Stepping up to run a household and nurture a younger brother might seem like a lot to take on for a 13-year-old girl, but for Zama Zuma it was simply a case of doing what needed to be done. Since then she has lived by this motto: “Whatever situation you find yourself in, you just have to stand up, own it and do something.” Another widely held belief she holds to and one to which her recent business success attests is that “success happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
In Zama’s case the preparation for her success started when she was 13. After their parents’ divorce Zama and her brother chose to live with their father and she took on the responsibility of checking on her brother, helping with his homework and prepping for his next day at school. Then she would tidy the house, prepare dinner and eventually get round to doing her homework.
Different but how?
Having gotten used to this role of co-carer with her divorced father, she was quite accustomed to leadership and was jokingly referred to as Mama Zuma by her friends because she was always checking if everyone was okay. So by the time Zama started studying microbiology, biotechnology and genetics at the University of the Witwatersrand she had firmly established that she was “different but not quite sure how.” Cue the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation’s Fellowship Programme that she discovered in her first year at Wits. Through this programme she not only learned about what being an entrepreneur is all about, she also learned about herself. The Foundation in effect recognised her differentness as those of an entrepreneur.
She so took to heart what she was learning about entrepreneurship and herself as an entrepreneur that she registered a business in her second year even though there was no clear plan yet. She had to come up with a name for her business while queuing for registration and decided on a combination of her and her brother’s names: Gugulethu and Lindoguhle. She would soon find out that her choice of name, Lindolethu Trading, which means “our awaiting” was prophetic of what was to come.
A time of waiting
After finishing her degree at Wits, she took up her place in McKinsey and Company’s Leadership Programme. Working in consulting allowed for many luxuries like living alone and buying a car, but after two years Zama acknowledged that the job wasn’t quite the right fit for her. She resigned without having a clear plan in mind but trusted that her savings and moving back home with her family would suffice until her business was up and running. That was at the end of 2012.
For the next two years she would work together with various companies to apply for government tenders. “I wasn’t quite confident that I could do it by myself.” She would fulfil the tender’s BEE requirement with the understanding that should their tender be successful, the companies would join together to fulfil the tender. The tactic proved unsuccessful – people probably saw right through the front. So in 2014 she decided to go it alone and spent the next year applying for tender after tender on her own.
People warned her that it would be impossible to win a tender without greasing someone’s palms, but she persisted. She was able to use what she had learnt from working on tenders with those big companies. When she happened upon a tender for supplying and delivering work wear. By that time, she had been without a salary for about two years. Things were desperate and she made sure that God appreciated the direness of her situation. The tedious process of tendering was exhausting and to get through the three months of putting the tender she promised herself that if unsuccessful, it would be her last.
Nothing could have prepared her for the measure of success she finally enjoyed in February of 2016, especially since mere weeks before her last vestige of independence and memory of luxury slipped away as the bank repossessed her car. That sadness and the long wait (she started working on the tender in 2014) have since been engulfed by Lindolethu’s current post-revenue status thanks to a five-year contract to supply certain Eskom plants with protective gear. Zama hopes that this is just the beginning of a business that will become the legacy she will leave for her family one day.
The answer to intimidation
Ever since Zama started working on her business full time, there have been numerous opportunities to feel intimidated and back down. From the intimidating glare of a bank account on a minus to being sized up by fellow business people – for the tender she had to endure a tender site inspection by five individuals – all of whom were older and more experienced. The truth she kept coming back to every time she felt intimidated: just do what needs to be done. In trying to remember where this bravery comes from Zama explains: “I’ve had a number of experiences in my life that taught me to be brave,” the most significant of which has been stepping up to help care for her family. Essentially being a woman and doing what comes naturally to her as a woman lie at the heart of her bravery in business.