LEATHER

Hide and sleek

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While the mainstream leather industry might be hard for black entrepreneurs to penetrate at the moment, businesswoman Nthabiseng Lephoko won’t let anything stop her from achieving her dreams

Young entrepreneur Nthabiseng Diana Lephoko has outdone herself in many ways. As a single mother finding her place through the ups and downs of life, she has made headway in one of the least transformed industries in the country—mainstream leather craft and manufacturing—and today celebrates a brand new range and budding business interests in Europe, America and the East.

Looking at big names in the leather product manufacturing sector such as Cape Cobra or Karoo Classics, black leather manufacturers seldom feature in the mainstream corporate environment and has traditionally been confined to small business ventures and informal arts and crafts vendors. Today however through a combination of shear drive, perseverance and the assistance of key role players in the public and private sector, Lephoko is taking her leather business, Leratolethato, to new international heights, and besides the steep competition from the large corporates, remains undeterred in achieving success.

Having come from humble beginnings, Lephoko told BBQ that she witnessed her own parents being innovative when it came to fostering the much needed entrepreneurial spirit, and that inspired her to the day. But between the years growing up in Katlehong, Johannesburg, to where she is now, a metamorphosis has been under way.

Having done her training in engineering and later working in the corporate sector as a bond originator, Lephoko, who also and held a marketing position at Liberty Life among others, started feeling a tug at her creative juices, and following a talk with an established business owner, she decided that being independent was the way to freedom and abundance in her career and personal life that she has been striving for for years. Having spent many years in the corporate sector, notably as one of the chairs of the Newborn Groote Schuur hospital, she today inspires other young people to reach for their dreams through motivational speaking and skills development offerings.

Specialising in among others luxury leather handbags, belts, wallets, purses, cardholders, keyrings other accessories and furniture (leather couches), Lephoko in 2013 featured as one of Destiny magazine’s 25 Most Inspirational Entrepreneurs. She has endured her own challenges that shaped her iron clad will. Achieving her initial qualification in Engineering from Ekurhuleni Technical College was no easy task following her Zulu mother-tongue schooling as a child. “We were taught Maths and Science in Zulu, we were even taught English in Zulu. So when you go to tertiary level where you are taught in English, it makes a huge difference. But I persevered and I made it in the end, even though it wasn’t always easy.”

While financing is usually one the biggest challenges start-ups face, Lephoko says this was fairly easily overcome as she used her savings that she accumulated over the years working in corporate life, and that was supplemented by support from the Department of Trade and Industry (dti)—that is still backing her today. While consulting for the dti, she did feasibility studies on skins and hide manufacturing in South Africa. Lephoko also accolades the Fibre Processing and Manufacturing (FP&M) SETA for their tremendous assistance thus far.

Looking at the industry however, Lephoko admits that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of transformation. This she says is about expansion, but also about changing fundamental belief systems. She says unfortunately there is still a stigma that black people are not suited for business and that this deters many from even starting in the first place. Lephoko, who is currently also studying Theology, is convinced that there is a need to shatter self-limiting beliefs at its core.

“For me, to transform something is when you look at what you have and turn it into something greater than what it was—when you are expanding from where you are at that point in time. It is also about doing away with the self-limiting beliefs, the thinking that some are superior and others inferior. My kids today are a bit different, but my generation, we still have a way to go in terms of doing away with these beliefs,” she says.

When it comes to competing with the so-called ‘white giants’ in the industry, Lephoko says it can be intimidating since they are well established and have been there for many years. “They are celebrated. But what I have come to find is that when they are selling they are sometimes selling branded, synthetic products, but at an expensive price. What we did is, we came in with quality products at an affordable price,” she says.

Having had good experience as a marketer during her time in the bonds industry, not to mention having run her own events management company, DLL.O Events, Lephoko knows all too well the importance of getting to know the right people. She does however admit that while she has been working hard and persevering, the right people tend to show up at the right time.

“In our niche, the quality of your networks equals your nett. So it is really about building solid relationships.

"I recently went to Japan, but I had to go there three times over a period of twelve months before I could have a buy-in. In Japan what we are busy with—and once again here they DTI has been amazing—is getting into department stores and also collaborating with top designers over there,” she says. Besides the East, Lephoko has made headway into Europe, specifically in Norway and Germany, as well as America.

Having featured at quite a number of expo’s including Decorex and the recently held Tokyo Living Lifestyle event, Lephoko says what keeps her ahead of the game is always bringing something new and fresh to the table.

“We are currently working on a new range of handbags, a combination of ostrich and springbok called Embo. We also launched our own African print (Sishweshwe) last year,” she told BBQ magazine.

The humble Lephoko further keeps the community close to her heart and has been training and making use of local staff when it comes to producing and sourcing her material.

Excitingly, she is now launching her own training and production incubators. “I am passionate about giving back and I am already assisting in skilling people from the community in quality control and production. I am skilling them to produce quality products suitable for new markets.”

As for her plans for the future, Lephoko says besides for growing her business, she hopes to become further recognised as public and motivational speaker on both a local and international level.

While her industry might have been difficult to penetrate, the modest Lephoko has her sights firmly set on reaching her personal and professional goals, which include plans to market her products to local retail outlets and across the globe.

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