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The Chartered Accountant Who Dove Into The Mexican Fire

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It was a small, raw, white-tiled Mexican cantina squeezed at the end of a triangular T-junction in New York’s Lower East Side; a scruffy flat-ironed cantina that would easily have been missed if Christa Ansell, a traveling chartered accountant, hadn’t walked past it.

“I love going to places that are little holes in the wall. I am not good with food chains and I don’t like to go to places that are really hyped up about. In New York it’s easy to do that because there are a lot of blogs, there are a lot of magazines. There are so many hidden places you can find walking along,” says Ansell.

It took a snack from this cantina in 2006 to give Ansell the idea to change her life and open her own Mexican restaurant, Perron, in Johannesburg, South Africa.

“It left a little something that said ‘gee I wish we had something like that in South Africa’…It wasn’t the Mexican like I have had [in South Africa], which is nachos with ridiculous amounts of cheese on it or things that are over fried, a generally tasty but incredibly unhealthy meal. There it was with incredible flavors with beautiful fresh coriander and nice margaritas [she is a big fan of tequila as well],” she says.

Ansell’s Perron is a far cry from the street diner in the heart of New York. It is in Illovo, in the well-groomed suburbs of Sandton in Johannesburg; a hip and trendy explosion of pink and green walls, paintings of Frida Kahlo [Mexican artist], and a bar ringed by feathered lampshades with more brands of tequila than are good for you in one night.

“A lot of Joburg is really monochrome and neutral and swish and easy on the eye. I wanted to make this the ‘wake up you’re in a different place and get some life into you’. Mexico has such a rich history and we turn [their restaurants] into swinging bar doors and tumble weeds and sombreros,” she says.

“Mexican food is amazing because it has that whole street-vendor vibe. I love having a lot of tastes of things and having a lot of different flavors. It’s versatile. I have been a vegetarian for several years and it was frustrating to go to a restaurant and have only one option to eat – a mushroom risotto. Because that’s what I had and it killed me. When people get it right it’s amazing but if not it’s just stodgy rice. I wanted to do something that had more than just wild mushroom risotto on the menu.”

Ansell wears a bright red dress, a world away from the grey suits of the boardrooms of New York and London. It’s a dress that hints at her character. Apart from spending time eating out, the rebel at heart has danced at the bottom of the Guggenheim gallery in New York beneath paintings and hummed to classical music at the Museum of Modern Art across town.

Ansell has also backpacked across South America and Spain.

This restaurant was a baptism of fire that could make jalapenos cool. Ansell, who pulled into Africa after driving eight months down from London to Johannesburg with her husband, bought the lease in February 2014. The opening night, in May, was chaotic.

“Five minutes before everyone was coming, we were still drilling holes into the wall and putting up cacti and trying to get the staff all fully-trained. We painted everything ourselves. It was a hands-on thing. It was chaos,” she says.

“Being chartered accountants, we are controlled and orientated. I used to be very client-based in my former jobs meeting CEOs. I am used to long hours. I thought I was going to be fine and there can’t be challenges to working a restaurant. But you are dealing with a broader spectrum of people. Here you are dealing with waiters and waitresses who are younger, who have a different generational way of talking, and who you have to treat differently. You’ve got different cultural expectations. It’s a crazy melting pot of so many different walks of life and ways of looking at life.”

There was also the last-minute name change. They wanted to name it CabrÓn which means friends, but had to change it when they found out a diner in Cape Town had their original name.

“We thought lets register the website and then we found there was another site which had the same domain. So we went to the drawing board. Perron means cool in Mexican slang, or the man. This dude is one of the lucha libre fighters. I just loved him. And because a lot of the décor images are quite feminine I kind of thought it would be nice to have that yin and yang. That’s why we use the Perron man.”

Ansell’s restaurant uses 180 bottles of tequila a month, and 500 Jalapeno chillies a day.

What’s the hardest part of her day? “I think the nature of reviews is quite difficult. I am the kind of person that wants everyone to like me so when I read that someone doesn’t like the food I get quite upset. But it’s a challenge you have to overcome. Not everyone is going to like the kind of food that you are making. I have had a few Mexicans come in and say ‘oh but you are supposed to be authentic’ but we’re not trying to be authentic. We’re just bringing the Mexican stuff we like into Johannesburg.

“As children, my brother had this Mexican alter ego Veektor. We would pretend to have Spanish conversations. It came about that I was called ‘senorita’ by my colleagues. I had a car that had a number plate that was MXE so it was called the Mexican. I suppose you could say it has always been there in the background,” says Ansell.

A year and scores of food reviews later, Perron is flinging out burritos and chilli poppers.

