STRATEGY

The Believer

The Harvard M.B.A., the Fortune 500 experience, the connections that come with both--those are just some of the reasons Selena Cuffe can pretty much write her own ticket. So why has she focused her talents on helping black winemakers in South Africa get their products to the American market?
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It is a chilly September morning--spring here in South Africa. Clutching a thin raincoat around her shoulders, Selena Cuffe addresses the 10 black and mixed-race vintners she has invited to a drab meeting room behind the Cape Winelands Municipality building in verdant Stellenbosch. The walls are bare, save for an imposing sign headed "Summary of the Employment Equity Act," which is ubiquitous in this understandably self-conscious land. Bottles of mango and guava juice rest by the speaker's elbow, but attendees sip red wine from tumblers.

Most of these vintners are new to the wine business--new, in fact, to business. All own, at minimum, large stakes in small companies, something that would have been impossible 14 years ago, when apartheid banished black commerce to impoverished homelands. But empowerment--in South Africa, a word with a pulse--still inches along. Many of the vintners lack secondary schooling. Some are inexperienced in 101's like meeting customer deadlines. Cuffe's own start-up, a Los Angeles-based importer called Heritage Link Brands, depends upon these people for survival; this training session is meant to help them help her sell their wine in the United States. Cuffe, who at 31 is probably the youngest person in the room, has only a few hours to shore up her fitful supply chain with expertise and ideas she has accrued at the Harvard Business School, Stanford, United Airlines, and Procter & Gamble. Strategy is on the agenda. Marketing and distribution. Negotiation styles.

Cuffe has brought along two case studies to share with the group, and corporate-style printouts of her presentation. But there the trappings of Western pedagogy end. The blue-chip pedigree that opens doors for this CEO in the United States makes little impression here, just a mile from the tin-roof shacks and dirt roads of Kayamandi Township. Yes, it matters that she has much to teach these nascent entrepreneurs. But it matters more that she seems like one of them. What sets Cuffe apart from most Westerners doing business in Africa is the extent to which, in heart and mind as well as ethnicity, she makes sense in both worlds. "I envision all of you as my brothers and sisters, and being able to share your story is like sharing my own story," Cuffe tells her audience, making explicit the connection she implies in every conversation. "There's a feeling of home, a feeling of family. So that's what motivates me--the feeling that I'm doing something with my family every day.

"You guys sitting around this table are building the future wine industry of South Africa!" Cuffe says, with optimism so intense she makes Tony Robbins sound like Eeyore. "You are changing history!" Wide-eyed and smiling with her whole face, she delivers the clincher: "And you know what? We are all going to make a whole lot of money!"

There are murmurs of assent, interjections of "Yes, we are!" The vintners, some of whom Cuffe had characterized to me earlier as fractious, inconsistent, or disengaged, appear united by confidence in this sweetly shrewd first-time entrepreneur. More important to Cuffe, they seem braced by confidence in themselves.

Matched against a centuries-long history of oppression, however, motivational speeches lose some of their potency. Soon, doubt steals back into the room. An icebreaking exercise in which Cuffe asks the vintners to envision what they would do if they suddenly found 7 million rand (about a million dollars) in their bank accounts gives way to tales of indignity and discrimination. One vintner talks about an American focus group that insulted her company's packaging and a supplier that provided her with product that was literally from the bottom of the barrel. Another recounts how a white mentor gave her incomplete information about export requirements, causing the rejection of a large shipment. Libby Petersen, the outspoken CEO of Lindiwe Wines, describes what she considers duplicity by South Africa's wine industry association. "We had a meeting with them where we were saying that the U.S. market is a market we would like to go into," says Petersen. "We were told no, that is not a market to go into. Then the next week they took a delegation to the American embassy. They will go there. But they will only take the white-owned companies."

Vivian Kleynhans, managing director of African Roots Wine Brands, jumps in. "When they were making arrangements for South Africa to exhibit at the London mega-tasting, they were reluctant to take us with them," says Kleynhans. "They said, 'We are very proud of this industry. Don't you guys come and embarrass us.' This kind of derogatory, patronizing talk."

