SHE WAS NAMED AMONG TOP WOMEN IN SOUTH AFRICAN GOVERNMENT AND FORTUNES 500 MOST POWERFUL WOMEN IN EMERGING GLOBAL ECONOMIES. THROUGH HER COMPANY, MY DESIGN AFRICA, A FULL SERVICE EVENT DESIGN, MANAGEMENT AND PRODUCTION AGENCY WITH A NETWORK SPANNING SOUTH AFRICA, CENTRAL, EAST, WEST AFRICA (CEWA) AND MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA (MENA), SHE IS SET ON A MISSION TO CONQUER AND DOMINATE HER WORLD. ZOE MOLAPISI SPOKE TO KASIE ABONE
I have a BSc in Pharmacology from UK; and after 1995, I returned to South Africa. I worked in Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) industry and from there, I moved to pharmaceuticals. By the time I was 24 years old, I had actually gained massive real corporate experience. I was managing budget exceeding $25 million, which was totally unheard of. And for me, an experience gained as a 24-year old to be given such an opportunity was absolutely amazing. From then, I said to myself, I have gained corporate experience, but in order to fulfill my vision, it will never be done on the corporate arena.
The vision started as a financially independent vision. It’s really just about me cutting my own destiny rather than reporting to an employer. It is strange, however, that it wasn’t until I entered the business arena that the purpose of my vision began to unfold. I started my business in 2002; and I had been planning it for two years prior. It’s been running for ten years; I think the first three years in the life of a business is the make or break of any business. I managed to navigate the difficult periods of high failure rates among small businesses.
Her type of business
Well, the first type of business I started was My Design Africa. We are a global experience agency. We are event designers and producers. However, the way we do our business, given our experience in the corporate field. I was one of those that built the Avon brand in South Africa. Avon is one of the top five cosmetics brands in the world. We have event design, production and management agency. We do this for only high net worth individuals as well as private and government sector; but we only play in the high-end stake.
Playing in a male-dominated corporate environment
The first thing I learnt in the corporate world was to understand the rules of the game. One of the rules that I understood was that when men know five percent of something they put their hands up. But women over analyse, they want to understand 100 percent before they put their hands up. We get personal about certain things. So, if I understand what needed to be done, just like men, I will put my hands up. That came through in my work as well as just as I gave it everything that I had.
I put in the hours that men would put in; I didn’t behave like them; I didn’t take on the aggression of the men; as women, we don’t have to lose who we are on getting to the board; we needn’t lose our feminity. We should carry such characteristics to the boardroom without compromising any other expectations in the workplace. So, the first thing for me was that it was critical that I deliver.
Beyond South Africa…
To tell you the truth, it has been beyond my wildest expectations. I mean, when we started the business, we did a turnover of ten times more in the first year than what I planned. The business has surpassed us. I am not saying that there are no challenges, but when I started it was like “I want to cross my own way in life; I want to chat my own destiny. I have done well in corporate life. I want to leave the corporate world while I was at the peak of my career.’
I don’t know where that came from, to be a person that was obsessed to do her own business. I am obsessed about fulfilling my own destiny, about being everything that I was created to be, break every barrier that was ever created whether it was for womanhood or black people. For me everything has always been possible. I live in a world of possibilities.
Communications market in South Africa and Nigeria…
Honestly, we know that South Africa is really the hub of creative industry in Africa. We know that Cape Town has been selected as one of the creative cities globally. We understand that the industry there is far more developed. But if I can juxtapose it with the way Nigeria is, Nigeria is beginning to grow. There is a lot of homegrown talent, but no industry can ever grow without external influence.
Even if you go to developed economies like UK, or US you will find a large contingent of players in that economy will come from outside the economy, which is why countries grow by attracting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). So, I think the creative industry here should see that coming in of creators from South Africa actually as a direct investment into the creative industry.
I know another place creative industry is growing is places like Kenya, East Africa. So, I must say in the West part of Africa, certainly Nigeria is where you want to be because there is so much inspiration around this nation for new creative ideas.
South Africa and fear of foreign incursion…
One of the most important things in South Africa is that we have an extremely high work ethics. This is not to say that others don’t have, but I think truly that is what the rest of Africa can do. Productivity for us is key; when it comes to creative industry, why it is elevated is that there are a lot of creators that came in from Europe and US to South Africa. And therefore a skill transfer began to happen.
However, the industry could be larger, but when you come to creative work, we are at par. Nigeria should actually embrace the skills transfer that people from outside are trying to bring into the country; we do not necessarily want to take their business, but we are looking for partnership in order to elevate, enhance and augment the skills that are already here.
It is a very different environment. This is where I am urging Nigerians to take stock of the situation. People think it’s so funny to always get stuck in the traffic; but it also affects productivity of a nation. The speed of the Internet is much slower. This industry is deadline driven. If you have a deadline and the power is out, your broadband is slow, either in South Africa or Europe you are working with people; you are going to miss deadline. These are some of the challenges that affect productivity.
Rebranding lessons from South Africa
One of the things I could call a development issue in this country is to have a huge sense of who you are and where you are. What helped us in South Africa is that we took a good look at ourselves: where we were and where we want to go. I just find some of the conversations I heard in this country that could be an over-inflated view of oneself; an issue that can shield one from getting to the next level. So, I find that a lot in Nigerians.
For Nigeria to begin to rebrand, Nigerians need to have honest conversations about themselves and truly about who they are; where they are and what kind of image they want to deliberately build and how people in the outside world want to see them. You will find that people will come with all sorts of conclusion that are not in line with where the country is currently. So, if you are not realistic about your problem it will be difficult to solve it. If you think you don’t have a problem, then there is no problem to solve. A lot of my experience is that people don’t think there is problem when you know there is.
No capital, no connection
I was able to tell my story to the people that I wanted to have opportunity to hear me. I understood that I had a skill, that I could add value to an organisation. When people had the story and I told them where else I added value that was what actually got me started. When I didn’t have the business experience I used my corporate experience to say these are the brands that I have built, this is what I have done, this is who I have done it for and this is what they have to say about what I have done for them.
So, when someone gives me an opportunity, I will make sure it is not about the profit initially but about my reputation. So, if you give me opportunity I run with it so that when I am finished, you not only give me more opportunities, but you also lead me to other opportunities that will give me greater opportunities. This is how I organically built the business through reputation.
There was an article that was written about me “No Connections, No capital”. It was a triumph not only for me but for every entrepreneur that thinks I can’t make it because I don’t have the right connection; I don’t have the network; I don’t have the capital. It is very remarkable for being recognised in a world where I am seen as one of the top women in government in South Africa; one of the top young entrepreneurs and also being selected as one of the Fortune 500 in a programme that recognised women leaders from emerging economies globally.
It’s been a testament to resilience, perseverance; can-do-attitude to the world of nothing is impossible I operate in. It’s not a triumph for me but to every woman that wants to be where I am. If you think that you need capital and connections, I say you need neither.