The Queen of Representation – From Botswana to the world

“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 Foundation seeks to bridge the gap by providing temporary housing and support for these families who need it most, at no cost. 

Connect with Bakani and her business on social media.


Why it is important for me to make the dolls…

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 @AGirls15 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. – Bakani… Click To Tweet

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.

By giving girls @AGirls15 dolls that look like them, we are communicating a million things without words. Silent messaging works well with children – Bakani July Johnson Click To Tweet

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.

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The Tourism Queen of Botswana


Reinventing tourist experiences in Botswana

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. 

Connect with Cynthia and her business on her website and social media


What inspired you to go into tourism?

I saw so many opportunities and I realized that there were a lot of gaps in the industry that we were not tapping into.

In Botswana, we see tourism as going on safari, and we really only see it as valid in the Chobe or Okavango. However, I think that tourism has so many facets – @mothelesi Click To Tweet

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 share what Botswana is all about – @mothelesi Click To Tweet

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 people to be able to interact and break down social divides. I feel that at the end of the day, we are all human. – @mothelesi Click To Tweet

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.


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The HealthCare Giant of Botswana

“Bridging the gap between Policy and Implementation in Gender, Reproductive Health, and HIV/AIDS”

Professor Sheila Tlou – whose surname translates literally to ‘elephant’ is a veritable giant in the gender, health care and sexual and reproductive healthcare space in Botswana, Africa, and the world.

To Professor Sheila Tlou, the themes are inseparable, and much of her work includes activism at the intersection of these spaces.

Professor Sheila Tlou is the co-chair of the Global HIV Prevention Coalition and the co-chair of the Nursing Now Global Campaign. From 2010 to 2017 she was Director of the UNAIDS regional support team for Eastern and Southern Africa.

She is a former Member of Parliament and Minister of Health of the Republic of Botswana (2004-2008). 

Also, Professor Sheila Tlou was the former Professor of Nursing at the University of Botswana and Director of the WHO collaborating center for Nursing and Midwifery Development in Primary Health Care for Anglophone Africa. 

Professor Sheila Tlou has conducted research and taught courses like nursing, pre-medical and social science students on Gender issues relating to HIV/AIDS, Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, and Ageing and Older Persons.

She has played a key role in the development of national nursing and medical education curricula, working to broaden the scope of Health Sciences education in Botswana.


Her work on HIV/AIDS

The first case of HIV in Botswana was reported in 1985.

As was the case with the pandemic in the early years, the virus spread quickly, and with Botswana’s small population, the implications for social and economic stability were devastating.

However, Botswana responded to the pandemic and implemented a number of health care reforms and programs including the PMTCT (Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission) in 1999 and universal access to ARVs (antiretrovirals) to those who were at an advanced stage of the disease.

The management of the virus in Botswana is due in large part to the role that Professor Tlou played in those years, and she continues to lend her voice, wisdom, and expertise to the healthcare space worldwide, today.

For example, the transmission of HIV from mother to child decreased from about 30 percent in 2003 to about 8 percent in 2008. Maternal mortality due to AIDS also decreased from 34 percent to 9 percent under her leadership.

Her work is ‘numbers’ and report-based, however, one cannot forget that the work that Prof. Tlou continues to do has a major impact on the lives of women, and by extension, their families and communities.

“I am hoping that what I say will inspire young people to be able to ask themselves how they will be able to participate in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals because as far as I’m concerned, all 17 of them are… Click To Tweet

Professor Tlou worked tirelessly at the intersection of gender and health, to generate research and forge important partnerships between academia, government, and civil society.

She advocated for real change at the grassroots level in Botswana.

As Minister of Health, she led a forward-thinking and focused HIV care, prevention, treatment, support, and care programme that is used as a model all over the world today; a testament to her knowledge, resolve and leadership.

One of the hallmarks of great leadership is the ability to translate ideas into plans that are actionable – Professor Sheila Tlou Click To Tweet

Professor Tlou is aware of the role that young people have to play in continuing the challenge of zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination, and zero AIDS-related deaths – effectively ending the disease by 2030.

