Fish4Africa’s co-founder opens up about the highs and lows of entrepreneurship in a candid interview with Sandras Phiri in the Mother City.
Clean Bandit’s Rockabye is playing over the sound system as I climb the stairs to Workshop 17’s events room at the V&A Waterfront. It’s almost sunset on May 9th and I’m here at Startup Grind Cape Town to see Fish4Africa’s Nicolette De Freitas speak about her business journey as head of the group’s retail division.
I’m excited to hear Nicolette’s story, and to see some new faces, but my head feels like it’s been stuffed with cotton wool and I’ve gone through so many tissues in the past two days that Kleenex should give me shares in the company. Reluctant to spread my flu germs, I buy a Grapetiser and find a seat near the back. A few other people are sitting alone as well, fiddling on their phones or observing the scene, but most are networking near the snacks table. I’m just trying to hold in a sneeze.
Minutes later, Sandras Phiri greets the crowd. He’s the director of Startup Grind Cape Town and the host for this evening’s interview. Dressed in jeans, a Startup Grind T-shirt and a dark jacket, his style is what I like to call casual chic. What’s most striking about him, though, is his exuberance: it bubbles to the surface (like the effervescent Vitamin C tablet in my glass of water earlier today).
Sandras looks around the room as he welcomes everyone – and then gently chides those of us who aren’t mingling. “Okay, so one of the things we don’t do at Startup Grind is sit down by ourselves. Get up and go talk to someone with a different accent than your own,” he says.
I appreciate his encouragement, but my mother’s voice is ringing in my head: “Don’t breathe on people when you’re sick. Cover your mouth when you cough. Wash your hands after you blow your nose.” Eish! Maybe I should’ve stayed home in bed, with a cup of hot chocolate and strong medication. The thought has a certain appeal and it lingers in my mind. I’m still daydreaming as the seats fill up and Sandras starts speaking again, this time from the stage area.
He’s sharing some of his strategies for success as a prelude to his interview with Nicolette. Tonight, the focus is on growth through identity and Sandras is challenging all of us to carve out a niche in our respective fields. “Can you describe your identity in one powerful sentence?” He wants us to differentiate ourselves in the crowded marketplace by defining who we are and what we do. His advice culminates in a three-step strategy built around the word ACTION…
Sandras wants us to realise that sustained action is necessary to build traction. And once we’ve got traction, the world is bound to take notice. Because if we’re out there, making ourselves known and doing great things, word will spread. We’ll be seen. Acknowledged. Recognised. Engaged. And that’s a recipe for growth – personally and professionally. I’m impressed by his passion – and so is the rest of the audience: the energy in the room is almost tangible.
If you’re new to Startup Grind, you need to know that it’s an independent startup community working to educate, inspire and connect entrepreneurs in more than 360 cities around the world.
The Cape Town chapter organises regular fireside chats with business owners, founders, innovators, educators, and investors. These interviews are designed to highlight the successes and failures in every entrepreneurial journey – and to give attendees valuable information from enterprising people who’ve learned some of life’s toughest lessons first-hand.
May 2018 is Female Leaders Month at Startup Grind and women are being celebrated for their efforts to inspire, empower and lead in a diverse global environment. It’s perhaps fitting, then, that tonight’s chosen speaker is a woman who’s forging her own path in South Africa’s largely male-dominated fishing industry.
A sea change – and uncharted territory
Nicolette De Freitas is petite. Even in heels, she’s dwarfed by Sandras as he shows her to her seat on stage. But you’ve heard that expression about dynamite and small packages, right? It’s a cliché, I know, but it’s also true in this case. The more I listen to Nicolette, the more I realise how much she’s accomplished in a relatively short space of time.
Born and bred in Cape Town, Nicolette is currently the director of Fish4Africa’s retail division, managing relationships with the SPAR group, Pick n Pay and Fish4Africa’s own franchise outlets. She left the corporate world to join the family fish business, which was the brainchild of her mother and father. “I was pushed,” she confesses, telling Sandras that she abandoned her career to jump in and help the people closest to her.
Nicolette admits the move from finance to fish was challenging. Although she’d grown up seeing both of her grandfathers and her parents involved in the fishing sector and various individual business ventures, she wasn’t sure how her newfound role would pan out in the long run. Her concerns were compounded by the catastrophic loss of her brother, whose suicide left the family and the business in turmoil.
Grief-stricken and reaping the whirlwind after having focused on “passion and product more than planning”, Nicolette, her family and the business came to a crossroads. The subsequent restructuring of Fish4Africa left her without a defined position, but she was nevertheless determined to take the brand to greater heights.
