Stellenbosch, located in South Africa’s Western Cape province, is famous for its world-class wineries, and is also a university town, boasting one of South Africa’s leading public research institutions.
Stellenbosch University is also home to Innovus, an award-winning technology transfer company, where Anita Nel is the lady in charge as CEO. Nel used to be a high school teacher in this pretty wine town and was with a start-up company prior to this high-profile assignment.
Innovus facilitates entrepreneurial support and development and manages commercialization of the university’s innovation and intellectual property portfolio through patenting, licensing and formation of spin-out companies.
Being CEO may seem like a tough task for a teacher-turned-innovator, but Nel is best equipped to understand entrepreneurship and the challenges facing new companies. She has led both a start-up and a venture capital firm that invested in technology start-ups.
On Nel’s LinkedIn profile, Sol Bezuidenhout, who has worked with her, says about her: “Her consistency as an overachiever is astounding. Anita is a driven, passionate and smart individual with vast business experience. She has no qualms in tackling the almost impossible challenges, and I yet have to see her fail. Anita is a great listener and cares after and inspires the people who work for her.”
Nel says her secret to success is asking: “If I fail, what will happen, if I succeed, what will happen and what is the most likely outcome. Does the most likely outcome fit my larger aspirations and if so, are the pros of success larger than the cons of failure?”
“I’m never afraid to ask for help if I need it. There is no shame in asking for it. I take advantage of the network I am part of and also of social media to tell people about our projects,” adds Nel.
“We, as individuals, should also keep in mind that we are brands in our own right and we should market and manage our own personal brands.”
The best path to entrepreneurship, she says, is to solve a problem that people live with but are unhappy about.
A major problem however is that “the African business industry is dominated by men so much that sometimes people address men in meetings even though a woman is the boss”.
“When that happens, I still participate and raise my opinion and ignore the negativity. I stand up for myself in a calm and constructive manner and speak logically about the issue and realize it is not about power but a common vision for a successful outcome. It is always better to come up with solutions than constantly report problems and build on negativity.”
In addition, she is of the opinion that business is sometimes difficult for women on account of the “paternalistic culture” but anyone can be successful. Patience is a key element of success.
“People feel that without a company there is no credibility but that it is not the case. It is better to wait until you are ready.”
The biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make is the inability to be flexible. Confidence in one’s products and solutions is key, but overconfidence is dangerous.
“My journey in business was better when I got a mentor. Having someone I trusted who could give me advice made life easier and made me a better boss. The more I listened to the advice, I noticed that not all criticism is negative,” she says.
Boss or businesswoman, Nel is clearly enjoying every moment of it.