No maternity leave: Being a woman entrepreneur in a male-dominated industry

South African Theresa Cupido is the entrepreneur behind the ATN Group, a service provider in the road marking and civil engineering field that today employs over 250 people.

Theresa Cupido

Theresa Cupido

Cupido started the company in 2006 with an initial focus on road marking services, and within a year it was selected by a top civil engineering construction firm, Martin & East, to form part of their enterprise development programme for emerging contractors. This helped accelerate her company’s growth, and in 2010 she diversified ATN Group’s business offering to include services such as routine road maintenance, pipe laying, concrete structures and civil engineering.

Today ATN Group has established a name for itself within the industry and Cupido has been selected as a finalist in the 2014 Sanlam/Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year award. However, she notes it hasn’t been easy working her way up in a male-dominated industry. How we made it in Africa asks her share some of her experiences.

What attracted you to the road marking industry and starting ATN Group?

I was inspired in 2005 while listening to a debate on radio about the shortage of black South African female entrepreneurs, and the need for upgraded infrastructure in the country leading up to the 2010 Soccer World Cup. At the time I was juggling between assisting my husband with writing reports for the Road Accident Fund as well as working as a buyer at a leading retail company.

But it was my involvement with the Road Accident Fund which led me to my interest in the road marking industry, and as a result, after doing research for a year, decided to start the business.

Have you had to make any sacrifices?

Yes, I have been faced with many challenges being part of a male-dominated industry. Having to prove myself as a strong female goes beyond simply being acknowledged as one.

As an entrepreneur, its always business as usual, and I had to sacrifice maternity leave with both my two children. Make them understand at a young age that success means hard work and requires great sacrifices, such as for them seeing less of me. I have also had to sacrifice my remuneration by reinvesting it back into the company.

What is the best way for a company to achieve long-term success?

Keep your eyes on the ball. Being an entrepreneur is hard work, requires less sleep and a thorough understanding of all aspects of your business. You need to be passionate and have a business mindset to make things succeed.

And every three to six months you need to re-assess your short and long-term goals. You should also invest in competent professionals, keep your cash flow healthy, reinvest, and consistently apply good business practice.

When it comes to managing a team, what characteristics do the best business leaders have?

They need to have strong and effective skills in communication, time management, conflict management and negotiation.

Be honest, is being an entrepreneur different to what you had expected it to be? 

No, because I came from a business background. I was exposed at an early age to the work hard ethic required in running a company, and understand why you must get up early, drop your margins to be competitive, and diversify your business. I was raised a business person.

I strongly believe that if you don’t have a passion for business, you are set up for failure. Running a business is not enough. A successful business person has a mindset to make things happen.

What was the worst moment in your career?

Being minutes late to submit a tender that was literally ours – we had the right price, and there would have been good profits – and then having to withdraw from a project for not reading carefully through the fine print. I have learnt it’s crucial to thoroughly understand contracts.

Drawing on your experience, do you think it is more challenging for women to become successful entrepreneurs than men?

I agree that it is more challenging for women, but they also need to empower themselves more, and stop limiting themselves. Women are not fully supported and are often excluded in business, but this can be rectified by both national and provincial government and business institutes. They should apply ‘woman empowerment’ principles, which is a set of rules offering guidance on how to empower them in the workplace.

These principals must include promoting education, training, equality, and professional and enterprise development.

What advice do you have for aspiring women entrepreneurs across Africa?

Do not limit yourself. Women are born entrepreneurs and leaders. They can multi-task and generally have great organisational skills.

The following steps should be applied by all entrepreneurs:

– Develop an action plan and strategically plan your business for the next 3-5 years
– Know your competitors and price (services/products) competitively, but with profit
– Apply good business practices and ethics in your business
– Connect with fellow businesses and stakeholders
– Network widely
– Get involved in forum debates and discussions