She started selling Fish4Africa’s wares at weekend markets and eventually summoned the courage to approach the SPAR group about managing some of their in-store fish counters. “I wanted to see our brand in supermarkets,” she says, explaining how funding and support from Anglo American and the Small Enterprise Development Agency contributed to the realisation of her dream. She was also selected for Pick n Pay’s Enterprise and Supplier Development programme – an initiative designed to open doors for SMEs looking to put their products on Pick n Pay’s shelves.
Sandras asks Nicolette how she managed to secure funding so early in her business journey. “I just researched… and did it,” she says, to appreciative applause. She’s quick to point out, however, that the sudden interest caught her off-guard. “People expected projections, forecasts and budgets… It was very daunting – but I’m blessed with a fighting spirit.”
Nicolette’s tenacity appears to have been cultivated from a young age. She elicited a few giggles when she revealed she was one of those children who received “A for effort” certificates from her teachers, despite not being the top pupil in class. She’s remarkably open about her experiences, and her candour seems to resonate with the audience. It certainly strikes a chord with me.
Sandras steers the conversation in a different direction and asks Nicolette how she copes as a businesswoman in an industry that, historically, has been considered a man’s world. Once again, Nicolette gets straight to the point. “It’s a challenge. But I chose from the get-go to see the opportunity in the challenge.” She stresses that a woman’s true strength is discovered through adversity and quotes the late Winnie Mandela to emphasise her point:
“You strike a woman, you strike a rock.”
Success and the three Cs
Nicolette goes on to highlight her core philosophy. “Consistency, commitment, and confidence… This is what anchors me, this is what keeps me going.” She says 100% commitment is absolutely critical for budding entrepreneurs, because the genesis of any business venture will test you – emotionally, physically, and spiritually – and it’s important to stay the course. “If a door gets shut ten times, be there when it opens the eleventh time.”
Sandras draws our attention to Fish4Africa’s evolution from a small business with two employees to an enterprise that now supports more than a hundred staff. Nicolette is eager to praise her people. “If we didn’t have such an amazing team, we’d never have reached these numbers.” She says she feels a profound responsibility to help her employees as much as possible, and finds the experience deeply rewarding. “Standing in front of the mirror, knowing I make a difference in the lives of the people I work with, is something I know I got right.”
— StartupGrindCPT (@StartupGrindCPT) May 9, 2018
— Jan Smejkal (@yourchinaguy) May 9, 2018
It’s soon time for questions from the audience and I gulp down the rest of my drink as Startup Grind’s team members position themselves to deliver microphones left and right. Nicolette is quizzed about her work/life balance as a busy entrepreneur with three daughters, and she admits she’s had to adapt and make sacrifices. There’s an audible sigh behind me as someone sympathises with her regular 4am starts!
I’m intrigued by Nicolette’s response to this particular question: “Nicolette, are you preparing your business to hand over to your three princesses in the future?” It’s a valid query, considering the familial thread that’s woven into Nicolette’s professional tapestry. “I haven’t actually thought about it,” she reveals, adding that her daughters are too young now to have absolute clarity about their career paths. She hopes they pursue a tertiary education, and says she’d welcome them into the business with open arms – but she wants them to think for themselves.
"I'll support my children in whatever decisions they make. I want to pass on the life skills of entrepreneurship – this doesn't mean that I'll limit them to my business alone" Nicolette de Freitas #StartCPT SGWomen
— StartupGrindCPT (@StartupGrindCPT) May 9, 2018
One of the final questions of the evening concerns the state of the fishing industry and the importance of sustainability. Nicolette is refreshingly frank once more. “It starts with us. Sustainability is a big part of our ethos,” she explains, stressing the importance of staying up to date with industry developments, educating yourself about environmental changes, and taking an active role in organisations with influence.
— StartupGrindCPT (@StartupGrindCPT) May 9, 2018
There’s enthusiastic applause from the audience as Sandras thanks Nicolette for participating tonight and his wrap-up commentary is a timely reminder that gender equality and pay parity are issues that need to be highlighted continuously if they’re going to be addressed.
I’m fired up and ready to take on the world!
But first… A warm bath. A lot more Vitamin C. And a good night’s sleep. ♦ JP
Join the Startup Grind community!
Check out the Startup Grind Cape Town website for information about upcoming events and follow the team on:
Host Sandras Phiri is also an educator and entrepreneur. Visit sandrasphiri.com for details.
Interested in learning more about Startup Grind Cape Town’s sponsors? They include:
- The Cape Chamber of Commerce
- Google for Entrepreneurs
- Comcast NBCUniversal LIFT Labs
P.S. If you’re one of the dozen or so people who were brave enough to shake my hand in spite of my sniffles, thank you! To everyone else, let’s connect on LinkedIn or Facebook. And feel free to contact me directly for coffee and a chat.