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Nelson Mandela University: Business School breakfast highlights authentic leadership in action

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From being a business studies drop-out to sharing the stage with a Business School professor, hospitality entrepreneur Tenjiwe Francine Zana’s career has seen her swop broom for boardroom.

And, although Zana has worked hard to build her career, a large dollop of va-va-voom has been her secret weapon.

“How did I do it? It’s about passion and believing in yourself,” said Zana. “The message I want to give to any business person is know the space you work in and invest in your vision.”

The founder of Exclusive Hospitality Concepts was addressing the Nelson Mandela University Faculty of Business and Economic Sciences, in association with Mantis, at its Breakfast Club breakfast on Thursday, November 10.

Faculty of Business and Economic Sciences Professor Paul Poisat co-hosted the conversation with historian Dr Dean Allen in the Business School auditorium.

And there were tears at the emotional session in Summerstrand, as former colleagues in the hospitality industry showed up to support Zana as she told her rags-to-riches story. Today she runs a thriving company training people in the hospitality industry, with a full-time staff of 19 and dozens more part time employees.

She recalled her first job as a domestic worker aged 19 in Bluewater Bay. She had dropped out after two years of business studies as her family could not afford the fees.

“It was a very tough situation but I had to stick it out because we needed the money. Come month end, I was able to buy groceries to assist my siblings as well.”

However, when the chance then came to work at a hotel near the beachfront, she found her passion.

“I’ve quickly learned that the hospitality industry is where you get to meet different people. I was so inquisitive, I wanted to learn.”

And learn she did, first as a waitron then as a receptionist, working her way up from one-star to four-star hotels and lodges – and with a dream to work at a five-star establishment.

“When I was promoted to receptionist, I was so, so afraid, because, as a child from the township I’d never been to a multiracial school, I didn’t know how to speak proper English or use a computer.”

Zana also sacrificed short-term security for long-term prospects, leaving a secure position to move to wildlife tycoon Adrian Gardiner’s newly established No 5 By Mantis at less than half her salary.

She thrived at the Gqeberha boutique hotel, and the seed was planted to start her own hospitality training company. When she summoned up the courage to approach Gardiner with her business plan, she had no idea how encouraging he would be.

“Mr G is very intimidating but he’s a marshmallow – he’s got a good heart and he believes in me.”

Don’t resign, Gardiner told her, rather network with the people here to market your business.

And, with its five-star clientele, No 5 proved a treasure trove of contacts, including top businesswoman Wendy Luhabe, who went on to mentor Zana.

“You can start with little – I started without making money, I used to take my salary and invest it in the business,” said Zana.

“From 2012 I started making money only in 2018.

“The biggest mistake that SMMEs make is to think that if you start a business automatically you are going to make money. That is not the case.”

Despite her success, and winning multiple national awards, Zana has remained grounded and chooses to stay in Motherwell, where she grew up.

“My background plays a big role and I refuse to be labeled as a VIP. I’m just an ordinary person.”

In 2016 Zana launched an event to celebrate the unseen heroes.

“After winning so many awards, I wanted to acknowledge the visible but forgotten hospitality staff. How would they feel if they could have this experience that I’ve had, walking to the stage and receiving an award?

“We work in this beautiful industry, but we hardly go out to restaurants or wine and dine because we can’t afford it. My thinking was to have an event where hospitality staff get dressed to kill, with red-carpet vibes and be served.”

Prof Poisat said leaders could learn from Zana’s example: firstly, that when you serve, you engage, and secondly, that no job is too small.

Zana’s rags-to-riches story has been so inspirational that she has been approached by Netflix, and a number of universities wanting to write her autobiography.

But, said Poisat, her “story is not quite ready yet – there is more va-va-voom to come”.

“Today we’ve witnessed a very authentic leader tell her story and part of that leadership is humility,” he said. “I can only thank you for the inspiration that you provide for us.”