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‘I Was Not Sure My Business Would Make It’

As Chris van Zyl’s clients grew and pressure piled on, his building business started to collapse.

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Don’t be fooled by his infectious smile, the sports car and designer clothes; behind it all is a sad story of depression.

On a windy winter’s afternoon, in Johannesburg, we arrive at the Serengeti Golf and Wildlife Estate, in Kempton Park – a place for the affluent. Five minutes later, a BMW sports car pulls up and a tall gentleman in a navy blue tailored suit steps out, his name – Chris Van Zyl. His game – building.

For one so young and seemingly successful it is a surprise when 30-year-old Van Zyl claims that failure is his best friend.

“I am so glad of the failures that happened to me. If I see failure, I say bring it on and it becomes part of my DNA,” says Van Zyl.

“Although I’m in the building industry, I’m not a builder, I’m a businessman.”

Van Zyl grew up in Sunward Park, in the east of Johannesburg, a middle-class suburb, where education is important; yet he doesn’t have a qualification beyond school.

“I never felt comfortable with the mind-set that to be successful you have to be educated.  If you’re not the smartest, surround yourself with people who are going to help you grow.”

When Van Zyl matriculated, his father, a businessman in the transport industry, encouraged him to try his hand at golf. Here, he had to face his demons; frustration and confusion. Luckily, he found a niche in real estate.

Van Zyl then went to work at his brother-in-law’s auto-glass company. This gave him a taste for business.

“I didn’t like the job but I had to take anything that came my way and make the best of it… Talking to a stranger was unthinkable, so I was taken out of my comfort zone.”

“I would go an extra-mile for the customers, more like people pleasing. I would aid more for people but never felt I was succeeding,” he says.

From here, he volunteered as a driver at a construction building company to learn the trade.

“I love designing; it can be anything from fashion to cars and building. Because I wanted to learn about the building industry I asked my boss to just pay me for transport and airtime as long as I got to learn the ins and outs of the business,” he says.

In 2008, Van Zyl took a leap of faith, with a friend, and started the company Buildpro Construction and built 21 houses. In 2013, he bought out his partner.

It all seemed plain sailing; lurking around the corner was his worst day.

His business was thriving but his health was suffering; anxiety and depression were his lot.

“I was pumped as an entrepreneur because I was getting in a lot of business and everything looked up because if you have money in the bank all is fine, right?”

Deals piled up and the business grew. It meant long hours of work; three for sleep. The pressure was on and getting more intense.

“I was depressed, for weeks on end I could not sleep because of all the stressful situations I had to solve daily. I was in constant damage control and because I did not know how to delegate; nobody could lighten the load for me.”

“We had a last minute site meeting with one of my clients who said it was urgent to meet face to face; of course I knew something big was wrong. I remember driving past the site twice and not realizing I must pull over for the meeting.”

He eventually pulled over and found that his client was at the end of his tether. There had been too many failures, says Van Zyl.

“As we walked around the site he pointed out all the things that were incorrect and problems that I committed two weeks ago to fix but had not been touched.”

The client sued for damages.

During the meeting, Van Zyl says he could feel that something was wrong; his whole body became numb.

“I tried to tell my project manager next to me but was struggling to speak – he saw that something was wrong. I used all the power I had to apologize to the client to cut the meeting short and my project manager carried me to the car and took me to my house. I could not think clearly or breathe. It was time that my body told me that I can simply not carry on like this,” he says.

“I had to negotiate new time timelines, and deliverables and made sure that I stuck to them.”

It was going to get worse.

Van Zyl was overworked his brain started to shut down.

“When people spoke to me, most of the time I did not register what they were saying because I would think of all the overwhelming problems in my business I need to solve.”

Cash flow was also a problem.

“I remember it was early in the month and I did not even have enough money to pay my workers’ salaries. I was days late on salaries and thinking now that the client will sue me for damages.”

The thought of closing down his business made it worse.

“It was unthinkable for me because I had so many clients that entrusted me with their hard-earned money on the dream homes which I was supposed to finish for them. If I had to close, all of them would have suffered financially and emotionally and I could not allow that.”

The doctors advised him to take a break.

“They told me the usual things; that I was fatigued and experienced several panic attacks so I had to stay at home for about a month. I couldn’t leave my staff to run the business; the big problem was that none of them really knew what was expected from them, so they carried on with no goals, deadlines or correct budgets. Without me there was no company.”

He had a choice to make, either fight for his health or be an entrepreneur.

Van Zyl chose health and less work. It meant he had to cancel two deals worth R18 million ($1.26 million).

“We were about to sign deals but I couldn’t take them on and [the clients] were angry with me. I had no choice but to cancel, my capacity couldn’t handle it,” he says.

It was touch and go.

“I was not sure my business would make it at all,” he says.

It did. But tough times were not over for Van Zyl.

“I remember, we were building a suite and had to cement on top. We booked eight loads of trucks with concrete.”

“I paid for the loads and it was in the morning, I was exhausted and decided to take a nap. I couldn’t hear my phone ring, I was totally burned out and when the workers needed two more loads to complete the job, they were unable to get hold of me,” he says.

