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This caterer’s recipe for success

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After her husband’s death, Popi Zolas abandoned her corporate career and took on a restaurant franchise, before immersing herself in the catering and confectionery business.


As a cost consultant working in the corporate space, Popi Zolas never thought she would one day be in the catering and baking business. But when life deals you rude surprises, you make plans to make the dough to live it down.

Her husband’s death in a car accident in 1997 resulted in her inheriting shares in the then popular Something Fishy restaurant in Johannesburg that her husband franchised.

After his death, she was thrown in the deep end and had to co-manage his business.

“I worked there for seven years together with a partner and we did phenomenally well but our visions were different and we had to buy each other out; he offered me more than [the amount] I was happy offer him. I exited the group in 2003,” she says.

READ MORE | Local Solutions Can Boost Healthier Food Choices In South Africa

 Zolas rested for a while and went into franchise consulting, and then went on to research global eating trends in 2004. The same year, 180 Degrees Catering & Confectionery was born. She named the business after the standard temperature used for baking.

“This baby (180 degrees) is a very difficult baby, but it’s a very rewarding baby in the sense that people who start off as cleaners, end up in either the confectionery or catering department,” says Zolas.

It began as a restaurant in Bryanston, north of Johannesburg, employing 15 people, but has seen some changes over the years.

The initial idea was to create home-style, nutritionally balanced meals for families and corporate employees. Part of the concept was also to make high-end meals that would be convenient.

“I can’t say I was happy being in retail. In 2008, during the global recession, my intention was to franchise 180 Degrees but that never happened because banks stopped financing startups. My lease increased, after almost five years, to R150 ($11) per square meter. I didn’t want to sign a new lease because the cost was horrendous. They were upgrading the building, and we thought we have a substantial following of corporate clients, why not retain those clients and go to a small factory where it’s R29 ($2) per square meter.”

Unfortunately, the following year, Zolas had to retrench seven staff members but was able to retain the rest.

“We had retrenched because we had a limited number of corporate customers and we were going to service that group of customers with the intention of growth,” she says. 

That proved to be a successful strategy as she now employs 79 people at a factory in Wynberg, 12kms from their former Bryanston address.

When they moved into the factory, the business focused solely on corporate catering where food was being delivered to corporates; and business was steadily growing through word-of-mouth.

“If your product is not good, not wholesome, not tasty or without good presentation, you will never succeed, despite the marketing. And word-of-mouth is the most important thing in this industry.”

READ MORE | The Foodies With A Drive For Business

Zolas elaborates on her recipe for success.

“I believe the product should speak for itself, customer service should be exceptionally important because our product is a very high-end product. We don’t use preservatives, we don’t use stabilizers and we don’t use enhancers in our products. We use real cream cheese, real butter, our product is a real wholesome creation, and we don’t substitute, I’m very fanatical about detail. We stand out because of that.

 “Now we are growing a very huge private customer base; either they collect or we have it delivered, and that started almost immediately because they see us delivering to corporates and would call and enquire for private functions and that is the spinoff from the corporate work that we do,” Zolas says.

The business reaches the far corners of Gauteng in South Africa. Zolas supplies to coffee shops, hotels, restaurants and caterers who are either short-staffed to produce a particular product or if their orders are too high.

“I keep mentioning growth because I never expected to be where we are now when we moved into this factory. I thought when I reached R1 million ($71,645) the business would be wow, and then you reach it and you think ‘what now’, and then it’s R1.5 million ($107,478) and you watch those figures every day and you’re excited and you’re thinking, ‘will I get to R2 million ($143,304)’ and then its ‘nah, not R2 million’. Now, the turnover is R3.5 million ($250,782). When I started in Bryanston, I was making around R300,000 ($21,495).”

Innocentia Malandisa, who has been working with the company for 15 years, is the only person Zolas trusts with quality control in the catering department.

Popi Zolas in her kitchen. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

“My child was six months when I started, this year she is turning 15. I have worked with Popi ever since and I don’t have complaints. We’ve had hiccups, up and downs, on and offs but we keep on going. I am the chef here and I’ve been chopping onions ever since [I started], even today and I’m enjoying it,” Malandisa says.

Because of the demands of her business, Zolas, 56, does not enjoy much of a social life, but her customers and staff such as Malandisa have more than filled in to become good friends.

There seems to be enough good food and goodwill going around.


The dos and don’ts of franchising

Ulrich Joubert, an independent economist in South Africa, says franchising has its benefits but there are complexities that businesses must consider.

