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Business Advice for Women Entrepreneurs

The Pros of Running Your Business Like a Girl

Turn your unique strengths into successful business strategies with these four tips.

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Female Entrepreneur

“You throw like a girl!”

How many times have you heard something like this? Accusing a person of doing something “like a girl” has become so common that even women are guilty of saying it–despite the negative connotations it holds toward females.

In her new book, How to Run Your Business Like a Girl, Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin turns the idea of doing something “like a girl” on its head by exploring common female traits and how women entrepreneurs–and all entrepreneurs–can use them to their advantage when running a business.

In her interviews with women business owners she found that women tend to use three unique strengths more than their male counterparts: trusting their intuition, focusing on relationships, and putting more emphasis on life balance.

“The irony of those [traits] is if you’re running a business based on those sorts of priorities, then you make decisions that look like really soft business–because you’re basing [your decisions on] your gut or something that just feels right. But when you look more closely at all of the women in the book doing things, they turn out to be very smart business [decisions].”

So how can you use these three unique strengths to your advantage? Baskin explains:

Trust your gut. Women are much more likely to make a decision based on a gut feeling, Baskin says. They’ll often pull the facts and figures necessary to back up that feeling, but they generally know what they want to do based on intuition. The main area you can use this to your advantage is the hiring process.

“Women pick up on a lot of cues that men might miss, which are more subtle cues. A lot of times somebody will look great on their resume but when they’re in your office, you just don’t feel like they’re the right fit.”

Baskin urges women to trust this gut reaction in the hiring process. “There’s so much that goes into picking the right person for your team–it’s not just a black-and-white resume question. It’s also a question of how that person will work with other people and how that person will fit with your clients, the tone of your company, and what you want to project.”

Build strong relationships. Men tend to play a friendly one-upmanship game and are much more interested in showing their dominance in and out of the business arena. “Women,” she says, “are much more interested in establishing a connection.”

So what does that mean? In business, that means women are less interested in proving they’re the big tough boss, and more interested in establishing nurturing relationships with their employees, clients and vendors. This is a strong trait to have when building a business, Baskin says, because not only will you develop loyal employees, you’ll also make connections with people through your clients and vendors who’ll later refer you business.

“On the other hand,” Baskin says, “a lot of us grow up as little girls being taught to be nice, and we want everybody to like us. And the fact is, being the boss and always being the most popular just don’t go hand in hand.”

Baskin advises women entrepreneurs to not be afraid to be the boss–you can be a strong leader without being labeled as “bitchy.”

“One way to approach it is to lead with both strength and humility–and I think it comes naturally to women to apologize when you screw up or come down too hard on somebody. All of these things lead back to running a business in a more human way.”

You can find a balance between work and life “A lot of the women I interviewed for this book cited life balance–or quality of life–as their reason for starting a business,” Baskin says, pointing to their desire to find a way to juggle family and work. If having more time for your family is important to you, find a way to work that into your day. “It’s not so much how much work you do, but being able to decide when you’ll do it,” she says.

Baskin cites several business owners she knows: “There’s a huge number of parents who are doing this kind of post-bedtime shift; they’ll be out of pocket for the afternoon while they’re taking the kids to stuff, and then you’ll see all these e-mails that come in at midnight and 2 a.m. because they’re working late to get stuff done.” Baskin warns though not to buy into the 27/7 hype. “There’s no reason you can’t build a really strong business working 40 hours a week or less and have life balance. If life balance is important to you, you can build it into your business.”

And on a final note, Baskin offers one more piece of advice to women in the early stages of their business:

You don’t have to know everything. People tend to look at other successful business owners and assume they have it together and that they’ve always known what they’re doing. That’s just not true, Baskin says. “It’s amazing how many women say they didn’t know anything when they started their business.”

Don’t be afraid to ask for help–you don’t have to be perfect at everything.

“Don’t think you have to do it all by yourself. The fun part of being an entrepreneur is you get to run the business by yourself, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a huge group to support you. People love to help startups, and you’ll only be a startup for so long,” she says. “Call people you think won’t give you the time of day–heroes in your industry or people who’ve done things that are meaningful or impressive to you–and ask for help. People like to be the expert and mentor other people.”

