Marsha Gabriel, Founder & President, The CSI Business Congress, Showcasing Business response to HIV/AIDS, Owner of De`Ma Restaurant, Durban, South Africa

Words of Wisdom: Some are born great; some are great; some become great. You may not have been born great, you may not be great, but you have the ability to become great. All the best for your achievements.” – Marsha Gabriel

Interview with Marsha Gabriel, Founder & President, The CSI Business Congress, Showcasing Business response to HIV/AIDS, Owner of De`Ma Restaurant, Durban, South Africa

Marsha Gabriel, Founder & President, The CSI Business Congress, Showcasing Business response to HIV/AIDS, Owner of De`Ma Restaurant, Durban, South Africa

Marsha Gabriel is Founder and President of The CSI Business Congress an award winning organization specializing in People Development, community Development and Business Development. Gabriel functions from her primary base Durban, KZN, South Africa and globally recognized as speaker and author. She is also a CSI Practitioner and designs policies in favor of transformation namely:

  • The CSI Summit
  • Mainstreaming Gender into Trade and Development
  • Business Action Against Aids

Marsha travels extensively developing Leaders and empowering people through conferences, seminars and workshops


  • Received 4 community awards 2004-2006
  • Received the Standard Bank woman of the year -2008
  • Top 10 United Nations Finalists – 2010

Through her social entrepreneur initiatives she has impacted thousands from providing food hampers, clothing drives to career guidance.


The CSI Congress – leader in research, advocacy and capacity building on sustainability matters contributing to the social reformation of respective countries. The CSI Congress provides a moral order and confronts specifics that could destroy the integrity of social projects and eradicate systems in which the exploitation of resources leads to the poverty of the country.

The overall goal of the CSI business congress is to identify both the theoretical and practical strengths and weaknesses of alternative approaches to measuring freedom, to clarify and expand on which techniques are most suited for building sustainable systems towards excellence and to chart concrete directions for future research that will add value to the sustainable corporate social development.

CSI Congress website:

Marsha Gabriel, Founder & President, The CSI Business Congress, Showcasing Business response to HIV/AIDS, Owner of De`Ma Restaurant, Durban, South Africa

Note: The key messages in the interview have been transcribed and slightly altered for legibility and succinctness. More information is provided in the audio and video version. We welcome comments on the Wisdom Exchange TV website.

You have achieved many successes, and not to take away from any of them, I would like to focus on your CSI mandates…

Firstly what was the catalyst for starting CSI (Corporate Social Investment) Business Congress?

In my previous career I identified a group of people that were more impoverished in their minds than in their bodies. Due to that I put policies and projects in place to help monetize it and add value to this area. The CSI Business Congress draws leaders in research, advocacy and capacity building to achieve our objectives.

I understand CSI Congress came to you at a low point in your career. Can you provide us a little context so we can discover where this great initiative blossomed?

In 1999 I worked for the South African Post office and I was on top of my game. Due to an unfortunate experience where I was paralyzed hip down and I had an emergency operation on my spine. I was proven unfit for the open labour market, I understood the disabilities of people at that time. I decided that I was going to go beyond the bounders of my disability and through the period my recovery I begin to wright down mandates.  I found myself wearing the shoe of someone who is disabled. Everything stemmed from that lowest point in my life. When you do reach a point where it is enough, you always remember the point where it started and it gives you the energy to go further.

Now you walked to the meeting, so what happened?

Over the last 10 years I have had major treatment on my spine. I do have a chronic situation that you need to manage. When you do something that gives you energy you definitely trump beyond the bounderies of your disability. I was told I would never wear stilettos again, but manage my feet in ‘green crush shoes.’ You cannot wear a suite with a green crush shoes J.

So you have few limitations now?


CSI Business Congress has been running for 10 years. Now you market it as providing a moral order and confronts specifics that could destroy the integrity of social projects and eradicate systems in which the exploitation of resources leads to the poverty of the country.” Can you explain how it provides moral order.