“If you talk about franchisers, it gives people support and provides structure to people who are starting in business. We’ve seen in the past where people lose their jobs and have to do something to stay alive and survive. And so, many people go into franchise and if they have good support, then it helps become successful.”

He avers though that it’s hard work, and you have to be careful about how you do things to provide quality products customers will come back for time and again.

“Quality is of utmost importance and, therefore, skills development, and often if you want to break into the corporate environment, it takes a lot of time and effort to get into those environments.”

Entrepreneurs

Make The Colleges Pay: How This Entrepreneur Helps Companies Offer Education Benefits That Employees Will Actually Use

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Most edtech startups are idealistic outfits with little revenue and low valuations, but Rachel Romer Carlson’s Guild Education is worth $1 billion and is on track to book $100 million in sales. Her secret? Connecting workers who have tuition benefits to colleges that will gladly pay to meet them.

It’s 9AM two days before Thanksgiving in Arkansas, and Walmart executives are dragging their suitcases around a windowless office building in search of a large conference room. They settle on an interior lunchroom with dull gray carpet, claiming one side of a long table in the corner and gesturing for their guests to sit opposite them. Ellie Bertani, Walmart’s director of workforce strategy, says she’s struggling to find qualified people to staff the company’s expanding network of 5,000 pharmacies and 3,400 vision centers. Her fellow Walmart execs are silent, but Rachel Romer Carlson, 31, cofounder and CEO of Guild Education, sees her opening. Without hesitation she says her team can work with Walmart and find a solution fast. “You guys and us,” she says, “let’s do it!”

Carlson flew to Bentonville from Guild’s Denver headquarters the day before. Dressed in a sensible navy blazer and black slacks, she hasn’t bothered with makeup. Since 7:30 that morning she’s been huddling with teams of Walmart brass, going over options to train workers for those new jobs. They range from a one-year pharmacy technician certificate program offered by a for-profit online outfit called Penn Foster to an online bachelor’s degree in healthcare administration at nonprofit Southern New Hampshire University.

Carlson’s groundbreaking idea when she launched Guild four years ago: help companies offer education benefits that employees will actually use. Many big employers will pay for their workers to go to school (it’s a tax break), but hardly any workers take advantage of the opportunity. Applying and signing up for courses can be cumbersome, and in most instances employees have to front the tuition and wait to be reimbursed. Meanwhile, many colleges are desperate for students because they have small—or nonexistent—endowments and are financially dependent on tuition. Many nonselective online programs spend more than $3,000 to attract each new student. Carlson charges schools a finder’s fee (she won’t say how much) for the students she delivers from her corporate partners.

So far Guild has signed up more than 20 companies, including Disney and Taco Bell. Guild gets paid only if students complete their coursework, so a full 150 of the company’s 415 staffers serve as coaches who help employees apply to degree programs and plan how to balance their studies with work and family. When a company like Walmart requests a customized training course, Guild solicits proposals from as many as 100 education providers (nearly all of them online) and recommends the programs it deems best. It also negotiates tuition discounts and facilitates direct payments between employers and schools, a big plus for workers who would otherwise have to wait months to be reimbursed.

Carlson, an alumna of the 2017 Forbes 30 Under 30 list and a judge on the 2020 list, says she has already channeled $100 million in tuition benefits to workers. She expects 2019 revenue to top $50 million, and Guild investor Byron Deeter of Bessemer Venture Partners predicts 2020 revenue of more than $100 million. In mid-November Carlson closed her fifth round of financing, led by General Catalyst, bringing her total money raised to $228 million at a $1 billion valuation. In the sleepy, well-intentioned world of edtech, Guild is one of only a few startups whose values have soared, says Daniel Pianko, a New York-based edtech investor with no stake in the company. “I can see a path for Guild to be a $100 billion company,” says Paul Freedman, CEO of San Francisco venture firm Entangled Group, who has known Carlson since she was in business school and was one of Guild’s earliest investors.

When asked to detail Guild’s inner workings, like its strategy for soliciting custom courses, Carlson eschews specifics and delivers what sounds like a political stump speech: “The economy’s moving so fast,” she says. “We can’t let higher education dictate the skills and competencies that we need five to ten years from now.”

 There’s a reason she talks this way. Her grandfather Roy Romer was a three-term (1987–1999) Democratic governor of Colorado before spending six years as superintendent of Los Angeles’ public schools. Carlson started riding along on his campaign bus when she was 6 years old; occasionally she would even speak at his rallies. When her father, Chris Romer, a former Colorado state senator, ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Denver in 2011, she served as his finance director. (“The loss was devastating,” she says.)

