THE LEADING EDGE | HERMON MASHABA
by Andrew Ngozo
Instinctively an Entrepreneur
What makes a titan? Chatting to Herman Mashaba, founder of Black Like Me Cosmetics and Executive Chairman of Lephatsi Investments, makes one discard all conventional and dictionary meanings of the word. For a conversation with Mashaba reveals that a titan is a man that takes a dream and runs with it against all odds. Mashaba reflects on his career in business, shares perspectives on successful entrepreneurship and how he believes each African citizen is critical to the future and success of the continent.
Looking back all those years ago you started the Black Like Me brand from humble beginnings, why did you do it?
I started my career over 30 years ago and, I suppose, the main reason was that I needed my freedom. At the time, my own business, was the only avenue available to me to offer the independence I so much aspired
to. As I was growing up I thought that education was going to give me this independence but it was not to be,because of the political environment at the time. The natural route back then was to land back on the streets of the township without an education. I longed for my independence and thought to myself that this is the route that I must try, to give me that ndependence I desired. Fortunately enough, that leap of faith worked for me.
Is there any particular reason why you chose cosmetics?
I did not follow any predetermined path, I started my business career as a commission based sales representative selling glasses, linen, dinner sets and other products. In fact, I sold anything that could make me money from the boot of my car. Along the line I happened to sell hair care products for a Johannesburg based company called Super Curl for 19 months and, I reckon, that is where the magic started. I realised the huge opportunity in front of me because black women were ready to be permed. I could make more money not by selling them the products but by servicing them myself. This was back in 1983 and what resonated with me then still rings true today: hair care products offer an opportunity that will be there forever.
Do you think it was easier back then to get into the entrepreneurial world than it is today?
I think each business ‘era’ has its own opportunities that entrepreneurs can exploit. The challenge we currently face is that the new South Africa is not exactly friendly to small business. We had difficulties in the past as black businesses: we had to find a way to navigate and operate amidst hostile government policies. When 1994 came we thought we were finally going to see the emergence of black industrialists. However, the past two decades have not been good for small business. Lots of factors can be cited for this and one is labour legislation. For some reason labour and elements within the governing tripartite alliance are always coming out with rhetoric against business. In the process the result is the passing of legislation that is anti-business. This is very tough on small businesses who bear the bulk of the brunt. Big business can deal with the complexities that may arise because they have the resources to create mechanisms to deal with challenges. Other concerning factors are high levels of crime and a failing education system. I think the powers that be need to guard against creating a negative impression of business people and commerce in general. The reality is entrepreneurs go into business to make money their activities ultimately benefit the economy and the state. This should be encouraged. I believe in a capitalist system because that is the only way in which jobs will be created and improve the quality of life of our people. Making profit is not a sin but something which any self-respecting nation has to encourage within the confines of the law.
What personal traits do you think are needed for a successful entrepreneur?
Entrepreneurship is not something that one needs to be taught, I believe that it is a natural characteristic every human being possesses. It does not happen by chance or because someone developed it but, human beings naturally have to survive. In the survival process one then has to be creative and go out there and work. In my opinion it is governments that take this away from citizens. For me, a human being has to take responsibility for their personal life. Governments are there to offer guidance but not to take responsibility for a person’s life. If this happens, then it simply means that they take away your self-worth and destroy your dignity.
Africa is on the cusp of great economic opportunities. What do you is going to take the continent to make it happen?
Without a doubt Africa is a land full of massive opportunities which are there to be exploited. But for us to make this happen, we need highly skilled, highly educated manpower because the exploitation of natural resources entails hard work with the right type of mind-set. In essence, we need to encourage our people to be the best that they can be at all times. On that note, it is about time that the South African community moves away from this notion of being a collective. A human being is an individual entity that comes into this world on his or her own. A collective has to, again, serve as a guiding factor from time. However, it should not decide what is best for you. If you allow this to happen it will deter you from being the best that you can be if. When something happens in my business, be it good or bad, I always look to myself and ask: what have I done wrong or right. I believe the continent, at large, has to take ownership of challenges and it will find answers that lead to prosperity. The future of this country, and the continent, is in our hands; the current generation. Our problems are ours to solve.
Looking back on your life and career in business was it worth it; would you do it again?
I really have had a blessed fortunate life so, yes, I would do it again. What happened in the past has happened, I can’t change it. My primary focus is the future as that is something that I can definitely determine. I uses past events as lessons and try to be positive about the future of South Africa and Africa. Our success is dependent on all the individual inhabitants of this beautiful continent and together, all of us, irrespective of our colour or creed, can make this a great place.