Today I’m sharing my space with an extraordinary entrepreneur (& mom) who I recently had the good pleasure of meeting.
Lauren De Swardt is the founder of Kids Emporium, a nationwide franchise network of children’s boutiques.
I heard all about her journey at a recent blogger breakfast and found her vision and passion so inspiring that I invited her to share her story with you, my readers….
Let’s find out more about Lauren…
I currently manage the Kids Emporium Head Office and our network of 28 stores. I reside in the southern suburbs of Cape Town with my soulmate, Drew with my two children, Toni (13) and Rourke (8) and I am fortunate enough to share in his daughter’s, Tyla (18) and Emmie (11), lives too!
When did you know this is what you wanted to do?
For most of my teens, I was deadset on becoming an attorney, but, while writing my Matric finals, the idea of spending the next 7 years at varsity hit me like a ton of bricks. The thought of success and independence being so far away sent me into the opposite direction. To my mother’s dismay, I spent two years travelling and working abroad. I arrived back in Cape Town with an attitude, courage and determination. I knew at the age of 20 that I was going to be an entrepreneur! My best friend fell pregnant, and, shortly afterwards, so did I! Both these events pushed me into the direction of baby goods when I realised that South Africa was seriously lacking in this regard. A year later .. Kids Emporium was born.
What did you study – was it in this field or something different?
I left for London four days after my last matric exam .. I spent two years working, travelling and attending what I like to refer as the “university of life”. I loved the idea of studying (and still do), however, I started my entrepreneurial journey running and that left no time for studies.
What was your first job in the industry? and what path has your career taken since?
My first job wasn’t even remotely close to the industry – it was for a shopfitting company. I worked in various departments and found myself intrigued by the design and manufacture of furniture, shopfitting, displays etc. I started Kids Emporium with a nursery and children’s range of furniture which was to be one category of my ultimate vision. My role at Kids Emporium has been in the positioning, development and growth of our brand. We have managed to build a brand of trust and credibility and I am as passionate about it today, as I was 13 years ago.
What have been the highlights?
There have been so many highlights. In my early twenties, it was about brand survival. Every day I made ends meet seemed like a highlight. A massive milestone was selling our first franchise in Fourways, Johannesburg. And with further growth, it’s been great to give the market access throughout South Africa. A more recent highlight is the launch of our brand in the United Kingdom. We open our doors in Guildford, Surrey in July this year. Lastly my greatest highlight is that I am an example to my 13 year old daughter. I feel that my journey shows her that you do not need to make the choice of being a successful businesswoman or a mother. My journey shows her, and many others, that women can have the best of both worlds. I work with hundreds of suppliers every day, mostly women, who are often about to give up. I enjoy sharing my story and inspiring others to continue, to strive and to succeed.
What’s the best part of your job?
I get to work within a very dynamic industry with like-minded women. I deal with 300 suppliers every day as well as a network of energised franchisees. Surrounding oneself with such a talented, hard working, driven network leaves one inspired daily. Being at the forefront of the industry, we are often the first to see the latest products, design talent and industry innovation. When samples arrive, it often feels like Christmas in the office as we all cannot wait to see what’s next. Lastly, I love the flexibility of my job. Although I work long hours, I run my children’s school PTA, I sit on their Governing Body and am actively involved in their day. It has always been important to me to be present so our head office is in the loft of our home!
What has been the most challenging part?
Starting at the age of 22, it was difficult to get the industry to take me seriously. I had to prove my worth time and time again. Although this was de-motivating at times, it definitely fuelled me to succeed. I quickly adopted the attitude of “Watch this space”. Furthermore, although I am 13 years along my journey, I am still as passionate about my brand as I was back then. We have 28 thriving stores around the country, however, a great challenge is to translate my passion and energy to our stores ensuring that our consumers are always met with the Kids Emporium experience. Lastly I had to learn to live without the ‘guilt of a working mother’. I was determined to ensure that I can have the best of both worlds, and I do. Balancing all of these elements has been a challenge but I do believe I have mastered the art.
What is your typical day, or maybe week if days are very different?
My work day starts at 9am and finishes round 5pm. We work in an open plan office hence I hear and see everything, which, although distracting at times, means I am in the “thick” of my brand. From the time I walk up the stairs, my day is constant. I have meetings with the various departments in our office and on certain days will see back-to-back suppliers. Our team is relatively young and dynamic. “Takkies” are more than acceptable (as they make you achieve everything faster) and music is always playing. I travel around South Africa quite regularly and, more recently with the imminent launch of our UK store, internationally . The beauty of my day is that it does vary. I might sell a new franchise at 09.30, by 09.40 I could be assisting a customer and by 09.50 I could be evaluating a new product or looking at the latest artwork from our design department. The office buzzes until 17:00 (My son always pops in around 14:30 for a cuddle). I then continue working once the house is asleep. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What are the “secrets” to your success?
Perseverence. Giving up is easy. We are targeting a relative niche market in South Africa, through a tough economic climate, and their have been definite uphill battles, but it has all been worth it. Failure was never an option for me, when times got tough, I just worked harder.
As a mom how do you get the balance between your family and career life right?
Its taken me a long time to get the balance right, however I do believe I have mastered the art. One needs to remember that we cannot function as islands. They say it takes a village to raise a family (and a business for that matter), there are no truer words. I realised many years ago that one needs to build support networks and although women like to always don their superhero cape, it is perfectly acceptable to ask for help. Lastly, I am all about time management. I keep a strict diary and with 4 kids between Drew and I, we ensure we keep to schedule. The beauty of this is, although our lives are always busy, we can pencil in time for much needed fun.
What do you do for fun in your down time?
We believe in family, friends and fun. We try and escape Cape Town to the West Coast, Greyton or Plettenberg Bay whenever we can and spend long weekends making magical memories. Our house is famous for entertaining hence the kitchen is always busy. On quieter evenings, we have a tradition of ‘Family Lego Building Night’ which gets everyone involved and, every now and then, Drew and I will sneak out with mates for some good food, wine and a bit of dancing.
What do you still want to achieve?
Kids Emporium will open its doors in the UK in July shortly followed by 2 more South African stores and Namibia. We hope to expand further into the UK and the rest of Africa in the next few years. With that said, from a personal perspective, I would really like to spend more time in sharing my story, inspiring others and assisting budding entrepreneurs to see success.
See what I said… Inspirational! Thanks La for featuring in my Women at Work series. I wish you every (continued) success.
The good news for Becoming you readers is that I have a Kids Emporium hamper filled with stunning baby & toddler goodies worth R500 to give away to one lucky winner!
HOW TO ENTER
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Competition closes on Thursday 14 July and winners will be announced on Friday 15 July.