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Updated 24 Sep 2020

10 Truly inspirational South African entrepreneurs

These inspirational SA entrepreneurs embody the focus, spirit and determination necessary to stare down defeat and come out on top.

Nicole Crampton, 23 October 2015  Share  0 comments  Print

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These ten inspirational South African entrepreneurs embody the spirit of optimism, focus and determination.

Some overcame poverty, others stereotypes and stigmas, and in some cases it was their own limitations and stubbornness that stood in the way of the outcomes they desired.

Here are the details of their tough journeys on the way to success.

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1. Lebo Gunguluza: The roller coaster ride

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Lebo Gunguluza hit rock bottom twice, but failing doesn’t mean that it’s time to quit.

  • The entrepreneur: Lebo Gunguluza
  • The business: Founder and group chairman at GEM Group.

Starting with R60 to his name in 1990, Lebo Gunguluza went on to become an entrepreneur and one of the youngest self-made black millionaires by age 27. But within the next year Gunguluza had squandered his first-made million, had his car repossessed and was blacklisted.

He may have failed, but he didn’t consider himself a failure. Instead, Gunguluza picked himself up and started up his second company. By age 33 it was showing a turnover of R 14 million and he decided to leave his business in the hands of others and travel the world.

When he returned, his business was in shambles. He wound up losing R7 million worth of business in three weeks and accumulating R4 million in debt four months later.

“I made up my mind that whatever I went into next, it would be in a space that pays well and has structure. I would also continuously reinvest in the business, watch my cash flow, and do business only with scrupulous clients who paid on time,” says Gunguluza.

While mostentrepreneurs would have packed it in by this stage, Gunguluza refused to quit. He took the hard lessons learnt from two business failures and applied them to his next successful ventures.

This inspiring entrepreneur still isn’t satisfied. Gunguluza is now chasing after his R1 billion dream and is currently inspiring new entrepreneurs on Dragons' Den SA.

His best advice: “You don’t always need money to acquire things – it’s often possible to use your resources and barter when you don’t have cash.” 

Related: The truth about funding

2. Vusi Thembekwayo: The learning curve

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From a struggling cash-strapped young entrepreneur who had to sleep in his car to keep his dream alive, to an inspirational multi-millionaire.

  • The entrepreneur: Vusi Thembekwayo
  • The business: Motiv8 Advisory and Watermark Afrika Fund

At 23, he was an executive at one of Africa’s largest consumer goods businesses. But Thembekwayo wanted to strike out on his own and when he did, he had quickly found himself facing cash flow problems.  He could either: Pay the rent on his office building or his home.

“The only way to do it is to remember that everything you’ll ever need to achieve your wildest dreams, you’ve already got,” says Thembekwayo

Thembekwayo chose the survival of his business over his own comfort, by living and sleeping in his car while he tried to keep his business going. It took eight months before he finally caught a break. Five years later Thembekwayo has a R140 million annual turnover and his business is still growing.

Since then he has funded businesses that are worth more than R400 million and he continues to inspire other entrepreneurs as a Dragon on Dragons' Den SA.

His best advice: “You need courage and determination to pursue your dreams otherwise your start-up won’t make it.” 

Related: Vusi Thembekwayo's lessons learnt on practising the skill of management

3. Albé Geldenhuys: The gap in the market

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Albé Geldenhuys started off as a salesman with no health formula knowledge. Today, the business he stared is a R1 billion international company.

  • The entrepreneur: Albé Geldenhuys
  • The business: USN

USN was developed in Geldenhuys’ Pretoria flat where his girlfriend mixed their formulations with a hand-cranked washing machine. When he went into business for himself he didn’t even plan a product line, he just wanted to sell a product and make a profit.

He spotted a gap in the market, customers wanted quality affordable products and no one was selling them. He used formulas cribbed from international magazines, added Creatine, bottled it up and started selling. He didn’t have a business strategy, he just wanted to sell.

A few months later Geldenhuys discovered the second gap in the market; customers didn’t know how to use sports supplements properly. He began to educate the market teaching them how to use the products.

“We had always done so well because at heart we were a small, agile, flexible entrepreneurial business and not a corporate,” says Geldenhuys 

In January 2000 USN was still operating out of his kitchen. It had a R20 000 per month turnover and a 60% gross profit. Geldenhuys knew USN had to grow and so he moved into a bigger space. They grew from R20 000 to R160 000 in a month, and they continued to double their turnover every month until 2002.