We have 86,000,000 not for profit organizations in South Africa. What we have come to understand, that funding has been given often from an emotional level, rather than a strategic level. What leads to the poverty of the country is the lack of knowledge, therefore that until structures in terms of investment and proper spending models are put in place we will not achieve our objectives. I think one of the main contributions towards the poverty of the country is the absence of productive and rewarding collaboration. Other important points to consider:

  • Greed
  • Corruption
  • Lack of knowledge
  • Improper framework

These are all the things that lead to the poverty of this country.

I have had the pleasure of travelling to 14 countries in Africa and I am pretty passionate about this subject of are you helping or are you hurting? What are some of your thoughts on all these social programs that are in place, are they helping or are they hurting? And if they are hurting, what needs to happen to get them to helping?

Personally I have 102 organizations in my database that are non-for profit organizations either orphanage building or old age homes. I work around the model that you ‘give them a fish.’ Through our collaboration, my goal is to shift their mindset and teach them how to fish.  I work with them. So once I give them the fish, teach them how to fish, then I teach them how to buy the pond. In other words, first I have provided what you have need of, then I have taught you how to take care and provide for that need, then I teach them how to distribute and add value to others that are in need.

Do you find a lot of the other social programs operate in the same way?

Absolutely not.

How do you see social programs operating?

Most of them are dependent on funding simply because they lack the knowledge. This is Africa, most of the organizations have started not because they wanted to generate income but their true motivation of non-profit-organizations was started because of diseases, unemployment or lack of finance and parents die early and leaving children on the streets. A Good Samaritan comes along and takes these children under her care. Then she starts asking people for funding, then corporate and moves further up to ask for support. She started from the heart of a mother, now we have to go and teach her business skills so she becomes sustainable for life.

Starting from heart, is a really pure example and very optimistic. Lets look at the other side of this case. Our first Wisdom Exchange TV interview with Lois Shaw, she mentions she is writing a thesis called ‘Killing with Kindness;’ A lot of time people give is because they want to feel good, or their ego has got the better of them. The intention may be pure, but the execution may actually perpetuate a negative impact. A culture of cultivating dependency can be created. Do you see this sort of behaviour being embedded in South Africa, where people are starting to rely on the systems, rather then create their own opportunities?

Yes, absolutely. With most of the organizations I have worked with tended to depend on funding and we would go in and educate them. My most recent project is ‘Formalizing Informal trade,’ we brought in twenty-five street crafters who weave baskets, or make jewelry. They don’t have the markets for their product, but they do have a God given talent to make good products.

What the CSI Congress did is we created the markets. We put on a huge exhibition at the Gateway Mall (right here). We do not isolate the crafts people; we are creating markets, when they begin to do well in their business that enables employment. Then we teach them to give back to communities. We educate them in business. We provide with markets. In the exhibition for the crafters we do not isolate them with their tribe. We brought in fifteen of the leading corporations in South Africa, that would include the Mercedes Benz, Bally worlds, different banking divisions, governments… this way they wont be isolated, but they have the opportunity to mingle with the South Africans leading corporates. That gave them a zest for life and enabled them beyond their expectations. This gave them a different perspective. They saw a demand for what they were doing.

They were excited to see their names on the banners for the exhibitions. They have been identified as business people. They were energized.

We taught them how to dress like a business women / men, this will change your appeal to the customer. Now we are focusing on customer service.  How to win customers and keep your customers. How to move beyond your paradigm and limitations.

Have you seen some of those businesses grow and increase their businesses? How many of them?

Some but not all.

Based on our last exhibitions, 79% have grown their businesses.

How have they gone about increasing their business?

  1. We informed them of the different markets that they could target, via corporate gifts, or store.
  2. We have given them five major markets to help their products to sell.

What advice could you give to NGOs to consider in order to be sustainable?