Because I am a Westerner with a Westerner's simplistic view of history, I expect those rumbles of discontent to mass into thunderous calls to buck the system. But no one talks about revolution. Instead the conversation turns to business strategies for coping in a domestic market where the majority population doesn't drink wine and the minority population doesn't drink black wine. Beverly Farmer, CEO of Women in Wine, a collective of 200 agricultural workers, voices the reservations of her peers. "I am always wary of positioning our business as a black-owned company because of that perception of having an inferior product," she says in clipped tones. "A below-standard product. All those negative things. Yes, we are black. But is that a position we can take to the market?"

I know the answer to that one. I have heard Cuffe give it repeatedly the past three days during visits to farms and offices around the Western Cape, where she has been holding one-on-one meetings with current and potential suppliers. "Glad you asked that" implicit in her voice, she launches into a treatise on the psychology of that distinctly Western species, the Socially Conscious Consumer. "In the United States, our target customers will pay more for something they can feel good about," says Cuffe, who sells exclusively black African wines through specialty supermarkets, boutique liquor stores, and restaurants, and through a website both to consumers and direct to trade. "They care about the stories behind their purchases. Talk about who you are, what you've been through. People will feel so inspired that they'll want to buy the wine."

Cynics might summarize the message as: What doesn't kill you makes your appeal to Americans stronger. Cuffe is not a cynic.

No, Cuffe is an idealist, one of a number of idealist entrepreneurs begot by the proliferation of those high-minded consumers. Such founders--who include people like Seth Goldman of Honest Tea and Dean Cycon of Dean's Beans--think globally and act globally, scouring the world for unfamiliar products to sell and deserving people to support. Their mission statements are positively missionary: to promote cross-cultural understanding and economic opportunity for disadvantaged populations.

Admirable, yes. Easy, no. Because a socially responsible business is still a business. Even consumers motivated by tales of deprivation and repression want quality products, and wholesalers and retailers want those products delivered on time and in compliance with the thicket of regulations governing international trade. To avoid strangulation by their own supply chains, companies relying on unsophisticated foreign producers must go the extra 10,000 miles and devote significant time to working with their vendors, face to face when possible. They have to train, explain, motivate, cajole, hand-hold, and sometimes referee.

The people gathered in this room belong to SABVA--the South African Black Vintners Alliance, for which Heritage Link is importer of record. Not all are ready to export, and Cuffe expects some may never be. But she and her husband and co-founder, Khary Cuffe, mean to help them try. They have committed to making two trips a year to South Africa--the most they can currently manage, with a toddler at home--and providing constant assistance through calls and e-mail. They also bring to their venture extraordinary resources of education, corporate experience, and connections, and an affinity for the companies they want to help. Perhaps most important, they have built into their business model a syllogism. Heritage Link succeeds only if its suppliers succeed. There is no way Heritage Link will not succeed. Ergo, these new, struggling black-owned enterprises are going to make it.

As we roam the outskirts of Cape Town beneath the eternal, indifferent scrutiny of Table Mountain, I have to keep reminding myself that Selena Cuffe is new to the game. Like more seasoned entrepreneurs, she manages to work like hell without apparently trying too hard and demonstrates effortless command of an industry in which she is a neophyte. Her friendliness and ease play well with her South African partners, several of whom refer to her fondly as "our girl." Meanwhile, her ego quietly feeds her confidence without requiring display. One Sunday morning we visit a church tucked away in a strip mall, where the guest preacher--the bishop of Cameroon, no less­--expounds on how people of vision, initiative, and creativity can change the world. Hours later, I am still waiting for Cuffe to observe how the sermon pertains to her. She never does.

I first interviewed Selena and Khary Cuffe in March at the Harvard Business School. That is also where they met. In 2002 Selena was a second-year student there, Khary a prospective student with a similarly starry resumé (Wesleyan, Prudential, the Kennedy School of Government). In 2003, the couple took their first trip to Africa, and when they landed they felt as if they had come home. Two years later they married on Mount Sinai, in Egypt. Back in the United States, a class on entrepreneurial marketing inspired them to start a company. Selena wanted to go the social responsibility route, partly to salve her conscience after helping Procter & Gamble market Pringles to children in Latin America.