“We opened on a Wednesday and from that Friday we have been basically fully booked. It’s been crazy. It started with two days in advance. Now, on weekends, you have to book a month in advance.”

A far cry from stodgy mushroom risotto.

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Farmer Forays: ‘Creating A New Line Of Business’

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Shola Ladoja; image supplied

Nigerian agripreneur Shola Ladoja, the founder of Simply Green, says the pandemic-induced lockdown brought with it logistic adversity, but also more local sales.  

With the marauding coronavirus disrupting lives and businesses in Nigeria, the financial stability of a majority of the country’s 200 million inhabitants has been severely affected.

The significant toll it has taken on economic activities has forced many small and medium enterprises to reimagine new ways of staying afloat. Covid-19 is also set to radically aggravate food insecurity in Africa. In spite of Nigeria’s dependence on oil, agriculture remains an important cornerstone for its economy, providing employment for millions especially in the informal sector.

The threat of starvation is so present that in a public address in May, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, urged Nigerian farmers to produce enough for the country to eat, saying that the country has “no money to import” food.

But every cloud has a silver lining. The food shortage has presented some agripreneurs in Nigeria with serendipitous opportunities.

Shola Ladoja is the founder of Simply Green, which is a farm-to-table company specializing in vegetables, fruits, juices, spices and herbs. The border lockdown has meant that many of the retail and supermarket chains can no longer import foreign produce into the country.

But this hurdle created a new opportunity for Ladoja.

“[Previously], I tried to get my juices into local stores in Nigeria but they all turned me down and most of them wanted to buy imported juices. The lockdown meant that they had to buy a local brand like mine because they could not get them from abroad anymore. We are now able to sell a lot more during this time than previous years,” says Ladoja.

On the logistics side, however, Ladoja has also felt the pinch of the pandemic like most business that require consistent movement of goods and services. The lockdown scenario prevented his workers from coming in and as a result, the company’s daily delivery of juices, has come to an abrupt stop.  

Ladoja has had to start thinking outside the box to make ends meet.

“We have come up with a fruit and vegetable box, which we sell directly on our website to our customers. So, they can now buy lettuce, kale and carrots, which we have never done before. So, this period has forced us to think about how we can expand the business and this time we actually created a new line of business, which was not in the plans for this year,” says Ladoja.

According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), even before the Covid-19 crisis, farmers had not been able to satisfy the demands of Nigeria’s population.

“I feel like the government should give out grants and loans and support for small businesses so that they don’t crash. I have friends who have complained they are going to shut down their businesses because they haven’t been paid for two months. A lot of people cannot sell their produce in Lagos because the markets are closed which is going to affect a lot of farmers at this time,” says Ladoja.

Nigeria used to import over a million tonnes of rice from Thailand annually. That number has been significantly reduced with the implementation of high import taxes. This has led to an abnormal increase in food prices in Nigeria since the onset of the coronavirus with the UN estimating the number of people facing acute food security stands to rise to 265 million globally in 2020 as a result of the economic impact of the pandemic.

Nigeria has substantially increased domestic rice production in the pandemic but is still a long way from reaching the levels needed for the country to sufficiently feed itself. Coupled with the decline in global oil prices, it is safe to say the adverse economic impact of Covid-19 on Africa’s most populous country is going to be felt for a long time to come.

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All For Grooming Future Leaders

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Katlego Thwane has had to dip into his own savings, with the Covid-19 crisis, to fund his noble cause, teaching the underprivileged in a South African township.

He is in his twenties, yet turning around the destiny of underprivileged young people around him.

Katlego Thwane, a 28-year-old born and bred in South Africa’s lively township of Soweto, is an educator and founder of the Atlegang Bana Foundation here that caters to primary school learners who struggle to keep up at school and need additional help.

“Our foundation also provides for needy learners from underprivileged backgrounds. One of my biggest campaigns at the foundation every year is to give confidence and motivation to learners for the year ahead,” says Thwane.

He has bagged numerous awards and accolades for his work, as a 2017 Young Community Shaper, 2018 Lead SA hero and featuring on live television show Big Up on SABC Mzansi in 2018.

Growing up, he was a “naughty boy”, as he describes himself, but says many are now astonished at the serious, ambitious young man he has become.

“Teaching has always been a passion of mine. I love seeing change, transformation and grooming leaders, and value their education while being innovative in taking our country forward.”

Thwane has recently established a clothing brand, BANA, under the Atlegang Bana Foundation. He is also currently handing out food parcels to the needy in his community, in partnership with Hollywoodbets.

