The Great Sister Act
The women behind the Kwenta Group are more than just business partners and friends: they are sisters, forging an empire and leaving a legacy for their daughters as they bring to fruition a trailblazing vision
Margaret Mead referred to sisterhood as the most competitive relationship in a family, but once sisters are grown, she asserted, it becomes the strongest. If anyone can attest to this, it would be the Mdluli sisters. As the eldest sister to seven siblings, Nawaal Nolwazi Mdluli was imbued with the responsibility of being a leader, disciplinarian and role model from a young age. “There was no time for being carefree and playful, as I had to be the responsible elder sister,” says Nawaal. “It was a lot of pressure, but it’s in my nature now to be an authority figure. I used to challenge boys who were mean to my siblings – no one could touch my brothers and sisters without having to deal with me!”
Nawaal Nolwazi Mdluli
Growing up in Nelspruit, the large and close-knit family was known for their openhearted warmth and God-fearing kindness. Matriarch Thelma Mdluli is a strong Christian woman, who believes firmly in parenting with tough love. “Our mother has always been very strict – the entire street knew her as ‘Mrs Order’,” says middle sister, Nono Mdluli. “We knew that if we asked her for anything, the first response would be ‘No!’”
The sisters refer to their mother as a “prayer warrior” who taught them to be humble and respectful. As an active public speaker in her church, Thelma encouraged her children to be comfortable with speaking and performing in public, a quality that has translated into a keen sense of confidence and self-assurance in her daughters.
With this came the expectation of always appearing well groomed and poised. “Our mother still goes to the gym every day,” marvels Nawaal. “She looks about 50 and is super fit.” Given their ensembles, it’s apparent that the Mdluli women have inherited their mother’s sense of style, embodied so perfectly in Tumi Mdluli-Mhlongo. The baby of the family, she has the bubbly and bright personality of a girl who had to speak up loudly to be heard over her siblings.
A fashionista and queen of style, Tumi is the fashion and beauty editor for Kwenta Media and keeps up a vigorous gym regime. Nono and Nawaal share her commitment to leading healthy lifestyles; Nozipho (Nono) is a dedicated runner having completed the Comrades marathon on numerous occasions, while Nawaal prefers the peacefulness of her daily walks.
While their mother played a powerful role in shaping the Mdluli sisters, one mention of their father shows that they are true ‘papa’s girls’.
“We don’t compete over anything anymore, except for our father’s attention. Each of us is convinced that she’s his favourite daughter,”
chuckles Nawaal, before cheekily confiding that she is most certainly the favourite.
Mr Daniel Mdluli raised his daughters to be strong and assertive, yet always had a gentle ear for their stories, fears and dreams. “Papa is the calm and loving one, a good listener and adviser with a soft spot for his girls,” shares Tumi. “He encouraged us to focus on our schoolwork so we could be successful in life,” she adds.
Despite their humble roots, Daniel made sure that his family was always provided for. He and his wife kept a livestock farm as a side business in order to support their children’s education. “Our father pushed us to be hands-on in everything we do. He taught us about business principles and banking, and the importance of having a vision. He allowed us to dream,” reminisces Nawaal.
Planting The Seeds Of Kwenta
As the CEO of Kwenta Group, with business interests in everything from media and printing to construction, mining, retail and fuel, Nawaal is an astute businesswoman and natural leader. “My father wanted me to be a lawyer and my mother thought I should go into social work – probably due to my big mouth,” she says with a wink.
Yet from the age of five, it was clear that an entrepreneurial streak ran through her veins. When her parents gave her a doll for Christmas, Nawaal saw it as an opportunity for a business venture. “I opened a mini spaza shop for my siblings and friends, charging them a rental fee to play with my doll.” The story still sends her family into fits of laughter at the memory, with a fond undercurrent of pride in her youthful ambition.
At the age of seven, Nawaal’s destiny as a tycoon in the making was sealed. She, along with some of her siblings, was sent to boarding school. During the school holidays, her father taught her the ropes of trading and selling, which she quickly grew to love. When he bought her a packet of Cadbury Eclairs for R7.15, she returned the money to him within a week, having sold the packet of 144 sweets to her classmates.
Although neither she nor her father realised it at the time, it was this small investment that led to a flourishing career for Nawaal. “I realised that I could sell anything. I had a knack for it,” she affirms. The Eclair venture led to her seeing a gap for selling popcorn during study periods when the boarding school tuck-shop was closed. She jokingly confides that she was soon giving advice to the school’s matron on how to better capitalise on the tuck-shop.
“I was never that close to my siblings growing up, as I was too strict for their liking,”
shares Nawaal. Her sisters readily agree, pointing to her bossy nature and high expectations that kept them partly in terror and partly in awe of their big sis. “She was just not as cool as other sisters,” says Tumi. “She would give us a good hiding every time we got out of line. She would lecture us about life, wanting order with clear rules and regulations.”
