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Women Entrepreneur Successes

How Ramona Kasavan Built An Organisation That Helps Women Empower Themselves

Starting a business can be brutal. Your vision can take longer to materialise than you hoped, and you’ll probably have to adjust your model along the way. Ramona Kasavan knows that if you have a dream bigger than yourself, it’s worth fighting for. Here are her four pillars to a successful start-up that can change society as we know it.

Nadine Todd

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“Understand who you are — and what you’re selling.”

Ramona Kasavan is a social capitalist. She is running a full profit organisation that aims to make a massive impact on the lives of impoverished South African girls and women, and help them break the cycles of abuse and poverty that define many of their lives and circumstances.

She’s doing this through contract manufacturing and selling sanitary pads. Like many start-ups, it took Ramona some time before she could articulate — both internally and externally — that her company is not a sanitary pad business, but an organisation that helps women to empower themselves.

Know what your business is really about

“One of my mentors, ex- FCBDraft MD Klasie Wessels, helped me to understand this,” says Ramona. “At the time I had already established my own sanitary pad brand, Happy Days, and he said to me, ‘Happy Days has nothing to do with periods. That’s not what this business is; it’s not the problem it’s solving.”’

Today, the company is called Mimi Women, based on the Swahili word for ‘I am’. “This business is about female empowerment; it’s about teaching girls to be ‘selfish’, giving them permission to believe that they are enough, just the way they are. They can be who they want to be.”

The benefits of rebranding

The seemingly simple act of rebranding helped Ramona shift her strategy, but it’s an important lesson that other start-ups can benefit from. Often, the idea that sparks a business, and the resultant product or service, can become so consuming that the business owner doesn’t take the time to step back and define exactly who the business is.

When this happens, the company struggles to develop a vision and purpose greater than its product offering, which can be extremely limiting to growth.

In Ramona’s case, it was the realisation that sanitary pads are not only expensive (which she discovered once she was in varsity, living in a flat and trying to make ends meet), but that for many households they are scarce resources, keeping girls at home during their menstruation cycles when they should be at school.

Creating a high quality product at a low price

“There were two options: Brands that are good quality but expensive, and cheap brands that are terrible quality and don’t solve the problem at hand. I wanted to create a premium brand at an economy price.”

With the assistance of the IDC, local partners and a successful relationship with a Chinese manufacturer, Ramona achieved her goal, but she soon discovered this wasn’t enough to make the impact she was looking for.

Related: For Founder Of National Tekkie Tax Day Having A Higher (Business) Purpose Keeps Her Driving Forward

“Don’t be afraid to pivot — it could take your business to the next level.”

Enter the pivot, an essential element in business innovation, sustainability and growth. “I was tired of being donor funded, which was how the business was operating. We had a campaign running with JSE companies to sponsor a girl child and keep her in school. It was working, but it was also incredibly stressful. Relying on donors was making it difficult to grow the business and create the intended impact.”

An integral element of the business’s rebranding was the opportunity to move away from a donor model, and develop a more sustainable for-profit model to support the Mimi Foundation, a new non-profit arm that donates sanitary pads to girls in need.

“We realised that we had a product, but that this wasn’t the business. Once that was in place, we could develop different, interlinking business models to achieve our goals.”

There are now three arms to the business: A foundation that supports keeping girls in school through donated sanitary pads; a distribution arm that provides business opportunities for women in impoverished areas; and fundraising to instal a factory that manufactures Mimi sanitary pads, which are currently sourced locally and from China.

The factory will be completed and operational before the end of 2017, opening the way for Mimi pads to enter the local FMCG retail chain. For every pack of Mimi purchased, a pack will be donated to the foundation, enabling consumers to buy local and support a good cause.

“It’s been a big shift from our original donor model, but it’s made a huge difference to the overall impact of our business on South African women.”

“If you want to grow, you need to find additional revenue streams.”

mimiwomen

Ramona has evaluated multiple ways to get her sanitary pads into the market in such a way that the business makes an income, but can also deliver on its original mandate of keeping girls in schools, and its more sophisticated current mandate of empowering women.

“We’re negotiating with schools to have sanitary pad vending machines available for their students. This is a pilot that we are currently running with IDC. For each pad sold, a pad is donated to the foundation, so it ticks a CSI box for the schools while helping us to grow our footprint.” Ramona is also negotiating with the big five retailers in South Africa to get her product onto their shelves.

