In the commercial suburbs of Johannesburg, lies Sheila Afari Group owned by the young and talented visionary, Sheila Afari. Part of the Sheila Afari Group is subsidiary company, Sheila Afari Public Relations, which has mega clientèle, such as the Awarding winning rapper, Khuli Chana and Kwaito star, Kabelo Mabalane, to name a few. LIVE unwraps the business world of this buzzing entrepreneur: on how she manages to operate in such a competitive industry of public relations and what are three items, she would take out/rescue, if her house was on fire.
LIVE: Tell us about yourself (Who is Sheila Afari)?
Sheila: Professionally: I am an entrepreneur, who’s ambitious and focused on reaching my every day goals. Socially: I like to entertain my friends by hosting dinner parties and cooking.
LIVE: When was your business established?
Sheila:It was established five years ago, in 2008. One of my latest business endeavours, Sheila Afari Public Relations, a subsidiary of the Sheila Afari Group, was established in 2012.
LIVE: How did you start your career?
Sheila: My entrepreneurship journey started in 2008. I was walking on campus one day and came across a flyer advertising an entrepreneurship week by a campus organisation called AISEC. I found myself attending the entrepreneurship seminars and blown away by the number of entrepreneur students, on campus. The students were not just making small pocket money; they were paying their own tuition fees and their businesses were thriving. The seminar taught gave me basic business tools, such as how to register a business.
The entrepreneurship week ended with a dinner party and on my table was a business man who asked me what kind of line of business, I was in and I told him I have an events company called Lavish. He told me that he is hosting an event and wants me to organise it and I said “yes,” triumphantly.
LIVE: How did Sheila Afari Group come about?
Sheila: When I was in university, I use to tell my younger sister about my elaborate ideas about starting a family business together.
The name Sheila Afari Group came from the idea of having a family legacy. It was about having the accountability that comes with putting your name on something. I work very hard to do the best that I can, because it’s my name on the line.
LIVE: Why did you specifically chose to operate in the public relations sector?
Sheila:To be honest, I never thought of public relations as an actual viable career option. I had a very narrow view point and understanding of what this industry entailed. I identified an opportunity to provide PR services and I was confident that I could deliver, I decided to run with it.
After I approached a brand I liked and offered them free services to show them what I could do for them and eventually they became a paying client. As time went by clients started approaching me for my services and I started getting business through referrals.
I thought it would be beneficial to know what the industry standards are in PR, be able to advise my employees; give my business some credibility, improve my skills, and to see whether I’m doing a good job or if I’m completely off the mark.
LIVE: How do you stay relevant in such a competitive industry?
Sheila: Relevance is subjective. What matters is that people know my clients. The relevance I’m looking for I still need to earn, that relevance will be in making a difference with my businesses and inspiring others to become entrepreneurs. I don’t see myself as a publicist and that is why I am not competing with any of them in that industry. I see myself as an entrepreneur. We don’t compete with each other. We learn from each other to better ourselves and grow our businesses. I compete with myself daily, trying to do better today than I did yesterday.
LIVE: What are some of the challenges of being a young, black female entrepreneur?
Sheila: I acknowledge there are challenges that arise on the race and gender front, from white and male perspectives, too. However, being black and female hasn’t played a significant role in hindering me, but being young has. Being a young entrepreneur has enabled me to learn and grow, to be open to learning. Yes, I do lack expertise because of my age but experience is the best teacher so I embrace all my lessons as a means of bettering myself and my business endeavours. I don’t always make the right decisions and I do get criticised, but I try not to take it too personally. I rather learn from it so that it doesn’t happen again.
LIVE:What range of services, do you offer at your agency?
Sheila: We generate publicity across:
Print; Broadcast; Online; Social Media.
Brand & Event Campaigns; Brand Strategies (3, 6, 12 months); Product & Brand Media Reviews; Media Releases (Writing & Distribution); Newsletters; Media Buying; Media & New Media Monitoring; Personalised Gifting; Radio Sampling (Music); Bookings Administration (Quotes, Invoices, Contracts)
Reputation Management; Crisis Management; Public Brand Image (Definition, Perception, Maintenance)
LIVE: Why do you mostly focus on black clientèle?
Sheila: There are more black people in South African than any other race, by virtue of ratio the majority of my clientèle should be black. I don’t actively pursue black clients. If I believe in your brand then I will be happy to service you. Emphasis needs to be on promoting South African and African brands over race.
