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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.

Entrepreneurs

How Three Small Businesses Are Pivoting To Stay Afloat Amid The Coronavirus Pandemic

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In late February, Jeff Davidson, cofounder and co-CEO of fitness company Camp Gladiator, was on an annual boys fishing trip on Lake El Salto, at the foot of the Sierra Madre Mountains in western Mexico, when he was struck by an overwhelming sense of dread and déjà vu. After a long day of bass fishing, he logged onto his laptop for his daily browse of investment forums, an old habit from his days as a senior vice president at AXA Advisors. Hedge fund managers and Wall Street analysts were following the development of a novel coronavirus out of Wuhan, China, scouring the region for under-the-radar money plays. The more he read, the more he found himself feeling as he did at the start of the Great Recession. 

“I just remember the way it felt when we saw Bear Stearns go bankrupt and the panic of the stock market crash. All of that just burned really harsh memories into my mind,” Davidson says. “I immediately went back to our headquarters and told my team, ‘I think we need to be prepared for a major event.’” From Camp Gladiator’s offices in Austin, Texas, they hatched a plan, “Project Mars,” to pivot their fitness bootcamp business in real time.

Founded in 2008 by Davidson and his wife, Ally, who used the $100,000 she won after being crowned champion of NBC’s American Gladiator (which she had auditioned for on their wedding day) to launch the now $60 million company, Camp Gladiator’s training sessions were always meant to run outdoors, in public spaces like parks and schoolyards where people could come together and support one another on their fitness journeys. In recent months, Ally had been conducting a competitive analysis of the virtual workout landscape, with plans to roll out their own remote offerings in 2022. 

As state-wide shutdowns and shelter-in-place mandates have forced gyms to close indefinitely, casting the $94 billion fitness industry into financial freefall, Camp Gladiator has emerged uniquely poised to profit. While chains like Gold’s Gym filed for bankruptcy and billion-dollar startups like ClassPass have seen 95% of their profits evaporate overnight, Camp Gladiator’s lack of physical locations and trainer income model (the company’s 1,000 instructors collect 75% of the revenue from their classes) have served as advantages. “Camp Gladiator is like 1,000 small businesses rolled up into one medium business, because each of our trainers are local owner operators that collect the profits of their own locations,” Davidson says. 

This alignment they have with their workforce helped accelerate the launch of their virtual offerings to March 16, well ahead of competitors like Orangetheory Fitness. After a week of free #HustleAtHome classes streaming on Facebook Live, they released a 6-week virtual workout challenge for $39 (in-person memberships usually cost between $59 and $79 a month). The quick pivot paid off: Since launching two months ago, Camp Gladiator has gone from 4,000 outdoor workouts a week to nearly 10,000 Zoom workouts a week. It has retained 97% of its customer base of nearly 80,000 and has acquired an additional 20,000 customers and $700,000. The adoption rate has been so high that the Davidsons plan to maintain their virtual offering long term and have been hiring new trainers, many of which were recently laid off from other fitness companies. 

“Six weeks ago, we thought we were making a Band-Aid. Four weeks ago, we thought we were making a supplemental product offering that might be worth keeping,” Davidson says. “And now we think we’re making the way forward. There’s a chance that in a year virtual will be our primary product offering.”

Needless to say, fitness isn’t the only industry that’s been affected by the pandemic. The coronavirus crisis has taken a significant toll on the majority of America’s more than 30 million small businesses, many of which are still hoping to receive financial relief from the government. According to a recent survey by Goldman Sachs, 71% of Paycheck Protection Program applicants are still waiting for loans and 64% don’t have enough cash to last the next three months. As of April 19, more than 175,000 businesses have shut down—temporarily or permanently—with closure rates rising 200% or more in hard-hit metropolitan cities like Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, according to Yelp’s Q1 Economic Average report.

The restaurant industry has been especially crushed. A recent survey conducted by the Independent Restaurant Coalition and James Beard Foundation found that the food services industry only received 9% of PPP dollars, despite accounting for 60% of job losses in March. The National Restaurant Association estimates the restaurant industry lost $80 billion through April and is on track to lose $240 billion by the end of the year.

La Monarca Bakery and Café, a $15 million Los Angeles-based chain described by cofounder Ricardo Cervantes as “if a Mexican bakery and Starbucks had a baby,” expects revenues to drop as much as 40% across his 12 locations this year. “Being that we purposely positioned ourselves in working class Hispanic neighborhoods, we are in areas where the employer and employee basis have been hit the hardest,” Cervantes says. “We have not stopped,” he adds, referring to the work he and cofounder Alfredo Livas have been doing to adapt to the new normal. They’ve kept all of their locations open for pick-up and take-out and reduced all costs and management salaries in an effort to keep the majority of their team intact (about 10% were laid off) and expand their business to include more prepackaged items and family meal options. In response to the needs of their local communities, they started carrying essential items like milk, butter, flour, paper towels, toilet paper and bleach. “Some of our neighborhoods do not have access to large supermarkets or Costco, and if they do, many individuals don’t usually have the resources to stockpile two months of toilet paper,” Cervantes explains. “They need daily goods but in smaller quantities and that’s what we’ve been providing.”