Along with politics, the Romers were committed to increasing access to education, especially for working adults. Roy Romer helped start Salt Lake City-based Western Governors University, a pioneer in online adult education. In the wake of Chris Romer’s mayoral bid, in 2011, he cofounded American Honors, a for profit company that offered honors courses at community colleges (the company struggled, and the brand is now owned by Wellspring International, a student recruitment firm).

After graduating from Stanford undergrad and working briefly in the Obama White House, Carlson launched her first venture, Student Blueprint, while getting her M.B.A. (also at Stanford) in 2014. Student Blueprint sought to use technology to match community college students with jobs. It was a noble idea, but she decided to finish school and sold the software she had developed to Paul Freedman’s Entangled Group in 2014 for a negligible sum. In 2015, after she wrapped up her M.B.A., she pitched the idea for Guild to one of her professors, Michael Dearing, and to seed investor Aileen Lee, of Cowboy Ventures, raising $2 million.

After relocating to her home turf in Denver, she landed her first major corporate partner the summer of 2016 when she sent a LinkedIn message to a Chipotle benefits manager that played up the fast-food chain’s “strong Denver roots and social mission.” With help from Guild, Chipotle’s $12-an-hour burrito rollers are now pursuing bachelor’s degrees from Bellevue University in Nebraska or taking computer security courses at Wilmington University in Delaware. In October 2019, Carlson persuaded Chipotle to lift its cap on tuition benefits above the $5,250 the IRS allows companies to write off.

Guild’s biggest competitor is a division of Watertown, Massachusetts-based publicly traded daycare provider Bright Horizons, which has offered tuition benefit services since 2009. It works with 210 companies including Home Depot and Goldman Sachs. Under Bright Horizons’ system, the companies—not the colleges—pay. Much of the genius of Guild’s business model is that it correctly aligns incentives: The colleges are the most financially motivated party, so they foot the bill. Another competitor, Los Angeles-based In Stride, launched in 2019 with funding from Arizona State University, and like Bright Horizons it charges the corporations.

“I see our competition as the status quo,” Carlson says. “Classically, employers have offered tuition-reimbursement programs, but no one is using those programs.”

The nonprofit Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation has done five case studies showing returns on investment as high as 140% for companies that offer tuition reimbursement programs. “We saw powerful impacts on retention,” says Lumina’s strategy director, Haley Glover.

 “Walmart and Amazon are in a death struggle,” proclaims Joseph Fuller, a professor at Harvard Business School. “If a Walmart worker can say, ‘I got an education that allowed me to get promoted,’ they’re going to be someone who speaks generously about Walmart and they are more likely be a Walmart shopper.”

Like a good politician, Carlson is working to please everyone. “We found a win-win,” she says, “where we can help companies align their objectives with helping their employees achieve their goals.”

 Alexandra Wilson and Susan Adams

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Billionaires

How To Become A Billionaire: Nigeria’s Oil Baroness Folorunso Alakija On What Makes Tomorrow’s Billionaires

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One of only two female billionaires in Africa, with a net worth of $1 billion, Nigeria’s oil baroness Folorunso Alakija elaborates on the state of African entrepreneurship today.

The 69-year-old Folorunso Alakija is vice chair of Famfa Oil, a Nigerian oil exploration company with a stake in Agbami Oilfield, a prolific offshore asset. Famfa Oil’s partners include Chevron and Petrobras. Alakija’s first company was a fashion label. The Nigerian government awarded Alakija’s company an oil prospecting license in 1993, which was later converted to an oil mining lease. The Agbami field has been operating since 2008; Famfa Oil says it will likely operate through 2024. Alakija shares her thoughts to FORBES AFRICA on what makes tomorrow’s billionaires:

What is your take on the state of African entrepreneurship today? Is enough being done for young startups?

There are a lot of business opportunities in Africa that do not exist in other parts of the world, yet Africa is seen as a poor continent. The employment constraints in the formal sector in Africa have made it impossible for it to meet the demands of the continent’s working population of which over 60% are the youth. Therefore, it is imperative we harness the potential of Africa’s youth to engage in entrepreneurship and provide adequate assistance to enable them to succeed.

Several governments have been working to provide a conducive atmosphere which will promote entrepreneurship on the continent. However, there is still a lot more to be done in ensuring that the potential of these young entrepreneurs are maximized to the fullest. Some of the challenges young startups in Africa face are as follows: lack of access to finance/insufficient capital; lack of infrastructure; bureaucratic bottlenecks and tough business regulations; inconsistent government policies; dearth of entrepreneurial knowledge and skills; lack of access to information and competition from cheaper foreign alternatives.

