Founder of Portia M on what got her business off the ground - 'The brand belongs to the people'

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Portia M founder Portia Mngomezulu shares her journey to success.
Portia M founder Portia Mngomezulu shares her journey to success.
Photo: Jurie Potgieter/TRUELOVE

Locally, the Portia M brand has become synonymous with affordable skincare.

Its founder, Portia Mngomezulu, had humble beginnings in Phalaborwa, Limpopo, living with her maternal grandmother.

“I come from a family of matriarchs who were self-employed and constantly teaching me that I could be my own boss and build something for myself,” she enthuses.

The birth of an entrepreneur

Portia will always call Limpopo home, even though she moved to Kriel in Mpumalanga to stay with her parents at the age of eight. As a teen, she would take the scraps of material left over from her seamstress mother’s creations and make decorative cushions to sell or plait people’s hair.

“I started earning money quite early because I’m creative and good with my hands,” she explains.

The eldest of three children, she studied   towards   an Information Technology diploma at the Tshwane University of Technology. “I loved technology and completed my diploma in 2002. At the time,  I was convinced that I wanted to excel as a programmer. I also completed a certificate in Project Management through Unisa and did an internship at Siemens — where I worked for nine years,” she shares.

Building the dream

Her entrepreneurial spirit was ignited when she stumbled upon the remarkable benefits of Marula oil.

“I developed stretch marks from my first pregnancy in 2010. My husband is from Swaziland and on one of our visits, my mother-in-law told me how they used Marula oil for any skin ailments. I bought a 500 ml bottle from the rural women and tried it out. It did wonders for my skin and I kept buying more. But this time, I repacked it into smaller 100 ml bottles and gave it to friends to try.”

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The great feedback motivated her to establish her own company.

“As a Christian, I believe there’s greatness in all our names. I thought if people could buy Elizabeth Arden and not even know who she is, then why can’t they buy Portia M from Africa. I revisited the folder titled ‘My Journey To Greatness’ that I had created on my computer and started writing down exactly what I wanted to achieve with my skincare brand.”

She started a Facebook page in 2011 and would inbox everyone she knew, urging them to try outthe oil. She sold it forR100 a bottle.

“I continued doing some research and was assisted by one of the founders of Placecol — he helped me formulate the products. I registered Portia M in 2011 and metaguy from Seda (a business development organisation) who helped me get started. In 2012, Seda assisted with the business plan, perfecting the formulation and with rigorous testing at the then Medunsa University and through the South African Bureau of Standards.”

Her dream realised

With the help from Seda, Portia was a step closer to seeing her brand materialise. Back at her garage, she was busy formulating and making products using a two-plate stove, a cake mixer and ‘paraffin funnel’ to fill containers.

“I finally gathered the courage to resign after giving birth to our second son. Portia M was taking shape and I knew I’d found my purpose when I realised that my journey wasn’t just about me, but every other girl out there,” she beams.

A humbling moment for Portia was receiving a call, on the day she resigned, from Massmart inviting her to meet with their buyer — and she was offered a scholarship for a business degree.

“I started at Gibbs in 2014 and went to see Makro’s skincare buyer. She was impressed with my product but said my packaging was wrong. I said I’d be back in two weeks and I hustled to get my packaging correct and lost a lot of money. They started me out with five stores, which was a huge breakthrough for me.”

The mother of three continues: “I exhibited at the ABSA Supplier Programme and I met the director at the time, Happy Ralinala, who assigned Basani Mametja to assist me. I spent time in the Absa business programme and toured cities with them marketing my products. Through this, I made meaningful connections and in 2015, I met Suzanne Ackerman on the Cape Town leg. She got me an interview with a buyer, and I was listed in 20 Pick n Pay stores.”

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Getting her brand out there wasn’t all smooth sailing.

“I didn’t have funding and still manufactured from my garage. Fortunately, I won the DTI’s Emerging Supplier Award in Tshwane and met some people from The Innovation Hub, at the ceremony, who offered me factory space for a fraction of the price.

They also gave me two biochemistry interns. The move happened in 2016.Iwent from using a two-plate stove in my garage to using a 1400 sqm building with state-of-the-art equipment,” she recalls.

Becoming a millionaire

Portia attributes her success to other women opening doors for her. In 2015, Portia M was finally available countrywide and on the continent.

“The brand belongs to the people — my marketing has mostly been a result of people sharing their stories. I have experienced some negativity too. We’re disruptors in the industry, and I get that. But my products have been tested and continue to be tested.”

When she left her corporate gig, she remembers telling her then director that she wanted to be a billionaire five years into her business. Now with an annual turnover of almost R50 million, she’s getting closer to that dream.

“Our body oil remains the bestselling product to this day and this past year, we made well over R49 million. In the next five years, I want to grow our footprint on the continent and develop more products that will cater to different skin types.”

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