Sharmayne Venkatsamy began her working career in 1986 at the South African Institute of Race Relations. It was a time when the organisation had an intrinsic role to play in the transformation of the country. “I had never before been exposed to so many different types of people and so much information on business, the economy and the changing political landscape. The five years I spent there formed the foundation of what I wanted to achieve later,” she says.
Venkatsamy next joined Enterprise magazine and became part of an interactive body, the Enterprise Development Forum, which helped to develop and empower emerging businesses, professionals and entrepreneurs.“It was an exciting and rewarding time,”she recalls.
“The government was seeking ways to ensure the sustainable transformation of the economy, and our role was to focus on how to create new wealth. The forum gave me a sense of purpose that motivated me.” Venkatsamy also had the opportunity to work with senior black business leaders as part of the Black Business Executive Circle, which meets to network, discuss business opportunities, and look at the implications of government policy.
Eight years later, and with the magazine taking a different direction, Venkatsamy believed there was more work to be done. She met with Tami Sokutu, a seasoned government player and today the executive director of risk and strategy at African Bank.
He is also the non-executive chairman of Masake Communications, the company that Venkatsamy started in 2002 after Sokutu convinced her that it was time. “I had never thought of running my own company, but I was in my mid-thirties and I wanted to be sure then that I would retire knowing that I had made a difference.
The best contribution I could make was to help create an environment in which transformation can happen. That is how Masake was born.” Although Masake is at first glance an events company, it differs from others in that it makes strategic contributions to national and regional debates as a result of its relationships with government and corporate networks.
“We are not a product or service company.We provide solutions that are higher up the value chain, creating a platform for engagement between government, black business leadership and corporate South Africa.” Masake’s services are used by government leaders, for example, to provide platforms where they can bounce off new policy formulation to business leaders.
Its first projects were self-funded, withVenkatsamy adamant that because she had never run a business, she was not going to go into debt. Instead, she used her last salary and her leave payout to setup a home office. “Never rent and furnish an office until you have solid contracts in place,” she cautions. One of her toughest early challenges was confronting the gap between being an expert in her field and the tactical running of a business.
“I had to learn about tax and accounts, for example, but everything you discover prepares you for the next step.” Venkatsamy also learnt that you are only asgood as your team. “We refer to the Masake magic, an ability to pick the right people for our team, with the right spirit, energy and commitment to the brand.It takes time to perfect that.”
She attributes the company’s success, and R9 million turnover, to the fact that it has always stuck to its knitting from the word go. “Many agencies offer a whole range of services; we excel at what we know we can do.” Ask her what she is most proud of having achieved and Venkatsamy ranks survival high.
“The success rates for small business are shockingly low. We have had lean months, but in six years of organic growth, we have always paid salaries and we have no bad debt. Contact: +27 11 783 1528; www.masake.co.za