  1. The have to be selfless.
  2. They have to create a project that is sustainable. I have always said, that you can be passionate about what you do, but passion does not pay the bills. Personally I have developed three projects that are income generating, sustainable, but at the same time very attractive to corporate and government. Government in and of itself cannot make all the changes we need in our country. They need people on the field that understand the hearts of the people. The thing that CSI Congress has going for it is we deal with those people that are not only impoverished in their bodies but in their minds. Do to our focus we saw people with great talent hijacked by poverty. We had to change their mindset.
  3. Your project has to be income generating
  4. The project has to be sustainable
  5. The project has to affect the people that you created the project for.

To your comment about “affect the people that you created the project for.” How receptive do you think those people are to the assistance? Do you have a system to identify those who are content where they are compared to the individual who is thirsty to grow their business?

Yes. I find the individuals that feel stifled in their own businesses. To the onlooker they may feel that they may not want to grow their business. But that is my trump card. That is the individual I choose to work with.  I like to take them beyond his or her business. I ask, what motivated her to start the business? You begin to identify root cause and work with that. You need people with staying power.

A philanthropist must have staying power. He or she cannot get tired of what they are doing. If you are concerned of the well being of others, you should stay until that situation is rectified you can see success with what you are doing.

Similar to what you are talking about, we do this with the Ignite Excellence Foundation. We will provide scholarship for tertiary education, but not provide for living expenses. Since our objective is to invest in future women leaders we need women to take some of the leadership responsibility.  Our philosophy is in order to demonstrate some leadership, you need to provide for yourself, therefore pay for your living expenses. We believe that both the recipient of the scholarship and the donor need to be invested.  

If you keep giving, people will keep taking.

Absolutely. We live at the restaurant we just provide you with a job. What you do with it is up to you. You can chose to go up the ladder, the extra mile, which will enable you to be promoted in the company.  It is your future. I also live by the statement that if you don’t have a job, create one. It also makes you active, not dependent.

The same model works with 102 organizations in our database. Where we go into these orphanages, and old age homes and identify the heads of these organizations. We change their mentality and change their thinking capacity. There is more to life than just maintenance. We share with them what you can do to instill growth in your institution and this is what you shouldn’t do.

There are techniques that are most suited for building sustainable systems towards excellence and to chart concrete directions for future research that will add value to the sustainable corporate social development – what are those systems?

The focus is evaluating and implementing of projects in order to obtain a sustainable outcome. With CSI Business Congress our goal is to strengthen our capacity to achieve what we are mandated to do: strengthen cross—boarder partnerships. This creates the sustainability of the company and the various projects we are engaged in.

Why do you think these systems will produce the best results in measuring freedom? What does measure freedom mean?

Locked in within the heartbeat of our projects beyond the paradigm of creating an income, it is identifying the root cause of business and development initiatives. Our goal is to build capacity in these organizations. I always go back to the root. If we are able to measure from that point, we are then able to measure freedom.

Most people and talent have been hijacked by poverty. The common saying in our country at this time is that we have freedom of speech and while we have freedom of speech it also gets us into a lot of trouble. The same thing applies with organizations; although we emphasis what they do, they also put down locks in their operating on how to achieve this freedom. You achieve it by:

  1. Being legal headstrong
  2. With model integrity

If you have these wonderful characteristics, they should not just be documented down, but the manifestation of it, you can measure freedom through the processes.

What do you see as the biggest challenge in South Africa, and what do you see as the best way to deal with that challenge?

One of the main challenges in South Africa is crime, but I do believe systems are being put in place.  Just work with the system, don’t dodge it, work within in.

Does CSI address these issues in any way?

No not directly, but indirectly. We say to corporations that Corporate Social Responsibility, and Corporate Social Investment is giving beyond communicating your giving through glossy magazines. It is about doing good, while doing well. In the processes you remove unemployment, you remove children from street corners. We do indirectly impact the crime in the country. At CSI we engage men and women and children in the community in what we are doing.

I remember someone asking me for money on the street, and he said “If you give it to me I won’t be steeling” as if those are not the only two options out there. There needs to be a lot of work to change that mentality.

Looking at your resume it is quite diverse. I understand that you do a lot of speaking at the congress along with other partners. How does each initiative complement each other?

