Catherine Lesetedi is a graduate of Statistics from the University of Botswana. She has built a career in the insurance industry since she joined it in 1992. Currently, Catherine is the Group Chief Executive Officer of Botswana Insurance Holdings Limited (BIHL).
She has built her career from scratch, and over the years, she has been adamant that adopting a flexible style of leadership is beneficial for leading an organization and getting the best out of her team.
Her career so far…
Looking at Lesetedi’s career, nothing about her story and her leadership principles and philosophies are ‘textbook’. Her style of leadership is pliable and acrobatic. It lends itself to whatever situation she and her team are in.
She’s extremely driven, open and open-minded, preferring to lead from behind, pushing her team forward, encouraging their gifts and honoring their intellect, allowing them to innovate, to grow and give to the business what she cannot.
Catherine maximizes on their strengths and makes sure that wherever there are gaps, there are people who are passionate, willing and able to execute and fill them.
Her journey there…
There is nothing predictable about Catherine Lesetedi. Even her choice of Statistics as a field to study at the University of Botswana (UB) was a bit of a wild card, even for her.
She describes it saying, “when we were making choices about what to study at varsity, we didn’t really know much about careers, to be honest with you, I didn’t know anything about Statistics until I got to the Department of Student Placement at the Ministry of Education.”
“I was late; my father and I had run out of fuel. By the time we arrived, I was out of breath, and I had forgotten my initial course choices. My brother, who I really admired, had studied Public Administration and Political Science, and that’s what I wanted.”
“They said that that weird combination didn’t exist, and told me that I was going to do Statistics and Demography.”
“If you think something is difficult, it becomes really difficult. If you think you can do it, sometimes you even surprise yourself.” – Catherine Lesetedi, CEO, BIHL Group
Her life experiences…
She studied Statistics at the University of Botswana, and even though her journey into that field was incidental, once there, she made the best of her situation, excelled and gleaned many things that she took forward with her into the rest of her life.
Certain experiences and her mindset set the stage for her early career and propelled her forward.
According to her, “in terms of decision-making, logical thinking, the confidence, and aptitude to learn; the program grounded me.”
“I may not use the formulas every day, but there are skills that I gained that I apply on a daily basis, even if I don’t recognize that ‘this is Statistics.”
The mathematical element empowered her to be able to engage with budgets and numbers, and not shy away from that aspect of whichever job she did.
Her philosophies for life…
All of the disciplines in the world are interrelated, so having a good understanding of what is going on across the board is beneficial for one; especially if a young woman wants to build herself up and build her career.
This is something she practices herself because, throughout the course of her career, she has gradually improved upon her leadership skills, attending leadership courses and taking on the responsibility of self-improvement.
Doing this has encouraged her to take a deeper look at herself; what drives her and pushes her beyond her own limitations. This outlook has put her in good stead as a leader, as someone who encourages others, ensuring that they are able to get the best out of what they need to do.
As a mentor, both personally and professionally, the story that she tells, the example that she sets, is one of “show up and do your best.”
Ms. Lesetedi is big on recognizing talent and putting it to good use within the BIHL Group. These are some of the elements that make her up as a woman, as a leader, and these are some of the things that she has imparted to her mentees.
Botswana is one of Africa’s success stories, from one of Africa’s poorest countries to a vibrant, developed, middle-income African state.
What impact does your business have in your community?
It’s no news that companies take Corporate Social Responsibility very seriously. It’s like a magic door that opens up more opportunities and this is why. The world is ever-changing and businesses are looking for more ways to connect with their customers.
As a BOSS Lady, beyond making the $$$, you need to look at the bigger picture on how you can create a positive change in your community.
Firstly, when your business is seen making an impact, it shows that you have an interest in social issues which will help raise your company profile, attract new customers and/or identify new opportunities.
Remember, being socially responsible is good for the bottom line.
If you want to learn how to create, craft and manage social change strategies, join us on Thursday, August 22nd, for a Facebook Live with Judith Owigar, founder of JuaKali Workforce, who’ll be dishing out tips to help your business aim for change.
Some of the topics we’ll cover:
How to discover what social issues are most relevant to you and your community.
5 different ways your business can create a positive social change while you make profit.
Finding purpose and grit in social projects.
Impact vs Sustainability.
Facebook LIVE details:
Date: Thursday, August 22nd, 2019
Time: 12PM Lagos // 1PM Joburg// 2PM Nairobi
Watch Facebook Live with Judith:
Judith Owigar is passionate about initiatives involving youth, women and all things technology. With a Masters in Applied Computing from the University of Nairobi, she’s the founder JuaKali Workforce, an online micro-jobs platform that connects young people to short term jobs in Kenya’s informal sector.
