‘I Did a Complete Career 180’
What happens if you decide in your mid-20s or 30s that you want a career change? And is a career 180 even viable if you’ve spent the last few years (or a decade) studying and grafting to make it in a specific industry? These three women did just that: threw out their old jobs and embarked on something new. Here’s how they did it, and why it was the best decision they ever made
Jessica Bonin, 34
Then Film producer Now Tea connoisseur and shop owner Capetonian Jessica Bonin thought she’d find her purpose in film: she loved performance and creative direction, and studied drama and theatre before doing an honours in film production. But the demanding nature of the industry and repetitive commercial work made her question her choice. ‘I had no passion for what I was doing. It was soul-destroying and it lacked purpose.’
‘I felt trapped by my career’
‘I tried to navigate away from commercial work but I struggled with the nature of the film industry and work availability. I found myself on commercial projects again and again. I moved to Jo’burg to get involved in more creative projects but that didn’t make me any happier, so I moved back to Cape Town – and the cycle continued.’
‘I was willing to risk everything’
Bonin’s turning point came when she realised nothing would change unless she made a change. ‘I was complaining to a friend about my work; then, I saw a producer 20 years older than me complaining about the same thing,’ she says. ‘I realised if I didn’t change something now, that would be me in 20 years.’ So, at the age of 27 and nearly a decade into her career, she quit. ‘I wanted something that fuelled my soul. I wanted it so badly, I was willing to risk everything.’ That’s when Lady Bonin’s Tea was born. Yup, you read that right: tea.
‘What could I do that wasn’t out there already?’
‘Tea discovered me!’ says Bonin, now known as Lady Bonin, owner of an artisanal tea parlour on Cape Town’s Long Street as well as a range of tea products. ‘I decided to look at the skills I had. I’d had waitress gigs since I was 14, and experience in hospitality, so I thought starting a cafe would be easy. Tea became the element that would create the environment: a place where people could connect. But the more I delved into the idea, the more it became about the tea. I wanted to do tea differently, so I asked myself: what about tea do I want that is not out there? Takeaway tea. At the time, not even Starbucks was selling takeaway tea. I bought a caravan because I had barely any start-up capital and it was a means to get my product to market without renting shop space. I used tax rebates from working in the film industry over the years to accumulate the R50000 I needed.’
‘I questioned my decision all the time’
‘I questioned whether I was making the wrong decision all the time. No-one could understand how I could make money selling tea from a caravan, or how it could ever lead to a larger business,’ says Bonin. ‘Business is risky. I’ve had to learn that there’s a flow to things: when I had anxiety it was because I was on the brink of something big. Trial-and-error is part of the process – you have to fail to grow.’
‘I realised I’d found my “thing”’
To establish her brand, Bonin used social media. ‘My first step was to contact bloggers with a high reach. I sent a few samples to influencers; they tweeted about them. The rest was the magic of the caravan: that sold itself. I was contacted by magazines and media outlets that wanted to feature this new concept. Six months into the business, I realised I’d found my “thing”.’
‘Now I have the freedom I craved’
‘I designed all the packaging myself and learnt how to use
Photoshop so I could continue to improve my brand design. I responded to what the market wanted while maintaining my ethical standpoint of plastic-free packaging and organic produce.’
Just over seven years since her career 180, Lady Bonin’s Tea is a flourishing brand. ‘I’ve sacrificed so much – a steady salary, job security. When all my friends were partying and going on weekends away, I was saving every penny, working every hour. It’s taken years of 16-hour days, seven days a week, to get to this point. But the long-term reward is worth it. Now I have the freedom I was craving, something to call my own, opportunities to create – and so many new adventures on the horizon.’
‘Business is risky. Trial-and-error is part of the process – you have to fail to grow’
Katleho tsoKu, 34
Then Restaurant owner Now Social entrepreneur
Katleho Tsoku thought her dreams had come true when she opened her own restaurant in Jo’burg at 24. But it would prove to be a bittersweet failure that would lead her to the career she was destined for: social entrepreneurship.
‘I wanted to start my own thing’
‘I’ve always loved hosting and creating experiences,’ she says. ‘I’m a hospitality graduate; I spent four months at a Radisson hotel and two at a Hyatt hotel. But I wanted to start my own thing: I’d fallen in love with the idea of owning a hotel in my early 20s.’
‘I was broke and had to make a tough decision’
‘When I was 24, I opened my restaurant. It was self-funded. I’d gone to banks, but the first thing they wanted to know when I asked for a loan was what collateral I had. I didn’t. Those that said yes required a huge stake of my business.’
So with her mother’s help, Tsoku opened Bliss at Jo’burg’s 44 Stanley. But the pressure soon became overwhelming.
‘I looked at my peers living their life and not struggling to make ends meet. And here I was, at 27, having thought I’d found my purpose in Bliss – but I was broke, my mom was broke and I had to make a tough decision. I was on my way to work when I realised I couldn’t do it any more. My restaurant supervisor had phoned to say the suppliers forgot to deliver milk. I lost it. In the middle of an aisle at Pick n Pay, I cried my eyes out. I’d had so many moments when Bliss wasn’t doing well but I’d brushed them off and made them work. This time was different: it was a wakeup call. Achieving goals is never easy – but it shouldn’t make you miserable.’
