Sibongile Sambo is Founder & Managing Director of SRS Aviation – the first 100% black female owned aviation company that offers clients professional and personalized flight options to destinations around the world.
Sibongile demonstrates her conscious-contribution™ as a gender gap breaking entrepreneur.
Words of Wisdom: We have so many opportunities; let’s grab them with both our hands. Let’s nurture one another successes and work as a team. We must not be jealous of one another. As women in Africa, we have so many industries we can get involved in, embrace them, however, we must not forget our responsibilities at home.
Expertise – Building an aviation business from the ground up
Philosophies – Positive attitude and risk taking is at its core
Conscious-Contributions™ – Helping others see the possibilities
Leadership Lessons – Leading people and a business into unchartered territory
Sibongile Sambo, Founder & Managing Director of SRS Aviation. Johannesburg, South Africa
Sibongile Sambo is the Founder and Managing Director of SRS Aviation – the first 100% black female owned aviation company that offers clients professional and personalized flight options to destinations around the world.
Sibongile is Businesswomen, Entrepreneur and a Motivational Speaker.
Some of the long list awards Sibongile Sambo has received:
- The 2006 winner of the BWA’s Regional Business Women of the year award for the Star-up category,
- Winner of the Black Woman in Business Awards 2006 in London
- 2006 winner of the Impumelelo Top Female Entrepreneur of the year
- Finalist at the Cosmopolitan Movers of the year 2007. Amongst other awards…
- 2010 recipient of the International Women’s Entrepreneurial Challenge (IWEC) 2010 held in Cape Town.
- Sibongile is a board member and is part of a team that is establishing the Southern African Woman in Aviation a non profit making company that will encourage women to enter the field of Aviation in different levels; offer bursaries and scholarships towards Aviation related training.
- In 2007 Sibongile has been named a Leader of Tomorrow by the Fortune Magazine.
- In 2012 Sibongile has been appointed as one of the Ambassadors for the World Entrepreneurship Forum.
Impressive? An understatement.
Sibongile Sambo is Founder & Managing Director of SRS Aviation – the first 100% black female owned aviation company that offers clients professional and personalized flight options to destinations around the world.
Sibongile demonstrates her conscious-contribution™ as a gender gap breaking entrepreneur.
Are there many women in Aviation in South Africa?
No, there are not many women in this industry.
This is a great opportunity to interview women in aviation, as you mentioned there are not many women, so this is a real opportunity for women to see that the sky is the limit in all senses of the world.
What was the catalyst for starting SRS Aviation?
It was purely my passion for airplanes. I loved airplanes when I was very young. I would always stop and look up when I was a child when a plane flew overhead. In South Africa we have nine provinces, I grew up in one province and went to school in another. I use to force my parents to book my flight home once and awhile for a holiday and I would get an opportunity to sit with the pilot in the cockpit; that was before they became strict about getting into the cockpit.
In 1994 when South Africa had its first democratic elections we had new policies and procedures. One of those introduced was the introduction of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) where we were encouraged as young women to enter the business environment. I left my human resource practice to pursue a career in aviation – where my passion lied.
I decided to call it SRS Aviation, which are my initials.
Are you a pilot?
No not a pilot, but I can fly. I have started to work toward my pilot license. It takes time to build hours. The intention is to get my license so I can fly my planes.
You have won awards for your entrepreneurship ability. Firstly tell us what makes your business so unique?
- It is unique firstly because I own it — a young black woman in Africa. We never had the opportunities to even get into the industry at any level.
- Secondly, I have travelled extensively worldwide and have managed to establish networks in aviation.
- Thirdly, I have business partners all over the world; it makes my work easy. I’m able to compete on pricing. I have access to different planes and networks globally.
So we understand, if I lived in South Africa, or anywhere for that matter i.e. Canada, you could organize a plane for me?
Yes, we would organize it anywhere from Canada to Australia for example. My company will make sure that all the logistics arrangements are done with the company that will fly you to Australia.