In 2015, Judith shared a panel with President Barack Obama of the U. S. and President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. She is a 2015 East African Acumen Fellow and a 2014 international Focus fellow.
She has been named as one of the Top 40 under 40 women by the Business Daily newspaper in Kenya and has been recognized with the Anita Borg Change Agent Award by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology.
“We’ve spent the last three years coming together every Wednesday to connect over our future plans and our shared love for beautiful experiences – always in the presence of wine. From this, Wine-ish was born.”
Wine-ish is a dynamic group of 4 black women occupying the world of wine, one glass at a time.
Palesa Mapheelle, Obakeng Monamodi, Buhlebezwe Ndaba and Hlumelo Williams came together as friends on a casual Wednesday, also known as ‘Winesday’, to share their goals, dreams and everyday experiences.
156 Winesday’s later, they decided to form Wine-ish; a platform that has become a hub for all things wine and business, soon to disrupt the industry.
Wine-ish takes you on a visual journey of South Africa’s rich world of wine and related experiences through the lens of young, vibrant women of color.
The name choice is quite unique and has an interesting meaning behind it. Not only does the team focus on the technical understanding of viniculture and “Wine”, but the “Ish” in the name is also just as important to them; representing the side of them that is simply 4 young women navigating life together with all of its ups and downs.
Wine-ish is deeply rooted in and propelled by the connection the four of them share as friends, before anything else.
As a business, Wine-ish aims to debunk wine and the drinking of it, all while making it more accessible to an emerging market who want to learn and experience more about it.
They don’t want to be seen as experts, but as people who are constantly learning and challenging the norms of the industry.
The zestful, youthful and vibrant energy of the team has always been what differentiates them from the firm and rigid industry they’re trying to create a space in, and it has been nothing but refreshing.
Infiltrating the industry has had its challenges but seeing the growth of people of color creating their own brands and wineries has left the team hopeful in making sure they will transform and create a positive disruption for themselves and in partnership with like-minded, forward-thinking collaborators.
“We remain true to a core mission of ours which is to expose ourselves and people like us to the world of wine”
So, watch this space, because Wine-ish is going to be coming in strong with a lot more to show you.
For more on Wine-ish, their incredible brand, and upcoming projects; follow them on Instagram and Twitter.
“The A-Girls are exceptional, black vinyl dolls that appreciate the African girl of today, with all her versatility and diversity”.
Dolls are part of a girl’s introduction to what is considered ‘beautiful’. According to Bakani, creating the brand was essential in order to excavate and resuscitate what African beauty is.
Until August 2016, Bakani July Johnson was a Lecturer at the University of Botswana (UB) in the Social Work Department. She holds a Masters Degree in Clinical Social Work and has worked intensively in the psychosocial field since 2004, gaining experience with Botswana Baylor Children’s Clinic as a social welfare case manager.
Prior to that, she worked with the Government of Botswana as a Social Welfare officer. After years of ideating, planning and testing, Bakani left the UB and started her doll-making business.
Bakani is a social entrepreneur and is constantly looking for ways to enhance the lives of others.
She is also a founding trustee of Musani Family Care Foundation, an organization that focusses on the restoration of Botswana’s family unit, and offers accommodation to families in transition, mostly caregivers of hospitalized patients who come from far off villages.
Musani Family Care Foundationseeks to bridge the gap by providing temporary housing and support for these families who need it most, at no cost.
I have always loved children. I am forever looking for ways to enhance their wellbeing and this led to the realization that there were no black dolls to use during clinical sessions with my little patients.
As a social worker, dolls are some of the symbolic tools used for communication during sessions. However, more often than not, the dolls that were donated looked nothing like the children I worked with.
This became a query, to manufactures and it was not a pretty feeling as it was seen from the point of exclusion.
I realized that I could continue with the feeling of being ‘left out’ as a black African girl, or I could do something about it. The research allowed me to see that I, and others like me, were never a concern for doll-makers; they had their own market and concerns.
Whatever I could find was by sheer luck. I refused to use divisive story-telling or to accept that it was ‘someone else’s fault’ that as Batswana – and Africans – we don’t have black dolls.
The more I searched, the more I was challenged to create the doll I was looking for. I worked from thought to product, beginning in 2007.
The effect representation has on young Batswana /African girls…
We have for the longest time been portrayed as ugly, and not a representation of beauty.
If you research dolls throughout history, you will not like what you see. We have been ‘caricatured’ through the years and our features ridiculed. Our natural hair is still a full-on debate today.
