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Medupe Electrical Supplies (MES): Lemao Motaung

Mentorship and networking open up new doors for a successful start-up

Juliet Pitman

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Lemao Mota of Medupe Electrical

While it may be full of rewards, the journey of the entrepreneur is frequently a lonely one. Most small business owners feel the need at some point to share their ideas with someone, or for a mentor to provide key business insight at critical moments. The irony of course is that entrepreneurs are not alone in feeling alone. It’s a common challenge,and one which is familiar to Lemao Motaung, founder of Medupe Electrical Supplies (MES).

The former biochemist has made her mark in the cable distribution business, specifically in the utilities sector, gaining 10% of market share in a few short years – not bad going for a four-man operation that’s up against some pretty heavyweight competition. But although Motaung wasn’t short on business suss, a ready market or general entrepreneurial get-up-and-go, what she did feel the lack of was a support base. “I came from a corporate environment and you forget how important the people around you are to catalysing your success. What I really needed was some kind of support base, a ‘business family’ to act as a sounding board,” she relates.

The MES story started when Motaung was working at 3M. With a wealth of product development and launch experience under her belt, she identified a gap in the market to distribute cable accessories to the utilities sector. She approached 3M with a business proposal to set up her own operation to fill this gap but by her own admission, was so busy convincing the company of the viability of her idea, that she didn’t pay enough attention to the operational side of setting up a business. “If I could do it over, Iwould definitely get those ducks in a row while I was still employed! Not doing so meant that when I left to go on my own, the first two months were absorbed with getting the business registered for tax, setting up bank accounts and canvassing customers.”

In spite of these early challenges Motaung quickly established herself as one of the only woman-owned companies in the sector, gaining a competitive edge through her intricate knowledge of the electrical and cable supply industry. “But being on my own was lonely and I felt the need to interact with other business minds.” She approached International Finance Corporation for a consultant and, seeing the potential inherent in the business, they referred her to Endeavour, an internationa lnon-profit organisation that focuses on developing high impact entrepreneurs through mentorship, training and strong networks. Of the many hundreds of entrepreneurs that Endeavour has interviewed, Motaung was one of only a handful that has been selected to join the organisation. Motaung relates how the practical benefits of the relationship have been invaluable. “When I get stuck I have access to some of the greatest business minds,” she explains. Adrian Gore, chairman of Discovery Holdings; Brian Swette, chairman of Burger King and former COO of Pepsi; Hluemlo Biko, founder of Circle Capital; and Motty Sacks, chairman of Netcare are among these.

While not every entrepreneur has access to a formalised support network, Motaung’s experience does speak to the positive growth benefits to be derived from joining entrepreneur networks and making use of mentors. Many successful entrepreneurs are passionate about helping other start-ups to grow and their advice is often there for the asking. Says Motaung:“One mentor I met made me realise that for a true entrepreneur, there is no plan B, there is no going back to being employed if things don’t pan out. I learned that if plan A doesn’t work, you go back to the drawing board and rework it.” Sometimes it’s the simple insights that make all the difference. Contact: +27 11 397 2913; lemao@medupedistributors.co.za

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

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