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Malehlonoholo Moleko: The Making of an Entrepreneur

By:  Deborah Hastings Dec 3, 2012
Moleko speaking at TEDxwomen

It has been a week of firsts for Malehlonoholo Moleko. She boarded an airplane for the first time in her life, and traveled for the first time beyond her native South Africa to the United States.

And if this wasn’t enough, last Friday, Moleko, who has turned her small, struggling bakery into a successful restaurant and local shop, addressed the TEDxWomen conference  in Washington, D.C., which highlighted extraordinary women in far-from-ordinary circumstances.

In miles and milestones, she has come a very long way from her dirt-road village outside Johannesburg.

Helping Women to Help Themselves

Two years ago Moleko was struggling to make ends meet as the owner of a bakery in her hometown, Boipatong Vanderbjilpark, South Africa, when she was accepted as a student in a business skills workshop offered as part of The Coca-Cola Company's 5by20 initiative, Coca-Cola’s ambitious goal to enable the economic empowerment of 5 million women by 2020.

“I learned hard work and passion were not enough. I needed the right education to run a successful business, and I had nobody to teach this to me,” says Moleko. “Finding the business skills workshop I took two years ago changed my entire life. I did not need someone to give me money or a handout. What I needed was a hand up.”

Working Smarter to Build a Business

Moleko, 38, rises at 3:30 a.m., six days a week, to begin baking and cooking for the nearby factory workers who make up her clientele.

“I love to cook and try new recipes,” says Moleko. “It's my passion. I've always dreamed of owning a restaurant, and I work very hard to realize this dream,” says the entrepreneur and mother. Moleko’s 20-year-old son Mpho helps fuel her passion. She is using her income for his schooling.

“His future is the most important thing to me,” says Moleko. “He’s so proud of me, and he is thankful that I am working hard so that he can find an easier path to success.” 

Moleko opened her bakery in 2006, hoping to follow in the footsteps of her father, who was a chef. She borrowed money to finance her dream, but soon found she knew nothing about running a business.

“I often did not have the money I needed to buy flour and baking supplies,” she says. “Several times I had to turn to my brother and ask him to lend me money.”

Embarrassed, Moleko worked even harder, putting in more than 15 hours a day. But still she couldn't make ends meet or balance her books. 

The Breakthrough Workshop

Then she heard about Coca-Cola's workshop for women entrepreneurs in her area. She was accepted with 40 other businesswomen, and she spent months taking classes in time management, finance skills, dealing with customers and how to lead employees.

“I was clueless about what it took to run a business,” she says. “But after the classes I knew how to budget properly and that I needed to separate my personal finances from the business finances.”

Inspiring Other Women

Moleko likes to work hard and finds satisfaction in providing for herself and her son. Other women in the community, who don’t always understand her nontraditional approach to supporting herself, sometimes ask her why she does not let a man provide for her. Moleko would not have it any other way. As she says, “I love knowing that everything I have, I accomplished on my own.”

And while the path she has chosen may not be the right one for every woman, she hopes she can show other young women in her community that they have a choice about their future. She now spends time mentoring and sharing the knowledge she learned in the Coca-Cola workshop.

“I want young girls and women in South Africa to feel they can be independent and financially stable,” says Moleko. “I tell them that when you are determined to work hard — and wise enough to seek help from others who have been in business or been in their shoes — anything is possible.”

In front of the TEDxWomen audience Friday, Moleko shared her journey with thousands of people both live and streaming online. She left the audience with a message of inspiration and encouragement:

“…I am not alone. I know there are hundreds of millions of women like me throughout the developing world who can achieve what I have achieved. We have the passion. We have the determination. Bring forth more partners and mentors like I received, and you’ll see a world where that gap between poverty and plenty closes more and more each day.”   

Coca-Cola's Journey to Reach 5 Million Women

Moleko’s story is one of many examples of success resulting from the 5by20 initiative. By the end of this year, 300,000 women will have been reached by the programs Coca-Cola has developed to address the barriers that prevent women entrepreneurs from succeeding in the marketplace. 5by20 is doing this by increasing access to 1) business skills training courses, 2) financial services and assets, and 3) networks of peers or mentors.

The company works with key partners to build on best practices in the Coca-Cola business system worldwide and on the valuable insights and programs our partners bring to the table, encouraging innovation, scale-up and replication. 

The goal to reach 5 million women by 2020 is an ambitious one, but the initiative is well on its way.

Coca-Cola announced this week that the 5by20 empowerment initiative would expand from pilot programs in four countries, including South Africa, to a total of 12 nations. Among them are China, Costa Rica, Egypt, Haiti and India.

"Women entrepreneurs around the world are faced with numerous barriers to success," says Charlotte Oades, Coca-Cola's global director for women's economic empowerment. "We believe providing access to training, finance and support networks is the best way to help women overcome barriers, unlock their untapped potential and build their business in a sustainable way."

To learn more about 5by20, visit 5by20.com.