“My son’s food intolerances encouraged me to become a mompreneur”

Reading time: 7 min

Mother of two, Nokwanda Shabalala, was always attracted to the idea of establishing something new, while creating value and employment opportunities. Having grown up in a little-known, poor rural village of Matiwaneskop, on the outskirts of Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal, she describes her childhood as dignified with the loving support of her parents, who expected their five children to lead successful lives in the future. And successful she is.

With a Master of Science Engineering Management (MSEM) from The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. (USA) under her belt, Nokwanda feels her studies essentially prepared her to diagnose any problem and devise possible solutions whatever the environment she finds herself in.

One of these situations was discovering that her son (three years old at the time) was intolerant to gluten, wheat and dairy, and could not digest meat. Their search for affordable, alternative foods led Nokwanda to create TrueEarthTM, a company that produces these foods locally at accessible prices.

Inspired by her entrepreneurial spirit, we asked Nokwanda more about her business and being a mother.

Q. Who was your biggest influence or role model and how did they shape your vision for your life?

My parents were the biggest influence in my life, each for different reasons. My father was a great career influence. I guess I was fascinated by his intelligence and capacity to use logic to make sense of and fix anything mechanical, electrical or electronic. He inspired me to want to study engineering.

My mother was a teacher whose career was rudely disrupted by diabetes, which saw her hospitalised for months when it was first diagnosed. Although she did not continue her career in education, she became our biggest pillar of support. My mom taught me how to love and what love is, and the difference between needs and wants. There were no sacrifices she wouldn’t make to ensure we had what we needed for our futures.

Q. Why did you become an entrepreneur?

I learnt a great number of things being an employee and earned good money while at it, but I’ve always wanted to create something new.

Q. Was TrueEarthTM your first entrepreneurial venture?

No. The first venture I tried to pull off while still employed was property development, more specifically, student accommodation and low-cost housing. But doing anything while holding down a demanding job is quite difficult, so I did not get very far with that.

Q. What has your journey been like as a business owner?

For the first six months, I worked entirely on my own with support from two really good friends: one an MD and the other a general manager at their respective businesses. They both have significant skills in beverages and FMCG in general and were good sounding boards. I then applied for and was admitted as an incubatee at The Innovation Hub under BioPark, and I’m starting to feel the support and benefits of the incubation.

To date, all funding for this business has come from my life savings and a few loans from friends and family. Anyone will tell you that cash flow is the lifeblood of the business, so if you don’t have adequate funding for the business at the beginning when sales are still being established, you’re in a tight situation. Some of our most noteworthy successes securing shelf space for TrueEarthTM at Dis-Chem and Checkers. Our suppliers are also understanding and some have given us good terms.

Overall, the journey has been good with access to funding being the single biggest challenge. We soldier on, and we are excited about the new products in the pipeline!

Q. Are you financially savvy? Did you know how to manage the books or did you have to learn this?

I’m financially savvy, having learnt this in my many years in investment banking, business development, strategy and general management. Accounting, or keeping the books, was a whole new ball game and we have hired an accountant. I’m having to learn what she needs, why she needs it and to keep records I never really worried about before.

Q. Do you have a business mentor? If you were to mentor a new business owner, what advice would you give them based on your experiences?

I have two mentors, one the MD mentioned earlier and the other is a former boss during my investment banking days. One mentors me on the running of the business, while the other is great at building the corporate partnerships and transactions that could be good for our business. Between the two of them, I am fairly covered and feel supported.

“It is tough and, yes, balance can be achieved but balance means different things to different mompreneurs. I try let my children know as much as I think they can comprehend.”

My advice to a new business owner would be to just keep going! Let your personal and professional network pick you up when you’re down and then crawl your way forward until you can stand and start walking again, but do not stay down. You’re more likely to inspire creativity with the right mindset.

Q. How would you describe your approach to leadership in the workplace?

I am fairly demanding and want a team of people who can contribute to our journey, share ideas and challenge some of the things we do, and take ownership of their roles and the value they need to add. Focusing on youth employment can make this tricky but we all grow every day, so as long there is a pattern of growth and a good attitude, we will all do well.

Q. What is next on your vision board?

The space of free-from foods is large and we look forward to bringing more wholesome and healthy products to the South African consumer. Watch this space!

Q. What are your thoughts about women empowerment and the opportunities out there?

I honestly don’t feel there is any serious consideration for women in business. Being a woman may open some doors for that first meeting to take place, but then you’d better come prepared.

Q. Tell us a little bit about your family.

I have two sons, 11 and seven. My older son is a kind, loving boy who has overcome so much and now stands tall and comfortable in his skin. My youngest is an entertainer of note, very strong-willed and outspoken. They are both very sensitive souls.

Q. How does your husband support your career?

At home, I’m able to ask him to be available and “cover” for me when I am out there chasing business. He also believes in the business and promotes it whenever he gets an opportunity.

Q. How do you resolve conflict at home?

This is an area of continuous improvement. We are not where we should be, but we have made some great strides because the boys don’t have physical fights anymore. We don’t spank them, not only because we could possibly be arrested, but they have not given us a reason to do that in a very long time and we feel good about that.

Q. What do you like most about being a mom?

No matter how defeated in business I might have been during that day, when I come home, I’m the greatest and best (although their only) mom on earth! The unconditional love they give me soothes most bruises of normal life.

Note: Nokwanda Shabalala, Founder and CEO of TrueEarthTM, a free-from food products company, has launched the gluten-free breakfast cereals and is on a mission to provide South African families with a range of nutritional free-from products. The TrueEarth™ gluten-free breakfast cereals are available in select Dis-Chem, Checkers and Checkers Hyper stores nationwide.