A number of South African women have stepped out of the comfort zone and are making waves as visionary and courageous media entrepreneurs.
Paula Fray’s decision to start her own business wasn’t motivated by the possible cha-ching sound of her bank balance increasing. The award-winning reporter and former Saturday Star editor wanted to make an impact on the journalism industry, so in 2005 she opened Paula Fray and Associates (later renamed frayintermedia).
The company is dedicated to developing the quality of journalism in Africa through various training programmes and conferences. “The choices I made were shaped by the environment in which I started my business. In South Africa, our entrepreneurial culture is actually muted and entrepreneurs don’t interact very much,” says Fray.
She is just one of a number of inspirational women who have moved out of the corporate media to do their own thing. Was it easy? What were the hurdles? Some of these role models gave answers from their experience.
Fray says that when she started her business she was very risk averse, something that was reflected in the limited growth of the company and the projects that it took on. Fray didn’t want to be in debt, so she used her own capital to get frayintermedia off the ground.
“Looking back, things would have perhaps developed faster if I had taken a loan. A lot of women entrepreneurs struggle with securing that initial capital. It’s about a mind change and how we see ourselves as business owners,” she says.
“A lot of the time I questioned if the challenges I faced were because I’m a woman or because of the economy. Because we’re a small, women-owned business, a lot of the time it felt as if we weren’t taken seriously.”
But Fray says she was faced with two choices. She could either complain, or she could practice what she preached in the way her business operates. This led to her making the decision to start primarily making use of the services of women-owned and led businesses.
For Gisèle Wertheim Aymés, being a woman has never come in the way of her entrepreneurial ventures. The former head of media at FNB founded her owned company called Aegle Wellness and bought Longevity magazine from the Times Media Group (then Avusa) in 2010. In 2012, Aegle added the rights to publish Stuff magazine to its portfolio. But Wertheim Aymés didn’t stop there. In November 2013, her new media venture, Isiko Media, was awarded publishing rights to ELLE and ELLE Decoration in South Africa.
Two major challenges stand out for Wertheim Aymés. “The first was psychological. It’s exciting to open your own business, but it’s also nerve-racking because of the high risk involved, especially if it’s your own life savings that you are using,” she explains. “The other challenge is not having a credit record for your business, which forces you to pay cash for everything.”
Sandra Gordon, the CEO of Iconic Group, says that her gender hasn’t ever been an obstacle in growing her business. The Iconic Group is the umbrella brand for independently run Ideaology Communication and Design, Stone Soup Advertising, Stone Soup Strategic Communications, and Wag The Dog Publishers, which publishes The Media.
But Gordon says that women are still expected to be motherly in the way that they do business.
“There is the perception that they shouldn’t be tough and when they are, it creates a sense of discomfort,” she says.
The former CEO of Sasani and Primedia Publishing started her business because she is “unmanageable”, she says.
“I don’t like being told what to do. It’s in my nature. I’m defiant. It’s also a lot more difficult to develop people when you’re in corporate because of the various structures you have to work through. Mentoring people is easier when you have your own business.”
Another powerful female entrepreneur to come out of Primedia is Annie Malan, the CEO of Annie Malan Promotions. She was the managing director of Primedia Consumer Promotions before starting her own promotions company more than ten years ago.
“Primedia was great foundation for me. I gained such great experience there. But I have always had an entrepreneurial brain and corporate was just getting too small for me. It also came to a point where my brand was big enough to go it alone. I have a very good relationship with Primedia though and they became one of my biggest clients. Businesses like that need to exist to give entrepreneurs the opportunity to grow,” she says.
Malan says that being a woman is advantageous when you work in promotions because you have to deal with young girls, fashion and makeup.
“But if I had started a computer business, I don’t think it would be any different. In my own frame of reference, I think of myself as a business person and not as a business woman,” she says.