When the duo met as MBA students at Stanford Business School in 2001, they had no idea they would someday be putting their finance degrees to work like this. “We are busier today than we have ever been—and that is not to say that business is great. As the analogy goes, we’re building this new airplane while we are in the air,” he says. 

But while the need for social distancing has forced business closures around the world, taking a toll on every sector, some like the wine industry have found somewhat of a silver lining. According to data from Nielsen, wine sales for off-premise consumption during the period from March 1 to April 18 were up 29% as compared to the same period year-over-year, with total alcohol sales for off-premise consumption up 24%. 

Kingston Family Vineyards is banking on this trend. Founded in 1998 by Courtney Kingston, the $3 million family-run business is headquartered in Portola Valley, California, with a 100-year-old farm and 350-acre vineyard in Chile’s Casablanca Valley that doubles as a premier tourist destination, one that’s been awarded TripAdvisor’s Certificate of Excellence for the past six years. It produces just 3,500 cases of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc annually (they sell 90% of their grapes to other winemakers), so when Chilean President Sebastián Piñera declared a state of catastrophe on March 19, Kingston lost a significant amount of revenue during what’s been their most profitable season of the year. 

With Kingston’s 20th wine-grape harvest of the year well underway, the vineyard shifted to offering virtual wine tastings, shipping bottles to customers in advance. Revenue in the U.S. for the month of April was down just 10% year-over-year.

“Based on these virtual tastings, we’ve made up a lot of revenue with a totally new business,” Kingston says. “Before the coronavirus, hosting guests in an intimate setting was key to how we shared our small corner of the world with others. They’d often become customers for a lifetime. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, we can’t do that. The bright light in the darkness is what we can do.”

Maneet Ahuja, Forbes Staff, Entrepreneurs

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Arts

The Art Of Survival: The Art Of Adire Gave This Textile Artist Global Fame, She Now Educates Generations Of Women In Nigeria

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Textile artist Nike Davies-Okundaye worked as a construction laborer and carried water and firewood to survive. The art of adire gave her global fame and she is now educating generations of women in Nigeria.

There was no way Nike Davies-Okundaye could look the other way. For after all, she too had been a victim in her early teens. 

Too many women were being pushed down the traditional path of marriage and child-rearing in her country.

Born in 1951 in Ogidi-Ijumu, a small village in western Nigeria known for its spectacular rock formations and traditional art industry, Davies-Okundaye resolved to fight this practice four decades ago.

“By the age of 13, they wanted to marry me off because my father had no money. I had to run away from home and join a traveling theater. I said I didn’t want to marry and wanted to pursue art,” recalls the internationally-renowned Lagos-based artist.

Not wanting to become one of six wives to a minister, Davies-Okundaye found her escape through adire, the name given to the Yoruba craft of tie-and-dye where indigo-dyed cloth is made using a variety of resist-dyeing techniques. Growing up in a predominantly art and craft household, Davies-Okundaye is a fifth-generation artist who decided to take the craft seriously due to poverty.

“I had no money to go to school and the first education parents give you is to teach you what they do. So, when I finished primary six and I had no support to go to secondary school, I said to myself, ‘let me master art so I can teach other women to also use their hand to make a living through their own artwork’.”

Davies-Okundaye was forced to work in the male-dominated construction sector, carrying concrete in pans to builders in order to save one shilling, just enough to buy a yard of fabric to create what she called wall-hanging art.

Her goal was to use the traditional wax-resist methods to design patterned fabric in a dazzling array of tints and hues. The adire design is the result of hand-painted work carried out mostly by women and through that, Davies-Okundaye saw a way to help women to become economically empowered. After all, her first break in life came as a result of that.

“There was no other job I was doing apart from adire. I was lucky the American government came to Nigeria to recruit an African who will teach African Americans how to make traditional textiles or crafts in the state. That is how I was lucky and got picked.”

Davies-Okundaye was the only woman in a class of 10 men who were flown to Maine in northeastern United States in 1974. That is where her whole outlook on life changed.

“Before I went to America, I used to carry three drums of water every day and carry firewood to be able to survive. It was like a breakthrough in my life when I reached America. I said ‘is this heaven?’ I was the only woman in the class and all the men were learning women’s looms and I kept telling them ‘this is for women’ and they said ‘yes, in America, what a man can do, a woman can also do’.”

