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Ster-Kinekor: Isabel Rao

Ster-Kinekor head says it’s vital to separate emotions from business

Monique Verduyn



Isabel Rao

Isabel Rao always wanted to be in the movie business. After completing a BA in psychology and languages, she began her career in the entertainment industry by working at the SABC’s Foreign Service. Five years down the line she spotted an ad for a secretarial position with the general manager of Ster-Kinekor’s Gauteng region.

“It was the only job available in the organisation and even though I was over-qualified, I wanted to get my foot in the door.” She got the job, and her boss turned out to be a great mentor. Six months later, Rao was appointed regional marketing assistant.

Her work caught the attention of national marketing and she was offered a position at head office. The CEO at that time had a reputation for being hard to work with. “I went to see him and told him I would not accept the job if he was not comfortable with me because I did not want to be unhappy,” she says.

“We immediately had a rapport, so I accepted the position.” Ster-Kinekor then went through a restructuring phase and the business was divided into distribution and exhibition, or films and cinemas. Rao became marketing executive on the films side, the first woman in the organisation to be appointed to such a senior position.

“The appointment came as a surprise, and I knew there would be politics. But it gave me the opportunity to influence organisational policies and the industry in general.” In 2000 Rao became the CEO of Ster-Kinekor Distribution, bringing 20 years of film expertise to the position.

She is one of only a handful of women worldwide to be involved in this arena.  She attributes her success largely to her passion for the product. “I cannot remember a time when I did not love stories,” she says. “Films are the visual depiction of stories, which makes them even more exciting.”

Her second love is travel. “My job enables me to indulge interests I have had from childhood. If you hold onto your ambitions, you end up realising them at some point.”

Rao says she has an innate ability to retain film information because she has a desire to. “The more passion you have for what you do, the easier it is to learn about it. That is why I have found it easy to market films.” So is the film industry as romantic as people believe?

From her perspective, Rao says it’s important to separate emotions from business. “Films are about dreams. People believe in the romance, and they do not want to know what goes on behind the scenes. As consumers, that is their right.”

But there is a harsh business reality too. Rao says the local film industry in particular needs to understand that creativity alone does not deliver what people want to see. “When you work in film, your job is to deliver the romance, not to be romantic.”

Rao says she surrounds herself with excellent people, because a leader is only as good as their team. “I strive to have the best possible people in places where their strengths lie, and I empower them to make decisions. As a hands-on person, I had to learn to offer guidance without jumping in.

I know how I wanted to be treated when I was in marketing, so that’s how I deal with our executives now. It’s also important to keep in touch. People really are the most difficult factor in an organisation, and even the great ones need recognition, feedback, and assistance.”

Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.

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25 Of The Most Successful Business Ideas In South Africa

Find out who’s making waves in numerous industries and how they managed to differentiate themselves in local and international industries.

Nicole Crampton



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“Disruption is all about risk-taking, trusting your intuition, and rejecting the way things are supposed to be. Disruption goes way beyond advertising, it forces you to think about where you want your brand to go and how to get there,” says Richard Branson.

South Africa has its fair share of innovative and disruptive businesses taking both local and international industries by storm. From cutting edge space technology to reimagined logistics, and innovative business models, here are 25 of the most successful business ideas in South Africa:

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Colin Timmis Says ‘Position Yourself For Success By Starting With The Numbers’

People pay first who they feel pressure from, so people will pay you when they feel pressure from you.






Entrepreneur Colin Timmis founded South Africa’s first cloud accounting practice in 2011, Real Time Accounting. Then, a few years after being appointed as South Africa’s first Xero partner Colin became Xero Country Manager South Africa. Xero is the emerging global leader of online accounting software that connects small businesses to their advisors and other services.

Related: Pat Pillai On How He’s Helped Over 5000 Entrepreneurs Using 3 Key Steps

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Company Posts

Two 20 Year Olds Reshape Entrepreneur Landscape With New Social Investment Platform

The Merge vision is to become the ‘go to’, digital meeting place for entrepreneurs and investors, and to truly make a difference in the world.

Merge Connect




Vital Stats

It’s no secret that finding the right investor for your venture is a challenge that most entrepreneurs face. The current process of finding investment is one that is outdated, and limits entrepreneurs due to a lack of time, and network that is needed to find the right investor. But, this doesn’t have to be the case in today’s digital society, says Zander Matthee and Brandon Bate, co-founders of Merge.

“By making the Internet the middleman, we are able to connect with each other much simpler and faster than before” was Zander’s response. “We have taken advantage of this, and have created a digital meeting place for entrepreneurs and investors” added Brandon.

Merge is a social platform that connects entrepreneurs and investors. It aims to simplify, refine and accelerate the process of finding investment for entrepreneurs, and the process of finding investment opportunities for investors. From idea to developed, the platform allows entrepreneurs to present a brief outline of their venture to a network of all investor types. While doing this, entrepreneurs are able to browse through, and connect with investor profiles that suit their requirements.

Related: 8 Codes Of Success That Helped Priven Reddy of Kagiso Interactive Media Achieve A Networth Of Over R4 Billion

From Private Investors to Venture Capital, and everything in between, Merge allows all investor types to join. Investors have the opportunity to personalise their feed to suit their investment preferences, and will be able to connect with innovative businesses – that are looking for investment – at their fingertips. Only once there is a mutual interest in each other, are users able to enter a secure private chat where they can discuss further and share documents under the protection of a digital NDA.

The two boys became good friends during their time in high school at St Stithians Boys College. However, it was only in their last year, 2016, that they decided to pursue their dreams and create the platform. They didn’t know how to code, so rather ironically, they needed some form of investment to get the platform off the ground.


“We knew we had a mountain to climb, but we believed in our vision and that we were really trying to make a difference, and if we could get others to see that, they would be onboard.” said Zander.

Related: Lessons From The Rich And Famous: Manage Your Money Like Oprah To Avoid Going Into Debt Like Nicholas Cage

Chris Peters is one of these individuals that bought into their vision, and became Merge’s first investor. As a successful entrepreneur and part time investor , Chris saw how much value the platform could bring to all entrepreneurs and investors alike. His marketing and strategic background gave him insight into how Merge could play a vital role in a lucrative space, Brand involvement.

“Entrepreneurship and SME development are two key factors that drive economic growth in developing countries like South Africa. That is why brands are currently getting involved, and looking to support entrepreneurs through various means. We have built a platform that allows these brands to successfully market, and execute on the programmes they have created to assist entrepreneurs.” said Chris

Merge was created to assist all entrepreneurs and investors in finding exactly what they are looking for, regardless of age, race, sex, financial position or social status. That is why anybody can sign-up as an entrepreneur. As long as you are determined and willing to work for your dreams. For too long has the investor space been seen as an “elite club for the select few”, and Merge is here to change that. Whether you’ve gotten your bonus at the end of the year and looking for new investment opportunities, or are an active investor, you can sign-up. Whether you’re currently working, or a retired industry leader, you can join as a mentor.

Their vision is to become the ‘go to’, digital meeting place for entrepreneurs and investors, and to truly make a difference in the world.

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