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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.”

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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.”


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Designing Her Destiny

Oh Yay! owner, Emmerentia van den Hoven does business her way.

QuickBooks SA

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In 2011, Emmerentia van den Hoven took a leap of faith when she decided to leave her graphic design job at an agency and pursue her real passion – and it has paid off tenfold. Here’s her story.

“When I started planning my own wedding eight years ago, I fell in love with wedding design and wanted to do that for the rest of my life. Designing for brands had become a set of rules rather than being creative, and I’d always wanted to work for myself. So, in September 2011, I turned my seven-month-old side gig into a fully-fledged business and launched Oh Yay!

I have to hustle every month to get new clients because every client will use my services maximum twice – first for the wedding invitations and then for the stationery on the day – so I don’t normally have returning clients.

Because my main business is seasonal and usually once-off per customer, I have branched out into branding for small businesses in the beauty and lifestyle industry. I also earn a passive income through the Oh Yay! online shop where I sell wedding décor items.  Oh Yay Kids – my other online store – is my passion project. I launched it just before my second child was born, adding items to the store that I made for my two boys when I saw a need for it. I then expanded into prints for nurseries and kids’ party stationery.

I work for myself and have no employees, so the fact that QuickBooks lets me load all my services, products and prices in one place makes running my business so much easier. Being an entrepreneur is difficult because you don’t know if you’ll be successful or not. But if you believe in and love what you’re doing, it reflects in your work and the service you give.”

Less admin, more of what you love

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When Oh Yay! was launched, along with her dream of being an entrepreneur, came the nightmare of other administrative tasks. But that changed in 2018 when Emmerentia started using QuickBooks.

“When I was using spreadsheets to balance my books, I was spending 80% of my time on admin, which left very little time to tend to customers’ orders. I now spend no more than 25% of my time on admin, which is important, especially when it comes to the speed at which I send quotes. You don’t get any work if you don’t send out quotes and it’s tough to juggle the admin with your actual job of running the business.

Numbers were never really my strong point, so having a professional quote done in record time not only projects professionalism, but the format also changes the way new clients see me. In my industry, the quicker you can send a quote out, the likelier you’ll get the clients’ business. It gives legitimacy to my business. The QuickBooks system operates so seamlessly that clients communicate with me differently, like I have my own accounting department, when in fact, I’m a one-woman-show.

I used to dread doing admin, but now it’s so easy and quick. I’m not just saying this – QuickBooks changed my life.”

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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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Women Entrepreneur Successes

Owner Of Nouwens Carpets Shares Success Lessons From Running A 50 Year Old Family Business

Embrace technology every chance you get.

Nadine Todd

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A company that’s been active for more than five decades in an industry that’s hundreds of years old doesn’t sound like a recipe for innovation — and yet that’s exactly what Luci Nouwens, owner of Nouwens Carpets, is focused on.

The modern carpet has a history that goes back thousands of years. And despite the hipster trend of reclaimed and hard wood flooring, the carpet still remains a popular choice for consumers.

In South Africa, a name that’s synonymous with quality carpeting is Nouwens. When Cornelis Nouwens arrived in the country in the 1950s, bringing the skills of a trade which he had mastered alongside his father in Tilburg, the hub of the Netherlands’ wool textile industry, he passed on the skills and the love of the craft to his family and to workers in the Harrismith region in KwaZulu Natal.

More than 50 years after her father started it in 1962, the company remains family owned, and is headed by Luci Nouwens, who has been with the business for 48 years.

“We have maintained our reputation for premium quality all this time by paying meticulous attention to crafting standards and selecting only the finest raw materials,” says Luci. “Equally important is that we have innovated at every opportunity, embracing technology without ever compromising the traditional craftsman’s spirit.”

Innovation drives growth

Businesses that innovate are able to grow and hire more employees. As a result, they grab a bigger share of the market. That’s true regardless of the size of your business: If you innovate, you can scale up.

In 1968 Nouwens launched a pure karakul wool carpet that was extremely hard wearing and took the company into the commercial carpet market. Luci recalls the manufacturing of the carpet as “a major feat of unique textile engineering.” Another innovation in 2005 was the introduction of a totally new style of flat weave wool carpet, a very clean, minimalist and natural look requiring much less wool without compromising on wearability.

