Phenomenal Woman: Head of Marketing Strategy at Riversands – Victoria Williams

Victoria and I met in 2016. Our daughters are in the same class in school. We instantly connected with similar interests: motherhood, entrepreneurship and a passion for marketing. I recently paid a visit to the Riversands Incubation Hub and was very impressed with the work being done there. Here’s more about their head of strategy:

1. Victoria Williams – can you introduce us to who you are? Where you are from, your background etc.

I work in marketing, a field I absolutely love. There’s always something new to learn, and the right marketing can have the most incredible impact on a business. I’m also a wife and a mother. It’s a juggle managing work, spending time with my kids and fitting in healthy habits like exercise and reading.

I grew up in Durban, completed a BA degree at Natal University (now UKZN) and then moved up to Johannesburg to study copywriting at the AAA School of Advertising. My first job was at Franchising Plus, a consultancy which helps entrepreneurs and corporates franchise a business concept. It was incredible exposure to entrepreneurs scaling their operations through franchising.

A few career steps later, at the age of 27, I had the opportunity to buy into Corporate Communications Consultants – a top public relations agency. It had 20-year track record, blue chip clients and I had very experienced business women as partners. I’ll always be grateful for the faith they had in me. I ran the financial services portfolio and represented the Johannesburg Stock Exchange for many years. What a learning curve – financial instruments, investment, trading and stock exchange technology. It really surprised me, because I am not a numbers person!

It was a great ride… I had a BlackBerry (remember those), an inbox from hell and I worked all the time. To set the scene: it would be seven in the evening and I would be on a conference call with the offices in Geneva and New York and my toddler was screaming her head off. I soon realised that things had to change.

I realised that there had to be a ‘third option’, for women with children to be able to work but not all the time. Unfortunately, this is not something that most companies can wrap their heads around. But if you strike out on your own, you may get it right, or get pretty close to it.

2. Can you tell us more about the Riversands Incubation Hub? What is it about? When did it start and how long has it been in operation for?

In 2014, I registered a company and started to build up a clientele. I was introduced to Riversands by a friend and after completing a project for them, I was offered the role as Head of Marketing. I loved the vision of the place.

If you visit Riversands, there is a feeling of something ‘big’ being afoot. At the very least, you’ll be impressed by the level of entrepreneurial activity that exists in Gauteng. There are 170 businesses on campus accommodated in industrial workshops. Riversands is an example of a public-private partnership in action. It was the brainchild of Mark Corbett, the CEO Century Property Developments and National Treasury’s The Jobs Fund.

Riversands, which opened its doors in 2015, is a non-profit company. We put our ‘customers’ – the entrepreneurs – at the heart of everything we do. There is no conflicts such as – are we driving profits for shareholders or are we serving customers?

The rentals are highly subsidised and the mentality is not of a traditional commercial landlord. If your business doesn’t succeed, a landlord may hold you to your three or five year lease. Also, many entrepreneurs don’t have the track record or collateral to qualify for commercial leases. If you’re an entrepreneur, there should be places where you can try something, without worrying about the heavy penalty of failure. Even the more small business friendly shared, short-term office spaces have penalties and hidden costs.

In contrast, our leases are entrepreneur-friendly. You can cancel with a few days’ notice, move to a smaller spot on campus or take on temporary space to complete a big order.

But the value of being at Riversands goes beyond the physical spaces. Entrepreneurship can be a lonely journey. Being connected to a community, attending regular events at your place of work, having a mentor to speak to are powerful antidotes to loneliness. It may keep someone in the game longer. The longer a business survives, the better its likelihood of making it. If we want a better South Africa, we need entrepreneurs to thrive, create wealth for themselves and opportunities for others.

3. You are the Head of Marketing Strategy at Riversands. What is your role at Riversands and what does it entail?

At the highest level, my role involves setting the marketing objectives for the organisation, recruiting the right team members and agencies and deciding where to allocate the annual budget.

We run campaigns to attract entrepreneur applications, we work with corporate sponsors to allocate enterprise development spend, we deliver marketing services to small businesses, and we have a conference centre, a retail showroom on campus and annual events.

