It has been fascinating and empowering to watch the trajectory of Olwethu Leshabane over the last few years, in particular her drive to create businesses beyond the world of the ‘influencer’ which, for many people, was where she was firmly positioned.
In an interview with IAAE, she gave insight into her background, her work and how she has dealt with the impact of COVID-19 on her business.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be Deborah Patta. I was such a nerd in school. I was a straight-A student, so my parents thought it would be a great idea if I studied something in the sciences. I fell in like with Quantity Surveying, studied that at the University of Pretoria (Tuks) but was financially excluded in my second year. I changed my qualification to a Bachelor of Commerce, which I could afford and didn’t require the same amount of years as QS.
You were involved in the Stanford Group, CreativeSHOPPE and iProspect, what was your transition into and out of those?
Stanford Group was my husband Neo’s company. He would identify small businesses that needed his business and advisory skills, invest in, grow and then flip them. I would step in and do the marketing. It was valuable in that it helped me to watch, learn and grow. It was also super exhausting because the work was 24/7. You get home and get onto admin. You get to work, you’re in meetings and handling the day-to-day running of the business.
Hectic times! But, those days have prepared us for where we are now. I have now employed my husband to run the operations for my businesses, namely CreativeSHOPPE, the Art of Superwoman and The Sit Down.
I worked for iProspect, a digital agency within the Dentsu Aegis group in between those years. I loved the thrill of being an office girl. Dressing up and showing up. The thrill of deadlines and pitches, but the concrete ceiling Black women are dealt with in media and marketing spaces is intense. This is where I really got to see the barriers for women, especially Black women, in the media, marketing, corporate worlds.
You started The Red Wings Project in 2014, is it still running?
Yes, we have adjusted the model for the Red Wings Project. Initially, we collected and distributed sanitary pads directly to schools and organisations. Now we support organisations not just with products but education, materials and resources to organisations that specifically work with the girl child.
When did you start and what was the motivation behind Art of Superwoman?
I had just given birth to my second son mid-2013 and was juggling two under-two boys. I started just sharing mom-moments on a Tumblr account. Art of Superwoman became a full-on blog and website in 2015.
A lot of your activities seemed centred around women and motherhood, why?
I know what it feels like to be overlooked. I know what it feels like to sit in a classroom full of Afrikaans boys and shrink. I know what it feels like to be lonely not because you don’t have people around you but because you want someone to just confirm you aren’t going crazy. So when I started Art of Superwoman, the mission was just to write what comes to mind with the hope that others could relate. Not only did a lot of women relate, they felt as though I put how they felt into words.
How has the coronavirus pandemic forced you to change your strategy with, for example, The Sit Down?
Pivot – punch word of 2020. We had to hold off the events but the end goal hasn’t been affected. Certainly the ‘how’ has. The goal for The Sit Down was to be a content hub of all things Parenting, Careers, Wellness, Womenomics and Relationships for women – the things that make us who we are.
You have recently launched an online shop, what have you learned from the process?
The main objective of the online store is to curate products for women, moms and babies that I believe in, products that are of a high quality, luxurious and value-for-money. The biggest challenge has been getting the economics right with suppliers. My intention is to ensure that my customers pay exactly what they would pay had they gone straight to the suppliers. Financial gain is not the biggest objective right now; offering a quality platform and experience is of utmost importance.
What is Womenomics?
For many years, I have always emphasised the importance of bringing economics into the lives of young women from very early on. Money and finances, especially for women, shouldn’t be a taboo subject. It is okay for women to “love and want money”. A savings and investment culture from as early as possible is very important. Many social issues can be alleviated if women are financially independent. The sooner we sow the seed and the sooner the policies in organisations are favourable to women, the quicker we will be able to achieve economic freedom for the women of South Africa.
The Womenomics is a movement that calls on South Africans, especially corporates, to make a concerted effort to accelerate women’s participation in the economy.
What does the future look like for your business?
Honestly, every day is a surprise living through this pandemic. I do know that things will get better and that normality as we know it will change – a different kind of normal. I do plan on getting my team into an office with flexible office hours because honestly, what’s a 9-to-5 anyway? I’m so focused on employing women, particularly mothers. The big business focus will still be digital and online.
How do you balance family and work when it seems like, from the outside, they are very intertwined?
They are very much intertwined. At this stage, I flow between all these roles. There is no differentiation. My husband is my employee and manager. Before bed, he briefs me on my next day’s deliverables and To-Dos. That’s kind of us now… I do kind of like it.