What else makes you unique?
- Our speed and flexibility in offering serves. For example, one of our biggest customers is our own government. Sometimes they need flights and they confirm in the middle of night. They need someone flexible to assist them. Some of those flights are private, such as a Presidential flight. He needs to get somewhere, but his airplane his grounded due to technical reasons. They need a company that knows the protocol can gain access to a plane that can accommodate someone that is head of state.
What do you think is the key to success in growing a business?
You need to have a good attitude. Running a business is never easy. You will meet people that will try to run you down. You will have cases where you will want to loose your temper. Always having a good attitude will help grow with your business.
It is easy to say: “to have a good attitude” however, can you provide something more specific to create that attitude.
I have a philosophy; I question my intention, why am I living in this world? It is tough, and it gets lonely. The harder you work, the lonelier it gets.
To be an entrepreneur, what are some of the key characteristics do you think someone needs to have to be successful?
- You need to persevere on the business you’re running
- You need to network; you can’t stay in isolation. You need to network at conferences at the same level. This also gives you an opportunity to give input to other people and stay abreast of politics.
Networking is so important, and I believe in it. It is also important what you do with that network. To be seen is not enough. Do you have advice on make the contacts and then to establish opportunities for the future?
When I started the business I used to go to everything and anything I would get invited to. Then I realized I was wasting my time; I wasn’t getting much from the experience. Now when I get invited, or I see a conference I want to attend, what I do is:
- Identified what is the conference all about? Is it relevant to me? Is it relevant to my business?
- I research the people who are going to attend the gathering.
- I identify the people I want to speak to where I may have a specific business opportunity I want to pursue with them.
- I create opportunities for those people to get my details and for me to get theirs. I want to make sure they get to know me.
Networking can be very broad. You have to have targeted networking that is meaningful for you and your business.
Great advise. Once that connection is made, than what do you do?
Connect by phone or email. It is easier to connect with someone on the phone once they have met you. It is a good idea to mention of course who you are and where you met and when.
This is a lot more effective then calling someone when they don’t know who you are.
I make a follow-up connection, and then send materials to provide support for what I’m saying.
Also if we have functions invite targeted people to come to the event. When they arrive to your conference, demonstrate that you have market share in their desired geographic area. We had a client come from Seattle and when they came to South Africa they could see that we really want to do business with them.
Did you have any education that prepared you to be an entrepreneur?
The education I had was general education. My first degree was a Bachelors of Administration. I majored in political science and industrial psychology, which helped me in the first seven years of my career because I worked in a human resource department. Then I started my honours degree in industrial psychology, which also helped in human resources.
But in terms of starting my own business, having the knowledge to start the business, write a business plan or apply for funding and what it means to have collateral – that information I didn’t know. I just got into the business without the formal training; however, I did research to figure out what I needed to know to start a business.
When you started the business, did you ever take a business course to assist you?
No, I haven’t really taken a business related course because I feel it I would get the most from on the job training. I read a lot, business magazines and on the Internet. Also reading other people’s stories of how they started their business and how they managed through the recession. I think all of those things have trained me to be the entrepreneur I am without getting a certificate or a degree.
Do you have a favourite book that helped you in business success or that you enjoyed reading?
One of my favourite books is more focused on personality. It assisted me in becoming the entrepreneur I am.
It is called: “The Life you were born to Live” by Dan Millman (Visit ‘Resources’ on this site to review book).
It really helps you to understand you, which will help you be a better entrepreneur.
What advise can you give to an inspiring entrepreneur?
- Go into business with an open mind. Know you can have a very good business idea, but be prepared that sometimes the environment will not allow you to achieve it. Be flexible.
- Think out of the box. Think about ways to diversify.
- Think of ways to be profitable at tall times. Once you are business it does come down to profitability. It doesn’t help to be so passionate about something that is not bringing in money for you. You should be able to realize profits. If you can’t make money from the initial idea, then alter it to help keep you afloat.