Because the CSI Congress is a not-for-profit organization, with the key staff that work during it, we do not have a particular office we can operate from. So what we do is work at home offices. I work from my restaurant. That helps with our meetings. We meet corporates or government at the restaurant.

Our summit Director I have special arrangement with, but we don’t need to pay the high cost of renting a place. The restaurant offsets the cost of our lunches when we have meetings.

CSI doesn’t provide a financial income, but the restaurant does.

Would you recommend to others to conduct a not-for-profit in a way where you are giving while you are self-sustaining?

Sure. I believe in having multiple streams of income. That is why we educate organizations to have a businesses mindset. With the last project we have done we brought in Mr. Price. We asked them “What do you do with all your broken jewelry?” They told us they dumped it, so we asked if they could give it to us. They did. So we had over 150,000R of broken jewelry. I would source them out to various organizations and get them to fix the jewelry and then get them to sell the jewelry. That brought them an income. From that they have developed various other business initiatives, but also allowed them to come out and be sustained by organization and create multiple streams of income for themselves.

At the end of the day I am complement my husbands income and I need to have multiple streams of income to sustain a project.

I think it should be the new contribution model. Corporations often want to fix what is broken, but they don’t want to fix something at the top so it doesn’t get broken. Where as people like you and us, in order for us to give, we need to get the finance from one place so we can give to another. It provides a lot more control on where you want to contribute. There is something to be said for being entrepreneurial.


You have had such a big impact, what do you think has been the most significant impact you have had on your career and life to date?

I think the last project we did where we created the markets for informal traders had the biggest impact. We achieved a 79% growth rate. Saw peoples lives change. Do to the unemployment, as I mentioned if you don’t have a job, create one. If you have a skill lets grow it, because in time that will create employment for other people.

You have also done work by giving hampers and cloths, can you tell us a little bit about that?

Because I came from the marketing division of the South African Post nine years ago, I was approached to put a PR program together for KwaZulu-Natal, Tiger Brands and department of Social Development and events company call 3C Africa. They wanted me to do PR for the entire “Unite Against Hunger” in KwaZulu-Natal campaign. They were going to pay me fantastic income. At that time I had founded the CSI Business congress and I asked them not pay me for the work, I ask them to give CSI Congress products because I could distribute the products to orphanages and old age homes, prison babies and hospitals. That is how we started our food distribution program.

We have grown and achieved phenomenal results. Bringing government on board, the Tiger Brands, the Nestle the Spar. When you begin to do that you see you see other opportunities.

A good example is Woolworths will not keep food on their shelves past the due date, yet from a nutritional perspective it still has two days past the due date. Instead of dumping the food we got into their database and we were allowed to load all their foods and giving it to the orphanages. That is how the food distribution program started.

Then we started doing nutrition in school. Many children would be very hungry in school. We would get companies to provide milk and mielie-meal, so we can create porridge for these children.

So that is how I started, I received a PR opportunity and converted into an opportunity not to take a salary but to give food to CSI congress and then we built the food distribution project from there.

In listen to you it is obvious that you need to have a business background to be able to see the opportunities to give.

Why you?

I think you need to go back ten years and understand my disability. Even though you have had an unfortunate circumstance in your life, there is life beyond disability. There is life beyond your situation.

Coming back to the food distribution to the value of 500,000R per month, or distributing to 102 organizations there are still cost factors to get this food to these organizations. There is the time we have to incur a cost of 100,000R a month in terms of trucks, diesel, fuel. In terms of salaries, for warehouse and distributors do our projects. I had to create a marketing initiative outside of that to move into promotions and personally to sustain that project I had to create an initiative to where I would give away three cars a year just so I can put the message throughout South Africa.

If you put $10R not only can you win a vehicle, but you also will save lives. The most rewarding part to the congress is when we drew the winner of these cars. Each winner was so desperate to come out of their financial situation and this draw gave them the opportunity to come out of their difficulty and sore.