Tumi quickly adds that Nawaal was equally a role model for all of them, carrying them on her journey and investing in their futures.
“She achieved so much at such a young age, we had no excuse but to study hard and try to be half the person that she is.”
Nawaal learnt the value of leaning on family support with her first formal business, a hair salon that she started in her parent’s garage while studying at tertiary school. When she shared her plan of opening Khokho’s Salon with her father, he encouraged his daughter to spend time in Swaziland and learn the ropes in a top black-owned salon. Nawaal spent three months working in the salon learning everything about the industry, from hair washing to managing the accounts. Lacking start-up capital, she used the funds she had acquired from small business ventures throughout high school to launch Khokho’s.
Tumi Mdluli Mhlongo
While it was an instant success, Nawaal’s greatest lesson came from an early setback when she was let down on their busiest day by her main employee, in whom she had invested a great deal. “I was absolutely devastated and humiliated,” she recalls. “I ran to my father, who kindly listened to my sobs. When I was done crying, he advised me to go back immediately with my sister Nono, saying that he believed in me and pushing me to rely on my sisters.”
Sisters In Synch
Daniel had a clear vision of his daughters going into business together, although it was only years later that this would come to fruition with Kwenta Group. By the age of 21, Nawaal was already a successful businesswoman, with branches of Khokho’s Hair Salon opening in Nelspruit and Sandton. She remained in formal employment while keeping up her business interests, working with Mpumalanga and North West Tourism before joining South African Tourism (SAT).
The first black woman appointed to their international offices, Nawaal was the head of SAT for the United Kingdom and lived in London for three thrilling years, where she grew and defended the SAT market share and swiftly reversed the negative perception of South Africa within the UK media sector.
Prior to leaving for the UK, Nawaal entrusted her construction and hair salon interests with Nono. Though it was a great deal of responsibility for someone so young, she displayed a natural flair for the business world, having learnt from her sister. “Nawaal always wanted me to assist with her businesses during school holidays – there was no time for chilling! Without realising it, she got me hooked on the culture of selling and leading new ventures,” beams Nono, who currently heads Kwenta Construction as well as being the Director of Phoenix Hotels and Gambling.
Having completed her PMD (Program for Management) at GIBS Business School, Nono’s sharp entrepreneurial skills have been honed, leading her to be the youngest businesswoman in Mpumalanga to successfully build and deliver libraries and schools for the region.
When Nawaal returned to South Africa, she branched into the magazine world with Kwenta Media and Publishing. Although she had little experience of the industry, she threw herself into the terrain with customary determination and discipline, working hands-on in order to gain insight into this competitive field. Tumi was brought into the business after studying at AAA School of Advertising and GIBS Business School, working her way up until eventually taking over as the CEO of Kwenta Media.
“It wasn’t until I joined Nawaal at Kwenta that I understood why she had pushed herself and all of us so hard,” admits Tumi.
“She wanted the best for me and wants me to excel at everything that I touch, pushing me to grow and understand business protocol.”
Tumi had a steep learning curve as the country’s youngest CEO of a media house, yet it is an opportunity for which she is deeply grateful.
A Family Affair
The Mdluli sisters have big plans up their sleeves, with perhaps the most daunting chapter yet to come as they enter the fuel and retail space, with the hope of eventually bringing their two sisters who work in government into the new venture. Having spent the past four years in training, with Nawaal even working as a petrol attendant in order to learn every aspect of the industry, there can be little doubt that these remarkable women will make a success of it.
Today, Nawaal is adamant that more black families should enter into business enterprises together, crediting the success of Kwenta with the shared values and trust that she has in her siblings along with guidance from their parents.
“When we have business conflicts, our mother is our first ‘boardroom’,
where we ask her to pray and mediate on our behalf. And before any new business venture, we still present the plans to our father and gain much from his advice. By the time we enter the actual boardroom, it becomes that much easier to resolve conflicts and plan for the future,” she shares.
When their father suffered a stroke in early 2016, Nawaal took sabbatical leave in order to be by his side while her sisters took turns visiting him in hospital each day. Had they been in formal employment and not a family-owned business, Nawaal is doubtful as to whether any boss would have understood the need for this long-term sacrifice. She, along with Tumi and Nono, sees this as another precious benefit of working with her sisters.
As Alice Walker rhetorically queried, “Is solace anywhere more comforting than in the arms of a sister?” The fierce loyalty and bond the Mdluli sisters share is palpable, and it is this powerful connection that continues to ensure the rise of the Kwenta Group.
From humble roots with nothing except words of encouragement and affirmation from their parents, the sisters are building one of the greatest black and female-owned business empires in South Africa – a feat not even their father could have dreamt of when he invested just a packet of sweets in his eldest daughter’s first venture.
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