Riasha Pillay started working at Unistar Inks seven years ago as her father’s personal assistant. Today, her dad works for her.
The 28-year-old now owns a 51% stake in the family business and her father, Dasson, delights in calling her “boss” – especially when her grandparents are in earshot.
It was a R22 million loan from the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) – which she applied for as part of the Gro-e Youth Scheme for young business owners – that catapulted Pillay’s company from being a small enterprise to becoming a big business.
From 20-something employees two years ago, the company now has more than 50 – and its turnover has doubled.
Pillay’s business was founded by her father in 2004 after he spotted a gap in the printing ink market, which was dominated by European imports.
Unistar began manufacturing printing inks for food packaging and it now prints packages for household names – bread bags for Albany and chip packets for Simba.
Pillay had not planned to join the family business.
Armed with a bachelor’s degree in business science from the University of Cape Town in 2011, she’d been accepted into the graduate recruitment programme at SA Breweries.
But she went home to Durban and started helping her dad out during her holiday because she “cannot sit still”.
“I started implementing new policies and I realised what a change I’d made and how much he needed me. I was more his PA than anything else when I first started. But the business grew and I saw gaps,” she says.
However, it wasn’t all plain sailing.
“It’s not the fact that I came in as a young woman that ruffled so many feathers, it’s because I implemented so many changes,” she says.
“The business had been running for eight years before I started, and some thought: ‘You know, we were profitable before she came in, what is she trying to do? What is she trying to achieve? Is she just showing off?’”
Pillay insists that she was no different from any other employee, growing from the father’s PA to assistant lab technician, to a general manager and then to the production manager of the company’s entire Durban plant.
But gaining recognition and respect was far more difficult outside of the business than within.
As the first young black woman business owner in ink manufacturing in the country, it was hard to make her mark in an industry dominated by older white men.
“I was constantly undermined and left out of industry gatherings because they didn’t take me seriously,” she says, adding that this drove her to complete her master’s degree in business administration.
“Also, joining the family business, there was a stigma, like I was a beneficiary of nepotism. It was like: ‘She got to where she is today because of her dad.’
“No. My dad got to where he is today because of me. This business got to where it is today because of the sacrifices that we both made.”
But she won in the end.
“All those men respect me today – after they got to know me and got to listen to me, they realised I’m not an airhead.”
It is perhaps because she had such a tough time as a young business owner that Pillay is now giving young people opportunities in her business, and employing their skills and creativity to drive it forward.
In 2014, Unistar Inks embarked on a massive sustainability drive and launched its water-based inks in 2015.
It worked with the likes of Valpré on the company’s green bottle and with Kimberly-Clark to make its packaging more environmentally friendly.
“We soon realised we needed more money. We were self-funded all along, and that’s when we approached the IDC,” she says.
“Be resilient. Take the step. Go for it. If you have a dream, go for it.
“Despite the odds that you may feel are stacked against you, break them down. You have nothing to prove to anyone but yourself.
“And the worst thing that anyone can tell you is no. ‘No, we don’t want your product, no you don’t fit in here.’ And when they do tell you no, it will be a motivating factor for you to get it, and take the next step.
“You need to have a tough skin, and you need to find that passion.
“If you find that passion and if you find what really motivates you to get up in the mornings, it makes working for it so much easier.”
People who are 35 or younger at the time of application can qualify for preferential interest rates through the IDC’s Gro-e Youth Scheme, and they need to have a majority stake in a company.
Pillay took over the commercial and production side of the business, which gave her father more time to follow his passion for technology and research and development.
She applied for the loan two years ago.
“It was daunting for me, like any funding application, but it also taught me about my own business, which was great.
"You really get into the fine print, and you don’t realise a lot of the logistics until you have to repeat it to somebody else,” she says.
The IDC funding was used to expand Unistar’s product line, and to produce a new green printing technology called ultraviolet curable inks.
They also used the money to expand, opening a new operation in Johannesburg. The plan is to expand to Cape Town next year to give the company a truly national footprint. Going green was an obvious step for Pillay.
“Green technology is slightly more expensive, but if you look at the way things are going and you look at the new taxes being imposed throughout the world, especially for industries in terms of carbon emissions, being an industrialist means you have to look at the bigger picture,” she says.
No green inks are manufactured in South Africa – most of the local inks are solvent-based – and the green technology is Unistar’s “competitive advantage”.
Young people driving solutions
The environmentally friendly inks aren’t Unistar’s only innovation.
The company is looking to commercialise new conductive inks in the next year.
These inks, which are able to conduct electricity, can – in theory for now – be applied to anything, from solving retail stock management problems to measuring the temperature of food when the ink is used for printing on containers.
Printing circuitry for use in electronic devices such as cellphones is also something the company is working on.
“The ink is made out of silver nitrate and has conductible properties – that’s one of my father’s proud inventions. He worked with overseas experts, including from Toronto in Canada and a professor from a university in London,” she says.
“You have masterminds who create these technologies, but they don’t have experience in the printing side of it, which we have, and we also have experience in the ink side of things.
“We are taking ink to the limit and breaking barriers in terms of what inks can be used for.”
To help develop the new technology, Pillay has hired seven interns – mostly young black woman chemical and electrical engineers who have recently graduated and come from disadvantaged communities.
“They are actually our jewels and are taking the business to the next level because they are innovating with my father,” she says.
“We are looking at commercialising the conductive inks in the next year, and we are working with companies such as LG and it’s exciting.
"Although we have our bread and butter – like our Tastic rice brand bags – this is how we are differentiating ourselves. This is where the business is going.
"We are going to be the first people who can print using conductive inks in the world.
“We are also looking at smart packaging and how we can use conductive ink to reveal the temperature of your milk, and to help prevent food waste.”
The recent outcry over counterfeit foods sold in spaza shops in Gauteng prompted Pillay to research how widespread the problem was.
“I started reading about how bad things are in the rest of Africa and the number of people it is affecting is scary,” she says.
“So I am going to Tiger Brands, a company we already work with, to look at printing translucent ink on packaging so a customer can tell whether the goods are counterfeit,” she says, adding that the translucent ink would prove authenticity in a similar way that watermarks prove bank notes are real.
Pillay’s youth drive is having a tremendous effect on the company, she says.
“The talent that they have is incredible. They have this passion to create new technologies and make something of themselves.
“It is something that has changed the way I operate and changed the way I run this business because I am able to see how much passion they have.”
With the new technology Unistar Inks has launched with the help of the IDC loan, Pillay has ensured that the young engineers involved in its development get to see the process through to the end.
“They have travelled to London with my dad, and he’s taken them to visit all the stakeholders.
"I have taken them to customers and they are part of the production of this product.
"For them, it’s not necessarily about the commercial gain, but the realisation that they have created something; that they’ve done it,” she says.
While hiring the talent is one thing, getting a shy engineer to speak up at a meeting is another, so the company has invested in training programmes for staff in everything from finance to production management.
“We make them know that they are valuable and that we are going to grow them. We aren’t here just to extract their ideas and create robots out of our employees,” she says.
“We realise we are nothing without our staff and our stakeholders, and the IDC is one of them. We wouldn’t be where we are today without them.”
*In partnership with the IDC