Adri Schutz: Going global

2013-08-06 11:00

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Adri Schutz’s Mielie handbags aren’t just beautiful – they also empower local women.

About 60% of the eye-catching Mielie handbags made by Adri Schutz’s team of township craftswomen is exported to boutiques and gift shops in the USA, Australia, Germany, Finland and Croatia.

The company now consists of 50 women who use age-old techniques like hooking and handknotting to make a unique range of handbags out of recycled cotton. Each bag is unique and bears the name of its creator, and buyers can find out more about who made their bags on Mielie’s website.

‘We are allergic to pity purchases,’ says Adri. ‘A product is only considered successful if it’s beautifully designed, mindful of the environment and creates a job.’

What inspired you to start the business?

As a graphic designer, one of my clients was Epilepsy South Africa. They ran a carpet-weaving project, using recycled T-shirt fabric strips. As they were battling to find a market, I offered to design and market smaller products, starting with handbags and cushions. Things quickly grew from there and soon we recruited more weavers to cope with the demand.

How did you get so established in the export market?

The rand was weak when I started, and many people approached me to represent Mielie abroad. As the rand strengthened and the world economy slowed down, exporting became a tough learning curve. Fortunately we now have a network of loyal Mielie ambassadors in the US, Australia and Europe. The current weak rand also helps.

What’s your proudest achievement?

In 2009, one of our master weavers, Zanele Sinuka, and I were invited to an international textile exhibition in Finland. But my biggest thrill is seeing the impact Mielie has made on lives – it helps put food on the table, clothes children and keeps them in school; it even gave someone trapped in an abusive relationship the financial independence to find a way out.

The most challenging part of the business?

Although I am drawn to the creative side of the business, time has taught me I don’t have a choice about my involvement in admin, people management and marketing.

Your mentors or business greats?

Various mentors over the years have helped me focus on aspects of my business, from general strategy to marketing and pricing. I admire businesses that have successfully harnessed social media and technology. Heather Moore of Skinny laMinx is a great example.

Business books you recommend?

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers is a study of what makes people successful. It comes as no surprise that most successful people can attribute their success to talent, timing and many hours of hard work!

Three things i’ve learnt the hard way

1. To remain focused and disciplined.

2. To ask when I need help. It’s surprising how many people are happy to share the benefit of their experience.

3. To keep overheads to an absolute minimum.

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