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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.

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+.

Business Advice for Women Entrepreneurs

Rapelang Rabana’s Innovation Formula – 3 Key Ingredients To Innovate

To be a success in today’s fast paced world, you need innovation at the heart of everything you do.

Nadine Todd

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rapelang-rabana

The innovation formula is simple: According to tech entrepreneur Rapelang Rabana, innovation is at its best and greatest when it’s sourced from your unique perspective and accumulated wisdom, combined with shared value and execution.

At this year’s BCX Disrupt Summit, Rapelang broke the process down into the three key ingredients that together shape innovation and success.

1. Prepare your mind

Your ability to innovate and be creative is based on the sum of all of your experiences. Great ideas do not take shape in our minds, they are the result of external stimulus hitting a prepared mind. We don’t think up ideas — we notice them. We connect the dots in new and creative ways. And our ability to do so is based on how prepared we are to notice what’s happening around us, and to tap into that information.

When asked what it takes to be great like Richard Branson, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, Musk’s ex-wife, Justine Musk had this advice to offer:

“Shift your focus away from what you want (a billion dollars) and get deeply, intensely curious about what the world wants and needs. It helps to have an ego, but you must be in service to something bigger if you are to inspire the people you need to help you.”

Related: 10 Young Entrepreneurs Under 30 Share Their Start-Up Secrets

So, ask yourself this: What do you have that is so deeply compelling and needed that no one can outsource you or replace you? Until you can answer this question, keep building your mind, your abilities and your knowledge. Work on your repository, and your ability to connect the dots.

2. Create shared value

thato-kgatlhanye-bagsThato Kgatlhanye, founder of the Rethaka foundation, an organisation that creates school bags that are also solar panels, and can provide schoolgoers with energy in the evening so that they can do their homework, says that she is money-driven, business-driven, and empathetic towards her people. In other words, her business is created through shared value, and the desire to not only create money for her business, but within her communities as well.

Most successful organisations would never have been launched  if their primary focus was for the business to win. People are hungry for things that are inclusive and show positive change.

Consider Airbnb — the founders had the audacity to put a blow-up mattress in their livingroom, and believe that other people would find value in their offering. And they were right, mainly because the business model is all inclusive. The business wins, the hosts win and the customers win.

According to Nielsen, 40% more social entrepreneurs are growing compared to other SMEs, and they’re showing greater profit. In addition, people say they are more likely to purchase from ethical and sustainable businesses. The cynics might say this is what people say, not how they buy. This may be true, but it’s also a leading indicator of how we will behave in the future. We’re trying to get there, and our behaviour will catch up to the sentiment.

Always be cognisant of how responsive the market is. Learn to leverage public sentiment and get attention through the ideal of shared value. Winning with others is the fastest way to create value today.

Related: 20 South African Side-Hustles You Can Start This Weekend

3. Get stuff done

When we start a project or idea, we try to project into the future. We want to draw a linear picture between now and then. The problem is that creation is far more chaotic.

Instead, minute variations over time create profound changes. It’s a journey. There are no defining moments of success or failure; just a series of events strung together over time. To make the necessary minute variations though, you need data points and you need to take action. Often this starts with just beginning. If you start, you can move forward, slowly but surely. Progress is far more evolutionary than simply trying to imagine the end.

The problem is that the mind blocks us. We essentially block ourselves from success. How? Building anything and trying to be innovative requires a series of many, many decisions made over years and years. Many of those decisions are made — or not made — from a place of fear. Our instincts tell us to do something, and then our minds stop us. The most incredible things can happen if we learn to follow our instincts though.

the-five-second-rule-mel-robbinsIn her book, The Five Second Rule, Mel Robbins unpacks the skill of acting on your instincts. In essence, the space between your instinct and the moment of hesitation that stops you from acting is five seconds. This means you have five seconds to make things happen, and the way to utilise that time and to make things happen is to count down from five: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. At one, move. Get up, take action, call the client, speak to your boss — don’t let fear come in and crush the instinct.

Why a countdown? A countdown suspends — for a moment — the self-doubt that gives you space to move before the brain kills it. I started using the rule for small stuff at first. A countdown in the morning to get out of bed and go to gym. Then I started using it for the harder stuff, like not losing my temper. If you can be aware enough to make the countdown, you can change your behaviour.

The ability to execute and turn innovation into profit comes down to a series of five-second moments over years. Push yourself. Get past your mental blocks and act on your instinct.

Combine this with building on your knowledge, connecting the dots around you, and understanding that value is not given or taken, but is created through shared value, and you have the recipe for innovation and success.