With the dolls, I am simply excavating and resuscitating a black girl’s beauty.
The idea of the dolls was to trigger an emotional response and to ensure that we put African girls faces on beauty, with a clear understanding that it is our responsibility to raise a new, confident African girl.
The development of The African Girls Dolls is a winning communication tool targeting children.
These are one-of-a-kind vinyl dolls that appreciate the diversity of African girls and were created with the realization of a lack of representation both commercially and in messaging for African children.
Most props and toys used are of girls and boys are not of African descent. Through the African girls’ collection, I am constantly helping organizations to create a unique language of truths, trust, and symbols as part of visual storytelling and visual messaging.
I understand that symbolically, images help us to understand abstract concepts that cannot always be translated into words and dolls have throughout history been symbols to communicate, appreciate and represent.
Dolls are part of a girl’s introduction to what is considered ‘beautiful’, and speaking to that aspect we want to be able to say ‘she is so pretty, just like a doll’ – and actually talk about a doll that looks like her.
Children are visual beings. They connect to things visually and will remember things seen more than things said. They connect with objects or pictures from memory.
Africa and Botswana are about symbolism, or what things represent and communicate.
If you listen in on doll play, your child communicates with what she sees. If her dolly is wearing beads she will have a conversation about that. The idea was to have dolls that are relevant to the children, thus when one looks at the dolls, they will realize that some have tutu skirts and modern symbols which represents a ‘modern girl’ whereas others are dressed in traditional Tswana regalia.
Great dolls bring the thought of history, self, and admiration. Children from different ethnicities benefit from playing with dolls that are a different skin tone, make and versatility.
Though dolls are not photocopies of the individual, we believe that to a small child the most important thing is that her little dolly is beautiful just like her, validating who she is and how she relates to herself.
The role I see my dolls playing in a Motswana girl’s life
This product, created by an African woman for African children is girl-centered for now and is self-esteem/self-efficacy based.
More than play, the dolls are seen as communication tools that instill gender and ethnic pride as a foundation for social skills. What you see and is preached becomes a norm. If everyone talks about ‘light-skinned’ being better, children will want that.
I want parents to hand the dolls to the children without influencing the children’s taste about them.
I have involved a few people in the crafting of the dolls from those that design the clothes to those that do the hair and packaging.
I am very committed from an economic point of view to create an ecosystem that will hire many people because the project has a lot of potential for growth.
I want a situation where the dolls will have ambassadors so that the young ones can appreciate the mortal presentations of the dolls, just the way they experience the princesses that they see at places like Disneyland.
I will build the momentum and I am open to ideas to help develop the brand even further. I am sending out a call to all African and Botswana girls to join the brand as re-sellers and distributors for their countries.
How I manufacture my dolls…
I have involved a few people in the crafting of the dolls, from those who design the clothes to those who do the hair and packaging.
Unfortunately, in Africa we don’t have companies that work with vinyl for doll making, so we have been forced to outsource.
However, we do have tailors and designers, crochet ladies and shoemakers working on other aspects of the dolls locally.
How the dolls have been recieved by people so far
The success of the dolls has transcended borders and continents, and they have reached international markets.
Botswana has been amazing! The relevance is clearly understood, the need is very apparent and we can only express gratitude for all the support.
Media has been keen at each stage of their development, and young, hopeful Batswana are eagerly working to join the brand and with open arms, we are welcoming ideas and collaborations.
The dolls are currently available across Botswana, as well as re-sellers in Johannesburg, the Netherlands and the United States of America.
We have worked with brands like the Netball World Youth Cup, International Women in Sport, Botswana Tourism Organization and we are currently working on a project with Botswana Netball.
The growth of the business will definitely be stimulated by partnerships. Partnering at different levels with others is beneficial.
I am working with so many individuals who want to run with certain aspects of the product and I have never been as relieved as the agreements come to fruition. I know now I cannot do it alone!
Botswana is one of Africa’s success stories, from one of Africa’s poorest countries to a vibrant, developed, middle-income African state.
Cynthia Mothelesi is blazing a trail and carving out a unique space with bespoke experiences in the tourism landscape of Botswana.
She is somewhat of an ‘evolving soul’, constantly seeking out ways to deepen her life experiences and provide an opportunity for others to do the same with her travel agency, Happy Soul Adventures.
Trained as a graphic designer, she spent three years lecturing before deciding to expand her horizons. She applied for a job at the Botswana Tourism Organisation (BTO), where she served as Marketing Manager for seven years.
Her experiences at BTO were an opportunity for her to travel, sharpen her marketing and PR skills and forge valuable relationships.