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Business Advice for Women Entrepreneurs

Farah Fortune Of African Star Communications On Choosing The Right Clients

Publicist extraordinaire Farah Fortune of African Star Communications built her business not by courting big clients, but by backing young up-and-comers, and growing her brand right alongside theirs.

Monique Verduyn

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Farah-Fortune

Vital Stats

  • Player: Farah Fortune
  • Company: African Star Communications
  • Established: 2008
  • Contact: +27 (0)79 826 1955, farah@africanstar.co.za

The 36-year-old publicist launched her celebrity PR business in 2008, with R1 000 in her pocket — she spent R589 of that on registering a CC and the rest on business cards.

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From working on her bedroom floor and sharing two-minute noodles with her daughter as she struggled to survive, today African Star Communications represents high-profile rappers such as K.O and Solo, and stand-up comedians Loyiso Gola and Jason Goliath.

She has an office in Nigeria and plans to open two new offices in Botswana and Ghana.

You pulled yourself up by your bootstraps. How did you overcome the hurdles?

I lost my first business to a crooked partner in 2006. I was determined to try again and I went in search of funding, but no-one would give me money.

When the last thing I had to feed my child was a mouldy piece of cheese, I went back to work for a PR company, earning R12 000 a month, managing accounts worth millions. I hated every minute of it. In June 2008, when my CC registration came through, I walked out the door.

My first pitch was for a small charity day that AIG hosted for Manchester United in Johannesburg. I was the only woman in the reception area, but my offer to do the job for R10 000 was irresistible and I signed my first client. That was just the beginning of a long struggle. I was broke for the next three years.

Friends bought my groceries, and I would feed my daughter and have her leftovers for dinner.

I couldn’t afford petrol so I walked from my house in Randburg to do pitches in Sandton in my takkies, and then changed my shoes at the client’s office. The only thing that kept me going was the belief that I could somehow make it work.

What was your big break?

Farah-Fortune-woman-success

In year three rapper AKA was about to release his first album. He pursued me for four months. Initially, I didn’t want to work with him, but his ambition won me over.

I’ve never regretted the decision. We signed a contract, and shortly after that more clients came my way, mostly for small events.

Working with AKA made me realise that my passion was for music and I decided to channel my energies into promoting South Africa hip-hop stars. That’s how I ended up specialising and finding my own niche in the crowded PR sector.

Our team convinced 8ta/Telkom to look at AKA for their ads and it worked. I branched into corporate PR after the celebrity side took off.

What made your business stand out from other PR companies?

First was affordability. Publicists do not come cheap. I signed up many young artists who had not yet hit the big time, and charged them as little as R4 000 a month to manage their publicity and help make them famous.

Taking on lots of small clients meant that I could spread the risk. We still structure our packages according to what clients can afford and I’ve kept the overheads low. To this day, I’ve never advertised.

Second was my focus on hip-hop. Before 2011, corporates were not interested in rappers and the scene was very much underground. I convinced Vodacom to sponsor a big hip-hop party with AKA as the star attraction.

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After that, many other corporates woke up and took advantage of the popularity of the local rap scene. I like to think I played a part in mainstreaming South African hip-hop.

How have you stayed relevant in a fickle industry?

Once the business was pumping, I built my own brand. I never planned to be in the spotlight, but the more I appeared in the media, the more I was able to build my clients’ profiles, and get bigger accounts.

I focused only on doing business-related interviews and people started to take me more seriously. I could not believe how many corporate contracts I did not win because I refused to sleep with the client.

It’s a disappointing reality of this business when you are young and female. Developing my own brand helped me to build a career based on respect and professionalism.

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Business Advice for Women Entrepreneurs

Ezlyn Barends Of DreamGirls On Igniting Passion

According to Ezlyn Barends of DreamGirls, great leadership is about finding and fostering passion in others. That’s how sustainable organisations are built — and grow.

Monique Verduyn

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Ezlyn Barends

Vital Stats

  • Player: Ezlyn Barends
  • Company: The DreamGirls International Outreach and Mentoring Programme
  • EST: 2012
  • Visit: dadfund.org 

‘Lead from the back.’ That’s one of the leadership lessons from Nelson Mandela, and it’s an approach that has worked for Ezlyn Barends, a social entrepreneur and all-round high achiever who is passionate about empowerment.