Another media entrepreneur, Irna van Zyl, founded New Media Publishing, which publishes titles like TASTE, Eat Out and Visi, in 1998 with John Psillos and Naomi Herselman. But she wasn’t an entrepreneur from the get go. Van Zyl was made Die Burger’s first female chief sub-editor in 1985 but gave the position up three years later when she was offered the editorship of De Kat, where she went on to work for 10 years.
Van Zyl was a finalist in the Women in The Media Awards 2010. Speaking to The Media at the time, she says that when she started New Media Publishing, she was forced to learn about the business and financial sides of the media industry. “I was always talking to other publishers to see what they had to say. We set up an educational tour of the UK to talk to publishers and we still have some of them come to South Africa to give talks to us,” she said.
As New Media Publishing’s executive director, she played a pivotal part in getting the company on the map. In 2010, she told The Media the company boasted annual profits of over R18 million and went from a staff of 10 to almost 200. In March 2011, the Competition Tribunal approved its merger with Media24. It continues to produce award-winning magazines.
Another media entrepreneur who joined forces with Media24 is Khanyi Dhlomo. Dhlomo started her career as SABC1’s first black newsreader. At 22, she then went on to become the editor of TRUE LOVE. After a stint in Paris as the manager of SA Tourism in France and time in the US completing her MBA at Harvard Business School, Dhlomo launched Ndalo Media in 2007. Now, seven years later, it publishes Destiny, Destiny Man and the SAA in-flight magazine Sawubona in partnership with Media24.
Danielle Louw, the managing director of digital media house Integrat Mobile, started her own business in 2005, RedInk Multimedia, with little more than a pen and a piece of paper.
“I like to think that because I was a free agent unhindered by corporate ropes that I could try things and test things which many media and fast-moving consumer goods clients couldn’t do in their own time,” says Louw.
In 2012, Louw – daughter of Daily Sun founder Deon du Plessis – bought her partner out and ran RedInk Multimedia for another two years before selling it to mobile giant, Integrat Mobile. Her most recent venture is YStream, a news service aimed at the youth that was launched for four months in September 2013 as a test case to see if young people would read the news if it was packaged differently. In that space of time, YStream gained over 7 000 followers on Facebook,11 000 daily users and had an organic reach on Google which ranked it high on the search engine for many breaking news stories. Louw plans to launch YStream on a permanent basis and is finding the right investor to make it happen.
She says of her father, “He taught me everything I know – in media, in business, in people relations, in life. But he did something even more valuable than that: he encouraged me to find my own niche. Just because he understood and made his life’s work out of newspapers didn’t mean that that was necessarily where I should dig myself a trench,” she says.
Another media entrepreneur with well-known parents in the industry is Helen Sullivan, whose father is former editor of The Star Peter Sullivan and mother journalist and author Claire Robertson.
Sullivan came up with the idea that would later become literary magazine Prufrock during a coffee-fuelled discussion with university friend James King about the lack of a local equivalent of The Paris Review or The New Yorker. They saw a gap in the market and filled it with Prufrock, which showcases local short fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry.
Sullivan is the editor of the magazine while King is charge of design. She says that none of the challenges she faced in starting her magazine were as a result of her gender.
Sullivan is one of a handful of new women media entrepreneurs who are trying their hand at being their own bosses. Somewhere between Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘lean in’ manifesto and a global start-up culture that has taken off, women are now more empowered to start their own businesses than ever before.
Tonya Khoury recently resigned as the managing director of Data Driven Insight (DDI) Africa to start ROi Africa, a media monitoring company that uses cutting-edge technology to identify trends across media platforms.
She says working for other people taught her a number of valuable lessons that made starting her own business a lot easier.
“I have learnt that I am unemployable and that I simply can’t work for someone else. I have to work for myself because I absolutely need operational and sales freedom in my business plan,” says Khoury.
“It takes balls – big, big balls to be a business owner. It isn’t glamorous and it isn’t easy. It’s much, much harder than clocking in and out and taking your pay cheque at the end of each month.”
This story was first published in the August 2014 issue of The Media magazine.