Her work on gender health

Professor Tlou is the United Nations Eminent Person for Women, Girls, and HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa. She is also the International Council of Nurses Goodwill Ambassador for Girl Child Education.

In her past assignment as UNAIDS Regional Director, Professor Tlou provided leadership and Political Advocacy for quality sustainable AIDS response in 21 African countries, from Eritrea to South Africa, including the Indian Ocean Islands of Madagascar, Mauritius, Seychelles, and Comoros.

She has been instrumental in the formation of advocacy bodies such as The Pan-African Positive Women’s Coalition (PAPWC) and the High-Level Task Force on Women, Girls, Gender Equality and HIV in Africa.

Professor Tlou initiated and chaired a High-Level task force on Comprehensive Sexuality Education and Services for Young People in Eastern and Southern Africa.

Because of the uniqueness and peculiarity of the cultural context of African societies, HIV/AIDS thrived in a thick cloak of ignorance, denial, and secrecy that Prof. Tlou has recognized as a deterrent to the success of any programs that may be implemented.

Again, her sensitivity to the fact that women empowerment is a key issue that lies at the heart of HIV/AIDS prevention means that her work is alive to the issues that are particular to African women.

“Gender inequality, gender-based violence, including sexual violence and sexual exploitation, are at the core of young women’s vulnerability and need to be addressed if we are to achieve that SDG of ending AIDS as a public health threat by 2030″.

This very goal gives us a platform to deliver services based on rights, inclusiveness, universality and ensuring that no one is left behind.

Her Recognitions/Awards

Professor Tlou has received many national and international awards. Among them are… “the Botswana Presidential Order of Honor, the Florence Nightingale Award from the International Red Cross Society, the Trailblazer Woman Leading Change Award from the World YWCA, the Leadership in Health award from the Global Business Council (Health)”.

She also got “the President award from the US National Academy of Nursing, the President award from the US National League for Nursing, the Princess Srinagarindra award from Thailand, the Christianne Reimann award from the International Council of Nurses, and The Princess Muna Al Hussein award from the American Nurses Credentialing Centre”.

“Leaders who are able to communicate the importance of their activism are often able to inspire groups to pull together towards a common goal”.


Botswana is one of Africa’s success stories, from one of Africa’s poorest countries to a vibrant, developed, middle-income African state.

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Anita Ottenhof: Bringing world-class luxury to Accra through Villa Monticello

Anita Ottenhof Villa Monticello
We look for the very best talent and often for us that has happened to be a woman Click To Tweet Villa Monticello is Accra’s premier luxury boutique hotel. It’s run by a team that comprises mainly women in leadership positions. One of them is Anita Ottenhof, she’s the Deputy General Manager at VM with nearly a decade’s worth of experience in the international hospitality and travel industries. Like most other industries, hospitality and travel tend to be male-dominated. Villa Monticello stand out despite never setting out to hire only women. They’ve just found that the best talent aligned with their goal to bring a world-class luxury experience to Ghana are women. Nothing beats that!

Was it a conscious decision to have women in key leadership positions at Villa Monticello?

Although we have several men on our team that have worked with us since we’ve opened, most of the leadership roles happen to be held by women. The women on our team are also some of the top talent in the world! Take for example our Executive Chef, Ruby Paintsil who has over 25 years’ experience at a number of prestigious companies in the UK, such as Sanctuary Spa, BBC Television Centre and Restaurant Associates a division of Compass UK. It is rare to see a woman as a head chef and in countries such as the US, there are reports that there are less female chefs than female CEOs. We have never said, “We only want to hire women” but we look for the very best talent whose vision is aligned with our mission to be a leader in African hospitality and often for us that has happened to be a woman.

Was Accra ready for a luxury business when you launched Villa Monticello? How has Villa Monticello being received since launch?