It is all a system? Each phase helps the next phase.

What skills do you think you need to execute something like that?

To date we have not got funding from government. Do we need the funding? Absolutely, but we will not suppressed or oppressed by certain criteria of the funding. In most cases we do not qualify for funding because of the model of our projects. So you have to have:

  • Strong marketing background
  • PR and Advertising skills
  • You have to be a good speaker
  • A good negotiator
  • You have to draft out a project that will take years and that will be sustainable in the process.

While we have all the very heart retching initiatives of the CSI Congress, we also have as strong marketing division that we draft projects. We have three major projects that are income generating that can support and sustain all the other projects – the food distribution, the orphan maintainers, orphanage renovations, that is the:

  1. CSI Business congress – that is the CSI summit which is bringing corporate and government together. The mission is simple, to get corporate and government to collaborate and see what we are doing and to begin to add value as partners.
  2.  Mainstreaming gender into trade
  3. The Business action against AIDS

These are all income generating projects that sustain the other projects of the CSI Congress.

If there was one thing you could attribute your success to what would it be?

You have to be fearless in your exploits and seemingly go over the edge.

Edgeness Insight (An enhanced version of yourself discovered when you push the edge of your comfort zone). What is something that you are uncomfortable doing, but you need to continue to do, in order to make you as successful as you are?

I had the go beyond the boundaries of my disability. Before I expected anyone to do anything. I had to model out everything that I expected that is there is life beyond your disability, beyond your frustration, beyond your ability.

Did I go beyond the edge of my disability? Absolutely. There is no excuse for others who have been in the same situation.

If someone is watching, I wouldn’t think you are disabled…

I am still under the medical neurosurgeon, physiotherapist, biochemist and chiropractor. It is chronic situation, so you have to often maintain. You learn to live in your body and maintain it.

To date, what would be the most rewarding aspect of your career?

To do what I do you need to have a strong support of my family, my children and my husband. That allows me to go beyond my edge. They are the wind beneath my wings.  They respect the honour that comes from my family; it is the greatest success.

What has been the biggest challenge to overcome in your career?

I had to get people to believe in what I am doing.

How did you get people to believe in what you were doing?

By constantly sending out information about who we are and what we do. Letting them know what we give you in return.

Have you ever done an initiative that didn’t work, and what would you do differently now?

Because I like multi streams of income I saw many people commuting and decided to buy a minibus to transport people to work. They could pay us instead of a bus, and I could use that bus to help with the CSI Congress.

We financed the project and we ran it for four months. One day one of our drivers was feeling really sick so she pulled over and got someone else to drive who was not an assigned driver. That lady took off and collided the vehicle and 24 people where on it. Thank goodness no one died, just some scrapes and bruises.

I would never do it again.

It cost me a lot because the insurance would not finance the truck. I would never go into that type of business again.

Is there anything you would do differently in the pursuit of your success?

I would like not to work as hard as I am. I would love to develop more business from the restaurant perspective. I would like to bring an express to the restaurant.

How would you define leadership?

Leading by example. Doing what you would expect other to do.

Leadership lessons.
If there was three pieces of advice you can give to a woman who leads a project, initiative or a team what would that be?

  1. Embrace responsibility
  2. Work hard

What is next for you?

Identify a collaboration that withstands every obstacle that can create value across boarders and internationally.

If there was one thing you would like to do that you have not done yet, what would it be.

I would love to meet two people: Oprah, and Mr. Mandela

Reflective Realizations

Q. What advice would you give to your 10yr. old daughter?

Become a prototype. Believe in yourself before you get others to believe in something you do. Always lead by example. It is always better to give more than you receive. Always lead a life that is full of integrity, compassion, and respect. Always do good.

Q. What do you wish you were told at 10 years old?

I had a mom that could not tell me what I told my daughters. May not lived out in words but lived it out practically.

Words of Wisdom for African women

Some are born great; some are great; some become great. You may not have been born great, you may not be great, but you have the ability to become great. All the best for your achievements.





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