This was in stark contrast to what she knew to be true in Nigeria at the time.

“If your husband is an artist, you are not allowed to do art. In the 1960s, if your husband has a PhD, you are not allowed to also have a PhD. You had to give room for your husband to be your boss.”

She decided to beat those age-old stereotypes.

As one of 15 wives to her then-husband at the time, Davies-Okundaye, with her newfound knowledge gained in America, started a revolution at home. She encouraged the other wives to create their own art business using adire.

“I said ‘if you learn this, you can earn a living by yourself and get your power because your money is your power’ and that is how they also started learning it. I didn’t stop sharing the knowledge there. I gathered girls on the streets who were selling kola nuts and peanuts and started training them. I said ‘if this textile can take me to America, let me teach other people’,” says Davies-Okundaye.

And that has been her calling ever since. Davies-Okundaye is the founder and director of four art centers, which offer free training to 150 young artists in Nigeria in visual, musical and performing arts.

One of the centers is the largest art gallery in West Africa comprising over 7,000 art works.

“They used to get the police to arrest me because they said I was trying to teach feminism in Nigeria because I went to America. They said I was going to corrupt our Nigerian women but I believe God sent me to liberate a lot of women who have the passion for what makes them happy but are afraid to do it because of what people will say. I say do what makes you happy always!”

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Entrepreneurs

How This African Animator Is Handling The Virus

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Niyi Akinmolayan; image supplied

Nigerian filmmaker and animator Niyi Akinmolayan is using the most creative way to explain the pandemic to young Africans.

Niyi Akinmolayan was home in Lagos, Nigeria, after the state issued a lockdown for businesses and schools due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has brought global economies to the brink of destruction. He had his two children, aged five and three, both at home, who did not understand why they could no longer go to school, an activity they thoroughly enjoyed.

“The three-year-old was okay but I needed to explain to my five-year-old why she could not go to school and I found it tough trying to do this. How do you explain to a child that there is a virus when they cannot see it and also how do you tell them to constantly wash their hands?”

Beleaguered with this dilemma, Akinmolayan remembered his passion for animation.

“I started out as an animator in 2003, but it was a small industry then so I moved on to feature films instead and by 2010, I released my first feature film. I’ve gone on to make films over the years including the highest-grossing Nollywood film The Wedding Party 2 as well as a couple of films on Netflix.”

Akinmolayan founded the animation arm of his company, Anthill Studios, where he serves as both CEO and Creative Director, about six years ago. Prior to that time, most people were using animation for advertising and montages for TV shows, however, he wanted to use animation as a new way of telling authentic stories.

Anthill Studios originally sought to fill the void of a dedicated post production company for Nollywood but has, over the years, ventured into everything from content production, music videos and motion design. Due to the lack of investment for animation content in Nollywood, Akinmolayan has focused more on the commercial viability of filmmaking in Nollywood, where he also wears the hat of film director, to cover the bills.

“But last year, we did something that was quite big and went viral and it was an animation called Malaika, which was a 17-minute short film loosely based on Queen Amina and that was what led to this new animation. So, I set up a team where we can tell really creative African stories with animation. Because there is the issue with funding, we only do short experimental projects to test the audiences.”

One of those projects was a short two-minute explainer video about what the coronavirus was, which immediately went viral. The content was mostly targeted at adults and was done in four languages namely English, Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo.

“But when it hit me was when the schools locked down. I had to find a way to get the message to my children. It felt like I was doing a lot and it wasn’t sinking in. So I started thinking about it differently and said ‘think about this big virus out there and if it gets mummy and daddy you are not going to see mummy and daddy for a long time; no more chocolate, no more icecream and the only way we can beat this virus is to wash our hands every day’. And it was a joke at the time but I started thinking how else are other parents explaining this to their kids?”

With that Eureka moment, Akinmolayan reached out to all the animators in his company and arranged for them to pick up the workstations in the studio and take them home and begin proving to people the potential of the great work they had been doing in animation for the past six years. They worked remotely for four weeks on the project.

“Initially, we just wanted to make one explainer video so I put it out for free on multiple platforms like Africa Magic, Ebony Life TV and also social media platforms. In 48 hours, we had over 400,000 views. The animation is in four languages and has been made available for people to download and if they want to rework it in any language, they can do it.

“But what it has achieved so far is that it has been shared everywhere including churches and schools and I am proud of it. I have received so much feedback from parents saying that they are running out of soap because their kids cannot stop washing their hands,” he says.

The goal is for other NGOs and government institutions to take up the animation content as part of their coronavirus education strategy for children. He hopes the content will also help parents to engage with their children and explain complex things about the current pandemic.

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