The idea for VM came about through our desire to create an establishment that paralleled some of the international 5-star niche boutique hotels that we loved in cities around the world such as New York, Marrakesh, Johannesburg, and Provence where luxury and service were not mutually exclusive. This sort of hospitality experience appeals to a very unique clientèle. Accra is a very cosmopolitan city and we believed that people who live in and travel here would appreciate our vision. It was a new concept in Accra but we have been very well received by guests and recognized by international hospitality industry vanguards such as World Travel Awards, Conde Nast Johanssens and Trip Advisor. Villa Monticello was the first to introduce the concept of intimate luxury hospitality to Accra Click To Tweet

How has Villa Monticello changed Ghana’s hospitality industry?

When we first launched in 2011, we were the first to introduce the concept of an intimate luxury world class experience in hospitality. Over the past few years, the luxury landscape has really begun to develop in Accra —in real estate, hospitality, retail, and dining. It’s still at early stage but we believe we have contributed to its growth. Customer service is another concept that is still growing in Ghanaian business. Impeccable customer service is core to VM’s values. We strive to provide an unforgettable experience for our guests. We are beginning to see a more customer centred service being adopted by others in the hospitality industry and across sectors.

zambezi-01-rikki-hibbert-photography

How has your “unsaid commitment to women” (mentioned here) translated in running your business?

Although we don’t discriminate based on sex in any way, we have attracted a very powerful core group of women leaders who share the same values, international outlook and passion for excellence. The way we approach our customers is the same way we work together as a team. We are constantly meeting, reviewing feedback and making necessary adjustments as a team and as a business. We have attracted a very powerful core group of women leaders who share the same values Click To Tweet

Tell us more about The Lady initiative, why did Villa Monticello start this?

We understand that it can be challenging for many young women to get the opportunity or nurturing that they might need to excel. Working in collaboration with Ghanaian businesswoman Isobel Acquah, we launched The Lady in January as an empowerment initiative for young women aged 18 to 25. Through the initiative, young women participate in practical foundational courses covering key topics such as wellness, confidence building, financial awareness, social and business etiquette, and personal grooming. The Lady, is an effort to impart to young women the ethos and values that have driven Villa Monticello to a leading position in the Ghanaian hospitality market. At the end of the program (which ended last month), we granted internships to participants and to one promising young women at the university level, a scholarship to further pursue her education.

the-lady

You offer a number of services including The Koncierge and Bespoke Weddings. How do you ensure that you maintain the same values and quality in everything that you do?

Our ultimate goal is to deliver exceptional service and provide an experience for our guests which is second to none. This outlook is applied to all aspects of the VM brand. We are constantly striving to play a significant role in transforming the standards of the hospitality industry in Ghana and the role of women in the industry. We also want to have a positive impact on the next generation of African women business leaders.

What are three hidden treasures in Accra that visitors tend to miss?

  1. Chapter One Restaurant! Even if you don’t stay at VM, experiencing a meal at our fine dining restaurant is a must. The African fusion inspired menu combines flavors from Africa, Asia, India, and Europe using locally sourced ingredients. Enjoying a traditional tea, classic brunch or an exclusive bottle of wine from our Barrels Wine Club cellar can be a highlight for any visitor’s trip to Accra.
  2. Legon Botanical Gardens. There are very few green spaces in the city and this gem provides a necessary respite. Escape the hustle of the city for a picnic with friends. Or a simply a walk in the park to view the local flora, birds and butterflies. They have recently expanded to include an amazing play area for kids.
  3. Night Market in Osu. Several times a year, arts organization ArchiAfrika hosts a free all-night party in the streets of Osu. ArchiAfrika brings live music, lights, outdoor seating, and a great cross section of professionals, artists and local residents together. There attendees enjoy local food such as kenkey and grilled fish from vendors.

If you’d like to share your story with She Leads Africa, let us know more about you and your story here.

Sandra Lopez: Value extends far beyond money

sandra lopez she leads africa

Group travel is in at the moment and X-Plaw Travel is one group-based travel company aimed at taking young South Africans outside their borders. Sandra Lopez is the Founder and Managing Director of the Pretoria-based company,

A firm believer in the power of “Africa by Africans”, through X-Plaw Sandra focuses on African destinations first for tourism and travel. Although it took a while to discover her passion, when she found it Sandra would work 9 hours after her day job building X-Plaw.