She then realized that there was a gap in the tourism sector, which became the catalyst for her foray into business.
Cynthia Mothelesi uses her creativity and business savvyness to create bespoke experiences that allow her guests to engage with the soul, beauty and people of Botswana in an unimposing, intimate way.
While I was at BTO, I followed the AirBnB culture because I love hosting. Then in 2017, I decided to venture out on my own because I realized that I could grow. It could be enough for myself and I could do more with the experience and passion that I have.
How did you come up with the idea for Happy Soul Adventures?
I began by focusing on my Airbnb listing, and every week I would have guests from all over the world coming to stay with me. Most times, I would host them at my house, but I didn’t just want to give them accommodation.
I wanted to tell them my Botswana story, especially in terms of our people. Not wanting them to just see Botswana as wildlife and safaris, but rather for them to come away knowing that we were more than what the Western media depicts us to be.
That experience taught me a lot and I decided that I would focus 100% on Happy Soul Adventures.
What kinds of tours / experiences do you offer?
Sometimes I take my guests on a city tour. It would include going to nightclubs like Zoom, or to a local pub, George’s, for karaoke night. We may go to Kilimanjaro, which has a place that sells really amazing local food.
I also have clients who come to learn how to milk a goat or bake bread the traditional way. Guests can learn how to do pottery or make a tapestry. It really goes to show that we have a beautiful story to share and that there is value that can be found in it.
What do you keep in mind when you design your tours?
I really want my guests to immerse themselves in our stories. I feel like we Africans can do more to celebrate who we are as people. We tend to shun our own culture and I want to rather celebrate what makes us unique.
Happy Soul Adventures also engages with communities. I don’t want to run a company that is only about me making a profit. So it is more of a collaborative effort.
With collaboration, we are able to build and grow more. Happy Soul Adventures is about connecting people.
What is the most important thing that you want your guests to take away from your tours?
I want my guests to be able to experience this. I realized that people are looking for something new for the soul. People love simple, soulful and enriching experiences and I am happy that the responses have been great.
What does Botswana have to offer the world that is unique?
I realized that what we at home think is ‘backward’ or ‘unsophisticated’ is actually something that is unique about us. The fact that we take things slow, and keep things organic is something that people actually love about Botswana.
Guests who visit Mogobane village for example, really love the peace and quiet because it isn’t something that they get to experience often. They really get time to connect with themselves.
So, the most unique selling point about Botswana is that we are very peaceful, quiet and laid-back. It gives people the opportunity to reconnect with their soul and really get to love themselves even more.
Botswana is one of Africa’s success stories, from one of Africa’s poorest countries to a vibrant, developed, middle-income African state.
When I think of a Boss in 2020, I think of Ilhan Omar. Omar echoes Lupita Nyongo’s Oscar speech when she said
“No matter where you come from your dreams are valid”.
Ilhan Omar took this to heart as she began her campaign to the House of Representatives in the US Congress. She is now known as Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, but her journey to Congress has been something of a dream.
Omar is a Somali native, who was a refugee in Kenya before she relocated to the United States. She was recently elected to the US Congress in a historic fashion.
She is the first East African (Somali) woman as well as the first of two Muslim women elected to the House. The US House of Representatives today is comprised of Boss Ladies who have worked their way to the top.
Ilhan Omar’s story stands out because of her resilience and compassion as she introduces new bills on the US House floor.
Ilhan Omar was born in Mogadishu, Somalia in October 1982. She grew up in Somalia until the civil war when she and her family were forced to flee the ongoing civil unrest.
Omar spent four years living in extreme poverty at the Dadaab refugee camp in Garissa, Kenya. She and her family overcame obstacles and were able to relocate to the US after securing asylum in 1995.
She was raised in the United States from the age of 12. Her upbringing in the United States sparked her interest in politics. Omar shares stories of her youth when she went to political meetings with her father and saw the lack of female leaders in the political sphere.
She went on to study political science at North Dakota State University. Her studies of politics gave her the tools needed to embark on the journey to becoming a political pioneer in 2019.
THE BUILD UP
If you have been following Ilhan Omar’s story, you will quickly realize that she is an outspoken politician.
Her journey to the US Congress is a buildup of courage in the face of opposition to anything that goes against the status quo.
Omar’s political stance on many issues, especially immigration comes from her experience as an immigrant. She once said in an interview…
“For me as an immigrant, who didn’t speak the language, when I had struggled as a kid, my dad would say: Once you are able to communicate with people, they are able to connect with you beyond your otherness…”
Omar’s ability to connect with the fellow immigrant who may be struggling with their new environment struck me as a compassionate quality. She understands the immigration issues and can give a voice to the concerns of the immigrant population in the national conversations happening in the US Congress.