In 2005, with her husband still in school, Cuffe traveled to South Africa on behalf of her then employer, an international student exchange program. One day, she saw a notice in the paper for the first annual Soweto Wine Festival. "The words Soweto and wine didn't click," Cuffe says. "All my knowledge of Soweto was about Nelson and Winnie Mandela and Desmond Tutu." Curious, Cuffe drove to the festival, a crowded, celebratory affair. She was particularly impressed by wares from SABVA. The vintners she met in Soweto proffered delicious varietals and compelling stories. What they lacked was distribution in the United States.

"I went back to the hotel, called Khary, and said, 'Sweetie, I think I've found our idea," says Cuffe.

The Cuffes founded Heritage Link in October 2005. Selena became CEO, a decision she only briefly reconsidered after discovering she was pregnant one month after launch. The couple financed the company with savings from their corporate lives and credit card debt; Khary became CFO. "We've had a dozen people ask about becoming investors, but we want to bootstrap as long as we can," he says. Heritage Link projects first-year revenue of $750,000 to $1.2 million. To bring in more, Khary accepted a management position at Procter & Gamble after graduating in June, and the family moved to Cincinnati. (The new job kept him from the September trip, but he plans to be part of future visits.)

For two years the Cuffes have been busy in the States, opening small offices in Massachusetts and California, building a sales force of eight commission-based "brand ambassadors," and negotiating state by state the complex regulations that govern wine importing and distribution. They've established a website for direct sales and still personally approach retailers and restaurants; they've closed such national accounts as Whole Foods, Wild Oats, and the franchiser WineStyles. They also host tastings around the country and provide wine for social events.

But you can't sell what you don't have. While U.S. prospects were lapping up SABVA's story and the often-inspiring tales of its members, the Cuffes were discovering the limitations of their supply chain. At a training session last December in Cape Town they introduced the vintners to GE-style critical path schedules and explained how to assign owners to tasks and identify which stakeholders to involve in key decisions. (Cuffe tries to scrub corporate jargon from her speech when working with the vintners, but the occasional M.B.A.-ism will out.) They stressed deadlines above all.

But in March, the vintner filling Heritage Link's first major order failed to deliver, leaving the Cuffes scrambling for replacement product. Heritage had brought in 5,500 cases by midfall--the wines typically sell for $12 to $23 a bottle at retail--but problems continued, including an order that was placed in May and didn't ship until mid-September.

With that history in mind, Cuffe has made living up to commitments one of two key themes at the Stellenbosch training session. She delivers the message herself and through proxies. Keleigh Starr, Cuffe's best friend and her companion on this trip, puts it to the vintners bluntly. "You all need to get yourselves dependability screen savers," scolds Starr, who at home in Los Angeles is an account manager at Warner Music. "If you promise product to Selena and she promises it to Whole Foods and she can't deliver, Whole Foods doesn't care that it was your fault. Their bottom line is going to be 'Selena didn't deliver.'

"Selena is very loyal," Starr continues. "If she believes in your cause she will assist you to the end. But if you made a commitment and you don't come through, she will nicely tell you that we're not going to do business anymore."

Standing beside her, Cuffe smiles affectionately.

The second key theme of this training session is alliances--why they matter and how not to screw them up. Since the end of apartheid and lifting of sanctions in 1994, South Africa's wine industry has grown to $3 billion. But freedom and opportunity are not identical: The vast majority of blacks still lack the capital and business expertise to attempt wine production. As part of an economic transformation initiative, the government created a land transfer program and announced a goal of 30 percent black land ownership. But black ownership remains below 5 percent, and black ownership of vineyards is below 2 percent. Black-owned wine companies have had trouble making inroads with customers, distributors, and the white winemakers that are often their partners. SABVA is intended to provide them collective clout.

Heritage Link imports wine from several SABVA companies, and the Cuffes will represent any whose products pass muster with American focus groups and whose processes are up to snuff. In theory, working with SABVA makes things easier. Cuffe envisions members sharing expertise and experience and supporting one another so Heritage Link can be less involved in their operations. She would love to communicate best practices and process changes to a single contact who would disseminate the information to everyone else.

