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Women Entrepreneur Successes

ShonaQuip: Shona McDonald

A mother turns social entrepreneur and offers a blueprint for how the drive for profit can happily co-exist with the desire to do good.

Juliet Pitman



Shona McDonald

The King III Report on corporate sustainability and the idea of ‘triple bottom line’ responsibility has blurred the line between pure profit and ‘doing good’. Companies are starting to realise that behaving in a socially conscious way can in fact make good business sense too.

But profit-driven businesses that have developed a social conscience still remain different to true social entrepreneurs, who have always existed. These are the people whose businesses are driven by a powerful social conviction and the need to bring about solutions to society’s most pressing problems – the profit, while important, is a secondary necessity that ensures ongoing sustainability so that the businesses can live to help society for another day.

For Shona McDonald, one of South Africa’s most recognised social entrepreneurs, the social entrepreneurship model is the way all business should be run. “Business has such immense potential to meet a need – it’s the basis on which most businesses are built. And if that need is social, and the business can sustain itself by making a profit, then so much the better. I think it’s true for all businesses that if you focus on meeting a real need, the profit will follow,” she says.

The founder of ShonaQuip, an Endeavor South Africa entrepreneur and the recent recipient of both the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur Award for Social Entrepreneurship and the 2011 Shoprite Checkers Woman of the Year award in the Socio-Economic Business Developers Category, McDonald started ShonaQuip in response to the pressing need for better wheelchairs and equipment for disabled people.

Responding to a personal need

When she was 19 she had a daughter, Shelley, who was born with cerebral palsy (CP). At the time the only wheelchairs available were for adults and even these were only designed for temporary transportation within hospitals. “Shelley was given a foam-padded folded cardboard insert for her pram with a large piece of webbing to tie her in. I learned that once CP children outgrew their prams the option was to tie them into hospital wheelchairs,” she explains.

Refusing to accept what was available, McDonald poured over books on CP sent from a cousin in the UK. What she noticed were the wheelchairs. “There was an amazing photo of a chair from Sweden so I asked my cousin to buy the motor and wheels from England and bring them over,” she continues. Parts in hand, she approached the Biomedical Engineering Department at UCT where, working from a photograph, she and Mike Price built Shelley a chair.

The motorised chair solved Shelley’s mobility challenges so McDonald moved on to other issues, developing communication cards so that Shelley could tell her parents what she wanted, and modifying toys so she could play. Being involved in parental support groups, it was only a matter of time before people started requesting similar products for their disabled children, and a business was born in McDonald’s home.

An organic evolution

Things could have ticked over quietly in McDonald’s garage for years, and she might always have run a small non-profit organisation. She readily admits that she never planned to run a business. But what’s clear is that she had enough business suss to recognise that sustainability lay in being able to make a profit and control her own finances.

She got increasingly frustrated with relying on fundraising from NGOs: “Funders wanted to do things their way, and this wasn’t always aligned with the needs on the ground. I wanted to take control of the finances myself and do things the way I wanted to do them, and I suppose that’s really when the business itself was born,” she says.

Over 19 years the company grew to take over McDonald’s house before eventually moving to new premises. Based in Cape Town, it has branches in the Eastern Cape and Gauteng, and a community based outreach programme for deep rural areas.

Meeting the needs on the ground

But even as ShonaQuip grew and evolved into a for-profit business, it stayed true to its purpose of providing disabled people with the tools to gain entry into society. A more inclusive society is McDonald’s driving passion. She has been instrumental in shaping public policy on disability and helped write the World Health Guidelines on Wheelchair Distribution in Remote Areas.

The driving force behind McDonald’s crusade has also been the business’s key success factor. “We address the needs of people,” she says simply, and in this respect at least social entrepreneurs are no different from their mainstream entrepreneurial peers.

All products start out being developed in response to an individual person’s need, and if a more universal use for that product is identified it is developed into a product range. But McDonald is adamant that the business always develops bespoke products, whether these will ultimately be commercially viable or not. In this respect she’s very different from businesses driven purely by the need to make a profit.  “We’re not prepared to give this side of the business up and I don’t see that we should. The business is still able to sustain itself. We exist to help people – this is the thing that has enabled us to make money in the first place,” she says.

Looking ahead

A recent grant from the SAB Foundation for Innovation Awards will allow McDonald to focus more on the kind of innovation that has driven ShonaQuip’s success from day one. She recognises this as her strong point: “I don’t really enjoy the day to day business side of things. I’d like to employ a general manager to take care of that part of the company. I see myself more as an innovator and as someone who wants to leave a legacy that’s better than the one I found,” she says. In that respect, she’s a true entrepreneur.

The rise of the social entrepreneur

Social entrepreneurship becomes more important as social needs increase and public resources shrink.

Quietly getting on with the job, social entrepreneurs are the businesses that usually fly under the radar. But recently, their role has been given increasing importance, particularly in South Africa. Referring to research that formed part of the 2009 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) Report, Jacqui Kew from the UCT Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the UCT Graduate School of Business, points out, “The effect of the recent global recession and its impact on the global recovery is likely to be felt for a considerable time. Social entrepreneurship will, if anything, become more important as social needs increase while government and civil society resources decrease.” As people lose faith in government’s ability to find sustainable solutions to society’s problems, they may look increasingly to sustainable socially-minded business to achieve what’s required.

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

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Designing Her Destiny

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

QuickBooks SA




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


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




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


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


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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