She was the Director of Policy Initiatives for the Women Organizing Women Network, based in Minnesota USA, where she was advocating for East African women to take initiative in civic and political leadership roles.
According to the WOWN website, the purpose of the organization is to “Empower all women, particularly first and second-generation immigrants to become engaged citizens and community leaders regardless of political affiliation”.
The WOW Network seeks to encourage Diaspora women to engage in civic conversations that bring light to the issues that immigrants face in the United States. From the role as director of this network, she was able to gain the confidence to launch her campaign for office in the United States Congress.
The boss lady emerged as she fought hard to win a seat in the House of Representatives. She was elected to the US Congress in 2018 and re-elected in 2020 .
As a boss, learning is your superpower. You don’t know what you don’t know, but there is now a multitude of ways to find out.
After completing my Marketing & Spanish degree at London Metropolitan University, I vowed that I was never going to study again.
Not because I didn’t enjoy my course or my studying experience – I actually really loved my uni days and not just because of the socializing! However, I was eager to get into the world of work and at the time thought that what I had studied was all I needed to launch and sustain me in my career.
However, over time, I have developed a totally different perspective on education and studying and realise that in order to grow it is imperative to continue learning throughout your life.
Working in the digital field as I do is exciting. Technological advances and changes in consumer behaviour ensure that it’s an industry that is ever evolving and in order to keep up and remain an authority in my field.
Just recently, I completed a Fintech course with Oxford University. I had zero knowledge of financial markets but understood that it’s an area that is being disrupted by technology particularly in Africa.
It was important that I improved my knowledge in this area. As a result, I am now part of a group of alumni working on a great project– so two wins – knowledge of a new field and a potential business opportunity!
But it’s more than just keeping abreast of your industry, it’s equally important to learn new things in general, and to stay curious.
In order to grow and live a fulfilled life, it’s important to expand past your comfort zone, increase your skills and knowledge and deepen your understanding and perceptions around areas that you may not often be exposed to.
Haven struggled with weight issues for most of my life, I challenged myself to complete a fitness qualification with YMCA in a bid to better understand health and fitness and to spur on my weight loss.
In fact, I am now a fully qualified Group ETM (Exercise to Music) instructor and whilst I don’t teach classes I definitely have a different approach to my health and have incorporated new elements into my daily lifestyle to maintain a certain level of fitness.
Encouraging yourself to try new and different experiences, setting yourself challenges, not necessarily knowing how to get there but knowing your why which propels you along your path of achievement.
The form you have selected does not exist.
My Top 5 Reasons for continued learning
It gives you a sense of accomplishment and pride and helps build self-confidence. Psychologists say that learning makes us happier!
It gives you access to new and different opportunities. My network has expanded exponentially – the number of new friends I’ve made and the projects I’ve been able to work on with people I’ve met through learning has been incredible
It fuels creativity. You can learn something in a seemingly un-related area which can trigger an idea in another.
It fuel change
It fuels productivity. Developing a new skill influences the way you do things day to day and can make doing things quicker and easier, saving time, energy and stress.
Having lived and worked in the UK my whole life, I have no experience of living in another country let alone starting a business in one.
But my aptitude for learning, whether it’s reading, taking courses or training is what’s prepping me on this journey and helped me one step at a time to steadily achieve my dream.
I like to believe that learning is our superpower. You don’t know what you don’t know, but there is now a multitude of ways to find out.
I reckon it’s definitely time to redefine the phrase CPD from Continued Professional Development to Continue Pushing for your Dreams.
Sithabile seeks to impact her community by fulfilling her dreams and goals.
She has managed to do so by establishing several projects such as..Langa – for rabbit and chicken rearing, Buffy Bakery – for commercial baking and currently working on an initiative called “Women in Wildlife Conservation”.
Her main interest in impacting communities is through mentoring youths and helping them in achieving personal goals for their lives and their contribution to social development.
In this article, Sthabile highlights how she’s developed herself personally and professionally, through leadership programs.
As an entrepreneur, what key strategies do you think are vital to running a sustainable business?
I founded ‘Langa Farm Produce’ after more than a month of always running to the banks looking for a start-up loan to start raising rabbits and free-range chickens.
The terms and conditions for that time to get the loan were unfavorable. I remember some words from one wise lady who said:
“You need to start small and build from there, and have a small project on the side as well that will enable you to get a $1 a day to inject into the bigger project”.