However, the biggest shift in her model has been the introduction of Agents for Change which is an empowerment direct selling model. “The initial aim was to have 1 000 agents selling our product. Within three weeks of launching the new division we had 100 agents.”

The impact of Agents for Change

Agents for Change focuses on women aged 18 to 35 years. “We look for historically disadvantaged individuals who have no experience in selling a product or running a business.

“By giving them an opportunity to create income for themselves we hope to assist them in breaking the cycle of poverty they’re in, while also getting our products into the markets that will benefit from a premium brand at an affordable price.”

The Agents for Change idea came from a pilot with SAB Milller called Pads and Cents, where Agents meet every second Friday for a full day of coaching in financial literacy, basic business principles and sales. “If you can sell pads you can sell anything. We’ve found that women build confidence when we help them to speak about important things that are taboo in their communities.”

Women who complete the programme can become Agents of Change who sell Mimi products, or they can pitch their ideas to current business incubators as a different route.

Related: How This Power Couple Hooked 2 Shark Tank Investors

Empowering not enabling women to achieve

“This is about empowering women, not enabling them. We’re not about covering their costs, but giving them the tools and opportunities to create and grow their own businesses. They can have their own agents, and we’re creating an ecosystem to support them.

“Mimi-branded tuk-tuks will deliver product and instal waste disposal units that they’ll empty and incinerate; the tuk-tuks will stock vending machines, and we can even offer bathroom cleaning services.”

The next step in the evolution of the business is building a manufacturing plant under the company’s investment arm, Full Circle Women, which Ramona developed with support from her mentor, Wendy Luhabe. The ultimate aim is to become a female-focused VC investor, and the manufacturing plant is the fund’s first project.

“One of the mandates when you receive IDC funding is that you need to source locally,” says Ramona. “I was 100% local for just over a year, but local suppliers couldn’t meet our supply needs. The IDC is aware of this, and understood when I sourced a Chinese manufacturer to produce the sanitary pads I had designed. The idea is that I source from the Chinese as a proof of concept, and they will help us set up the plant later this year.

“For the model to really be sustainable and have longevity, we need to control manufacturing. Therefore, we’ve created a fund whereby 100 women invest R100 000. We’ve currently got 32 women and are also talking to VC investors.”

“Don’t take no for an answer.”

Truly successful entrepreneurs have one trait in common: They don’t take no for an answer. Ramona is one such entrepreneur. Her involvement with SAB, for example, began because she kept being turned down for SAB’s Kickstarter programme, so she phoned SAB’s exco to ask why.

“I had my honours in marketing and two successful start-ups under my belt, yet I couldn’t get their support; I wanted to know why.”

In response, SAB asked Ramona what she wanted, and together they devised the financial literacy incubator, Pads and Cents, whereby Ramona spearheads her own pre-incubator programme supported by SAB Miller Egoli Region.

Keep your supporters in the loop

Another example is the IDC and her Chinese partners. “I needed the IDC to understand why I was finding a Chinese partner. You just need to lay down your case. They’ve made concessions as a result, particularly because this will help me to build a local manufacturing plant.”

The Chinese relationship wasn’t seamless to begin with. “I’m an Indian woman from South Africa, and I’d sit in meetings with my supplier and they’d talk over my head. I had to put my foot down, look him in the eye and tell him that if he didn’t start dealing with me, I’d take my dollars elsewhere.”

Related: 11 Secrets Of South African Entrepreneurs On Making It To The Top

Build relationships built on trust and respect

The move not only earned Ramona her supplier’s respect, but has laid the foundation for a very good relationship built on trust and mutual respect.

“In business, as in life, you won’t get what you want unless you ask for it — and fight for it where necessary. In 2016 I was stressed and despondent because I was so reliant on donors and my business wasn’t making the impact I wanted. I had to sit down, re-evaluate what I was doing, and adjust my model. Today our vision is bigger than I ever thought possible. This is also based on the relationships with mentors, stakeholders and people who are passionate about building a sustainable future for young women leaders.”


Do this

Identify your best route to market, and where you will have the biggest impact. The right focus is a key differentiator for success. 

Women Entrepreneur Successes

Erna Basson Of Erabella Hair Extensions On Acting The Part And Finding The Gap

Erna Basson says that building your own empire is one of the toughest things you can do, but also one of the most rewarding. She unpacks the lessons she has learnt that have helped her launch and grow three businesses into sustainable brands.

