Tina James: Championing Women on and off the Dance Floor

Tina James_ballroom compressedTina James’ heart and passion lie with women’s empowerment and, in case you doubt her credentials, she’s got two businesses to prove it. FemTECH, a support program for women-owned tech-enabled start-ups, helps African women take charge of their destinies by creating growing businesses. On a lighter note, Dancing Divas, a non-traditional dancing school targeting more “mature” ladies, builds confidence on the dance floor that translates into clients’ daily lives.

“I am so fortunate to be involved in two businesses that I am absolutely passionate about. The dancing caters to my creative side and through femTECH I can offer support services to women that inspire them to make their visions a reality. Out of what was not a very nice situation seven years ago, so many wonderful things have happened.”

James is the first to acknowledge she’s had a checkered career. With an undergraduate degree in zoology and psychology from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, she spent her early professional years in research studying galagos (bushbabies) at night. She moved from the trees to the classroom to teach high school biology and science and, after studying music on the side, also added music appreciation to her repertoire.

Her love of music extended to her professor, who she married, but her career in education ended when she was recruited as a research officer for the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s Water Information Center, creating a “massive water database in the pre-internet days”. James’ reputation in database development did not go unnoticed and she moved up the ranks until she ran the Center. At the same time, she found herself working increasingly in the “Information for Development” side of the business.

“You know how things go in Africa, we all have to do lots of little things,” she laughs.

tinaCSIR was her home for a further 12 years, until she finally listened to the inner voice calling her to go out on her own “I was getting increasingly interested in how to apply ICT (information communications technology) to the development space. I was just too entrepreneurial for an organization and really wanted to do my own thing, be my own boss.”

In 1997, she took a 6-month consultancy with the International Research Development Center of Canada and never looked back, launching her own consultancy focusing on Africa.

All the while, James was dancing. “A late bloomer, I started Spanish dancing when I was 38 but after ten years my professional career and travel demands forced me to step away from the world of Flamenco and jotas. So I started ballroom and Latin American dancing as a way of staying active while reducing demands on my time, but it didn’t work as I planned. I became quite serious about it and took more and more classes.”

Between the dancing and exacting work schedule, James began to burn out. In her early 50s, she decided enough was enough. “The only thing I knew was that I wanted to dance more, but there was nowhere for someone my age to dance without a dance partner. So I decided to create a space where middle-aged women were welcome to dance and more importantly have fun.”

Game of Thrones Tina and L3s compressedShe started with some focus groups and conducted a few classes in a rented studio for free on the condition that participants would sit with her afterwards to share what they liked and didn’t like. The response was extremely positive so a few months later she launched Dancing Divas with a handful of people and three classes a week.

“Our dancing school targets more mature women who don’t fit into the normal dance school environment. They don’t have partners but love to dance. They lack confidence in their ability but as they take the classes, we see their bodies and minds start to change both in terms of what they can do and what they believe they are capable of. Things that they never thought they could do in dancing, they find themselves doing and then that translates into confidence in other areas of their life,” James explains. “They dance by themselves, for themselves.”

And never one to do things by halves, around the same time she was launching her dance school, James decided to take the best parts of her consultancy business and start anew with a business partner, Jill Sawers. Believing that fostering entrepreneurship and not aid was the way forward in developing countries, the pair created FemTech, a donor-funded experiential learning program, mentoring and coaching female entrepreneurs in tech-enabled growth businesses.

FEMTECH Trainers with Tina and Jill March 2014“Jill and I are making a difference in these women’s lives. We’re building their confidence and giving them business skills but ultimately the tough love approach we apply stretches these women.” [Career 2.0 has profiled femTech graduates Hyasintha Ntuyeko, Monica LopesMary Shikukutu, and Sonnika Coetzee.]

MTNterprise4 - Dancing DivasIt turns out, running two businesses at the same time has its benefits. “My experience of owning a small creative business complements the entrepreneurship work I am doing with femTECH. The women can relate to me because I am going through the same thing, facing similar challenges. I’ve bootstrapped the whole business out of my own pocket. And likewise, what I learn from these small business owners, I can feed back into Dancing Divas. The first two years were really tough and I’ve made a lot of sacrifices, financially and socially, but it’s been worth every moment of it.”

And it turns out there are other analogies too. “I just got so fed up of hearing these women saying to me, ‘oh, but you’re so different and I would never be able to do that’ and I thought that was absolute nonsense. If I could get that far in dancing starting at a rather mature age then anyone could do it. The same goes for starting a business. If you have a great and sellable idea, and are passionate about it, why not see your hint of an idea develop into something that will live long after you are no longer around.”

Tips from Tina James on running a business (or two):
  • Delegation is key! Don’t try to do everything yourself. At Femtech, we are bringing trainers on board to run the sessions and at Dancing Divas I’m considering various models (licensing agreement, franchise, more employees etc) and succession planning for others to take over key functions
  • When you are passionate about something, burnout is not an issue. Burnout comes when you are spending your days doing the wrong things, things you don’t believe in anymore
  • Ensure that your brilliant idea is sellable. If no-one wants it, it won’t build a business.
  • Do your homework properly, research your concept. Dancing Divas came about because I could not find any place that met the needs for more mature dancers. Sharing a class with 8-year old beginners just does not work! I attended a variety of dance and fitness classes and so often felt odd, uncomfortable, and just plain oversized and very middle-aged. I wanted a space where, like the three bears, the porridge would taste “just right” … and that is exactly what we have done.

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