As Sandra grew up in an organisation for orphaned and abandoned children, she’s also passionate about giving back through her travel initiatives. Read on to find out how Sandra’s grooming a generation of travel-hungry South Africans.


How do you think X-Plaw Travel will disrupt the African travel industry?

By bringing great affordable quality valued tours and experiences to our customers. This is and has always been our mandate.

I believe that value is something which extends far beyond the monetary. It includes but is not limited to the type of service you give to your customers, how much you engage with them, how much you allow them to feel part of what you are building and how much you allow them to connect with the people they meet on these journeys.

Education is also a key factor for us, most of our travellers have not travelled outside of their home towns or outside of South Africa. For them to experience going out of the country for the first time with us, is an experience that even we get to appreciate with them.

In most instances, they return from these tours richer in knowledge having learnt something totally new about a different country and its people.

Why do you think young people should explore Africa more?

I am a firm believer of “Africa by Africans”, we are the only ones who have the power to change how our continent is perceived by the outside world. We are the only ones who can tell our stories better.

I feel that in many ways, Africa is being misrepresented by the global media. Half the time, this forces people to forget the beauty that surrounds us, sometimes even by ourselves.

Travelling thus gives us an opportunity to understand ourselves better as a people, our roots, our cultures, our heritage. It also paints a picture which allows us to understand vividly that we are all connected as Africans and as a human race in some way or the other.

Only when we are fully comfortable and confident with who we are, will it become much easier for us to invite other young people from other countries to experience this diversity with us.

How have you combined giving back initiatives with your travel company?

Giving back has always been at the fore of what we do as a company. It is actually something that is very personal to me. All our tours have give back initiatives tied to them.

On a 5-6 day tour for example, one day is dedicated to enriching the lives of the less fortunate. In countries where we are not able to actively engage in these initiatives due to certain constraints, we pledge the funds to local projects in South Africa.

We have also just launched the “One Traveller, One Child” initiative. Where for every traveller who tours with us, we will send a disadvantaged kid on a weekend camp educating them about nature, travelling and most importantly about themselves.

Hopefully in a few years, we would be able to look back and realise that we have groomed a generation rich with an appetite for travelling.

sandra-lopez-1

What did you have in place before you quit your engineering job to focus on X-Plaw?

A lot of things actually. An idea, passion, a sketchy plan and a few Bible verses, but mostly I had will power & determination. Nothing beats the will to want to succeed and see something grow from an idea into something tangible.

Every day after my 9-5 job, I would get home to read, research and work on X-Plaw for an additional 9 hours. This went on for a full year until I decided that I was ready to let go of one.

In what ways has your childhood shaped your passion today?

As a kid I was an all-rounder and an overachiever, which meant that with most academic subjects or activities I participated in, I excelled. This actually made it quite hard for me to discover what I truly was passionate about.

I grew up in an organisation called the S.O.S Children’s in Ennerdale, south of Johannesburg. It’s an organisation for orphaned and abandoned children. As ironic as it sounds, we were raised to believe in ourselves and to always extend a helping hand to others less fortunate.

We were extremely fortunate growing up at the village. After school we were kept busy with sports and extra mural activities. During school holiday we were fortunate enough to travel or go out camping.

This, in many ways is how my love for travelling started. However, I only truly discovered my passion for it much later in life.

In your opinion, what is needed to successfully travel in a group?

An open and curious mind. Travelling with an open mind gives you perspective, you see the world through different eyes, you appreciate things more. In some instances, you get to understand how little others have.

You also learn to be patient, as time almost no longer defines your schedules. You get to slow down and enjoy the moments.

Stay curious, by doing so you learn to expect the unexpected. And most of all, you learn something new every day.


Hey South African #MotherlandMoguls, the SheHive will be in Johannesburg from November 3-6. Find out more here.