Monique Verduyn

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Vital Stats

  • Player: Erna Basson
  • Company: Erabella Hair Extensions
  • Est: 2017
  • Visit: www.erabellahairextensions.com
  • Career highlights:
    • Named South Africa’s top entrepreneur under 30 for 2017
    • Global female entrepreneur of the year 2017
    • Top 100 most influential young South Africans 2017
    • Interviewing Grant Cardone — 2018
    • Opening speaker at the Mega Success event 2017 in Los Angeles.

Originally from Bloemfontein, Erna Basson has always been highly competitive. She completed a four-year bachelor’s degree in three years, while holding down several part-time jobs. She was first bitten by the entrepreneurial bug in her second year at UFS (University of the Free State). Her class was struggling with business law, so she read the text book and produced an annotated summary that she then sold to desperate students.

Today, she heads up Erna Basson Ltd, a business coaching and speaking venture; Woman Entrepreneur, a global platform empowering and educating female entrepreneurs from around the world on how they can start and scale their businesses; and Erabella Beauty Global, a premium hair extensions brand available in South Africa and globally.

On acting the part

“I was a cheerleader for the Cheetahs while I studied, and I also worked as a hostess at Cubaña,” she says. “I got the opportunity to do tons of promotions for liquor brands and that experience taught me how important it is to always be on point and professional, as the event sponsors could pitch up at any time to check on what was happening.”

Related: How To Start A Salon And Spa Business

After moving to Port Elizabeth with her now husband, Nellis Basson (who is also an entrepreneur), she started working for Gestetner and was out on a sales call at Distell when she heard the regional manager complaining about bad service from an events company. “I said to him, ‘if I can have a company up and running within 30 days, will you make use of my services?’ and he said ‘yes’. I walked into the company as an employee and walked out of the company with a new life and opportunity, and this has taught me a valuable lesson that I still follow every day. Take advantage of every opportunity, even if it scares you. You need to be out of your comfort zone to grow.”

That was one of the first principles she learnt, and which she speaks about to her global audiences.

“The bigger the problem you are solving for people, the more valuable you are to them, and the more money you will make.”

People are always searching for solutions. They will always look for better, faster and smarter ways to accomplish tasks. Erna knew that to grab her customer’s attention, she had to start by solving their problems. “If you can take a person from point A to point B, by identifying their crucial problem and then offering to solve it, you will be able to create a real business that matters.”

Another important thing happened that day. She went back to her boss and immediately told him what had transpired. “Honesty, loyalty and integrity have always been the three key pillars of my business, starting from then, and it paid off — Gestetner became a client soon after.”

She started the promotions business with no staff and she didn’t know anyone in Port Elizabeth. “I called up a friend of one of my husband’s friends and asked her to give me ten phone numbers, and then I asked each one of those women to give me another ten. I sold my Citi Golf so that I could have a small start-up fund, and then the business just took off. We got clients like SAB, MTN, Sony, Mango, Maybelline and L’Oréal. I was earning R450 000 for ten days’ work at the age of 23.”

She soon had seven permanent employees, and more than 500 promoters working on campaigns across the country. “Within a couple of years, I had created systems and processes, which enabled the company to reach its goals and function independently without having me in the business, making it a perfect opportunity to sell and move on to the next challenge.”

Finding the gap in the market

It was just before Erna got married that she came up with an idea for another venture — while she was looking for venues, dresses and décor ideas. “I kept on wishing there was one place where I could find everything related to weddings, and then I thought why don’t I create one?” That was how website and magazine Majestic Weddings was born, an online directory and monthly magazine. After growing it into a successful wedding planning tool, she sold that company in April 2017, through an international business broker, and used the profits to launch her hair extension company Erabella.

Transitioning from services to products

erna-basson-grant-cardone

Erna had never run a product-based business before, but there’s a first time for everything, right? Problem is, product businesses are extremely hard to build and get traction for. They require upfront capital and investment, as well as a whole lot of excitement. Erna certainly had the latter, believing that every woman has the right to have gorgeous thick hair.