IN YOUR TOOLKIT

Focus on learning new stuff

FACT: The super-successful focus heavily on learning new skills, reading practical books and listening or watching podcasts, interviews and informational courses.

Take best-selling author and leadership coach Simon Sinek, who said:

“My work is never complete, we wake up with a hunger to learn, and no one is ever truly an expert. Anyone who says, ‘I’m an expert at anything’ has closed their mind to the idea that they might not know everything. There’s always more to learn. I’ve never considered myself an expert. I’m always a student of leadership. All the work is imperfect and all the learning is continuous.”

Action Step: If you can read 20 full pages a day, or even listen to an hour-long audio/podcast, you will accumulate more than 36+ books a year of new knowledge.

Start here: If you’re not sure where to start, download the audible app (audible.com) and browse the business books available, or subscribe to podcasts. Three great places to begin are:

  • Trailblazers with Walter Isaacson, a show focused on disruption and hosted by the biographer of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin amongst others.
  • The Tim Ferriss Show, hosted by Tim Ferriss and one of the biggest podcasts on the planet.
  • Masters of Scale, hosted by LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, who chats to some of the worlds biggest and most successful entrepreneurs.

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Business Advice for Women Entrepreneurs

From Buffy To Business: Sarah Michelle Gellar Opens Up About How Hollywood Helped Prepare Her for Launching A Company

Sarah Michelle Gellar and her co-founders share lessons learned and how acting helped her deal with rejection and how being a celebrity in the startup world can have its drawbacks.

Andrea Huspeni

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Sarah Michelle Gellar

Everyone wants to be an entrepreneur. With a turbulent economy, companies cutting jobs and employees fearful they’ll be replaced by robots, people of all backgrounds are looking to take control of their financial future and pursue their passion, including celebrities.

Jessica Alba, Gwyneth Paltrow, George Clooney and Victoria Beckham are just some of the stars who decided to transition from La La land to entrepreneurial land.

And now Sarah Michelle Gellar, best known as the star of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is also part of the startup world. The actress-turned-entrepreneur joined forces with friends who are also parents, Galit Laibow and Greg Fleishman, to launch Foodstirs in 2015. The DIY baking company, which sells kits and mixes, wants to provide parents fun, yet simple desserts for their children, with a focus on organic, ethically and sustainably-sourced ingredients.

“We’re determined to help bakers around the world take pride in their pantries, joy in their treats, and time together in the heart of the home,” is part of their mission.

After raising a reported $5 million, the company has expanded beyond just ecommerce; Foodstirs is now in approximately 7,500 stores, including Whole Foods.

Related: The Important Entrepreneurship Lesson From Jessica Alba And Sarah Michelle Gellar

We caught up with her before the event to chat about finding success, her journey and lessons she learned.

Before you got into the world of entrepreneurship, you were best known for your acting. Why did you decide to jump into this world?

I always knew I wanted to do more than just be an actor for hire. I thought producing might be enough, but I realised I still desired more. That’s when I realised I could utilise my great existing platform and actually be a part of creating something tangible. It’s been such an interesting process, learning how much of my existing skill set is applicable to being an entrepreneur.

Why did you decide to have a focus on food?

sarah-michelle-gellar-foodstirs-and-children

Food has always been an important part of my life, as it should be for everyone, but that magnified once I had children. Our kids were so interested in baking, yet there was no readily available brand that had the attributes we would want and expect – organic, ethically sourced, easy and affordable that also tasted amazing.

What has been the mantra that has helped you find success as an entrepreneur?

The one thing being an actor prepares you for is rejection.  I spent the better part of my life facing and dealing with rejection, and I have never let it stop me from achieving something I was passionate about. When it comes to business, for me the word “no” is just the first step to yes. That rejection inspires me to work harder, and prove those no’s to be a mistake.

What is something that would surprise people about your entrepreneurial journey?

I think people assume that being a celebrity makes it easier to raise money and achieve mass distribution and that is not the case. Maybe it gets you in a door, as a novelty, but then you have so much more to prove.

Related: 46 Facts You Should Know About Entrepreneurship (Infographic)

What is one piece of advice you will share ?

sarah-michelle-gellar-foodstirs

This piece of advice came from Galit Laibow – one of my two amazing partners along with Greg Fleishman. Always surround yourself with people who are smarter and know more than you do. We have such an incredible group of advisors with vast experience in all areas of business that we can call on at all times. Their knowledge is invaluable.

What is on the horizon for you?

We just achieved wide retail distribution (in over 7,500 stores) so our main focus at the moment is supporting our stores through quarter four and at the same time dialing in our innovation pipeline for 2018.

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

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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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