This is how I started baking commercially (start of Buffy Bakery) and with the profits made, Langa was started with just 3 rabbits and 20 free-range chickens. To-date we have managed to supply city butcheries and Langa has become self-sustainable.
The initial bigger project was Langa because the aim was to go international with the rabbit products. But Buffy Bakery got bigger as well through an increased clientele and high demands hence the need to also start mentoring and training young ladies and interested personnel.
It was through these projects that I realized that there is no such thing called a ‘small project’ but it’s up to you to view it as small or big.
To remain competitive in whatever industry they decide to venture in, be creative and innovative in your work.
What made you apply for the YALI leadership program?
I knew YALI to be a professional platform where individuals are able to mature, develop and acquire skills that will benefit them in skilfully contributing towards the development of their communities, nations, and Africa as a whole.
By continuously following their programs on social media, I was keen to be part of their program and learn more about how best I can impact my community and network.
So I applied for the Cohort 17 program under Civic Leadership track.
What skills did you learn there and how will they help you?
I was under the Civic Leadership track – a program on how to impact our communities by being the change we want to see.
It focuses on improving the quality of life in our communities by identifying gaps and problems already there and using skill, knowledge, and values in tackling them and making a difference.
I obtained vast knowledge on the establishment of civil society organizations; proposal writing for projects and grant funding obtaining. Two major things I learned were:
1. How to run a business
YALI taught me the power of networking and partnerships.
In all that you do; you need people to work with; you can never work alone. A business is not for me nor my family but my community.
For me to be successful in whatever business I want to venture or I am in; the first question I should ask myself is how best will my community; a nation and Africa as a whole benefit from it and does it address the gaps that already exist in my community.
And to change our communities we need to share our skills and knowledge; build partnerships and network.
The depth of the knowledge I gained will allow me to achieve one of my goals I have had establishing a wildlife program mainly focused on resuscitation of idle parks and involving women in wildlife conservation.
As one of my previous challenges was obtaining funding for these projects; through YALI. I also learned the proper way of writing Grant/Fund request proposal.
2. Personal development
YALI taught me not to limit myself. To think of what happens when the vision and the goals are fulfilled; to ask myself “so do I just stop there because it has been fulfilled?”
I used to think maybe I am just doing a lot of projects at the same time and there is no way I will be able to tackle them all.
But through YALI I learned the power of building a team that shares the same vision with you; that will enable you to build the foundation and the groundwork that is needed and move on to the next thing that needs to be done.
I learned to be confident not only in myself but my work as well so as to be able to present and articulate it well to interested groups.
My advice to other aspiring game changers…
Decide to start and stand with your decision because the environment will never be conducive for you to do so.
Put your all into it; it doesn’t matter how many times you fall; rise up, dust yourself, learn from your mistakes and move forward.
Build before you can start putting profits in your own pocket but above all; give back to your community.
What challenges have you faced and how have you tackled them?
Nnanke Essien is a HR professional and a business consultant. Her experience in business began when she was 14 years and helping her mom with her crayfish business.
Since then she has been a business partner to many business owners leveraging on her experience in providing strategy and human resource solutions for diverse industries including manufacturing, oil, and gas, consulting, communications, retail, energy, education, etc.
Her core is transformation, (people, process and culture integration) and her superpower is helping businesses with interventions for value-based/profitable visibility, resonance, growth, and sustainability.
In this interview, Nnanke Essien talks about her introduction to business consultancy and her just-concluded event for fashion entrepreneurs.
You recently organized an event for fashion entrepreneurs. What triggered it?
The dream began for me in December 2017, when I began to observe the behavior of attendees at a goal setting hangout. It was fascinating watching folks create their vision board by tearing pictures from magazines and posting them on cardboards.
My analytic head kept wondering if this was just a fun activity or it made sense to them.
I knew something had to prepare them for this experience to be worthwhile and useful and that thing was beyond the five-hour business lecture they had just received.
Fast forward to March 2018, one of the participants at the event sent me a lengthy message beginning with “coach how can I be visible? I have tried everything and nothing seems to work”.
While growing up, my church used to be in a location where spare part dealers were dominant. I used to marvel at the apprenticeship structure, a young boy will learn and aspire to be like or even greater than his master.
Likewise, new fashion designers should take time to learn under someone they aspire to be like not for three months but for an extended period, where they can gain mastery.
There are a lot of advantages to this model. They gain undisputed mastery and get leverage riding on the positioning of that person they learned from. The market also trusts them faster and they have a reference point and a benchmark for success.
They exhibit great business success skills because of their learning process.