By 2004 USN had grown too big too fast. They employed too quickly and suffering a R12 million loss in stock. He paid a lot to get rid of the wrong people but it was worth every cent he says. Since 2010 USN has increased its turnover from R300 million to R1 billion. The brand has launched in the UK, Australia and now the US.

His best advice: Stick to your company’s vision and it will keep you focused on what really matters.

Related: How to start a business with no money

4. Yusuf Randera-Rees: Trial and error

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Randera-Rees left his top-paying job and walked into Alexandra Township determined to create an effective and sustainable social impact.

The Awethu Project started with an old table and two beach umbrellas with the vision to fund new entrepreneurs, a month later they had 2000 applicants. There was a huge demand for funding but no supply.

For the first two years they experimented, bumbled along trying to find their feet. They used the time to figure out how to achieve their vision. They tried many different options to find the best way to help under-resourced talent, including training, job placement and access to finance. Government noticed the waves the project was creating and decided to offer funding.

“If 90% of new jobs are going to come from entrepreneurs, we’d all better get behind their development.”

Six years later, Awethu has hundreds of millions to invest in entrepreneurs (the next goal is R1 billion). They believe that as long as there are talented entrepreneurs no barriers should hold them back from achieving their goals.

His best advice: Believe in your cause, be resilient, have the ability to course-correct when needed and never give up.

Related: Start a business without quitting your day job

5. Sibongile Mphilo: Every cent counts

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She saved up her tips as a petrol attendant for her business which now has an annual turnover of R70 million.

Sibongile Mphilo gave her customers excellent service as a petrol attendant so she would make great tips. She saved enough money as she could every month, with the aim of starting a business. She did her research and found that Polokwane had the most demand for security services and very little supply.

She won her first contract with the Sekhukhune Magistrate’s Court; on a R12 000 monthly retainer. She continued to work at the service station because she wanted to make sure her business was sustainable before she quit her job.

In order to grow her business, Mphilo kept learning and studying. It was a trial and error process starting with learning how to use a computer, she then learnt everything she could about tender processes.

Every single cent went towards her business; she would even sleep in her car to save money when travelling for tender briefings. By 2005 her business was flourishing but the personal toll was becoming too much, Mphilo finally resigned at the petrol station and focused on her company.

In 2011 Mphilo’s big break came when Telkom awarded her a contract. In order to deliver on the contract she needed to grow her business quickly. Telkom came to her aid by vouching for her business. Telkom even helped her business develop their systems and processes in order to manage all the new work.

“I battled to obtain finance until Telkom’s procurement team stepped in to back us up. That was thanks to the effort both sides made to develop a healthy relationship,” says Mphilo

This Telkom contract enabled Sibongile Security Services to go from a micro enterprise with a R5 million turnover, to a large supplier with a R35 million turnover in less than two years.

Her best advice: Don’t fear challenges, every challenge is a learning experience and is an achievement waiting to happen. 

Related: 10 Budgeting mistakes to avoid

6. Allon Raiz: Success comes with more than one perspective

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A failing business meant Allon Raiz couldn’t afford to pay the hospital fees for the birth of his first child, now his business is the most profitable incubator in SA.

  • The entrepreneur: Allon Raiz
  • The business: Raizcorp

Allon Raiz poured everything he had into his business incubator, he followed his dreams and ignored the research that said incubators didn’t make money. His business was not performing. He had to borrow money from two people to pay for the birth of his first child.

He agonised over whether he should give up and go find a job or stick with it a bit longer. Just when Riaz wanted to throw in the towel his partner helped him to shift perspective and the business boomed. It also helped Riaz let go of his rigid idea of what the business should be.

“The experience taught me important thing sabout failure, one of the most valuable was about the power of getting another person’s perspective on your ideas,” says Raiz

Raiz now has a note on the wall next to his desk saying “How are you standing in the way of Raizcorp’s growth?” so he can look at each problem from another perspective and come up with more solutions. By following his partners suggestion they increased the size of their market. This paradigm shift allowed them to break the mould and find one of their keys to success and now the model is recognised as a blueprint for incubator success around the world.

A lot of Raizcorp’s success has been attributed to Riaz asking different questions when they got stuck. You can work out solutions to questions you created; someone else can have a different perspective and a different set of questions. Learn to ask for help and use mentors for external insights and perspectives.

His best advice: If you can still ask new questions about your business, whether they’re your questions or other people’s questions and you can get new answers, it isn’t time to give up.

Related: Allon Raiz top insights into winning start-up attitudes

7. Adelaide Potgieter: Don’t be normal

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She sent the CEO of Shoprite Checkers, Whitey Basson, a leg and an arm from a mannequin with the message “I will give an arm and a leg to get a response from you” attached.

