Founder and Director of Olwethu Placements

This is an extract from My Success, Your Success: Top tips from South African women entrepreneurs. It is reproduced with permission.

Bontle Motau grew up in Orlando West in Soweto on the same street that Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu hail from. She jokes that she is going to be the third Nobel prize-winner from the same street. Given her single-minded pursuit of her dreams, and her commitment to doing right by others, she might just make it too.

‘Whatever dream or vision you have for your life you must tap into it and follow it for all you are worth,’ says Bontle, and this is just what she has done. In 2006, aged just 25 and with a toddler in tow, she left the security of a corporate job and set up her own recruitment consultancy, which has since grown in leaps and bounds. She did it because she believed she was destined to start her own business.

‘I was born to be an entrepreneur, I knew it at an early age but I didn’t know how I would achieve it,’ she says. ‘When I was still in my teens I always had a business mind and have been able to spot business opportunities.’

One of her first ideas, which she came up with while doing modelling work as a teenager, was to start an agency that groomed and coached beautiful black girls from the townships for careers in modelling, but she was too young to act on it.

Then in 1999, a few years after becoming a born again Christian, she received a prophecy from a visiting pastor at the Remar church who intimated that she would one day become a business owner and a powerful woman, ‘He said that he could see me sitting in an office, being in charge of people and signing cheques,’ she says. ‘At the time it didn’t makes sense. I didn’t have a penny to my name so I couldn’t image ever singing cheques! But as time went on I knew that God wanted me to start my own business.’

Six years down the line, after forging a successful career in a variety of companies in the recruitment sphere, Bontle fulfilled the prophecy and started Olwethu Placements. Because her entire working career and studies had been in HR, it was the logical industry for her to take her leap of faith into. Bontle also has a natural flair for HR ‘I have the ability to marry a job spec to a person,’ she says. More than that the industry gives her a huge amount of satisfaction.

‘I have always been a people’s person and it (recruitment) brings joy to me in the sense that if I can get the right person and place them in the right job where they can earn a living – that satisfies me.’

Her passion, has helped when it comes to dealing with some of the hurdles of starting a business in South Africa.

First off, she says was the challenge of accessing finance. Although Bontle says that she found the resources of the DTI extremely useful in helping her set up the business properly, when she turned to state run fund Umsobomvu for help with financing she hit a brick wall.

‘It’s hectic,’ she says. ‘They are looking for collateral and they have a whole list of requirements. As a nobody who was not married to a somebody I was not in a position to qualify for a loan from them. It was a waste of time.’

More than that, it was also very dispiriting. ‘You get to a point when you become so miserable. Nobody shares your vision, nobody is interested in helping you it is difficult under such circumstances to keep holding onto the dream,’ says Bontle.

The privately funded Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) as well as the big four banks were likewise unyielding in the face of Bontle’s requests for financing leaving her with no alternative but to find her own money to invest in the business. This she did by starting small, working hard, and keeping her overheads to a minimum, for example by working from her parent’s home in Soweto. She also managed to negotiate with clients – and the personnel she was supplying them with – to accommodate her cash flow.

‘I went to a client and made a few placements and with the money that I made I was able to buy the things I needed,’ she says. ‘It grew from there. I have had no funding to date, placements and hard work got me to where I am.’

Where she is, is a thriving small enterprise employing four people that in 2007 had a turnover just shy of R2-million. Olwethu has about 35 temps on its books at any given time and has found permanent employment for countless others. The business offers clients a comprehensive HR solution from talent selection and recruitment to capacity building and career management services all while ensuring adherence to the relevant labour legislation. It stands out from the crowd by virtue of the fact that it is owned by a black woman and also because its offices are in Soweto, but what really sets Olwethu apart from its many competitors is the individual and personal attention that the team gives to each client and each project. Bontle says that this direct participation ensures that they take full responsibility and accountability for results through each phase of every assignment – and clients know and appreciate it.