‘There was a lot of heartbreak’
‘I’d fought to keep Bliss alive for two and a half years. The biggest struggle was funding: my mom had limited capital, and I had to cut our losses. There was a lot of heartbreak, and a lot of shame associated with failing.
‘I had three questions. Had I failed myself? Had I failed my mother, who’d believed in me? Had I failed all the women aspiring to start their own business? But eventually I learnt that I hadn’t failed any of these people, or myself. It took me a year of processing but I began to make peace with it. I told myself I didn’t fail – the restaurant failed.’
‘I had nothing left to lose’
After Bliss’s closure, Tsoku’s new role found her entirely by accident. ‘Spark South Africa found me. I became very open about my failure and I was doing speaking engagements about what I learnt from the whole experience. I caught the attention of Aaron and Kaitlin Tait, who’d been running Spark in Australia. They needed someone on the ground in South Africa, and they approached me. I’d been working for myself, so I was reluctant to work for someone else. But then I thought, girl, you’re broke, you’re depressed, what do you have to lose?
‘In retrospect, I realise I was suffering from impostor syndrome. I tried going into hospitality because I thought that’s what I knew, and it failed. Now I’d been asked to run Spark and I was asking myself: am I capable? Am I enough? Turns out I am!’
‘It takes a lot to keep believing in yourself’
‘Since then, my journey has seen me move back into entrepreneurship – but this time in my true calling: social entrepreneurship. I co-founded YHer, a partner of Spark, as a female-focused accelerator for women’s issues. In 2016, I took YHer continent-wide. The defining moment was having former First Lady Zanele Dlamini Mbeki acknowledge the programme as being impactful.
‘You have to be resilient. It takes a lot to keep believing in yourself. Before I do any decision-making now, I ask myself what my intention is. Is my intention in alignment with my true self? If I can say yes, I’m on the right track.’
‘You have to be resilient. It takes a lot to keep believing in yourself
Svetlana Doneva, 33
Then Journalist; CNBC executive producer Now Communications manager at an NGO A fast-paced journalism career was what Svetlana Doneva had always hoped for – but 10 years in, she needed a new direction. Little did she know she’d discover a passion for early childhood development.
‘It all seemed so glamorous’
Growing up, Doneva wanted to be a writer. ‘Journalism was a natural career choice for me,’ she says. ‘I studied politics and economics at Rhodes. A few weeks after my finals, my mom drove me to my first job interview – for a reporter position at Times Media Group in Jo’burg. At the time it all seemed so glamorous. Times Media Group met all of my 21year-old expectations; I longed to join the ranks of well-dressed women and intense men in the newsroom. And I did!’
For 10 years, Doneva focused on financial journalism, working in TV, print and online. Eventually, she’d worked her way up to executive producer at CNBC Africa.
‘My biggest fear was the unknown’
‘Around the time I turned 30, I realised I needed a change.’ Ten years of highpressure stakes and long hours had taken their toll. But stepping away from what you’ve always known is scary. ‘My biggest fear was leaving the known and the comfortable to enter a sector that was unknown to me. I worried I wouldn’t be successful and that I’d compromise my career trajectory.
‘I spotted an opening for a communications manager at a small NGO called Ilifa Labantwana, which operates in early childhood development. It was a field I knew very little about, but after some research I quickly became convinced this was where my future was. In my research, I learnt that our success in life depends on the care we receive early in life. The more I read, the more excited I got about the NGO’s vision.’
‘It takes time to adapt’
Like most women doing a career 180, Doneva had to re-evaluate her skills and identify what she could use in the new field, and where she’d need more experience. ‘I got the job and the first year was a difficult transition,’ she says. ‘My lack of specialised knowledge was glaring. I took stock of my skills, which was sobering. I’d mastered a skills set that was useful in journalism, but not necessarily in communication. This uncomfortable process is pretty normal for anyone switching careers; it takes time to adjust and adapt.
‘I had no professional network in the sector I was going into. Despite my research, I knew very little about early childhood development. The work processes were different; so were the success metrics. The office environment was also totally new – not as noisy or fast-paced as I was used to. I also had to get used to a whole new way of making decisions.’
During this transition, it was key for Doneva to reach out to others for advice and support. ‘The process of developing your skills is made easier with the help of a mentor who understands you and what you want to achieve. It’s quite difficult to see the bigger picture on your own.’
‘I believe 100% in what I do’
‘My career has always been important to me. I believe 100% in what I do; nothing I’ve done after my career change has felt like a sacrifice,’ she says. Would she do anything differently? ‘It’s been three years and I’m still challenged daily, but I wouldn’t change a thing. The more we learn, the more we grow. It’s exciting to learn and expand my skills set. Switching careers has been amazing – and I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to work in two sectors that I really love.’ ■