It almost cost him another deal. Years later, he has vowed to never give in to the pain.

He claims that his company is worth R24 million ($1.68 million). By the end of 2016, he plans to make R38 million ($2.66 million).

“I do not compare myself to anybody. I’m a learner and strive to be the best I can be.”

His lesson?

“Learn to say no. Do not over commit. If you say you gonna do something, make sure you are fully equipped.”

Three years after his worst day, Van Zyl is thriving and plans to start a private funding firm and luxury brands. Not even depression could keep him down. He is also about to get married. What else does he need?

Entrepreneurs

What Will It Take To Close The Funding Gap For Black Female Founders?

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If you’ve heard the statistics once, you’ve probably heard them a thousand times: Of the nearly $100 billion in venture funding that goes to entrepreneurs in America, less than 3% goes to female founders and just 0.2% goes to black female founders. 

There’s a growing consensus that venture capital’s race problem needs to be fixed.What’s less clear is precisely how to start closing the massive gulf. And at the inaugural Black Women Raise conference in Manhattan on Friday, a gathering of some 80 black female founders, a series of candid conversations laid bare the frustrations around the lack of an obvious path forward. In several raw moments of interchange, however, some answers started to emerge.

Investors “could ask different questions,” Charles Hudson, founder and managing partner of Precursor Ventures, said during a panel conversation with BBG’s Susan Lyne, First Round Capital’s Hayley Barna, and Female Founder’s Fund Sutian Dong. “There are all these questions—‘Well, do you think she can recruit? Do you think she can hire?’—I know what’s behind that question.

It’s ‘Do you think she can get people to work for her because she’s a black woman?’ And people ask these, what on the surface sound like innocent enough legitimate questions about investments, but they’re not innocent. They’re loaded. And you learn a lot by the questions people ask.”

Despite the existence (and, arguably, preponderance) of these loaded questions, Hudson and the others cautioned the entrepreneurs in the room against becoming disillusioned with the traditional venture capital community. Instead, they said, minority founders should prioritize investors who have a track record of investing in entrepreneurs who look like them.

“Vet investors up front. Don’t let them waste your time only to give you a half-ass answer after you spend an hour with them or even two weeks later,” said Barna, who started her venture capital career after successfully cofounding e-commerce darling Birch Box. “Just ask, ‘Is this in your sweet spot?’”

Dong noted that investors should be self-monitoring for where they’re over- and under-indexing, too. “We’ve said we don’t like the ratio of founders in our portfolio. About half are nonwhite, but only two are African-American. So we asked our network who we should be talking to,” she said.

It can be hard, in an open and on-the-record forum, to ask the hard questions about investing in underrepresented founders—much less to receive forthright answers to those questions—but to the credit of the Black Women Raise attendees, no one shied away from speaking about the reality of her experience as a founder of color.

“Everyone talks about the ‘friends and family round.’ I raised $63,000; I am the friends and family round,” quipped Star Cunningham, founder and CEO of health management platform 4D Healthware. But underpinning her self-funding, Cunningham continued, was a lack of capital access. “I have debt, because I had to get it, because no one wanted to give me any money. So what are you, as investors, going to do to look at our companies differently?”

Barna’s reply: Don’t be afraid to talk about your distance traveled. “The same stories about people getting straight A’s from Ivy League schools isn’t what gets us fired up; it’s instead hearing about how someone put themselves through med school from driving an ambulance,” she said. “You might think that you’re not supposed to talk about your life story, but I think it’s an important data point in helping [investors] make the right decision.”

This isn’t to say that a little bit of information and clever storytelling will fix the funding gap for founders of color. Viola Llewellyn, cofounder of African fintech platform Ovamba, pointed out as much, saying that many of the investors she’s come across don’t seem interested in asking the questions that lead to the sorts of decisions Barna is referencing. 

“Here’s the problem: No one gets punished intellectually, emotionally, or financially for saying no to black women or to Africans. You will instead be congratulated if you don’t make the ‘foolish mistake’ of investing in something that doesn’t fit into the preconceived ideas of what success is,” Llewellyn said to Hudson, Lyne, Barna and Dong. 

“At what point do we find a way to tell the story of the fool that said no?” she continued, to applause from the room.

Hudson waited a beat, and responded with empathy.

“There’s a million reasons [for investors] to say no, but until we have more success stories, I think there’s always an easy out for people to say, ‘No one has proven to me that investing in this way and this type of person works out.’ It’s intellectually lazy and it’s wrong,” he said. “You have every right to be angry.”

Angry, yes, but also motivated. Among the clearest takeaways from the conversation is that one of the best ways to change the system is to start from within. In Silicon Valley and Arlan Hamilton parlance, fight pattern-matching with pattern-matching.

“More black women need to control capital, in whatever form that may be,” Dong said. “More black women need to be controlling capital to put that into companies run by black female founders.”

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Masai Ujiri’s dream of harnessing untapped African talent

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The President of Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri, on his adoration for Africa as a continent filled with unlimited potential and talent.


