Chit Chat: Katleho Tsoku

2011-09-16 08:44

Katleho Tsoku (26), hospitality management graduate and entrepreneur, is back home after years of travelling with her diplomat mother. She has just opened lifestyle lounge Bliss in Milpark. Mokgadi Seabi chats to her.

When did you come back to South Africa?
In 2007. I was looking for a job, but was given ridiculous replies like “you’re too international” or “you’re too experienced”.

So when did you start travelling?

I left South Africa with my mother, Matshepo Tsoku, when I was 14 to live in China where
she was stationed as a diplomat.

And how was that experience?
Beijing was very different from what I had imagined. Not many black people were living in or travelling to China back then, so we were literally novelties. There were times when we would go to the supermarket and the whole place would come to a standstill.

We would get crowds following us around the supermarket, rubbing our skin and checking what we were stocking to eat.

How did you get to learn to speak fluent Chinese?
I attended the International School of Beijing, where most of the students were children of diplomats. I realised that in order to be able to communicate with everyone else, I’d need to learn Chinese. I enrolled in Practical Chinese classes and within a few months, I could communicate.
How does hospitality come into the picture?
My parents have always been big on hosting, so I grew to love it. I always knew that I would go into some form of hospitality service.

Did you follow up on it after completing school?
Certainly. After high school, I studied at the Blue Mountains International Hotel Management School in Sydney, Australia. As part of my degree structure, I had to work in the hotel industry for a year.

That’s when I met this woman from the UK. They were about to open the Park Plaza hotel in Cardiff, Wales, and I was lucky enough to be chosen to be part of that journey.

That sounds more like a proper job than an internship.

Yes. In fact, that was my first proper job where I had to do everything for myself, like finding accommodation and applying for bank accounts.

After completing my year, I transferred to École Hôtelière de Montreux in Switzerland, which is famous for its hospitality industry. But again, I was the only black person in that whole school.

Surely you were used to the reactions by then?
Not really. I realise now that I spent most of the time disabusing people of their preconceived notions about what Africans are like.

So where to from Switzerland?

I actually went back to China to become a hotel guest relations manager. First off, I was this strange-looking person in a senior position. It didn’t sit well with some of the locals.

Secondly, as much as I knew Mandarin, it was still intimidating to have to speak it 24/7. But that only lasted for six months until I went back to Switzerland to complete my degree and graduate.

Is that when you decided to come back to South Africa?
Yes. After many unsuccessful tries at getting a job in 2007, I joined my mother in Washington,?DC, to see if I could crack it there.

Again, the same story. They didn’t expect a black person to be so well travelled. I realised I could open my own restaurant. I started drawing up a business plan and doing research. I wanted to open it here in South Africa, so I came back in 2009.

What challenges did you face?
Well, firstly, I was overwhelmed by looking for a job. I did eventually get one at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Rosebank and later at The Radisson in Sandton. But my plan was always at the back of my head. I approached my mother and told her what I wanted to do. After some stern advice from her and a lot of hustling for capital from my family, my plan finally came together.

It has been eight months since Bliss opened its doors. Do you believe you made the right decision?
Yep. A quote I read in a magazine finally gave me the push. It said: ‘The secret to life is to follow your Bliss!’ And that’s what I did. After all the sleepless nights and anxiety attacks, it has finally come together. Success won’t happen overnight, but judging by the feedback, I’m well on my way.

»?Bliss is situated in 44 Stanley, Milpark

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