Potgieter started with R 1,500 and managed to turn it into a R60 million advertising company. She says you only have two options when you’re in such a state of financial deprivation: You can complain or you can actively do something to improve your situation. You must keep moving forward, you can’t let past failures affect your mentality.

The stress of starting a business and raising a child overwhelmed her and caused her to become an alcoholic. As entrepreneurs know the journey can be a stressful one, but she has learnt from others and understands she’s no longer alone and is now a recovering alcoholic.

“We should be aiming to set benchmarks, be leaders, visionaries and pioneers, and then pushing beyond societal concerns to bigger and more human things like wisdom, love, mercy, and grace.”

You won’t know what you can accomplish unless you try, even if it is cold calling Nataniël to ask him to be a boerewors brand representative. Potgieter believes if you have limited resources you need to create opportunities through sustained effort towards actualising your dream.

Her best advice: In business and in life, the most valuable lessons are the ones learnt when confronting your fear and overcoming your doubts. 

Related: Top 10 mistakes made by entrepreneurs

8. Madoda Khuzwayo: Pivoting to success

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Co-founder Khuzwayo used a computer for the first time in varsity, today he has an IT degree and is part of a team offering numerous digital solutions.

  • The entrepreneurs: Madoda Khuzwayo
  • The business: OpenTenders

After spending eight months building an early version of their tender access concept, they realised that entrepreneurs weren’t prepared to spend money on their idea. They had to adjust their product to match the market, so they pivoted to a subscription model.

Entrepreneurs quickly started to subscribe, but their debit orders model failed, which cost OpenTenders. They pivoted yet again and came up with a social network for businesses to connect with each other and potentially do business.

“You learn and unlearn things at pace in a start-up. You need to be shifting and pivoting all the time, learning from and responding to the market.”

They created two layers for the site: A portal for tenders and procurement opportunities and a business social network. They decided to make it free and focused on advertising as their source of income.

Their best advice: In start-ups it’s all about what works and what doesn’t, often you’ll only know the answers once you’re in the market, testing out your product.

Related: 7 essential principles for business success

9. Thato Kgatlhanye and Rea Ngwane: Never give up

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They started a plastic recycling business when there wasn’t even an infrastructure for this in the North West.

  • The entrepreneurs: Thato Kgatlhanye and Rea Ngwane
  • The business: Rethaka

Thato Kgatlhanye and Rea Ngwane recycled the plastic into Repurpose backpacks for school kids. The bag has a solar panel and LED lights attached so children can do their homework at night when the power goes out.  They had no capital so they entered start-up competitions and applied for grants. They came third in the SAB Foundation Social Innovation Awards and went home with R300 000.

Starting out with no manufacturing experience and no capital, they had an idea and the determination to make it happen. They bootstrapped their way to business success. They wanted to solve two problems: Rural children without electricity, and pollution.

“Finding corporates and individuals who want to contribute to a cause focused on education and children is what has enabled us to turn our original idea into a sustainable social enterprise that benefits kids, employs people from the community and also turns a profit.”

They plan to keep growing and build a green empire. They are spreading into other provinces and exporting products to Australia and Europe. Their concept is popular because people around the world want to help children, keep people employed and clean up the environment.

Their best advice: You don’t need money to start a business, you can start differently if you have enough drive and are prepared to work harder than you ever thought possible. 

Related: Which will make you stronger: Success or failure?

10. Connie Mdladla: Overcoming personal obstacles

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Battling epilepsy, she didn’t finish her degree but now she owns a successful logistics business in a male-dominated sector.

Despite dealing with epilepsy Mdladla was an “A” student in high school. She struggled with this condition during varsity where having public seizures was humiliating for her. Mdladla dropped out and started working as a general assistant.

Several years later, she was working as a shipment inspector for a freight forwarding company, picking up knowledge and skills along the way. After ten years she managed to stabilise her condition with medication and decided to launch Khaas Logistics a clearing and forwarding agency.

A year after starting her business she felt compelled to go back to university to complete a Management Advancement Programme at Wits Business School.

“I am driven to succeed because I hurt my mother so badly by dropping out of university, and also because of the stigmatisation that comes with having epilepsy in the township was something I wanted to beat.”

Khaas Logistics is one of a handful of freight forwarding companies to be 100% owned by a black woman and boasts a R5 million turnover and large mining and excavating clients.

Her best advice: Use every experience to cultivate your determination and choose to never give up no matter the obstacles. 

Related: Factors impacting on business success

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Nicole Crampton

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