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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.

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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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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Business Advice for Women Entrepreneurs

How Xoliswa Kakana And ICT-Works Tackled A Male-Dominated Field

Xoliswa Kakana from ICT-Works proves that credibility and brand building are as important as skills when you’re starting out in an industry.

Monique Verduyn

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Xoliswa Kakana

Vital Stats

Xoliswa Kakana was a busy kid. While other children did chores to earn pocket money, she liked taking things apart to see how they work, fixing people’s watches, irons and other electronics.

When she came across an article in the early 80s about a Japanese woman engineer who was also an astronaut, her mind was set and she signed up for an electronics engineering degree.

In 1999, she launched ICT-Works to create what she calls “an environment that would allow women ICT professionals the space and freedom to express themselves.”

We asked her to describe how she built a business that has won many industry sector awards alongside some of the biggest corporates in the country.

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Did you face any hurdles at the outset?

It was challenging, but we persevered and ensured that every contract we signed was delivered on. Because it was critical to build a track record, we had to take on some projects that were not immediately profitable.

Starting up in such a male-dominated field, how did you go about convincing clients that you were right for the job and could be relied upon?

The overarching thing is that people buy from people, so they buy from people they already have a relationship with. Therefore, that’s where you feel most that you are a woman – because our male colleagues get to know each other on the golf course and other social spaces that women are not easily let into.

Once you get past that hurdle, for most people the fundamentals are the same – they want to be assured that the job will get done, and that you can be relied upon to deliver.

There are companies that recognise these impediments for women and for black people, and they have taken deliberate, bold action to do something about it. Coega, for example, issued a large tender near the beginning of ICT-Works’ journey.

It was stipulated in the terms of the contract that Deloitte would be the lead partner on the project for 18 months, with ICT-Works as the junior partner. Thereafter, ICT-Works would take over as the lead partner in the consortium on all project responsibilities for the remainder of the contract.

That was one of the key projects that gave us a track record, credibility and a relatively large income over an extended period. This positioned us for future opportunities.

How did you set the business on a growth path?

When I realised that my capabilities were stretched, I asked for help in the right places, inviting my business partners Sindile Ncala and Margaret Sibiya to leave their corporate jobs and join me.

When we were smaller, we relied a lot on fleet-footedness. We were opportunistic, chasing anything and everything that came our way. Our roles changed every day.

One moment I was a CEO who doubled as a sales person, the next I was a bid writer, and after that, the main delivery resource. I even swept the floor when necessary. You have to be willing to do anything in the early stages.

How did you establish these partnerships? How did the early phases of your operation provide a suitable platform for these partnerships?

You have to have something you’re offering to the larger partner that they don’t have. Like any relationship, you need to stick with each other through challenging projects. These partnerships need to be long-term and strategic in nature.

We offered larger, more established partners the agility of a small company. When the owners themselves are practitioners, as is the case with ICT-Works, they are not simply the face, but are in fact doing the work.

Our larger partners get three highly skilled and experienced black women and their team working with them on technically demanding jobs. An added bonus is that our overheads as a smaller entity are minimal.

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How and when did you secure a coveted Oracle Platinum Partner distinction?

xoliswaOracle has a set criteria for partners to achieve in order to qualify for recognition as an Oracle Platinum partner. We have achieved product specialisation in more than five product areas, which is evidence of breadth and depth of expertise.

This means that as a Platinum Partner, our clients can be assured of the highest level of knowledge in the development, implementation and support of their Oracle environment.

ICT-Works first achieved the Oracle Platinum status in 2010 when we displayed our depth of knowledge and innovation around the Oracle product, which led to being awarded the National Government’s IFMS contract.

Did you make any mistakes?

We made many mistakes, but we learnt from each of them. Firstly, we underestimated the amount of selling we would have to do, because we assumed that, in a BEE environment, being 100% black-women owned and managed would give us an advantage.

Instead, it demanded ten times more effort and continues to. We were always being called upon to prove ourselves.

We also misjudged the need for start-up and working capital. I launched the business armed with one month’s salary and a big chunk of my mother’s pension. The cash-flow lesson was a hard and rough one. We had never anticipated late payments and lack of customer readiness.

Lastly, we underestimated the long decision-making cycles typical in Government. As a result, there were times in the beginning when we had to borrow money from our home loans to be able to pay our staff, ourselves and some of our suppliers.

To build a track record, you took on jobs that weren’t immediately profitable. What were these jobs, and how did you balance them with those that were lucrative?

Typically, these projects would be in areas that require high levels of innovation. In such cases, ICT-Works took a strategic decision to invest in high-value opportunities by taking smaller margins if we saw that there was scope for us to innovate and develop further IP for ourselves that could be used more profitably on other opportunities down the line.

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Once you’ve packaged the IP and know-how on the non-profitable projects, this eventually balances out because you are able to replicate the offering more efficiently, and at a lower cost, thus improving your margins.

It was also at this early stage that we learnt one of our key success drivers – partnering. Our strategic partnerships have helped propel us to the next level.

We are an Oracle Platinum Partner, which is the second highest level of partnership, and few companies have that recognition in this country.

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