Sometimes the only way to live your dreams is to leap first, and then find the idea that will make your entrepreneurial goals come true. Mahadi Granier is living proof that where there’s a will, there’s a way.
In June 2015 Mahadi Granier made the single biggest — and scariest — decision of her life. She packed up her family and moved to Paris. Her husband, who is French, had found a job, but Mahadi was planning to stay at home with their five-month-old daughter and three-year-old son while figuring out her next move.
She wanted to be an entrepreneur, and she believed that throwing herself into the deep end and moving to a new country was the catalyst she needed. What followed has been a baptism of fire, but also one of the most rewarding experiences of her life. This is what she’s learnt about entrepreneurship since launching her business.
“You need to surround yourself with like-minded people who have the same drives and ambitions as you do.”
By the time Mahadi went on maternity leave for the second time, she had been employed in a senior position at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) for eight years. She had a comfortable, well-paying job. She had the perfect set-up. She commanded boardrooms. Yet she lacked job satisfaction.
“I had too much time to think while I was on maternity leave,” she says.
“And what I thought about was my life path. Government employment is so bureaucratic. There’s no innovation. I didn’t feel like it was an environment conducive to achieving bigger goals and ambitions. I realised that the energy was dragging me down, and that if I stayed in that role, I would eventually become like everyone I worked with — comfortable and complacent.”
Mahadi’s friends and family didn’t understand what she was going through, or why she wanted to make a change. It was that same confusion that triggered the realisation that she was living and working in an environment that was not conducive to taking a leap.
Mahadi saw only one alternative: This seemed like the right time to take that plunge. She needed to radically change her surroundings, and force herself into the unknown terrain of entrepreneurship.
“Sometimes you need to face your fears and take that big leap.”
Unfortunately, while the leap was big and bold, it wasn’t what Mahadi had expected. And yet, from that adversity emerged her business idea. “I realised it was a crazy prospect — new country, new market, new customers, without my social circle of influence.
“I was moving to a market I knew nothing about, filled with consumers I didn’t know or understand. But that was the challenge. I wanted to go somewhere where there’s a higher level of expectation; where I was pushed to aspire to a higher bar.”
It was a massive culture shock. The language barrier in particular was greater than Mahadi had expected. Her dreams of arriving in Paris and starting a business were shattered. But that didn’t mean she was ready to give up.
Instead, she chose to stay at home with her daughter, manage the integration of her family into a new culture, and research everything she could about France, Europe and the local business landscape.
“I had gone from boardrooms to stay-at-home mom, which in a way was the exact opposite of what I wanted for myself. But I’d had a reality check. If I wanted to do something real with my life, I needed to build the right foundations.
“I also wanted to be a present mother. Part of my challenge was figuring out what kind of a role model I wanted to be for my children, and that meant also being fully present in their lives.”
Finding a way
As a result, Mahadi structured a schedule that allowed her to do both. “I woke up very, very early, and gave myself three hours of work and ‘miracle morning’ routine, before everyone woke up, Monday to Sunday, 5am to 8am. I then worked when my daughter napped, and in the evening after everyone went to bed.”
“Sometimes your greatest challenge can be your greatest advantage and opportunity as well.”
One of the core pieces of advice that aspiring entrepreneurs often receive is to do what you know. In Mahadi’s case, this was almost useless. She knew nothing.
Her past DTI experience was no help, and she was coming to the European market cold. But this also gave her an advantage. She had no expectations, and she was approaching everything with fresh eyes. She also had to seek out fellow South Africans who had already experienced what she was going through, and it was then that a business idea started to take shape.
“I sought out South African entrepreneurs in France for advice. I had so many questions: Where are the South African entrepreneurs in France? What had their experiences been? What advice could they offer — after all, they’d done this already and they understood the landscape.
“They could tell me what to avoid and where to go. By tapping into this community, my research time was reduced. I found valuable resources and trusted sources. Then I realised that no one was facilitating what I was going through — helping South Africans start businesses in the French (and broader European) market. Here was a gap that could be exploited. I felt like I’d stumbled on a super-power.”
An idea is only as good as its execution, and Mahadi knew she needed to be more focused than ‘South African businesses abroad’. She needed to do more research. She approached the South African Embassy in Paris with one key question: What was the South African export basket into France dominated by and where did the greatest, untapped opportunities lie?
Understand your market
Mahadi has her Masters in International Business, and is passionate about the subject. She had put this to use in her role at the DTI, but she now had an opportunity to turn those skills and passion into a viable business that also empowered other entrepreneurs. She just needed to find her niche.
“Before you get too attached to an idea, you need to understand the landscape you’re working within.”
“The first thing I did was look at the existing trade agreements between South Africa and France and within the broader European Union. Second, I looked at the South African export basket into France and realised that it was dominated by agro-processing, automotive, aircraft and electro-technical sectors.
“And so, while those exports are in value-added products, they were concentrated in a few products. This presented a diversification opportunity. One such opportunity lay within the clothing and textiles sector.
“On the demand side, the French and global fashion industry at large is always influenced by the same fashion houses — Prada, Louis Vitton and the like. They dominate the market, irrespective of the undeniable demand for a diversified fashion aesthetic. With the South African ambassador’s help, I carved a niche and just like that, an idea was born.”
One of the first designers that Mahadi reached out to was Laduma Ngxokolo, founder of ‘MaXhosa by Laduma’. What she learnt from studying his global success was that designs rooted in African-rich heritage, culture, tradition and customs and fused with western influence provide a unique combination and hybrid that not only energises the international audience but acts as a catalyst for success. This is a crucial determinant of global competitiveness.
“But there was a greater observation as well. If you want to break into new markets, you need to understand them intimately — their tastes, their purchasing behaviours, what they’ll spend money on, what does and doesn’t work. I knew I could play a valuable role here, acting as a conduit on the ground. This gave me a competitive edge in playing a business facilitation role.”
Armed with this knowledge, Mahadi saw multiple needs. “First, I needed to empower South African designers to raise their level of thinking beyond local markets and open themselves up to new international audiences. Second, I am constantly interacting with buyers at trade fairs throughout Europe.
“I am gathering intelligence, forging business relationships, networking, gaining new business insights but most importantly, I’m identifying trade opportunities. Finally, I decided to acknowledge the undeniable power of social media as a vehicle to reach remote buyers.
“Therefore, I launched a digital magazine that I market exclusively through social media. To date, the magazine has been read in over twenty countries worldwide.”
Finding the right partners
“Finding the right partner is an essential step in the overall journey, and in achieving your goals.” Another key lesson that Mahadi has learnt — and indeed, is imbedded in her overall business model — is the fact that entrepreneurship is an ecosystem. Business owners work together. Very few successes are isolated.
To carry her idea forward, Mahadi knew she needed a partner in South Africa. After researching the fashion landscape back home, she realised that the best person she could approach was Sonwabile Ndamase, personal designer to Nelson Mandela, creator of the Madiba shirts, and founder of the South African Fashion Designers Agency (SAFDA).
For almost three decades, Sonwabile has been giving back to his industry, training young designers from rural areas to not only become fashion designers, but to build sustainable fashion businesses. He had been looking for ways to increase the reach of his programmes into Europe and Mahadi provided the ideal opportunity.
SAFDA and KHALALA have entered into a collaboration agreement, formalising a partnership to work together to create international market access opportunities for young and emerging South African fashion designers in Europe.
Mahadi and Sonwabile are just at the beginning of this journey, and are currently reaching out to funders. With the right focus, dedication and some luck, the next generation of South African designers making international waves will be in the not-too-distant future.