Through The Dad Fund, launched by her father Lyndon Barends in honour of community leader Daniel Arthur Douman (DAD), she started the South African chapter of a US-based girl education and empowerment initiative, the DreamGirls International Outreach and Mentoring Programme.

DreamGirls aims to increase the number of girls who complete high school and enter tertiary education. A total of 450 girls have participated so far, and all beneficiaries do community service, which extends the benefits of the programme even further.

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Barends describes DreamGirls as a sisterhood of young female professionals, entrepreneurs and leaders who mentor and guide teen girls from poor communities to gain an education that will enable them to achieve success, so that in turn, they too can contribute positively and meaningfully to society.

What happens when you let go?

“One of most important things I have learnt is to let other people in your organisation take the lead,” says Barends. “That has been an important realisation for me as I am involved in many initiatives, which makes time a very precious resource.

“Teaming up with people who have the same values and vision as you do, letting go of the need to control — which is common among entrepreneurs — and empowering others in your organisation is key to success. That is how DreamGirls has grown and developed into a successful social business.”

It also means Barends isn’t alone in her passion to change lives, but has been instrumental in creating and fostering a group of individuals with the same goal.

Every entrepreneur has a finite number of hours in each day. Being able to spread the load amongst trusted individuals is key to growth — and growth is Barends’ ultimate goal, as it means more lives are touched and changed.

The power of passion

Barends has proved just how powerful a passion for helping others can be. When DreamGirls was launched, there was no budget, but her desire to do good and her commitment to the cause were so all-consuming that everything somehow fell into place.

It helped that a range of corporate donors came on board to help fund the programme. Since then the programme has received significant support from corporate South Africa in the form of funding and in-kind donations, facilitating workshops and events.

The ability to encourage and inspire others to take ownership has enabled three branches to flourish in Gauteng, the Western Cape and Polokwane, with further possibilities for growth in Pretoria, Bloemfontein, Durban and Kimberley.

In the first two years, Barends ran DreamGirls full time, together with a team of women. Because of the passionate assistance of her team, she was able to complete an MBA in the UK in 2014, bringing valuable skills and insights back to the organisation.

“We have developed our own culture, which we call the DreamGirls way of doing things,” she says. “Because the organisation has been built on a specific set of values, it is about so much more than merely helping girls to get a tertiary qualification. The essence is about being helpful and supportive of everyone involved.”

With her team firmly in place, Barends has taken on a full-time job in business development at Microsoft. Being able to rely on others to run DreamGirls’ daily operations means she has more time to focus on strategic growth and creating greater financial sustainability for the programme.

“It has brought fresh perspective, and that’s one of the reasons why we have now decided to go the franchising route — simply because I had the time to step back and look at what we were trying to achieve a little differently.”

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Applying the franchising model to a social enterprise

Dreamgirls-foundation

Equipped with an MBA, Barends has used the knowledge she acquired through her studies to continue improving the DreamGirls business model.

“Part of the process of letting go was to create a social franchising model that we are now in the process of rolling out,” she says.

Franchising the DreamGirls concept required her to systematise the business model first, to ensure that it can be replicated successfully.

That process in itself can be a real game changer for a social enterprise as it elevates operations to the next level, with the operating manual becoming a day-to-day ‘how-to’ guide for the organisation.

“We have documented and put together all of the training materials and tools required to run a branch of DreamGirls. Now we are seeking franchisees who are committed to becoming social entrepreneurs. The franchise system will enable us to cover our operational costs, which is necessary because corporate sponsors are understandably keener to fund the programme than its running costs.”

Franchising is certainly a quicker and more cost-effective way of scaling up when it is difficult to access capital, and the legwork has already been done.

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Business Advice for Women Entrepreneurs

Dr Anna Mokgokong Believes In Leading From The Front

Soweto-born Dr Anna Mokgokong from Community Investment Holdings has received international acclaim for an entrepreneurial ability that has seen her grow a R1 billion company. Here’s why she believes in leading from the trenches.

Monique Verduyn

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Dr-Anna-Mokgokong

Vital Stats

  • Player: Dr Anna Mokgokong
  • Company: Community Investment Holdings
  • Turnover: R1 billion
  • Contact: ciholdings.co.za

International travel not only broadens the mind, but being well-travelled provides leaders with a competitive edge in the workplace.