I think that is really good advise, particularly when you think about so many people in Africa, especially the women I have been interviewing, are ‘do good people.’ Although a wonderful approach to life, at the end of the day ‘doing good without sustainability,’ is no longer doing well. Tell us about how you added to your core business?
We have four core businesses now. We started our business as purely Human Resource business. In the last two years with the jet fuel hikes, and the recession, that business became very quite. I had to think of other opportunities very fast. Of course there were other industries I could have pursued such as mining as it is such a huge industry in Africa. Because I’m so passionate about aviation I decided to diversify in the same industry.
Now we are able to supply aircraft spare parts to Boeing and Airbus to airlines. We are now able to supply ground equipment to airports and information technology to airlines. These are system to manage the flights, crew and fleet. This technology you can’t live without. Those systems are what we provide to our clients as well.
It sounds like the three businesses you branched out on have the same customer. Which is interesting, because the core business, the one you started first has a different customer. So the first business is to get people from A to B. The other three businesses are to supply to the airline industry. Many businesses when they diversify focus on their core product and change the market to deliver it to. You changed the product and I three of the businesses kept the same customer.
Yes that is correct. I did that because when I did my research to start my business it was clear HR services was needed. At that time in Africa if a businessman was to start a mining opportunity in Kabul they can’t fly from South Africa to Kabul, they would have to go all the way to France before they could go to Kabul. So I saw this as a big opportunity on the HR side.
As I went along, I realized that airport aviation and aerospace is much bigger then charter. Airports and airlines are the biggest customer base for other products, so I decided to focus on that target market. Charter business is now a small component of our overall business.
Will you continue to expand?
Yes, we recently opened a branch in Nigeria called SRS Aviation Nigeria. We also have SRS Aviation Ghana. We want to target the best of the African continent. We have tried very hard to get local partners to help us expand.
As you expand leadership becomes more and more important. So how do you define leaderships?
Having a vision and communicating it to people I work with. It is important for me to set an example for my team. I do what I expect them to do so they can learn from what I am doing and not do something different.
Being able to work with the team and communicate at different levels. Know when to the right time to promote individuals.
What leader do you admire most, and what characteristics do they have?
I would say my mother. She is a leader.
My mother was the one who nurtured me growing-up. At that time I didn’t know she was using leadership skills. I now realize that mother’s role has so many leadership skills. She has to be able to communicate. If you have parents that don’t communicate with you then you don’t learn the skills at a young age. I use to watch my mother negotiate at the market. People may not look at their mothers’ as a leader, but they truly have all the skills that demonstrate leadership.
You learn leadership at a young age in your home environment.
As I grew, and started my business, I was fortunate enough to observe President Nelson Mandela. I have learnt quite a lot within a short period of time.
I have a picture with President Mandela, and although many people ask for a picture, I didn’t. Because I had been organizing his flights, President Mandela said to me, “Everyone asks me for a picture and you never ask me for a picture, so lets take a picture together.”
For me this is someone that is noticing that I’m doing something good; lets reward you for what you are doing. I watched how he carried himself. You forgot who he was because he comes across like everyone else. He was so humble. He would read a paper and converse with you about it. These are the type of leadership skills I have learned from people around me.
What do you think one of the most difficult leadership skills to maintain over a period of time?
To be extremely assertive without being rude.
Also firing people. One of the leaders said to me when I needed to fire someone, he asked: “Why are you in business? If people are not helping you to achieve their goal, why are you keeping them? As a leader, you should be able to stand, and make decisions and stand by your decisions.” This has been very difficult for me to be very strict with people.
When growing your businesses, particularity at the beginning stages, it is important to get it right. What are some of the leadership strategies you use to motivate your team?
