How Nelson Mandela Made Me a Better Entrepreneur
BY Selena Cuffe
I wasn't ready to start a business, but South Africa inspired me. Nelson Mandela and his family have given me incredible boosts of confidence--and motivation--along the way. Here's what I've learned from working with them.
They say that the third time's a charm. In my case, a second trip to South Africa was when the magic happened.
It was during that journey that I serendipitously attended the first Soweto Wine Festival and learned that the residual effects of apartheid meant that South Africa's burgeoning $3 billion wine industry has less than 2 percent black ownership. That's appalling considering blacks represent more than 80 percent of the country's population.
My husband and I were inspired to launch Heritage Link Brands to improve these statistics. Our mission in starting HLB--our company that markets, imports, and distributes South African wine in the United States--was to introduce people to products that showcase the best quality out of Africa, rooted in stories of perseverance and triumph. Wine is an ideal conduit to encourage economic empowerment, which must still catch up to the political freedom South Africa achieved when apartheid ended almost 20 years ago.
It's pretty much impossible to root your work in South Africa and not be inspired by the energy that Nelson Mandela infused into his nation. His presence can feel larger than life, even though one of the characteristics that so attracted the world was his humility--a humility that made him a relatable "everyman's hero" who inspired others to realize that they too, could be heroes, if only they had the courage to follow their dreams.
Today, I also have the pleasure of working directly with the Mandela family. In 2010 I encountered a story about the launch of the House of Mandela wine brand, led by Nelson Mandela's daughter and his granddaughter, Dr. Makaziwe Mandela and Tukwini Mandela. I cold-called the company--and it worked. In two years, we were the exclusive importer of the House of Mandela wine in the United States.
Focusing on the Mission
I've learned a lot working with the Mandelas. Our work has reinforced the importance of choosing partners for which you align on mission: We knew it was no coincidence when we learned about their brand's commitment to courage, compassion, and community. We are both family-focused businesses with a focus on generational prosperity, and we also share a commitment to sustainable business practices; the House of Mandela was recently named 2013 Fair Trade Winery of the Year by the NY International Wine Competition.
Working with the Mandela family gave me the rare opportunity to see Nelson Mandela in the context of something bigger than him: family. This great man could have taken most of the credit for his accomplishments, but instead, he actively and consistently chose to stay humble. Rather than focus solely on himself, he actively encouraged his offspring to stay true to themselves and pursue their passions, as long as they did it in a way that honored their family and heritage.
Realizing the Goal is Bigger than You
Nelson Mandela's mindset truly inspired me. When we decided to found Heritage Link Brands, we weren't wine connoisseurs--in fact, I wasn't even aware of South Africa's black wine producers! I was scared and frequently second-guessed my decision to found a small business: was I ready to take a leap of faith into entrepreneurship, drain our family's savings, navigate the discrimination of South Africa's largest agricultural industry, or enter into one of the most highly-regulated industries in the U.S. and compete against huge wine companies? Hell no! I wasn't ready for any of it! I didn't know exactly how I was going to surpass those challenges, but I did understand early on that through our business, I had the power to do good in a way that would benefit not only generations of our family, but also families across Africa and the Diaspora, for hundreds of years to come. I charged on.
Today, HLB is the largest importer and marketer of black-produced wine from Africa and its Diaspora. Working with South Africa's first family has certainly heightened our platform to introduce the world to all our wine brands. Our award-winning wines are served worldwide aboard three airlines, and recent placements with Target and Walmart confirm our capacity to compete with publicly traded competitors. And if you want to help carry forward the legacy, just ask your local wine shop to carry the House of Mandela wines. You can also purchase them on our website.
Letting Your Light Shine
I never had the honor of meeting Nelson Mandela directly, but consider myself fortunate to have gotten to know him indirectly, through his family. Working with the Mandela family has deepened my understanding that Heritage Link Brands is not just about me and my husband, our wine producers, or even just the African continent. It's about leaving the world a better place through our work, and appreciating all the people who allow us to meet our mission.
Accordingly, to honor Nelson Mandela's legacy, Heritage Link Brands is proud to announce that as part of our work, we will be honoring everyday heroes: the veterans, homemakers, pilots, janitors, and wine workers whose quiet and consistent work allows us to introduce the world to the good coming out of Africa! Because as Nelson Mandela taught us, consistently doing the everyday tasks with excellence results in the extraordinary.
It is indeed a long walk to freedom--whether political, economical, or social. Working with the Mandela family has taught me that my entrepreneurial road has been paved not only by the iconic heroes, but also the everyday heroes whose work is just as important. And for that, I will forever be humbly thankful.