Johannesburg - You don’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need… before finding a job you love. This proved true for 29-year-old Lebo Mokgabudi, who owns online shoe boutique Budi. Even though she has “always loved shoes”, it took years to do what she wanted to do. Still, the road to success is by no means guaranteed or easy.
Mokgabudi says she’s a “born entrepreneur”, but instead of doing what most entrepreneurs do – jump right in and start building their business of choice – she got highly educated first and started climbing the corporate ladder.
The “shoe bug” never left her, though, even when the company she worked for as a security consultant, Deloitte, wanted to promote her to manager. While holding down this demanding job, she simultaneously laid the foundations of her shoe business.
“It was a sort of madness, but you lose all logic when you’re pursuing something you’re passionate about,” she says.
Today Mokgabudi sells a colourful range of fashionable shoes she and her inhouse designer customise for the “African foot”. For instance, she widens the base or thickens the heel.
The shoes are manufactured in Brazil to her specifications. Budi shoes come in all colours and shapes – from stilettoes and wedges to pumps, flat sandals and boots – and sell for between R600 and R1 500.
Since Mokgabudi started her business at the beginning of last year, she has sold 400 pairs out of an order of 600, mostly via her online boutique, www.budishoes.co.za, and her company profile on Facebook, but also at exclusive shoe parties and events. She has a delivery service and customers visit her studio-cum-showroom in Dainfern, north of Joburg. Budi shoes also sell at Scarpe shoe boutique at Blubird Shopping Centre in Illovo.
Soweto-born and raised, Mokgabudi’s story is common to many whose families made enormous sacrifices to give their kids the education they never had. It accounts for why her route to starting Budi was so circuitous.
After matriculating at St Mary’s in Waverley – and having worked at Hilton Weiner as a sales assistant during holidays – she was champing at the bit to start her own boutique. But her parents insisted on university.
“The reality for Africans is we don’t simply fall into jobs that may have been created by an older generation. We have to start from scratch – with education. In retrospect, my parents were right.”
Mokgabudi started studying drama at the University of the Witwatersrand, but after a year switched to a BCom (finance).
After graduating, she wanted to take a gap year, but there wasn’t enough money. So, in 2006 she took a job at Deloitte. But her mind was on Brazil, one of the world’s leaders in shoe-manufacturing. With her first salary from Deloitte, she booked a ticket there, to see for herself how the industry works and determine the feasibility of importing shoes.
“Over the next two years, I flew to Brazil a number of times, once with my mother. That was when I took the risk and bought 40 pairs of size-six and eight shoes – my and my mother’s sizes. I packed them in my luggage, and went through customs. When I got back, I sold them over weekends and in the evenings to friends, family, Deloitte colleagues and women at the gym.”
Mokgabudi was testing whether selling was one of her entrepreneurial talents. “The shoes were nice, but nothing special.”
Then it was a matter of determining what her buyers liked and choosing shoes that would sell quicker. Next she bought a batch of 60 pairs of shoes in Brazil.
In 2008, after two years at Deloitte, Mokgabudi left in a bid to develop her shoe venture into a full-time business. But she wasn’t ready.
“I ended up having long lunches and didn’t have the discipline to get into it properly. In the end, my money ran out.”
Defeated, she joined audit, tax and advisory firm KPMG as a financial-risk consultant. After 16 months, she moved to Nedbank’s strategy unit, staying for two years.
“Then I got the itch again. I recognised a gap in the market for women’s suits. I’d fly to Hong Kong on a Friday, shop and order 20 suits – which would be made the same day – then fly back on Sunday to be at work on Monday. I was seriously short of sleep, and when I think back, it was all a bit risky.”
But selling suits wasn’t as easy as selling shoes, as local tailoring was often needed for the right fit. So, after a year she abandoned that.
In 2010, Mokgabudi left Nedbank, despite having won an award as a CEO magazine leader of tomorrow. She started an MBA in entrepreneurship at the Gordon Institute of Business (GIBS). As she wanted to study full-time, she paid for it out of her savings.
“I have a culture of saving. I was raised that way. My mother is a chartered accountant and insisted on seeing an invoice for everything I bought.”
An MBA turned out to be exactly what she needed to realise her shoe dream. “You have to submit a business plan to get admitted. During the course, you work on the plan, so I was working on Budi shoes. Whatever business you’re in, it’s 10 percent idea and the rest is implementation.”
By the time she graduated last year, Mokgabudi was ready to launch Budi, a name inspired by her mother, Tshidi Mokgabudi.
Today she’s a licensed importer and has two full-time employees – a designer who decides on heel shapes, colours, patterns and types of leather, and a sales agent.
“Black women are especially big on colour.” Very high heels are popular across the spectrum of 20- to 45-year-olds. Platforms provide comfort, and that’s another strong trend. Her vision is to set up a local manufacturing facility for Budi shoes. To get up to speed, she has done a course in shoe design at the Footwear Design and Technology School in Tshwane.
“I’m looking at whether manufacturing locally will be cost-effective, also whether the same quality can be achieved. Some components, like heels and leather, will still be imported. But ultimately, I want to build something – a legacy – here at home. I’m also looking to expand into handbags, belts and other leather goods.
“The Lord directs me daily.”
And a more personal dream: “I’d love to have a husband, and children. Yes, I’d like three children,” she says. - The Star