“The virus has affected us immensely with many parents losing their jobs or taking salary cuts, we are not receiving the financial support as before. This has led to me [dipping] into my own personal pocket and [using it] to buy tutors data for teaching virtually,” says Thwane.

Most schools continue operating online because learners haven’t as yet returned to school, however, this has come with its share of setbacks.

Makosha Masedi, a parent of a Grade 4 learner, says her challenges come with network issues and understanding the tasks given to the child.

“Some of the programs that the work is loaded on to is not friendly for all devices, so submitting and retrieving becomes a problem, as also understanding some of the work,” rues Masedi.

But Thwane powers on, hoping for a better tomorrow, for himself and his country.

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The Mother-Daughter Duo Behind A New Inclusive Community Teaching Budding Professionals How To Better Engage At Work

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Mother-daughter cofounders Edith Cooper and Jordan Taylor launched Medley to help young professionals gain the skills they need to bring their most authentic selves to work. COURTESY OF MEDLEY

Edith Cooper, who spent more than 20 years as an executive at Goldman Sachs, knows what it’s like to stand out in a workplace. Being one of few people of color in a sea of white faces over the course of her career hasn’t been easy. But rather than dwell on this reality, Cooper, who now sits on the boards of Etsy and Slack, has championed her differences. That’s what helped her rise through the ranks at the bank to eventually head its human resources department, an accomplishment she says was a result of her ability to connect with people of all backgrounds.

That quality would continue to work to her advantage: As Goldman Sachs evolved, so did its staff. Diversity was reflected not only in employees’ skin colors and genders, but also in their ages and geographical origins. Cooper was awakened to the fact that if the company was going to thrive, it would need to create an environment wherein its multifaceted staff could feel comfortable embracing their differences and, in turn, learn from them. 

“If you can figure out an environment where people can thrive together, it’s powerful,” Cooper says. But it’s a process that takes time, especially if newer, more inexperienced employees aren’t equipped with the proper skills to navigate this balance between professionalism and open expression. 

That is in part what inspired Cooper’s new startup, Medley, which she launched with her daughter Jordan Taylor, a former chief of staff at Mic and Harvard Business School Baker Scholar, to provide a community in which young professionals can gain the skills they need to bring their most authentic selves to work without fear. In light of the heightened tension surrounding ongoing racial injustice that’s inevitably seeping into workplace communication, it’s an ideal time to learn this skill.

Taylor has also had her fair share of experiences being the “only one in the room,” but as an emerging leader, rather than an established executive like her mother. Graduating in the top 5% of her class and being one the first 20 Black students to be named a Baker Scholar meant she was constantly figuring out how to relate to peers in predominantly white spaces. She figured it out, but Medley is a platform she wishes had been around when she was finding her voice among people whose backgrounds were much different than hers.

Medley groups young professionals in their 20s and 30s with other like-minded members whose workplace values, concerns and priorities align. The professionals that make up these eight-person groups differ, however, in terms of gender and ethnic background, which Cooper and Taylor hope will translate to increased empathy that members can apply within their respective workplaces.

“This idea of people being able to bring their true selves to work and to be able to talk through what that looks like is at the core of what Medley is offering,” says Cooper.

In addition to full access to workshops, panels and conversations led by experts across industries, members commit to a 90-minute virtual meeting each month, facilitated by a Medley-certified coach and focused on addressing and reflecting on ongoing experiences in their personal and professional lives. Cooper credits Medley’s robust network of coaches to the guidance she gained from Merche Del Valle, former global head of coaching at Goldman Sachs and a certified lifestyle, nutrition and wellness coach.

Merging personal wellness and professional development in group discussions is a priority. “You can’t just look at your career in a vacuum,” says Taylor. “In order to meet your potential, the ability to have a more holistic approach is incredibly important.”

To ensure that people of all socioeconomic backgrounds have the ability to join the community, Medley offers a sliding scale fee ranging from $50 to $250, depending on the financial situation of prospective members. Cooper and Taylor are also in conversations with companies interested in partnering with Medley to give their staff reimbursement for membership. 

With the help of investors including Away cofounder Jen Rubio, dtx company founder and CEO Tim Armstrong and MIC cofounder and former CEO Chris Altchek, who contributed more than $1 million to the project, Medley was ready to launch in May 2020 as an in-person membership hub in New York City. Shelter-in-place mandates halted the launch, but also presented an opportunity for Medley to instead be virtual and incorporate international members. The more springing corporate workers that can benefit from the community’s aim to build the next generation of confident, communicative professionals the better, the mother-daughter team notes.

“Medley gives people an opportunity to be a better human in relation to the people they work with and quite frankly in society,” Taylor says.

Brianne Garrett, Forbes Staff, Leadership

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