Two years ago when we were hit by recession and we had to deal with less revenue coming in. Initially I had to cut the salaries. We tried to bring in revenue, but it was very challenging at this time. I had to motivate the team not to loose hope. I asked them what they thought we could diversify to? Keeping motivated during this time, it was very hard. We made sure they had a job even though their salaries where cut
What are some leadership strategies you use to increasing profits?
- Diversification of offering
- Changing the marketing strategy.
- We never really budgeted for marketing purposes.
When I started the business I was trying to get a loan/funding. I was told my business is in a risky industry; secondly, I don’t have experience in aviation and thirdly, that I don’t have collateral for the loan. All which was true. Accessing funding was very difficult. I started the business with my Mom and aunt’s pension. There were things I just couldn’t afford to budget for. I still had to find ways to market my business without paying for it.
Because I started a business in a very male dominated industry, I was one of the few women so I had received a lot of requests for print and radio interviews. This was a great way to market since I didn’t have the money.
What are some of the strategies you used to connect with your multitude stakeholders?
Because aviation is a global business, I have to travel extensively so I meet with the aircraft spare parts that I’m supplying. I need to meet with them physically; I will do training with them, as this creates a level of trust and belief in you.
Sometimes I have a client that hasn’t paid me within the 30 days that they agreed, and then it is 45 days. You need to build that relationship with your stakeholder so they know you, trust you and you can engage in a profitable business with them. It ‘s one of the strategies I have used to connect with the key stakeholders.
Another key stakeholder in South Africa is the different government –they are key clients. I participate when they ask me. For example, if they come up with different mentorship programs like what I did this weekend, where we mentor young girls from grade 10 to 12 on entrepreneurship. We spent the entire weekend with them at a camp showing them how to write a business plan. Then they competed on presenting that business plan. It is one of the areas supported by the department of trade and industry in South Africa. Because they are key stakeholder, I assist the government in getting their objectives achieved wherever I can.
How do you balance life? What leadership strategies do you use there?
It comes naturally to me. I’m a very athletic person. Although I look big, that is the way we are in Africa because of the food we eat. I believe in order to run a sound business you also need to be physically fit as well. To be able to think we need to distress.
I go to the gym at least five times a week. I don’t take appointments before 10am because I work out in the morning.
On the weekends I spend time with my family when I can. When my son is on holiday and I need to take a business trip, I bring him along. I can do business and spend time with him. I have friends I like to go to parties with. I love dancing, and all while running a successful business.
What are some of the unique elements of the aviation business that you need to contend with?
- It is highly regulated industry, so in order for me to stay on top of my game, I need to comply. I need to comply not only with local regulations, but also with international regulations, such as the FA8 regulations in the US and the European regulations. We deal with this on a daily bases, with the Operations, and HR departments as well as the board.
- Safety is another key element that we can’t compromise. You may loose your entire business if there is any compromise. You will loose people’s trust. If you are supplying equipment to airline to fix their equipment and if the equipment is not compliant and an accident were to happen, and that part came from your company–those are issues you don’t’ want to deal with.
The critical things in aviation you cannot function without is complying with regulations and legislation.
Because you have four divisions in your organization, however you do not have a lot of staff, how do you manage to deal with these four areas and still have a life?
I work with a company MCC aviation. We have signed an enterprise development agreement. They are a bigger organization that own airplanes and helicopters. They have the staff so we share office premises and equipment. We do a lot together. I am able to tap into what they have into their organization. I was able to keep my team lean, overheads low, while at the same time to offer that quality in service and product.
Through the strategy of partnering with MCC Aviation it has made my job very easy. It is has helped the opportunity for me to go travel to look for business abroad and knowing there is someone here that is helping to ensure we are operating a profitable business.
Those partnerships are key. When I started my business, I had a partner that also offered that sense of security.
You mentioned winning business, and getting new clients particularly where clients will fly with you. How do you go about winning that business?