So far that's not happening. Individually, the vintners have effectively represented their own labels at promotional events arranged by Heritage Link in the U.S. And they often make well-received products. But they're not collaborating. "Depending on the day I'm talking to them, they could be teetering on the brink of chaos, where people don't trust each other or there are communication issues," says Cuffe. "They're basically laddering each other down to the lowest common denominator."

Heritage Link's staunch ally in alliance building is Vivian Kleynhans, the chairwoman of SABVA. Kleynhans's personal saga is exactly the grist for socially conscious mills Cuffe believes will move bottles stateside. When Kleynhans was young, her father lost his job at a fish-processing factory; the family was evicted and the children split up among relatives. Years after they reunited, Kleynhans launched the label Seven Sisters as part of African Roots, naming one varietal for each of her six siblings and donating a portion of profits to Paternoster, the poor fishing village where she was raised.

Cuffe calls Kleynhans a "mother hen," but Kleynhans sounds more frustrated than fond when discussing her charges. She recounts SABVA's jealousies and quarrels over dinner one evening at the apartment Cuffe rents on Cape Town's tourist-baiting waterfront. Cuffe rattles around in the stamp-size kitchen preparing spaghetti and bobotie, a kind of mincemeat pie, giving Kleynhans the chance to talk with Starr and another guest, Lillian Lincoln Lambert. Lambert is one of Cuffe's mentors, the first black woman to graduate from Harvard Business School and a co-founder in 1968 of the school's African American Student Union. She is in South Africa on vacation, and Cuffe has recruited her to address the vintners on the importance of alliances.

The dinner is partly a strategy session: Cuffe wants Lambert to understand the situation so she can angle her presentation accordingly. Kleynhans obliges, describing the external and internal forces besetting SABVA. The former include a sometimes unwelcoming industry and unreliable government support: The national trust funding black-owned wine companies had just announced it was temporarily suspending payments because of financial difficulties. The latter include the tensions common among people who are asked to give unto others before anyone has given unto them.

"Everybody has a different personality," Kleynhans says. "Everybody has their own goals. They want their own thing. And I am sitting in the middle, trying to please everybody. They want to stick together, but they do not currently carry their own weight."

"That happens a lot with these collective relationships--people get so hung up on how much the other person is making," agrees Lambert, as Cuffe tips a bottle of Seven Sisters Yolanda Chenin Blanc into her glass. "I'll make the point to them: What matters is we're all making something."

The criticism is not one-way. Some SABVA members complain the group has not helped them enough with marketing, and they chafe at paying dues. A few have dropped out to concentrate their efforts on their own businesses. Kleynhans says, however, that two erstwhile members phoned when Heritage Link's training was announced and asked to participate. "They want to do business with Selena," says Kleynhans with satisfaction. "They fear they're going to miss out."

Cuffe also imports two brands from outside the alliance, though she is pressuring them subtly--and not so subtly--to join. One outlier is Bouwland, a Stellenbosch vineyard whose wine Heritage Link has sold successfully through Whole Foods and other venues. (Bouwland is the company that rescued the Cuffes in March when another vendor left them in the lurch.) The business is owned 100 percent by 39 black farm families; on the day we visit, dozens of shareholders are laboring in the long rows of trellised vines, using delicate brushes to dab blue paint on each plant's cut branch ends. "The paint acts like a shield so bacteria does not get inside the wound," explains Jean McKenzie, as a heron the size of a small dinosaur lifts noisily out of the pond behind him. "The bigger the wound, the faster bacteria can move in." At age 24, McKenzie works in the fields three days a week; two days a week he studies business and wine management at the University of Stellenbosch and markets Bouwland's products to local stores and restaurants.

Inside, amid thrift-shop clutter, two tables have been shoved together and draped with a stained cloth. Here Cuffe sits for almost two hours with Onetia Africa, a managing director for Bouw­land, and one of Africa's partners, Cecil Japp, sorting out the details of an order of 300 cases that is poised to ship. Cuffe is in her element here, with tested producers who will apply her advice immediately. Do you need a bonded warehouse? she asks. Can we think of ways to manage costs to keep the price stable? Cuffe presents them with wine-information cards she has created as marketing collateral for the brand in America and offers to send digital versions so Bouwland can customize them for domestic distribution. At one point she joins Africa at a computer and walks her through the process of completing an online FDA form. Throughout, Africa diligently scribbles notes in a thick datebook with a "Black Is Back" sticker plastered on the front.

