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Top entrepreneur challenges assumptions about women in business

Find out why this entrepreneur says women in business should be pioneers, instead of playing it safe


This article forms part of theWomen's Month 2015 series in which SME South Africa, throughout the month of August, will shine the spotlight on female business leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs.

Monalisa Sam has carved a niche for herself as an entrepreneur with expert knowledge on the South African retail environment. But before Sam made a name for herself, she worked in shopping centres with the goal of learning about all the complexities of the retail sector. Her success shows that to make it in business is about more than calling yourself an entrepreneur -  you have to be willing to learn if you want to become an expert in your field.

At 33, the business woman decided to use her experience in retail as a foundation to create her own business. Sam is the founder of Tungwa Retail Holdings, a 100% South African black woman owned retail and investing firm.

The company helps clients with all aspects needed to make a retail business successful. This includes retail strategy development, retail business rebranding and relaunching, store design and retail management economics.

"I think that we [women] often play it safe in careers and businesses we are socially associated with such as cleaning and catering"

Before establishing the business, she became known as the first and youngest centre manager of Maponya Mall, the largest shopping centre in South Africa’s biggest township, Soweto. She has also managed Cavendish Square and The Zone in Rosebank. Over 11 years she has had exposure to more than 650 retailers in different retail categories.

She tells SME South Africa about how she got into the retail business, what it is that keeps her here as well as her journey as a female entrepreneur.

You have spent the majority of your working life in shopping centres - what inspired you to follow this career?

I never planned to get into retail. At school a teacher encouraged me to become a Chartered Accountant, but I knew it wasn’t something I really enjoyed. I just stumbled into retail when I first heard the term "shopping centre manager". I was intrigued that people were employed to look after shopping centres and that’s where it all started.

What do you enjoy about working in retail?

Retail is unpredictable and the businesses that succeed have to be creative. The excitement and challenge of it all excites me, but more importantly, the extraordinary entrepreneurs I get to meet and engage with are a source of inspiration to me.

You have achieved celebrity status for your role at Maponya Mall. Do you consider this to be your career highlight?

Maponya Mall still remains my greatest career highlight. It was a privilege to have been that young and trusted by Dr Richard Maponya with his 28-year-old dream and an asset valued at R650 million at that time. To top it all, to meet and welcome the late Nelson Mandela on the day of the grand opening on 27 September 2007 was a day I will never forget.

What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced?

Entrepreneurship is the biggest one. No one can ever prepare you for the personal challenges. I've been through almost having my car and home being repossessed and managing to grab them back from the bank at the last minute. It's a strenuous process that many entrepreneurs don't openly talk about.

"Building a sustainable retail business and brand takes an incredible
amount of time"

Are women in South Africa claiming their space as entrepreneurs?

I think that we often play it safe in careers and businesses we are socially associated with such as cleaning and catering. I must emphasise that there is nothing wrong with these sectors, but what I feel is that they don't challenge us to become pioneers. There are plenty of sectors that need pioneers to shatter assumptions about women and what we can achieve. If we have more women leaders and pioneers in business sectors that contribute meaningfully to the economy, we can inspire more girls to pursue those fields.

Who in business inspires you?

My Dad, Gideon Sam, is my hero. He started with just about nothing in his life, hustling three jobs. He sold newspapers, fish and he was a security guard at night. At the same time he built a solid family and is now president of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee. He inspires me to do my best and never think small of myself and my prospects in life.

What do you know about business now that you didn't know before?

I now know that failure in any business journey is not the end. In fact, failure is great, when you own it. It allows you to take accountability and start all over again with new and improved ideas.

What I tell entrepreneurs now is that building a sustainable retail business and brand takes an incredible amount of time. The journey is often filled with many episodes of failure which can be disheartening if you take failure personally.

Entrepreneurs who want to operate in this space must adopt a global thinking mindset when creating products or building retail stores. The rest of the world sees our continent as an opportunity to bring their products here, yet often when we build businesses, we limit ourselves only to the world we know and understand.

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