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From corner shop to corporate: how a humble upbringing shaped an entrepreneur

*This article was brought to you by Sanlam

Hasiena Mukadam started her own business in the age of dial-up internet. “For my sins, it was probably the most interesting time in my life,” says the owner of Progressive IT Resourcing, a specialised recruitment agency. “You just hope someone doesn’t call you because then it cuts the connection and you have to start from scratch again.”

Hasiena Mukadam, Sanlam
Hasiena Mukadam

It was April 2003. Y2K had come to an end and many companies, including the entrepreneurial firm where Mukadam was working in human resources, struggled with funding.

“I sat down and decided I’m going to try this for myself – start my own business. I had a telephone and a two-bedroom house – that was it.”

Within the first few months, Mukadam had secured a contract with Sanlam, Woolworths and a software company. “Those have been my two anchoring clients and they’re still part of my stable, believe it or not.” She also secured a software house and four contractors from a big corporate. Fifteen years later and most of her original clients are still with her.

The eldest daughter of four siblings learned her first lessons about business by working in her mom and dad’s corner shop in Salt River in the Western Cape.

“When you’re growing up, you have to put your time into the shop and do your duties, so you learn very quickly how much mark-up you need to make, what is and isn’t profitable, and how to interact with people. That gave me a huge edge when I started my business.”

The experience taught her never to use the bank’s money to start out. Instead, she started small and avoided accumulating too many loans, rentals and overhead costs. “My philosophy with business is always: be able to pay your people – as quickly as you can – and treat them the way you want to be treated.”

She’s learned many lessons on her journey, which she shares with aspiring entrepreneurs:

  • Make sure you have sufficient funds in your bank account to cover your expenses for at least six months.
  • Know and understand what’s happening in your business’s books.
  • Start off small and in a controlled environment. Don’t try to impress anyone.

Mukadam matriculated from Salt River High School in 1989 amid rising instability and political turmoil. She enrolled for a secretarial diploma at the Academy of Learning and, six months into the one-year course, joined an IT recruitment company that was happy to train her while she studied. “That was the start of my career,” she says.

After 1994, she joined another recruitment company, where the “shy and demure Indian girl” had to learn how to build relationships with people. “I remember saying to my then-boss, ‘Ag, I don’t know so much, what do I have in common with all of these people?’ and she said to me, ‘Try it and see what happens.’” Today, people are the cornerstone of her business. “For me it’s about relationships – build those up first.”

This year, Mukadam enrolled in the Sanlam Enterprise and Supplier Development (ESD) programme, which gives small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) business-development support, investment support, enhanced brand building and access to new markets. “I’m very blessed that Sanlam has selected me to do the ESD programme,” says Mukadam.

Through the programme, small-business owners interact with other SMEs and mentors to transfer their knowledge and expertise. “My mentor, Ian Reid, has been amazing,” says Mukadam. “They ask very tough questions like what your value system is, what your vision and mission are – and they don’t allow you to hide. This is exactly what I needed to take stock of where I am and what direction I am headed towards.”

She says the programme also pairs you with a consultant to put a succession plan in place for the future of your business. “As you know with entrepreneurs we tend to work in the ‘now’,” she says. “What they’re doing for us, in particular, is reaffirming, rounding off what we have, bringing it into focus and giving us direction.”

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