You are guaranteed to get results. Don’t be in a hurry to get on the gram and then begin to run helter-skelter with the excuse that the fashion industry is over saturated
Know what you want to be visible for, find out what the leaders in your space have done to get to their positions, mirror them especially those that align with your values, get results and remain on top.
The biggest question for me was “how can we be a part of the solution?”
So in 2019, we began planning in earnest, The business leaders breakfast meeting, a platform where we bring the best minds (leaders) in business to share insights and experiences as well as to equip business owners with knowledge that will prepare them for the massive opportunities in these industries.
The mandate for us was simply to create a market space that encourages inclusive growth especially in a challenging operating environment like Nigeria.
We positioned our platform as a catalyst (incubator) to help entrepreneurs have access to market, access to untapped opportunities, access to financial services, to even just dream big, know that their dreams are possible and position their brands for global leverage.
For us, It is
our utmost desire to see SME’s go from struggling businesses to growing
businesses, from no systems to systems of optimal productivity, from business
underdogs to business leaders, from zero productivity to optimal productivity
and finally, businesses that contribute strongly to the local and national
We wanted to bridge the huge divide between business leaders and business freshers. To build an ecosystem of support, collaborations, and access to opportunities within and outside Africa.
We had Mai Atafo, Valentine Ozigbo, Joycee Awosika and Adaora Mbelu headlining our first event
What key lessons do you wish more fashion business owners knew based on what was learned at the event?
Tie your fashion business to a bigger vision
Be an endless learner
Seek continuous improvement
Focus on excellence and excellent service delivery
Understanding your business model and reviewing it consistently is key..I can’t even stress this enough
Stay on top of industry changes, be aware of global trends that impacts your business locally and adapt accordingly
Don’t be afraid to express your creativity because you assume the market won’t respond
Don’t be afraid of collaboration and scale
Keep your promise to your tribe, never compromise
pyramid is divided into three: the bottom 30% (no go area) the middle 70% (the
average, normal space where most people play) and the top 10% (where the
What’s your advice to a struggling fashion business
You don’t need more visibility or brand awareness storms (with loud music and an open truck) to build a profitable and sustainable business, what you need is people who can’t stop raving about what you do…
I call it “raveonance” rave+resonance.
You can’t achieve this without self-awareness (understanding why), client awareness (understanding the who) and market awareness (understanding the what and how).
The best place to start is to understand whom you do what you do best for, why you do it, know yourself and these people like the back of your palm and —then start creating something those people love.
What are the top three things someone needs to consider before opening a publishing business?
Do you have enough starting capital?
Publishing requires money up front and it takes time to earn that money back.
Think carefully about why you are doing it. After many years of publishing, you might find it tough to deal with all the many demands made of you, the lack of appreciation for what you have done for writers and how little money you make from doing the work.
What is your focus going to be? It is good to have a very particular focus, it will help you to find an audience and to make decisions about what to publish.
Tell us about your work as an independent publisher.
Being a writer I understood what it was like to want to get published and the inflation and deflation of the relationship with a publisher.
It didn’t prepare me for all the work that it takes though, the ongoing attention to the big picture and to detail that the publisher has to manage.
Publishers do a vast number of things. You don’t just read through submissions and select books to publish.
There is a huge amount of admin. You work out a vision and focus for your company and keep a firm eye on the money and cash flow.
You must constantly maintain relationships with all the people you work with: printers, writers, editors, illustrators, artists, proof-readers, shareholders, accountant, book-keeper, bookstore owners and employees not to mention participating in book fairs and doing interviews!
Why was it important to open Modjaji Books as a ‘feminist’ print?
Modjaji fills a gap by providing an outlet for writing by women that takes itself and its readers seriously.
Having lived through and enacted publishing only women, I became aware of how this has been a deeply political act.
When you think about the way publishing is owned, media is owned, who gets to make the decisions, and how women are represented, here and internationally it just made sense.
Women do have a different experience of the world – not just because they are women, but because of the way power is structured and filtered.
I had experienced my own writing not being taken seriously because it is too ‘confessional’.
I wanted to make a way that other women could be published where a set of values and perceptions that were not patriarchal and were not centered in the “Dead, White, Male canon” would make the decisions about what should be published.
Many of your authors have been nominated to win prestigious literary awards. How do you feel about this?
Modjaji has been lucky enough to publish the work of very talented writers.
I like to think it is also because we have done a good job of editing the manuscripts and because of how the company is positioned and how we have framed and spotlighted particular works.
We have published a lot of debuts short stories and poetry collections, many of these have won prizes, and yet they are books that most commercial publishers would not touch.
How has society changed by reading your published books on infertility, stillbirth, homosexuality, etc.