But there were some challenges:

  • The output of a service-based company is intangible, but a product-based business sells goods that customers can see and touch.
  • A services company does not have to keep goods in stock or maintain an inventory. The service is created or sold as and when the customer
  • needs it.
  • Service-based companies do not have to put up capital — they provide a service and the customer pays for it.
  • In the service industry, you have maximum control — when it comes to a product based company, you sometimes don’t have control over certain things (like a late courier, or late imports, or increase of exchange rate) but it serves as a great opportunity to apply more systems and processes to lower the risk.

“I had to buy stock for the first time. Different lengths of hair extensions, and different colours. Suddenly, I had invested more than R1 million, just like that. What’s more, in South Africa, there is a 20% import duty, which immediately raises the price of your product, making it more difficult to compete globally.”

Related: Want To Start An Import Business – Here Are The Importing Terms And Documents Involved

There was another problem too. Erna had decided that Erabella would be an online business, but it didn’t grow as fast as she wanted it to and she quickly had to change the business model. “That’s when I realised that you cannot take business personally. The minute you invest emotionally, you will make mistakes. When something is not working, you need to take immediate action and make the necessary changes. Nearly every successful company since the beginning of time has had to change strategy and direction to survive and grow.”

Reverse engineering

She also learnt about the importance of starting with the end in mind.

“If you want to make $1 million, write that figure down and reverse engineer. If my hair extensions are priced at $250, I will need to sell 4 000 sets per year, which means 11 sets a day. Instead of being dumbstruck by that big figure, I’ve now got something manageable to work with. It’s that old story about how to eat an elephant.”

Two can be better than one

Another key lesson Erna learnt was that you can do anything, but you can’t do everything. “When I started Erabella, I had one staff member in Johannesburg, and lots of competition. I had to do everything, from accounts, social media, business development and so on, but now we have an entire team in each department. The business grew too slowly and I realised that doing it alone was not going to work. I found a business partner in Cape Town, Karel Vermeulen — a very successful businessman who owns a personal care brand — and I knew we would be a great fit. I knew I could trust him with Erabella SA because he was invested, and I moved on to growing Erabella New Zealand and Australia.”

As a result of the partnership, the business is soaring. Today, Erabella hair extensions are available in South Africa, Namibia, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Dubai, with Canada next on the list.

That personal investment principle is one that Erna has applied in her coaching business. People do not appreciate what comes free, she says. “If I coach you at no cost, chances are you will say the programme did not work. But if I charge $6 000 a day, I can guarantee that you will do the work required to make it a success, because you have skin in the game. You will value and appreciate the process.”

Related: The Glamorous and Sleek GHD Offices


Erna’s key principles

  1. In the words of Grant Cardone, author of The 10X Rule, follow up, follow up and follow up: ‘90% of business lies in the follow up’. “I always do, and believe that you should follow up so much that they tell you to go away, and then follow up again two weeks later. I chased a client in Cape Town for two years. When their promotions vendor let them down, I was top of mind and I got the deal.”
  2. Never focus on the 10% that’s negative; focus on the 90% that’s positive: “We all need to have bad days in order to appreciate the good ones. When a client says no, see it as a new opportunity (take the negative from the word no, and turn it into a positive new opportunity) to recreate your strategy.”
  3. When people say no, ask them why not: “If I don’t close a deal, I ask, ‘What is the reason we did not do business today? Objections are only complaints — find a solution, and you will win all the time.”
  4. Don’t ask how: “Focus on the what and the who. What do I need to do to achieve my objective and who do I need to speak to? The ‘how’ will take care of itself.”
  5. You are 100% responsible for your business: “Don’t blame the economy, the government or your staff. If you are not successful, it’s your fault.”

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Women Entrepreneur Successes

Alphabet Soup Founder Nikki Lewin Discusses How They Compete With The Big Boys

Advertising doyenne Nikki Lewin reveals the importance of personal brands, living your values and finding your niche in the market.

Nadine Todd

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Vital Stats

  • Player: Nikki Lewin
  • Company: Alphabet Soup
  • Awards (2017): MOST Awards Winner of Traditional Specialist Media Agency; MOST Awards Runner-up for Media Agency of the Year; the Adfocus Media Agency of the Year Finalist
  • Media Billings: R100 million annually
  • Launched: 2000
  • Visit: www.alphabetsoup.co.za

Why did you choose entrepreneurship over a corporate leadership position?

The decision to start my own business was part of my DNA. In 1999 I was offered two media director positions of multinational agencies. I knew I wanted to make a difference and be in control of my own destiny, and that meant launching my own business instead of joining another big multinational.

