger to the struggle at the top, Khaya embraced the benefits of mentorship and guidance programmes such as compelling leadership as well as support and encouragement with coping in a male-dominated industry.

Q: Who is your inspiration for success?

KC: I had a strong, fearless grandmother who encouraged me to carve my own path to success early in life. She raised me to believe I could be anything and do anything I set my sights on.

Q: The importance of women entrepreneurs on our economy?

KC: Women can make significant contributions to the effectiveness, profitability and skills pool of an organisation, and by extension, add great value to the economy it operates in. Furthermore, women’s inclusion in governance and leadership roles proved just as critical as it impacts economic, social, environmental and cultural aspects of life.

Q: Your involvement with shaping female leading of tomorrow?

KC: I was involved with Siyangoba Community Sports Development, an organisation that seeks to empower underprivileged young people through recreational and competitive sports. We secured long-term support from national companies like Continental SA and the National Lottery Fund, which allowed the organisation access to higher-level training facilities, and the opportunity to increase female participation. I’m proud to say that Siyangoba produced both provincial and national representatives in cycling.

Advice?

KC: Specifically with small businesses, female business owners often forget the power at their disposal to grow their business, especially during the early stages. By imparting knowledge and experience to the future leaders in business, we should help create a solid springboard for strong and innovative female entrepreneurs, adding to the foundation for a competitive economy. Over the years, I have developed my business skills through formal learning as well as self-teaching. This, I believe is true self-empowerment, and I would encourage other aspiring women in business to do the same.

Entrepreneur: Nwabisa Mayema
What she does? Co-Founder of nnfinity

Nwabisa has been an entrepreneur since graduating from the University of Cape Town in 2005. Along with business partner, Nicci Stewart, they founded nnfinity, a company that focuses on vision formulation, strategy implementation and business evaluation with a strong emphasis on client relationship management through networking and corporate communications. Being an entrepreneur and natural networker, Nwabisa is passionate about developing other female entrepreneurs across the continent.

Q: What do you attribute your success to?

NM: Nicci and I are typical start-uppers! We are wild, we’re involved in every aspect of the business, we change our minds, we celebrate the small wins, we grieve the big disappointments and keep trying the next day. We are both second-time round entrepreneurs and often reflect on how things have evolved in the entrepreneurial landscape – I think that’s perhaps the key to our success.

Q: Lessons you’ve learned?

NM: My biggest learning was around the honesty needed when dealing with large corporate clients and a government department. We simply did not have the cash flow to provide a cushion should there be a delay in payments. To our surprise, most of our clients were happy to agree to payment terms. Being honest with clients was really liberating!

Q: Are conditions in SA conducive for entrepreneurs?

NM: Today, there are more female entrepreneurs than ever before. While this is lauded by the man on the street, big corporate companies still view women as a risk factor and are therefore cautious to hand out work willingly. The economic climate is also more constrained, so we look at ways to co-create with corporate clients as opposed to approaching them with solutions. This means that relationship building has become ever more important.

Advice?

NM: As a female entrepreneur, you also need to play a role in tackling some of the social challenges we face as a country and be a driver for doing good business. In my experience, it is the women in our society who are at the coalface of societal challenges and therefore we need to have a sense of urgency when it comes to solving them. Globally, there is a realisation that the way things are cannot be the way things will be. Much of that means that women need to take their place in society be it in positions of leadership or through their business endeavours.