I have seen how these books have added to a growing discourse on topics that were taboo or not in the mainstream but now have a more prominent place.
I’m proud to have had Modjaji Books be at the cutting edge of this kind of publishing here in South Africa.
Haven run Modjaji for twelve years, have you faced any challenges running an African press?
Yes, there are challenges, we are not supported by government policies that help us to grow and increase our sales. Recently the SA Book Development Council funded our participation in the SA Book Fair.
I don’t think this goes far enough. I think there needs to be an active policy of buying local books for libraries.
If we as independent South African publishers knew that even as few as 500 of our really good titles would be bought by the library system, it would make it all much more viable.
Trade routes and avenues of distribution into other African countries are not nearly as strong as are those to Europe and the US.
It would be great to see work on this taking place at a national level
Publishing is a very expensive industry. As a publishing brand, how do you approach your need for commercial success?
I have to confess I have not focused too much on commercial success! I thought that if I published something that needed to be heard it would be commercially successful.
This has not been the case. I have tried to publish books and voices I have loved.
With the increase of digital books, self publishing, and rumors of the “death of print”, how do you plan on staying relevant in the industry?
If one continues to publish books that are well written, powerful and have a clear voice, a particular story, we as publishers will remain relevant in my opinion.
It is important not to get stuck in a particular mind set and to be open to new technology and to new voices and perspectives.
Having said that, there have been many changes in the last 12 years. Social media has become a force for publishing books, and for writers to connect with each other.
Digital publishing has brought new opportunities for publishers. Self-publishing has its place, but there is still a great deal of room for publishers to work in.
Writers sometimes experiment and self-publish one or two titles, but when they see how much work is involved they tend to want to move back to a publisher, so they can focus on their writing.
In moments of adversity how do you build yourself up?
Friendships with other publishers has been important to me. Both locally and internationally, other small and independent publishers understand what you are going through.
It is a tough business, and there are many daily challenges.
I compartmentalise, so when I am having family time, I put work aside, and try not to worry about things I cannot do anything about right at that moment. I walk my dogs, swim when I can, watch Netflix, switch off.
Finally, I keep going, do the next thing, and soon the flow starts again and money and goodness will flow in.
I think it is important, but I am not sure it is the work of a publisher. It is expensive to do, I think that if we publish a writer who shows promise – there has to be enough in the current manuscript for us to work with.
I think writers find the experience of working with an editor rewarding, someone who takes their work seriously and tries to make the work as strong as possible.
What do you find most rewarding about your work?
Finding a manuscript that takes my breath away.
Seeing the actual book after many months of working on it.
Experiencing the joy of writers when they get their book, and when the book gets a positive reception, a good review, a prize, when the author gets invited to a prestigious event.
Connecting with fellow publishers and having a chance to catch up with them and their ups and downs.
What advice can you give aspiring writers on what to look for in a publisher?
Firstly find a publisher who is interested in your book and is prepared to commit time and energy to it.
Don’t publish your work with a publisher who wants you to pay all the costs upfront to have your work published.
There are outfits that fleece writers and all they get at the end is a printed book, there is no distribution or marketing offered.
There are some new models of publishing where writers can invest in their book too, but it shouldn’t be the key reason that the publisher will take on their work. (But if you come to an arrangement with a publisher where you are looking to have someone else do the work of assisting you self-publish this is possible, but do be careful that you aren’t just throwing a lot of money away.)
What is the last book you read, and your take away from it?
I read many books at once, but I will mention one, which is Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey.
I was interested in it, because its main character, Maud, has dementia, but in spite of this and because of her tenacity she is able to solve a 70 year old mystery.
I found it riveting, I love to read crime fiction for pleasure reading, also my late mother had dementia in the last ten or so years of her life. I could relate to Maud’s difficulties. It was escapist and a page turner.
What is next for Modjaji Books and for you personally as a writer?
Modjaji Books will continue to publish, we have some strong titles coming out this year. I’ve been invited to the Geneva Book Fair in May, as part of a contingent of African publishers.
We have sold rights to a number of titles to Catalyst Press in the US, and it’s fascinating to see how those titles are received in new territories by new readers. So we have that to look forward to.
I’m completing a memoir about my mother’s last years. It is based on a secret blog I wrote for more than 10 years, it is provisionally called My Mother, My Madness.
I had a complicated, difficult relationship with my mother. I took responsibility for caring for her and her needs in those years.
I also have enough poems to put together a new collection, so will do that in due course.
I find that publishing takes up most of my creative energy, so my writing takes second place. This year my resolution is to give my writing more attention.