This is a more a word of mouth type of business. Soon as I offer a Head of State for a government where the service and the equipment is flawless, he will be able to talk to other people at his level, so he will be able to say: “If you go to South Africa you will be able to use SRS Aviation, and they will be able to provide you with this level of service.” Aviation is such a niche market. You should be able to give the best product, price and safety.
I also make sure I visit my clients often. I constantly connect with them via mail or sometime Skype. I ask them: “How was your flight, did they treat you well?” Or in our other line of business I will call and ask them if they received their part on time?”
We are constantly interacting with our clients. We want our clients to tell others that: “We are a company they can rely on.”
If I wanted to take a trip back to Canada, do you provide the crew or does someone else?
It depends. Some airplanes I manage myself that are on my license, meaning the owners allow me to use them for the charter services. I am responsible for the plane, crew, fuel, cleanliness, cleaned and ensuring it is serviced properly.
If you have a requirement for a plane that I do not have, I will contact my contacts where I will get sub-charter rates, which you couldn’t get directly, because we barter in the industry. I use their crew, but I make sure I manage the process.
What service do you provide to ensure the niche market expectations are not only met, but also surpassed?
I do my meet and greet with client, even if someone else is doing flight. Make sure you connect one-to-one. The client should never experience a gap in service, even when sub-contractor. We have a service contract for all our sub-contracts. Even if you use a sub-contractor, you still need to do some of the service yourself such as all the logistics and arrangements. We maintain control.
At the bottom of your email you write:
“I know who I am; I know who I am not. I can never forget where I come from: I know where I am going. To reach for my dreams and conquer the challenges; I will dare to be different; and with proper guidance and direction and with God on my side, nothing is impossible. I am indeed, a Future Leader.” What does mean to you?
This is my life philosophy that keeps me grounded. There are a lot of businesses that have a lot of money; as a result often people start to act differently. I don’t go out flaunting who I am. I remain humble at all times. That being said, I do know where I am going to, I know my dreams and what I want to achieve in life. I follow those dreams. I would never let anyone tell me I can’t own a charter company. As soon as I set my mind to achieving something, it is up to me to get there.
I will never forget where I come from. I lived in a rural area. I make sure that everything I do, I give back. I go back to my community and talk to them about how to thrive in life. I dare to be different. I am the only black woman that owns this type of business probably in all of Africa.
If I have to sit with the Chairman of Boeing and want to supply to their planes, I can do it. No one should tell me I couldn’t. I tell them we buy a lot of your planes and I ask them what can they buy from a young African entrepreneur to empower me?
This philosophy confirms to me what is possible. We need proper guidance, such as mentorship. When I grew up we didn’t have formal mentorship that we are now providing to a lot of people at the moment. In the past it was indirect and we didn’t know it was mentorship. Young people now have the opportunity to have proper mentorship. The future leaders now are lucky to have us invest in them. I’m saying with proper guidance and direction there is nothing that is impossible.
I am a Christian, so when I say: “With God on my side,” I have that faith. Sometimes things don’t go my way and I have to pray and give it to God to deal with the situation. I bring this philosophy with everything I do. So if I did not get that tender today, I think that tomorrow will be my day.
What do you feel has been the most significant impact you feel you have made in your career to date?
I have changed so many people’s lives.
When I started SRS Aviation, it was about fulfilling my dreams. I have realized the more I tell my story, the business I am in, what I have gone through… it has changed so many people’s lives. I receive emails on a daily base of people that say they have lost hope in life, but when I read your story there is so much that I can do. I have received emails where people said they were on the verge of killing themselves because… but your story has given me so much hope. “I am not saying that I want to get into aviation, but if she can do it, why can’t I.” Many people who want to be entrepreneurs, but wouldn’t take the leap of faith, but once they hear my story they say she can leave her well paying job from a mining company and start a business in a risky environment, why can’t I?
When I get all the feedback, it is so fulfilling. I feel that I have given someone an opportunity to see the possibilities.