In South Africa, race is never subtext. It is probably possible to have a serious conversation in which the subject doesn't come up, but I didn't manage it. And race plays the same queasy role in business here as in the United States, only amplified a thousand times. You can boldly proclaim your intention to empower blacks. But as long as inequity lingers in the system, you will spend significant time and energy finessing relationships with whites.

For Heritage Link, the issue is especially tough, because viticulture is hugely capital intensive. Consequently the majority of SABVA members are virtual wineries--brands that source their grapes and winemaking services from others (a common model in the United States as well). Those others are white-owned companies. In addition, some established white winemakers are mentoring black newcomers. Their involvement keeps the trains running more or less on time but doesn't always advance Cuffe's cause. "I would be mortified if at the end of the day I found out that I was just helping another white winery break into the U.S. market," she says.

So she is wary before a meeting with Ses'fikile ("We Have Arrived") Wines, a company started three years ago by two teachers and a school administrator from the townships. The founders are being mentored by the white-owned winery Flagstone; most of Cuffe's communication to date has been with Flagstone's leader, Bruce Jack. Cuffe worries that skill transference from Flagstone to Ses'fikile isn't happening fast enough and that Jack, an outsize presence, is essentially running the show. "They trust him, and he's proved himself trustworthy," says Cuffe before the meeting. "But they're using him as a crutch. It's like, if I don't like to drive and I'm afraid to drive, I'll always let somebody else drive instead of sucking it up and getting out there on the road."

Sure enough, the meeting, in the lounge of a boutique hotel on Cape Town's funky Long Street, doesn't start until Jack appears, more than half an hour late. Two of the founders are present; the third is off on a six-week internship with British retailer Marks & Spencer, an initiative Cuffe applauds. The founders, both women, sit in silence while Cuffe and Jack argue with cool intensity over sticking points in the importer's contract. Relaxed and jovial, Jack occasionally acknowledges his protégés. "Well, you will have to ask these ladies, but I think America is very important to us," he says. And, "I think our priorities are southern Africa, the U.K., and other. Ladies, tell me if you disagree." Apparently they do not.

Jack exits early. Alone with the founders, Cuffe presses them to do more. "I want at least one of you to be part of all conversations about the critical path schedule," she insists. "I want at least one of you to be in on all calls. I shouldn't be dealing with Bruce. I'm dealing with the three of you."

In a soft voice, Nondumiso Pikashe agrees. "The onus is on us," she says. "The business is ours, and we should take responsibility for the business." She and her partner, Jackie Bacela, drive off in a car with "Flagstone" printed on the rear window and "Ses'fikile" beneath it.

A less ambiguous example of empowerment is on display at Koopmanskloof, a 1,284-acre vineyard, wine cellar, and nature conservancy in Stellenbosch. Antique wine and olive oil presses occupy the yard where CEO Rydal Jeftha greets Cuffe before escorting her into a 200-year-old stone house. On a massive oak table polished to a warm glow, a miniature American flag pays tribute to her visit. A large brown frog has found its way inside and sits like a sentry on the damp floor outside the reception room.

Jeftha has been at Koopmanskloof ("Trader's Ravine") only six months and is not its founder. But unlike the women of Ses'fikile, he brings years of experience in the wine industry. In April he was hired as CEO and given an 8 percent stake by Stevie Smit, Koopmanskloof's 80-year-old owner. In 2006, Smit had transferred 18 percent of the land and the business--worth about $2 million--to 86 black farm families employed there, and another 18 percent to a group of black academics. "Stevie Smit has taken steps that the other wineries or estates were afraid to," says Jeftha. "He appointed a black man and gave him carte blanche."