It basically boils down to a couple of key factors — your appetite for risk, self-belief and knowing why you would walk away from the safety net of a guaranteed income and a defined job spec.

How are you competing against those same big multi-nationals?

When I launched Alphabet Soup I believed there was a market need for specific boutique offerings. I’d been in contact with numerous clients who wanted to work with uniquely South African companies and keep things local.

Related: Watch List: 50 Top SA Black Entrepreneurs To Watch

The more market research I did and the more I tapped into my network, the stronger I became of this conviction. It’s important to do that legwork before you start anything, and my experience in the industry gave me the insights I needed to be confident in my decision.

That same research revealed that we needed to offer our clients a complete, 360-degree solution, and so we created an agency that covers all aspects of advertising media — from strategy, planning and media owner negotiations, to market analysis, below-the-line, promotions, sponsorships and digital media. We also have clients that need media placements throughout Africa, and have since branched into that field as well.

This broad focus, our independent positioning, and the accolades we have received over the years allow us to be competitive, even though we are relatively small in comparison to many of our competitors. You don’t have to be big to be the best. You just have to punch above your weight.

We don’t aim to be the biggest agency, just an agency that delivers intelligent and professional media solutions. We do this by ensuring we are completely up-to-date with the latest strategic thinking in our industry, and we invest in staff training. It’s up to us to be able to educate, inform and guide our clients through key media knowledge.

How important are awards?

The topic of awards centres around whether they add real value to the business or not. In some cases you are nominated, in others you need to choose to enter. It takes time and effort to enter awards programmes, so there needs to be a strong business case for doing so.

We’ve found that the whole process — particularly winning — builds the agency’s reputation and is good for staff morale. For me however, it’s just one component of the journey.

Client longevity is critical and becoming an intricate part of their business is more advantageous to the agency’s success than any award. That said, awards do lend credibility to your brand if a client hasn’t worked with you before, but referrals and word-of-mouth will ultimately lead to business.

The MOST awards are about peer recognition. How important is this and why?

alphabet-soup-nikki-lewin

I have always set high standards, both personally and for my staff, and the same applies to media-owner interactions with clients. Our relationships with our media partners are based on integrity, respect and a mutually-beneficial relationship that relies on a cerebral output in order for our clients to have successful campaigns.

We have placed in the top three for the past ten years at the MOST Awards, and it was obviously great to win in 2017, but awards should never let you rest on your laurels. You can’t take past successes for granted. We need to continue to focus on building key relationships in all aspects of media.

Related: Watch List: 50 Black African Women Entrepreneurs To Watch

How important is a personal brand in building your own business?

My personal brand and business brand are essentially the same. I try and live to the values that are key to me and those that I try and teach my children. The values of respect, honesty, trust and integrity are paramount in my personal life as well as within my business. No matter where you are or what you do, people are always going to form an opinion about you.

My view is that you need to make sure it counts. Stand up for what you believe in, live with passion and make sure you have educated and informed opinions. It’s important that people know where they stand with you and I generally am pretty forthright in my opinions.

How do you separate yourself from the business brand, so that clients want to work with the business, and not just you?

After 18 years in the market, Alphabet Soup has become a brand in its own right, no longer ‘Nikki Lewin’s agency’. I’m just one part of it. I have a supportive team and we have earned our reputation with clients. I’m still always available to clients though, and I’m intricately involved in every aspect of the business. To be successful you need to have your finger on the pulse of your business.

I have always believed in keeping my work life and personal life separate in order to try and achieve a balance. Of course, this is not easy with two young children. Fortunately, my husband was in the advertising business early in his career and is incredibly supportive, while running his own retail and travel business.

Related: Funding And Financial Assistance For SA Women Entrepreneurs

Is it important to build a reputation in the industry before launching your own business?

I believe your reputation starts with your first day on the job and every interaction you have thereafter. It’s up to you how you manage that reputation. Respect is earned and if you are passionate about what you do and what you believe in, that transpires into your own DNA. If you’ve built a strong reputation, this will obviously give any new venture you embark on added credibility, but you can build your reputation as a start-up as well. You just need to be consistent and hold true to your values.

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Women Entrepreneur Successes

Watch List: 50 Black African Women Entrepreneurs To Watch

These female entrepreneurs are breaking barriers, transforming industries and inspiring change on the continent.

Diana Albertyn

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