It was a shock. Three years ago, Portia Masimula told her family that she was going to quit her safe, well-paid job to start her own IT company. They thought she was mad and her father refused to speak to her.
The 29-year-old entrepreneur was so determined she even put her wedding on hold.
Masimula took every chance that came her way to make her business work. One Tuesday evening, after a stressful day at work, Masimula spotted multi-millionaire Patrice Motsepe, Africa’s 22nd richest man according to FORBES AFRICA, at a restaurant in the V&A Waterfront, Cape Town.
“There he was sitting having dinner. I thought I wasn’t going to let him go past me. I am going to go over there and talk to him. This opportunity comes once in life. They happen randomly. I am thinking ‘what am I going to say to him, let me wait for him to finish dinner’. There I am watching him while he is eating.”
“That’s the thing about being an entrepreneur, you grab every opportunity. As soon as he was finished. The things you do as a businesswoman is crazy. The minute he stood up, I said ‘Mr Motsepe, how are you doing?’ This is who I am.”
The brief meeting ended with a business card and some sage advice from Motsepe.
“He said to me ‘when you looking for something, never mention the word help, say I am looking for partnership’. Those are the wise words he left me with. As a businesswoman, if you don’t talk you are not going to get what you want. You have to take the shininess away from it. In business, you have to take it away. Business has taught me you can’t be shy,” she says.
It is the bold-as-brass move you would expect from the edgy streets of New York. In Masimula’s case, it came from growing up with her grandparents on the dirt roads of KwaMhlanga, a tiny village in Mpumalanga, southwest of South Africa.
“My grandmother is a principal of a school, my grandfather is a school inspector. My mother passed away when I was very young and my father had me when he was still a boy in Grade 11 at school, which is why I was living with my grandparents from my father’s side. He couldn’t afford to look after me.”
Masimula says her father came back into her life once he had matured and educated himself at university.
“It becomes hard. I was born for this. I was born to do business. I know it becomes difficult when they want you to do things in a traditional way. It’s not an easy journey. My father was actually angry at me at some stage. Asking why I was leaving a solid job and opening a business. I tried to explain to him this was the journey I wanted to take. Initially he wasn’t supportive to it,” she says.
One reason her family was shocked with the news was that Masimula didn’t know anything about the business she was going into.
“I was hanging around with a lot of the tech guys, and I developed interests. If you look at it now, the digital space is where it’s happening. It’s fast in terms of tech. I was so curious. I thought ‘how could I get involved and make this a business’. While I was sitting there, I thought let’s start a company and do this. That was 2013 and we didn’t waste time.
“I always had the entrepreneurial spirit in me. I knew that one day I was going to have my own business, even though I didn’t know what sort of business it would be,” she says.
“I enrolled in some courses at the University of Cape Town. I would practice programming and luckily enough my fiancée, Mhlonipheni, is in IT and is a developer. I used to come home at night and practice and he would show me how to program.”
It led to Masimula leaving her comfortable job in financial marketing to open IT solutions company Kansani Tech.
“As a woman in this industry, it is the toughest thing ever. Most of the time you are sitting in a boardroom and it’s just men. They are sitting there and asking ‘what are you doing here, woman’?
“The ultimate goal is for a four-year contract. We want to get to that level. For now, it’s small projects,” says Masimula, who built a R6,000 ($400) app for a doctor who wants to keep in touch with her patients.
“The doctor wanted to retain her clients. She runs weight-loss programs. The people who come to see her don’t monitor it properly. When you are developing an app, you need all the ingredients, you need to monitor your food and your exercise. Today, [the doctor] can see what [her patients] have done by recording it on their phone. Instead of [the patients] picking up the phone and having to book the doctor, she can access the app,” says Masimula.
And the postponed wedding? When will her fiancée pay the delayed bride-prize?
“Lobola, it will come, but for now, we are all about building the business. The minute we see the business on the level where it doesn’t need us, we’ll pay up,” she says with a smile.
Clearly, marriage can wait, but business can’t.