The new CEO takes Cuffe on a tour of his cellars; then we drive the hilly property in a four-by-four. Vine bushes thrust like clutching fists through the rich soil, and cliques of dowdy guinea fowl trot fussily beside the road. Back in Jeftha's office, he describes the technical team he has assembled to improve the company's winemaking, the skills assessment of farm workers he is conducting, his plans to leverage Koopmanskloof's recently achieved fair-trade designation. Behind him stretches a wall of framed photographs. "You see here, all the pictures are of white people," says Jeftha with a sweeping gesture. "It would have been easy to put all ethnic stuff on the walls. But this is the history. This is the family and the management teams from over the years. I look at these, and I see the past, which I am starting to change."

Cuffe is ecstatic about what Koopmanskloof can bring to ­SABVA. Jeftha has a wealth of knowledge to share with the alliance. At least as important, he has grapes and a cellar, which gives the virtual companies an alternative to white producers. "This group needs people it can trust to do business with," says Cuffe as we drive away. "Owning the land and the cellars and the vineyards doesn't necessarily make the company a better value proposition. But owning those things and having a great leader makes it a fantastic value proposition. Rydal can grow the pie for the whole collective."

Heritage Link is only the first step in what Cuffe calls "a lifetime commitment to Africa." At home she keeps a folder of ideas for wealth-creating businesses on the continent, including one that combines DNA testing with ancestral tourism. She is unapologetically ambitious. "I've had it with the negative press about this place," she says. "I didn't get all this education and all this experience just to make money. I want to make change."

But her heart is divided.

The farmhouse of Diale and Malmsey Rangaka is humble, but sun soaks the wood-beamed living room, which is homey with fresh wildflowers and woven baskets. Malmsey is a former clinical psychologist and midwife. Diale taught literature at a university. During apartheid he had practiced what he calls armchair farming--reading agricultural weeklies for fun--but the law prevented him from owning land. In 2003, when a reorganization of universities threatened his job, the couple moved south and bought a 106-acre wine-grape and fruit farm.

Today, the Rangakas, with help from their son, own the M'hudi ("Harvester") label. The wines are made from their own grapes and produced by Villiera, a white-owned company down the road. The couple are ambivalent about SABVA--they were in, then out; soon they may be in again. Whatever their status, they want to work with Heritage Link. "We need Selena, because she knows the American throat," says Diale, who goes by Oupa ("Grandpa"). "We need her to be the battering ram to open the way not for South African wines--those other guys are doing very well, thank you--but for black-owned brands. To say, while we are new and while we are small, we are not necessarily producing junk."

I suggest he might want a better slogan than "not necessarily producing junk."

"She can help us with that, too," says Rangaka dryly. (Promoting the brand shouldn't be hard. A M'hudi Sauvignon Blanc won second place in its category at the 2007 International Wine Challenge in London.)

Rangaka's 18-month-old grandson, Xoan, toddles into the room. The big man catches him up and teases the tiny mouth with a spoonful of mint pie. "It's quite disgusting, isn't it?" he croons. Watching them, Cuffe gets that look of a mother halfway around the globe from her family who is presented with a child who reminds her of her own. At every visit we've made she has produced a booklet of photos from her 15-month-old son's daycare, mounted on construction paper and tied with a ribbon. A day earlier she'd recounted a phone call with her mother-in-law, who is staying with the boy. Cuffe had left him a stuffed bear embedded with a recording of her voice. Upon hearing it he had searched the house for his mother and, not finding her, begun to cry.

The Cuffes want four or five children, one or two of them adopted. A brood that size will make global travel harder. Ditto running a company. Cuffe says that while she educates the South Africans in the ways of American business, they are educating her about balance. At the SABVA training session in December, members had brought their children along. When vintners visited the U.S. last year, they couldn't understand why her son didn't join them on sales calls.

It is growing dark when we leave the M'hudi farm. From the car we watch Diale Rangaka moving stealthily along the side of the road, trying to capture an injured duck so he can bring it inside to safety. Cuffe is unusually quiet, whether contemplative or bone-tired I can't tell. "This is a real family business," she says finally. "Not a business where family members work, but a business where your grandkids are running around. I think that's lovely.

"I can never let my work ethic and my career make problems in my personal life," she continues as we head back toward Cape Town, where a long night of work awaits her. "I look at these people, and I know what it is I am supposed to be doing."

Last updated: Dec 1, 2007

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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