‘We place the right person who is going to do the right job with the right skills,’ she says. ‘Recruitment is about so much more than putting a body into a job. You have to check each candidate’s background carefully and make sure that their skills and their personality match up to the job that is required of them. We try to do it the right way. We fill every assignment – no matter how small or big – with passion.’

Clients that have appreciated Olwethu’s service include some big names like Tracker, SABC, Total and SITA Incorporated. It’s an impressive list and one that speaks volumes of the hard work that Bontle has put into the business. The majority of clients, she says, have been won ‘the traditional recruitment way’ that is by cold calling, setting up an appointment and convincing people face-to-face to give Olwethu a try.

As her reputation has grown, the referrals have also started to come in. Now people call her for business which is a highly satisfactory state of affairs. Now, although Bontle reports that the current list of clients is keeping them busy, she wants to grow the business – potentially doubling it in size – over the next year or two.

‘When I started the business I told myself that I would just take in a small number of clients – but the way things are happening I am not being allowed to stay in my comfort zone,’ she says.

Part of moving out of her comfort zone will include moving her HQ to offices in the Johannesburg CBD – although she says that she will also keep the Soweto office open as it has become part of the brand of the company.

The move to Johannesburg will facilitate easier access to clients – but also easier access to personnel. Currently, when Olwethu wants to do interviews with job seekers they have to hire a boardroom in the city at considerable expense because not everybody wants to make the trek to Soweto.

As the business expands and takes on a life of its own, Bontle is also finding she is able to spend a little more time with her son. As a single mother, balancing the challenges of running a business with brining up her child can be tough.

‘Now that I have people working with me it’s much better,’ she says, ‘but I am a Proverbs 31 woman in that I need to be able to inhabit many different roles.’

A typical day for Bontle involves taking her son to school, going to gym, hitting the office for eight hours, returning to collect her son from school, doing the dinner and homework with him and then – after he has gone to bed – sitting down at the laptop for another few hours of work. It’s not everybody’s ideal schedule, but Bontle seems to thrive on it. In fact, far from being strung out and exhausted, her brain is actually cooking with new ideas. It seems that her entrepreneurial mind is not satisfied only with Olwethu and that her dreams have not got any smaller over the years.

She has plans to open offices of Olwethu across South Africa and maybe even internationally (why not?) as well as starting other businesses. She is, for example, finding herself drawn more and more to environmental and waste management issues and also has a calling to minister to and help heal other women.

‘I see myself going far, I see myself going places,’ she says. ‘Olwethu is not even the tip of the iceberg.’

Bontle’s top tips for success

1. Before you start your business, you need to search within yourself to make sure that this is the road that you are meant to take. This is your foundation and it needs to be solid. You need to understand why are you getting into this – is it because you are good at it or passionate about it? Too many people are driven by money and by greed when setting up a business but you will find that this might not be enough to sustain you through the difficult times and yes – there are always difficult times.

2. Look for good advice on how to start and set up a business. For example, the DTI website has lots of resources to help you register the business the right way and take you through all the right processes from getting an accounting officer to applying for VAT. There are also plenty of good business books to read.

3. Be prepared to work hard. You can’t expect to get clients and then relax – you are on your toes constantly. The problem with our generation is that they are lazy and don’t want to stand up on their own two feet. Don’t expect a man to save you from yourself.

4. Continue to learn

5. Prepare for the bad times. There will be good times, but you must know there will also be tough times. It boils down to what weather you can stand up in. To be wise you must always plan for the bad times.

6. Always have a dream and be prepared to follow it. I grew up being told by people that I would never amount to anything but I never let myself believe them.

7. Be ethical and honest in everything you do – treat people right and they will treat you right back.

8. Don’t trust people blindly in business. I have had some bad experiences when a new client has not paid me for placements we have made. Now I make all clients sign our terms and conditions upfront and if they won’t sign it then I won’t do business with them.