“These innovations are just two of many that have allowed the business to boost its market share over the years,” says Luci. “But beyond that, innovation has enabled Nouwens Carpets to form the backbone of economic activity and upliftment in the local community around Harrismith. This has allowed us to make substantial investment in providing education and skills development for the local population, to ensure that the craft is preserved for generations to come.”

Related: 10 Successful SA Women Entrepreneurs’ Top Advice On Balancing Work And Family

Innovation enables sustainability

Innovation in technologies and how they are applied is key to enabling a manufacturer like Nouwens to create new business value, while also protecting the planet.

“We have used technology to enable sustainable manufacturing, for the benefit of the business, the community, and our customers.”

Nouwens selects equipment, materials and manufacturing methods based on their degree of sustainability and protection of the environment. The company is also a member of the Green Building Council of South Africa and submits its products for VOC testing to ensure that harmful emissions are significantly reduced.

“Ultimately, we are driven by a passion for textiles and the ability to constantly find better ways to produce beautiful products. After the downturn in the economy, we started to produce more cost-effective commercial nylon yarns, and in 2017, we became the new kid on the block for synthetic grass. The bottom line is that a true entrepreneur does what has to be done when the time comes.” — Monique Verduyn

The role of disruption in creating value

A disruptive business is a business that challenges and potentially changes the status quo. From a mindset point of view, a culture that questions ‘why’ can help foster organisational and market disruption. But disruption for the sake of disruption is self-defeating, it needs to be on the back of making things better and based on commercial principles, i.e. people or market players actually wanting to be disrupted.

The starting point is this: Does someone, or a market, value what you’re producing? If the answer is yes, you have a commercially viable disruption. Disruption that is valued by its target market has the best chance of resulting in success.

Get that right and you’ll have a customer base, you’ll gain traction and you’ll attract investors, provided you’re also making a meaningful and sustainable difference to your target market or community. — Ian Lessem, CEO, HAVAIC Investment and Advisory Firm

Collaboration

Team up with customers and competitors.

There’s more power in collaboration than competition. We’re stronger together than when we’re apart. When it comes to working with competitors, consider this: They may have something that you don’t, or vice versa, and 50% of something is always more than 100% of nothing. You’re then positioned to add value before you add an invoice, so your clients benefit from your relationships, and the market wins. From there, you become your client’s go-to-person, because you’re putting them first.

Customers are also a great source of knowledge: They might just have the answers you’re looking for, but are you asking them the right questions? They often know more about an entrepreneur’s business than they know themselves, because they’re on the receiving end of your offering. One way to collaborate with customers is to ask them more questions about yourselves, themselves and their clients. Harness their perspective and develop yourself to give them what they want, not what you think they want. — Wes Boshoff, founder, Imagine Thinking

Related: Watch List: 50 Top SA Business Women To Watch

PR

Know what your audiences are interested in

As a brand, there are many ways to ensure your audience is paying attention to you, but you can’t expect them to find you unless you’re sharing content that captures their interest. If you send out press releases, don’t be too rigid or plain. Audiences want to be engaged, and not to have to deal with long, cumbersome information. An infographic, along with a video or pictures will make your release easier to ingest and more memorable. People don’t want boring figures, they want relatable stories.

One way to be relatable is by tapping into influencer marketing. This doesn’t mean you need celebrities with the highest followings to endorse you. Micro-influencers are proving to have just as much clout as those with larger followings. Evidence shows that micro-influencers have a more established and deeper connection with their audience, which translates to loyalty and a readiness to follow their advice. The trick is to find the micro-influencers who are speaking to the audience you want to reach.

Big data plays a key role in painting a picture of who is ‘out there’. With the right information, you can tailor your content to a specific audience. Big data can show you what topics and problems are trending in your industry, so that you can get the jump on them. Use big data to deliver your own insights on current topics, shaping and leading the conversation, converting your audience’s attention into action. — Madelain Roscher, founder and managing director, PR Worx and Status Reputation Management

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