Getting a view of the bigger global picture and learning adaptability are important milestones in the life of a leader. Dr Anna Mokgokong, or simply Dr Anna as she is warmly referred to, knows all about that.

Born in Soweto and raised in Swaziland, the head of multi-billion rand investment company Community Investment Holdings (CIH), with holdings across the healthcare, technology, finance, logistics, and mining sectors, started off selling sandwiches and bags to fellow students while studying to be a doctor.

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A focus on business knowledge

She used her medical training as a launch pad into business, and has since developed interests in many different industries. She sits on numerous company boards locally and internationally and chairs AfroCentric Group and AfroCentric Health Group.

“I often meet CEOs who are capable and accomplished, but not quite ‘leaders’,” she says.

“My own experiences have taught me that exposure to global strategies and infrastructure is the quickest way to learn and grow. To lead is not about how well you do in your job, but how you integrate the knowledge you have acquired for the benefit of the people you work with, and the environment around you.”

Acknowledge your roots

Fundamental for a leader is the ability to reflect how you got there, because it is impossible to get anywhere on your own. You need people to support your endeavours, initiatives and vision. Dr Anna says it’s important not to forget where you come from.

“The people I first looked up to were my parents. I learnt from them how to be aware and conscious of my environment, which has served me well in life. We had a busy home, often full of people, and it used to annoy me that we had to share everything, but that is how I learnt to care for other people.”

She recalls growing her private practice from scratch as a community doctor, to a patient base of more than 40 000 people, serving eight villages.

“In the first three days, I did not have a single patient. On day four, a group of elderly women from the village came to see me. There was nothing wrong with them, but because they wanted to make it worth my while to stay and work in the village, they came for a consultation. That showed me how important it is to make yourself an integral part of the communities your work in.”

Be tough enough to bounce back

Dr Anna recently attended the Women Vendors Exhibition and Forum in São Paulo, Brazil, where she heard powerful testimonials by global entrepreneurs. She is firm about one thing – resilience.

In 1999, when she was Businesswoman of the Year, and CE of Malesela Hospitals, she was named as a central figure in the collapse of Macmed healthcare group, which lost R1 billion.

“I was viewed with suspicion by the media, and my reputation was tarnished,” she says.

“What I took from that experience was the importance of doing research and understanding your environment. I was wrongly accused of mismanagement, but my biggest failing was ignorance — I failed to identify the problems within Macmed. I had to take the battering and move on.”

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Don’t let gossip undermine the business

A problem-solver by nature, it’s most likely due to her medical training that she likes to take a lateral view of challenges. She has little patience with people who talk to her about problems with others in the workplace. “I always ask, ‘are you here to gossip, or to raise something of substance?’”

She believes that gossip at work undermines leaders and affects productivity, but it also indicates that employees are unhappy and unempowered.

“It’s imperative to improve that situation before it impacts your business. The best way to stop it, is to reveal both the gossiper and the subject of the gossip — people are shocked when I do that, but if there is a problem, let’s get it out into the open, fix it, and turn our focus back to the business.”

Talk less, listen more

Dr Anna prides herself on being a good listener. “Great leaders are great listeners,” she says. “It shows a level of intuition and empathy, but it can also be an important strategic tool. The more you learn to listen the more you hear what is not being said.”

Like most great leaders, she believes it is important to be a good communicator – someone who does not talk ‘at’ people, but actively engages with them.

“Hearing is more important than being heard,” she maintains. “As a leader, you need to be sure that you understand, before you can insist on being understood.”

Be willing to learn

Ask her what her message is to young South African entrepreneurs, and her answer is ‘get an education’.

By that she means learning about the business world. One of the first mistakes she made as a young entrepreneur in pharmaceutical supplies, was to trade with a customer on handshakes.

She trusted him, and when he asked to triple his regular order, she took a leap of faith and was burned.

“He could not pay, and there was no contract in place to help me recoup what he owed. I cannot stress enough how important it is to know the law, as it applies to business, and to familiarise yourself with critical elements like the Companies Act, King III, and what it truly means to be a director.”

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It’s advice that’s as relevant for established business owners who want to grow their organisations.

“To survive in business today, you need to be a sharp thinker. The environment changes all the time and to stay on top, you need to be smarter than the rest. Most importantly, take yourself seriously because if you don’t, no-one else will.”

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