Co-author Pamina Mullins and I continue this exciting series with the dynamic Josephine Takundwa, founder and CEO of Earthlink Technologies headquartered in Harare, Zimbabwe. Josephine has won a plethora of awards and honors, including the Women Leadership Awards' Top Female Leader in Information & Communications Technology (2016) presented by the Women Heritage World Organization, Megafest Top 20 Outstanding Women in Business (2015), Businesswoman of the Year, ZNCC Mashonaland 1st Runner Up (2014), among many other distinctions.
Pamina & OB: Josephine, are you a born entrepreneur?
Josephine: I was born the third child in a family of seven children and I think being born in 3rd place meant that I could introspect and develop myself as an individual, since most attention seems to be given to the youngest and oldest in a family. I was a self-motivated child. For instance, I taught myself how to knit when I was 5 years old. I always think of this experience as a metaphor for my life. I wanted to see what I could do on my own; I wanted to see what I could achieve. This natural curiosity and independence is what motivated me to go into business. Another influence came from my businessman father. I saw the change that being self-employed can bring to one's life. Our standard of living changed drastically from one or two pairs of shoes, one jersey, one shelf of clothes, and my Dad's constantly broken down car, that made us late for school all the time - to a whole different way of life.
Pamina & OB: Fascinating. Tell us about your business.
Josephine:I started Earthlink Technologies in 2004, after working in the power protection industry for 6 years. While I was employed I developed a passion for power protection. Earthlink provides power protection products and solutions for all sectors of the Zimbabwe economy, including mining, healthcare, telecommunications, education and retail. I started the company after noticing a gap in the market that I thought I could fill. I noticed that there was no reliable brand of surge protectors -- a necessity in this part of the world -- on the market that consumers could really count on and approached the local representative of American Power Conversion. I asked them if I could champion one of their surge protection products that were not selling. From there the company took off and I started increasing product lines one at a time until now Earthlink has over 100 product lines spanning surge protection, power backups, voltage stabilizers, and alternative energy in the form of solar rechargeable lamps and solar lighting installations.
Pamina & OB: What obstacles did you face as a female entrepreneur?
Josephine: Getting a foothold in a male-dominated industry has required a level of perseverance. The fact that I am a woman should not be a reason for me to be denied business, and neither should it be an excuse for me to automatically expect preferential treatment. Gaining acceptance as a woman in this industry, I found that the majority of the men and women that I dealt with at the beginning would not really take me seriously. I overcame this by presenting evidence of my company's capabilities, work we have previously done, and the projects that we have worked on. This helped create confidence in the client. I made sure that I was well prepared for each meeting or presentation and also ensured that the focus should always be on the company, and not on me the individual.
Pamina & OB: What challenges did you encounter building a viable company in Zimbabwe?
Josephine: There have been a lot of challenges! The first one is the financing. I started my business after selling some pieces of land I had invested in while I was still employed. This capital base however soon proved to be inadequate as the company grew. The cost of money in my country is very high, and bank loans are a recipe for disaster. The lack of adequate working capital has definitely stunted my company's growth.
Another challenge we are currently facing is that of cash flow and liquidity. Our country's economy has been on a southward spiral recently, and this had made business operations very difficult. Clients are failing to pay on time and there is a chronic shortage of cash, which affects business transactions. We are confident however, that this trend will change, as all economies have their ups and downs. Profitability is also reduced because of increased competition in the marketplace. In order to overcome this challenge of cash flow primarily I have had to review Earthlink's cost structure, and work on a really aggressive cost agility program.
Pamina & OB: What advice can you impart to other entrepreneurs, regardless of culture and country?
Josephine: It is very important to keep focused on your goals and your vision as a business. A lot of ups and downs will come your way, but it's important to keep at it. Running a business is not a walk in the park and it's important to face and overcome whatever challenges come your way. You have to believe in yourself in order to achieve your goals. It is hugely rewarding, but success does not come on a platter. A business plan is the key. A famous quote says "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail," and I totally agree. That business plan must not only be there, but it must be constantly referred to and adjusted when necessary. Furthermore, always present a sound and credible business case, which is essential in creating trust with clients.
You need to value your human resources; they are the company. Always pay your taxes and comply with company regulation statutory requirements. Finally, keep a very close eye on your costs. These will bring you down if you do not manage them carefully. It is a must to have a monthly expenses budget for the whole year to guide you. It is also important to keep your eye on global trends, in order to take advantage of opportunities that may not exist in your environment.
Pamina & OB: Very impressive, Josephine! Thank you for sharing your practical wisdom and advice.
Josephine: Thank you, too. I hope my words and experience will help other entrepreneurs, female and male, African and global, to push on and turn their dreams into reality.