Although she too is beautiful, like her namesake, Cleopatra Simelane’s biggest assets are clearly her smarts and ability to make an impression. Queen Cleopatra may have won over the likes of Julius Caesar, but at the age of 22 the electric Joburger so impressed business magnate Richard Branson that he described her as “… an unbelievable dynamo … the kind of person you just know will never give up, no matter what obstacles get thrown her way.”
And Simelane has had her share of obstacles. Starting a youth empowerment magazine from scratch and growing it into an edu-lifestyle social enterprise with little-to-no funding has required a lot of creativity and plenty of luck.
“Why was I only told about the Law of Attraction and not the Law of Relativity? We all receive a series of problems and challenges for the purpose of strengthening the light within. If I had known this earlier, I wouldn’t have taken the hurdles so personally. I would have learned and evolved faster.”
Even though it’s probably hard to imagine, Simelane was an insecure teenager with low self-esteem. She left her mother and brothers behind in Soweto, where she mostly spoke isiZulu, to live with her aunt and attend an English-speaking high school. Struggling to fit in and express herself, the normally outgoing girl with dreams of becoming an actress became depressed and overweight. It was a difficult time but one that would have a significant impact on her future.
“The Tae Bo videos I downloaded from the internet helped with the healing process. I fell in love with physical training as fitness challenged me mentally and spiritually,” she explains.
“The best thing that happened to me was discovering what I am capable of, understanding the unlimited power and intelligence that lives within me. I have made the best business decisions because of it.”
After graduation, Simelane returned to Soweto where she was surprised that her friends were not reading magazines as she had done at school. When she was not at work, she spent time making a magazine for fun but with a little twist: the content was centered around positive South African role models rather than the usual celebrity suspects. Not long after, she was convinced to enter the Miss Soweto contest and won R30 000 (almost $4000) as a front runner and also placed in the top 12 for Miss Teen South Africa. Her confidence and outgoing nature came back in spades.
“I used the winnings to study project management and this gave me the idea to turn the magazine into something more substantial. I was writing the content myself and got a graphic designer to lay it out. I used my own money to print and distributed it for free to schools. I didn’t imagine I could make money from it, it was just fun, and I enjoyed getting letters from students. But it got attention and when people realized I was doing it on my own, they were shocked.”
Her first break came when ABI, a Coca Cola bottler, sponsored an official copy. From there, her distribution and readership grew and she was selected to participate in a Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship networking session where her mentors were actress and TV presenter, Moky Makura, and philanthrophist Martin Ainscough. The latter was so impressed by Simelane’s entrepreneurial spirit he invested R60 000 in her venture.
“I will never forget him. He believed in me when I was going through a very hard time spiritually. I doubted my capabilities and qualities,” Simelane recalls. “But he lifted me up and helped me believe in myself again.”
Today Red Bull Amaphiko, a platform for social change-makers, supports the 28-year-old Joburger’s Recess Youth Movement, a social impact media brand that focuses on health and empowerment and is targeted at school-aged teenagers and university students. It’s been a transformational opportunity as they provide office space, legal support and promote her business at no cost to help her attract brand partnerships to increase her print run and take her youth movement nationwide.
“Sometimes I look back, and I cannot believe how far I have come. I am proud of being part of the Red Bull Amaphiko program. They’ve been so helpful and I’m really grateful for attracting such an amazing opportunity into my life.”
Simelane’s social enterprise has two main offerings: Recess magazine and the Youth Fitness Revolution. Focused on real and tangible solutions to the many challenges faced by young people today, Recess has evolved into a high school apprenticeship project supported by advertising and sponsorship. It’s freely distributed to 103 schools. After undergoing YLED-facilitated training and mentored by young professionals, about 50 students write and publish the magazine, empowering them to consider careers in writing, communications, and marketing. Her second venture, the Youth Fitness Revolution, is a series of fitness workshops given in schools and communities, supplemented by content. It’s a new focus for Simelane and she’s on the search for sponsors looking to support the initiative.
“Studies have shown that South African women do very little exercise and that many, particularly black women, associate being fat with wealth, health and success, while being thin can be associated with being HIV-infected. I really want to changes these beliefs in a way that young people understand.”
Simelane’s biggest challenge to date has been planning and raising funds.
“I have a small team and run the business with limited resources. But clients don’t care, they expect us to deliver. So we just keep moving and try to keep up. Some days, we’re out selling, others are spent at schools doing the apprentices workshops or fitness sessions. And I also have to manage the business so it leaves little time for strategy.”
Although the young entrepreneur does acknowledge there are financial, cultural and structural barriers to women starting and growing businesses in South Africa, she believes the biggest barrier is a psychological one.
“Before anything else, the woman needs to change her mindset, how she views herself. She needs to nurture her inner strength and realize that she actually does have the capabilities and qualities to change her life and the life of others. The best thing that happened to me was discovering what I am capable of, understanding the unlimited power and intelligence that lives within me. I have made the best business decisions because of it.”
And at 28 years, it looks like the independent self-starter is only at the beginning of her journey. Good luck, Cleo, in building the most influential youth brand in Africa; keep lifting as you climb!
Cleopatra Simelane’s startup advice:
- Don’t stop prototyping. Keep in touch with your market so you can constantly refine your business model. And don’t be afraid to change strategies that do not work. Be consistent and keep the momentum going regardless of the challenges.
- It’s an inside out thing. Do the one thing that you are most passionate about. Something that will make you get out of bed even if you don’t feel like it. And without doubt, success will follow you wherever you go.
Watch this video to learn more about the phenomenal Cleopatra Simelane