The tall man in sport, Masai Ujiri, is a name in professional basketball far beyond the borders of Africa and his native Nigeria.

Born in England but having grown up in Zaria in Africa’s most populous country, Ujiri’s adoration for Africa sees him on the continent often, inspiring the youth.

“Africa is no more afraid. We are not afraid of anybody anymore. The continent is bold. The people are bold,” says Ujiri, when FORBES AFRICA meets him in Johannesburg in November at the Africa Investment Forum in which he participated.

The continent has a special place in his heart.

The President of the Toronto Raptors in the National Basketball Association (NBA), also founded Giants of Africa (GOA) in 2003, as a way of harnessing budding, untapped talent.

“As long as I am in a position where I am able to, we have to give the youth a chance. We have to pave a path for them and there is nothing I can’t do. I have to do everything, it is an obligation, I have to be an example for them by creating that pathway,” he says.

Ujiri, who started playing basketball at the age of 13, travels to Africa every August to visit the GOA camps across seven countries on the continent, training young boys and girls to be leaders in both sport and everyday life.

He says he draws inspiration from each and every country in Africa, and the feeling is inexplicable.

The history and culture are a constant reminder of his years growing up in Africa.

Whether it is in Kenya, where his mother was born, or the lasting friendships in Rwanda, Senegal or Nigeria, each country holds special memories.

Apart from the numerous trips in and out of the continent, 2018 granted Ujiri a rare once-in-a-lifetime moment.

This was in July when Barack Obama, the former president of the United States, visited Kenya, and with him, Ujiri opened a basketball court in the country.

Ujiri’s outreach program GOA launched it at the Sauti Kuu Foundation Sports, Resources and Vocational Centre in Alego; familiar ground for both leaders.

Managed by Auma Obama, Sauti Kuu, much like GOA, is focused on youth development.

“To spend that time with somebody that Africa means so much to, meant so much to me and so much to Auma. We are trying to inspire youth, we built a court that is going to impact the youth and that was special,” says Ujiri. 

Being able to scout African talent is what is imperative for Ujiri, and it all comes down to building facilities to help the youth play basketball.

Ultimately, his dream for Africa is not only to see material wealth but for talent to go beyond what he has achieved.

“My dream is to have one of the youth become bigger than me, and bigger than everybody. People think I always dream of building this and doing that but I want one of these kids to take everything that they learn and do better in each and everything.

“I love the continent; I love the culture of different places. I am almost like Anthony Bourdain [the late American celebrity chef], that is how it really is with basketball, with the culture, the people and the food,” says Ujiri.

Staying true to his African roots, when we meet him, Ujiri speaks about his favorite yam and stew dish that he says reminds him of his childhood.

It’s such memories that see him taking the long-haul flight out of Toronto to Africa each year.

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Brewing Success: Lessons From A Beer Baron

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Canadian John Sleeman shares his entrepreneurial lessons with Africa.


cis not your typical textbook entrepreneur. His belief in what it takes to be an entrepreneur is so controversial that his advice is no longer welcome in MBA classes. The white-haired charismatic brewer, who re-established his family’s brewing business in 1988 as one of the most successful in Canada, offers sage advice to African entrepreneurs, although he has no plans to expand in Africa – yet.

Nonchalantly, in his automated beer manufacturing plant in Guelph, Canada, surrounded by people enjoying his craft beer, Sleeman says he believes entrepreneurs are born, not made. He argues that unless you are prepared to go bankrupt, work over 80 hours a week, lose your friends, face the prospect of divorce, put your house on mortgage and miss meeting friends for drinks on Fridays, then entrepreneurship is not for you.

He should know. This is the toll he took to restart his family business. It had lost its licence and was banned from the market for 50 years in 1933. This was for smuggling beer during the roaring 1920s by brokering deals with bootleggers and gangsters like Al Capone when prohibition set in in Canada.

Passionately, the beer baron, who plans to open a micro-distillery later this year, and is considering expanding his business in either the eastern or western parts of Canada, tells FORBES AFRICA: “If you want to be an entrepreneur, be very focused on what you want to achieve and don’t let people talk you out of it. If it is a dream, pursue it until you are successful.”

He attributes his success to surrounding himself with the right people. They will make or break your business, says Sleeman. You should be ready to change your business model if the current one isn’t working, he adds.

In his own case, he did this after his colleague advised him that rather than opening up new breweries across Canada, he should buy existing ones that share Sleeman Breweries’ crazy passion for beer and authenticity.

Sleeman reckons you shouldn’t grow so big that you lose your entrepreneurial flair, first-mover advantage and risk-appetite, but you also shouldn’t remain so small that you get knocked out of business or get bought out by someone who does not see your vision and wants to dismantle you, as it almost happened to his business in 2006. If you do sell, reminisces Sleeman, sell to someone who sees your vision, like Sleeman Breweries did, when Japanese company Sapporo saved the Guelph-based firm from a hostile takeover.

But that’s history. Since then, Sapporo has helped fund research and development and training for the business, whose humble, down-to-earth founder is now taking it on its next spirited journey.

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