A day can include team meetings, reviewing a piece of graphic design or a report to a corporate client, meeting with an agency, walking a new partner around campus or dashing off a few lines of copy.

Riversands is a young, learning organisation – there always the chance to do something new or build something from scratch. Not everything we try works, so we experiment and learn as we go. It’s like working at a start-up, so we really identify with some of the pains that entrepreneurs go through!

4. What type of entrepreneurs come to Riversands and is there a programme that they follow?

There is a wide range of entrepreneurs at Riversands – so many different sectors are represented. We have a bakery, a pet food manufacturer, furniture manufacturers, software developers, a video production company, clothing designers, a robotics firm, HR consultants… It’s a mind-blowing variety.

With such a diversity of businesses, we don’t have a set programme or ‘recipe’ to follow. We offer a menu of business services that entrepreneurs can select from. For example, we have a dedicated finance coach that helps entrepreneurs to set up proper financial systems and connect the business owner with affordable accounting services. Some of our business owners select a mentor to work on a certain aspect of business.

5. Can you tell us about some of your success stories at Riversands?

There are so many talented, committed entrepreneurs in our community – and they’re on the move! We are pleased to play some role in their success, however they take the glory because their success due to their blood, sweat and tears.

I love to watch the growth of Callback Dreams (http://work.callbackdreams.com/) and see the crew jetting around Africa. They’re on Instagram and are always creating amazing shoots. Entrepreneurs Jobie Bakama and Makere Thekiso create content for channels for South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana. The company has a very impressive client list including the SABC, Vuzu TV, Channel O, Converse, Samsung, Volvo SA and many leading local musicians.

Montech Calibration Services is another company enjoying exponential growth. Led by Seola Mashamaite, this is an ISO-accredited calibrations laboratory providing services for humidity and temperature equipment. Seola is incredibly dedicated and single-minded with her vision for growing the company. Since receiving her accreditation (she managed her own ISO process – she is that meticulous), many more doors have opened to her. She now counts corporates such as Eskom and Reckitt Benckiser as regular clients.

Shakil Khan from Tonka Bean Bakery (https://tonkabeanbakery.co.za/) is a hustler of note. He backs up his hustle with incredible baking and desserts. He is a complete stickler with regards to quality ingredients – no synthetic vanilla and margarine is a swear word! Since opening up at Riversands, he has expanded and now sells at Fourways Farmers Market, The Market on The Square at Nelson Mandela Square as well as having a healthy network of coffee shops and hotels.

6. I see you had President Cyril Ramaphosa at Riversands Hub – can you tell us more about what that was all about?

That was so exciting! The team were thrilled to have President Ramaphosa on campus. He was there at the crack of dawn and made a point of greeting everyone he encountered.

Riversands has a conferencing centre on-site called The Canvas Riversands (http://www.riversandsvenue.co.za) and we were the host venue for the launch of Youth Employment Service (YES). The event was attended by captains of industry, government representatives and youth.

The initiative aims to see more than one million young South Africans, between the ages of 18 and 35, being offered paid work experience over the next three years. At its essence, it’s a social compact between government, business and labour to give youth that vital first job. You can read more about it at https://www.yes4youth.co.za/. I must stress that YES is not a Riversands’ initiative.

President Ramaphosa spent time talking to some of the youth present at the event. One piece of advice that stood out was the importance of reading. He stressed that almost every really successful person reads and if you’re not reading books, you’re not growing your mind.

7. What advice would you give people who want to be entrepreneurs?

Being an entrepreneur is tough because it calls for a basket of skills that aren’t typically required in most jobs. So know that you’re not going to get it right the first time. That’s OK. Do what you must to keep the business alive and learn and build the skills as you go. No one starts off as an expert at anything.

Don’t be afraid of being small or appearing small. There are advantages in being a smaller, more nimble player. Small businesses often obscure the fact that it’s a one-man operation. Their websites are often bland, impersonal and don’t show the owner at work. They try to look corporate too soon. If you’re starting a business, be sure to inject your personality into it. Make people know that you’re running the show. People do work with people they like.

8. How do people get hold of you?

You can reach me on victoriaw@riversandsihub.co.za or connect with me on LinkedIn. For more info about Riversands visit www.riversandsihub.co.za

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