Never curb your enthusiasm

2013-03-10 10:00

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The Female Factor series identifies and celebrates entrepreneurial women – both established and up-and-coming – who are forging ahead in this tough economic climate. The series, which gets off to a flying start with Travel With Flair’s Johanna Mukoki. Sue Grant-Marshall reports.

Johanna Mukoki sweeps into the elegant boardroom of Travel With Flair, attired in a sophisticated cocktail dress that will take her from the office to a company prize-giving and eventually an evening event.

The symbols of her success line the walls and adorn the cabinets.

Here, there are pictures of her with former presidents Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Richard Branson, Bill Cosby and Kim Kardashian. These are standalone, one-on-one, faces pressed close together photographs.

Over there are trophies aplenty, the latest being Ernst & Young’s world entrepreneur award in the emerging category for the Southern Africa region.

“I’m going to Monaco in June for the Ernst & Young finals and hopefully I’ll have tea with Princess Charlene in the pink palace.”

She claps her hands with anticipated joy.

This enthusiasm is one of the keys to her business success for it threads the tapestry of her life like a golden skein.

The little girl who sold raw meat and boiled eggs on the bustling streets of Orlando, Soweto, in apartheid-era South Africa to help her teacher mother and bus driver father make ends meet, aced her way through school.

A supportive and tight family unit helped. “My mother was really strict and my father urged us to read self-help and then business books,” recalls Mukoki.

The straight-A student got a bursary to study at Pace Commercial College in Jabulani, Soweto, but was stumped by the 1986 riots that prevented her writing matric. Undaunted, she applied to Damelin college but her father couldn’t afford the fees.

“So we found a bank manager who agreed to sponsor me if I passed the tests of the first semester,” she recalls.

Her eyes shine today with the same determination she applied back then to studying maths, statistics and accounting, often by candlelight.

She studied accounting at Rhodes University, “where I also won a car”, she interrupts herself, and did her articles at auditing firm KPMG.

But she decided that her creative flair and infectious enthusiasm were not best suited to columns of figures.

She joined her partners, Robert Wilke, whose speciality is IT systems; and Tibor Zsadanyi, a former professor in tourism, adding her financial management prowess to the mix to create Travel with Flair.

Its focus on the corporate and government markets has helped itthrough the rocky global economic downturn of 2008 that wiped out airlines as well as travel businesses across the world.

There was another challenge too, that of the internet, which many predicted would end the role of travel agencies.

But innovative as ever, the company developed its own IT platform and department, something not usually found in travel agencies.

There are other stand-apart aspects to the company. It was a pioneer in the use of e-ticketing in South Africa. It also decided to send confirmations of client bookings by SMS at a time when this was not the norm.

Mukoki and her partners understood early on that the only way to get ahead, and stay there, was to better equip their travel-booking consultants. For this, they established the Gauteng Travel Academy. Mukoki is planning to attend a graduation on the day we met and she’s as excited as she was at her graduates’ first ever ceremony.

One of the dominant features of Mukoki’s working life is her insistence on a balance between her home and work. She has two teenage children aged 11 and nine.

“I cope by juggling. I took my son to school this morning before taking my sick daughter to the doctor.

“My (banker) husband prefers his name not to be known, so this is what I do. It helps me to sleep well at night.”

Mukoki keeps life real by baking with her children, with the added benefit that it helps her to destress.

Sitting on the Salvation Army board “is what I love. Putting a smile on a girl’s face?.?.?.” Then there’s a pause and she mentions that she mentors some of the girls there.

She sits on the international board of the Association for Corporate Travel Executives, which includes some Fortune 500 company vice-presidents. She’s the first black person to do so.

Among her many accolades, is Topco Media’s certificate of excellence for the Top South African female executive.

In 2009, she was awarded the Top Gender Empowered Company in the nation.

“I have never been employed,” she says, a note of wonderment creeping into her voice.

“I am an entrepreneur. I was born a free spirit and I cannot think of any other way to work or live.”

»?If you’re a female entrepreneur who needs a springboard to more success, sign up for the fully sponsored Goldman Sachs-GIBS 10?000 Women Programme for Women Entrepreneurs at the Gordon Institute of Business Science. To apply, visit www.gibs.co.za/10000women

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