Pull any African teenager aside and they will be able to name lots of international brands in multiple categories. Ask them to name local brands in multiple categories and they will struggle. The sad part is there are lots of South African products we use and consume but don’t know that they are South African because they are not promoted that way. Likewise there are some products, we assume that are local because they have been in our lives for as long as we can remember, but they actually are not.
LIVE: What makes your agency unique from other agencies?
Sheila: I approach things differently largely because the business didn’t start from a traditional PR background or PR ideology. I treat my clients as businesses and as an entrepreneur things always need to make business sense. All the campaigns and strategies I work on, tie back to the core point of how it can aid that end result. Below are a few points of how we do stand out from other agencies.
We have a continental focus and reach outside of South Africa
We work with traditional and non-traditional media platforms
We incorporate a social media drive to all campaigns and projects
We have a bespoke approach to each client
We have a strong brand development focus
We operate under unconventional business hours
Our Core Values:
Ethical business practices
LIVE: What makes your agency unique from other agencies?
Sheila: Business & People Management
-It’s one thing to be the sole person in your business, but getting staff and then learning how to maximise them as a resource used to be challenging. I still struggle with it from time to time, because I was used to doing everything myself and believing that if I wanted something done right I needed to do it myself. I learnt the hard way that if I spend all my time working in the business and not on the business, then my business wasn’t going to grow.
I’m a believer that to get a business started you don’t need money (depends on the type of business of course). I started with nothing, and used the money the business generated to grow the business. You can’t always wait for funding or loans etc to get started. Sometimes you need to make do with your own means.
What I’m realizing lately is that if you want to make more money, you actually need money. When clients pay invoices late, it affect the business. I have removed myself from accounts process as I was too lenient on when clients paid and it became a recurring habit for some clients to pay late. Having a third party issue out invoices and chase up on payments is proving to help a lot.
LIVE: What has been the highlights of owning your own business?
Sheila: The fact that I’m actively working towards pursuing the life that I want. Working seven days a week, at times 20 hours a day is not easy. But waking up every day and enjoying what I do can only really come from knowing that I’m doing this for myself. Work hard today for a better tomorrow.
Clocking my first financial milestone was also a highlight. It enabled me to increase the salary of my first employee and hire a second. Two employees might not seem like a lot but it is very rewarding to know that in a year and a half of self-employment I have been able to create two jobs. That alone is a reason to continue and try be as successful as possible and create more jobs and hopefully some of them will go on to start their own businesses one day.
LIVE: What are your long-term goals?
Sheila: I want to obtain a PhD in psychology, run a sustainable multi-million Rand company with a variety of businesses under the Sheila Afari Group and make a difference in the entrepreneurship space, as that’s the key to combating unemployment and eradicating poverty.
LIVE: Do you practice corporate social responsibility (like support Ngo’s, give internships etc)?
Sheila: Currently I offer free services to some clients. I run an internship programme twice a year. I’m in the final stages of kick starting a foundation that address sexual health, that will be the company’s official baby. I’m hoping in future I can do more in the education space e.g. paying for textbooks and school/university fees.
LIV E: What quote best describe the way you see the world?
Sheila: Abraham Lincoln “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses”. Pretty much the glass half full or half empty story. I like to look towards the good in every situation. The mind is a very powerful thing. We can see the world the way we want to see it. I choose to rejoice that thorn bushes have roses J.
LIVE: What is your best advice, you were given?
Sheila: Start a business from the resources that you already have or a hobby (something that won’t cost you a lot to get started). This was from a talk given by the late Luna Ntsubane at the very first entrepreneurship seminar I attend at university.
LIVE: If you didn’t have a career in media, what would you being doing now?
Sheila: I would be in the health services industry, psychology to be precise. I would be working towards my Masters in Clinical Psychology and/or providing counselling at an organisation.
LIVE: If your house was on fire, which three items would you take with you?
Sheila: My fish bowl with my Siamese Fighting Fish, Azzuri. My car keys and my cell phone.
LIVE: Complete this sentence:
Sheila: Life is not all roses but it’s cacti too. You may think you are left out in the desert to die, but you’re built to withstand the harshest of conditions and flourish in them.
LIVE: Advice to the young and upcoming entrepreneurs in Mzansi?
Sheila: Fear will be your biggest inhibition. Don’t let it get the better of you. Just by starting you would have made the most important step towards your entrepreneurship journey. The younger you are, the easier it will be so do it now before the risks of failure have greater consequences (e.g you get a home bond, kids etc.
Sources: Office images by Cube Workspace, Sheila Afari personal images by Grace Studios and social media image by forbes.com
Abel Dantyi on twitter: @abel_dantyi