It is therefore imperative that governments, non-governmental agencies, and the financial sectors work together to ameliorate these challenges itemized above.

The governments of African nations should provide and strengthen its infrastructure (power, roads and telecom); they should encourage budding entrepreneurs by ensuring that finance is available to businesses with the potential for growth and also commit to further improving their business environments through sustained investment; there must also be a constant push for existing policies and legislation to be reviewed to promote business activities.

These policies must also be enforced, and punitive measures put in place to deter offenders; government regulations should also be flexible to constantly fit the dynamics of the business environment; corruption and unethical behavior must be decisively dealt with and not treated with kid gloves. We must empower our judicial system to enable them to prosecute erring offenders with appropriate sanctions meted out. There should be no “sacred cows” or “untouchables”. The same law must be applied to all, no matter their state or position in the society; non-governmental organizations can also provide support for them through training and skills acquisition programs that will help build their capacity; they could also provide finance to grow their businesses; more mentorship programs should be encouraged, and incubators of young enterprises should be supported by public policy aimed at improving the quality of these youths and their ventures; and also, avenues should be created where young entrepreneurs will be able to connect, learn and share ideas with already successful well-established entrepreneurs.

What, according to you, are the attributes needed for tomorrow’s billionaires?

There is no overnight success. You must start by dreaming big and working towards achieving it. You must be determined to succeed despite all odds. Do not allow your setbacks or failures to stop you but rather make them your stepping stone. Develop your strengths to attain excellence and be tenacious, never give up on your dream or aspiration. Your word must be your bond. You must make strong ethical values and integrity your watchword. Always act professionally and this will enable you to build confidence in your customers and clients. 

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Brand Voice

Charmaine Mabuza Honoured With FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Social Impact Award

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Brand Voice by Zamani Holdings and ITHUBA

Group CEO of Zamani Holdings, Charmaine Mabuza was honoured with the Social Impact Award at the 2020 FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Leading Women Summit held in Durban ICC recently.

This award recognizes Mabuza for her measurable philanthropy that has positively impacted the lives of many South Africans for the past 21 years. 

At the top of her philanthropical projects is the Eric and Charmaine Mabuza Scholarship Foundation which she founded with her husband, Advocate Eric Mabuza in 1999. The Scholarship Foundation started in Mpumalanga, where the Mabuza’s business hub is centered. Speaking to Ukhozi FM in an interview, Charmaine Mabuza said that together with her husband, they funded this foundation straight from their pockets. “Both my husband and I come from humble beginnings and we know what it’s like to not have means to study further, especially when you believe that education is your way out of poverty. So when we started making good profits from our small businesses at the time, we decided to dedicate a portion of our personal income to funding tertiary education fees of previously disadvantaged children”, said Mabuza.

Powered by Zamani Holdings, the Scholarship Foundation later expanded its reach to the rest of South Africa, supporting over 160 students countrywide, many of which have qualified as Doctors, Chartered Accountants, Engineers, Quantity Surveyors and many more. The 2020 Scholarship Foundation programme launched on 13 January, with an intake of 21 students.

Zamani holdings has empowered the rest its group of companies to roll out CSI initiatives that truly transform the lives of ordinary South Africans. At the forefront of these initiatives is ITHUBA, the South African National Lottery Operator and Zamani’s flagship company.

In July 2017, ITHUBA launched the ITHUBA Female Retailer Development programme, specially designed to empower women who own spaza shops and informal supermarkets, who currently sell National Lottery products, from all around the country. This included women from previously marginalized communities in the rural outskirts.

In collaboration with reputable institutions such as Regenesys and the University of Johannesburg, this programme has upskilled over 100 women in retail business. The latest group of 14 women graduated in October 2019 at the University of Johannesburg’s Kingsway campus, each being awarded a qualification in Advanced Entrepreneurship and Social Innovation.

Zamani’s Social Responsibility initiatives include:

  • ITHUBA Graduate Programme: An annual skills development programme for graduates within the Marketing, Finance, IT, PR, HR and Logistics fields, with intake of 13 students in 2020.
  • Youth Enterprise Development:  Eradicating youth unemployment through developing upcoming entrepreneurs and helping them build sustainable, profit making business. 
  • Housing project: A project that builds houses for employees in the lower income brackets, who have been in the employment of the company for 10 years and more.
  • A media campaign to condemn femicide and violence against women.

“I firmly believe that education is key to eradicating poverty and injustice. This is why all of our initiatives are based on imparting knowledge and skills. Through education we empower, through education we liberate” said Mabuza.

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