If there is one thing you can attribute your success to, something that happened in your life or an attitude, what would that be?
I’m a risk taker. I fear nothing.
When I apply my mind to do something, I go for it. The worst answer I can ever get is a ‘NO,’ but NO will never kill me. I wake-up the following day do something different. For me it is the positive attitude I have in life. It has carried me to today. I have gone through so much with the business. At some point I lost all my licenses. Reissuing licenses are expensive and time consuming. It is because of the greed and jealousy of some people had that got me to that position. I persevered with a positive attitude. I woke-up one day and said: “This is where I belong, this is my industry.” I’m very passionate what I do.
What is now the biggest challenge of you career?
It is the growth of the business. Getting into different territories that you don’t know. Moving to other countries. We would like to something in India. Dealing with different dynamics with different countries is the biggest challenge. We want an office in different countries, which means we will be able to serves our clients, but also means we need to comply with their local laws. Also dealing with different cultures and ways we do business — that can be very challenging. These are some of the growth challenges.
You mention you had lost your licenses at one point. Have you ever done an initiative that did not work, what was it? What would you do differently now?
At the beginning when I was looking at diversification strategies, one of the themes I had identified was opening aviation shops at different airports. I did that in South Africa. I managed to get space and spent a lot of time putting in stock. It was a miscalculation because aviation is a niche market with a certain number of clientele. With me having airline earrings, or watches, I could only target a particular market. It was so expensive to rent space and there was not enough demand. I had to close the shop. The opportunity was that I managed to sell on-line the product. Now we get a lot of inquires, and reach a much broader market. If someone who is looking to buy a pilot uniform, we sell it online and we ship it to them. As a result of changing our business model we get more business online then we ever had in the store.
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?
Being assertive with my staff. There are situations where your staff will put you in where you need to be firmer i.e.. When you have to fire someone. This takes me out of comfort zone, because I know this person is not going to have income and nor is their family. For me I need to do it for my business in order to grow it. It is not easy for me to fire someone.
You also mentioned prior to the interview, that when you are at a board meeting the expectation is for you to speak up. Often you need to be a little more aggressive about your point of view that also makes you feel uncomfortable. I think a lot of women have that challenge, as many women don’t want to be perceived as aggressive. You also mentioned that you wouldn’t be where you are if you didn’t contribute your opinion.
I’m on several boards, as a member I’m expected to give my input. In order for me to get my point across I need to learn the aviation language. Soon as you start speaking the language people start listening to you, respecting you. They start saying: “She is one of us.” This also took me out of my comfort zone.
I’m also a lady and I like to dress in a very feminine way, but sometimes in this industry I need to be in black or grey suite so I can fit in so when I speak I’m regarded as one of them. Those things make me uncomfortable because I just want to be who I am.
What does success mean to you?
- Achieving goals
- Travel the road and you impact someone’s life in a positive way and they provide you that feedback.
- Being able to give back to your community. Not only financial, but your wisdom and time.
What pieces of leadership advice would provide to others who are leading a team or project?
- Research your project prior to embarking on the project.
- Make sure you understand the team you will be working with on the project
- Set-up the proper project objectives and timelines so you have a gatekeeper who manages the timelines
- As a leader practice what you preach. Be an example.
Q. What advice would you give to your 10yr. old daughter?
Be yourself. Don’t try to be someone else. Listen to your inner voice. If you have a dream and you want to achieve it, go out and do it and be the best you can be.
Q. What do you wish you were told at 10 years old?
I wish I were told, that I was a leader already. It would have created an even better leadership mind in me. I believe the children we mentor at this young age are leaders. Being told I was already a leader would have helped me with many of the failures I made in the past.
Words of Wisdom for African women
We have so many opportunities; lets grab them with both our hands. Lets nurture one another successes and work as a team. We must not be jealous of one another. As women in Africa we have so many industries we can get involved in, embrace them, however, we must not forget our responsibilities at home.