Seven Sisters Tap Into International Wine Market With Leadership Brand
However, the industry is almost exclusively filled with wine companianes owned and operated by white men. Thankfully, one family and its supporters have been working tirelessly to make changes.
As the CEO of African Roots Wines, the company responsible for the Seven Sisters and Brutus Reserve wine brands, Vivian Kleynhans is trailblazing change within the wine industry.
“We are not only business owners in the wine industry but we are fighting for equality and to transform the industry,” Kleynhans says.
Rather than coming to the wine business as a passionate connoisseur, Kleynhans was an outsider to the wine world when she decided to start her business 12 years ago.
She was wary of entering into a business that has been synonymous with alcohol abuse for black South Africans in part because white-owned wineries have a history of paying their black workers in wine. According to The Guardian, this practice has been “banned since the end of apartheid.”
Kleynhans spent most of her childhood in the small fishing village of Paternoster, about 150 kilometers from the vineyards of Stellenbosch, where her father worked as a fisherman for the village’s only fishing company.
When he lost his job, the family of 10 (including Vivian’s parents, the seven sisters, and brother) was forced to leave their house owned by the fishing company, and the children split up to live with various relatives.
“It was all we knew and all of a sudden we had nothing,” Kleynhans says. “I always gave my 120 percent into the companies I worked for and worked my way up to a point where I could one day remove myself from the corporate world and start my own business.”
While she was working as a human resources professional, the Minister of Agriculture “called people of color to participate in the higher value of the wine industry,” Kleynhans says.
The $3 billion export wine business is responsible for about nine percent of employment in South Africa’s Western Cape and she saw “an opportunity to change their destiny.” Soon after, she and her six sisters started African Roots Wine Brands in 2005.
According to the Seven Sisters website, as part of her extensive research, Kleynhans “enrolled in a wine college, attended numerous wine workshops and completed a wine management course at the University of Stellenbosch’s business school.”
She quickly found that in order to start a successful wine company as black women leaders in South Africa, they would have to find ways to operate outside of the established infrastructure. Like many women leaders, when they didn’t see a path they could follow, they made space for themselves and changed the landscape all together.
Kleynhans makes note of three major examples of how unconventional thinking was vital towards building her business.
First, without land of her own, she partnered with an established producer to supply her with wine. Secondly, the local markets were already saturated with prominent labels that could afford to sell for cheaper prices and did not always take her seriously as a wine producer, so international importers became her target market.
Third, securing loans for black wine businesses was nearly impossible without land and collateral, so funding had to be secured through governmental grants or personal investments.
After two years of facing financial challenges and the unfortunate experience of being given bad wine to distribute by her producer, the big breaks for Vivian and Seven Sisters came when American Airlines decided to stock Seven Sisters “Vivian” Sauvignon Blanc on its first class wine list. Shortly after that, Wal-Mart began stocking Seven Sisters in select U.S. stores.
Another momentous development came when the South African government awarded a barren piece of land to the sisters. The property is owned by 31 family members who have worked to turn it into a functioning vineyard with a tasting room and a restaurant that will open soon.
“I would say the few women in the wine industry with me, we’re the pioneers of the black wine industry starting in 2005,” Kleynhans says.
From this starting place, Kleynhans belongs to a greater community of black-owned wine companies in South Africa. The Treasure Chest Collective is a group of 14 black-owned businesses that work together advancing their products and building a system and an infrastructure to support black-owned businesses in the South African wine industry.
Feldt explains, “Things don’t just happen. People make them happen in a systematic way. And you can change systems. Apply the three movement building principles of Sister Courage (be a sister, act with courage, put them together to create a PLAN) and you will realize your vision at work, at home, or in public life.”
Although the strategies Kleynhans used are specific to the obstacles she has faced in her industry, these obstacles are relatable for anyone who has struggled to break into a new market that was initially made to exclude them. This may be a familiar experience for many women leaders and entrepreneurs. Here are some key strategies Kleynhans recommends for women entrepreneurs facing uncharted territory.
“You’ll always get the giants who will tell you that you’ll never make it.”
“It’s you as a person that you have to look at. Am I able to make it? Do I want to succeed? What is my objective? What is the reason for this? I think my reason is pretty strong. I wanted to change the destiny of my family and I wanted to build a legacy. I did not allow anyone to discourage me in my business and if they did I tried to stay focused and would look at their comments, was it something I can learn from, if not, I would just move forward.”
“Work properly with your finances so you don’t use your seed money.”
“I had to persevere a lot. I cannot go sit in a hairdresser or a spa or something like that. I have to always think, ‘Do I really need it now because I could use the money to do something worthwhile to grow what we have here.’ I have always been thinking in that direction…. You have to strategize very carefully around your finances and how you’re going to survive and what you’re going to do when you don’t have the money to move forward. You can’t just give up because the money’s not there. You have to find ways to sustain yourself and keep your business afloat. Are you hungry enough to want to achieve that?”
“I distinctly remember a time I separated myself from the industry and I started to focus. I think it was a year and a half before I really focused on my business and what I needed to do to grow. As new comers to the wine industry, black owned businesses, we always worked together in an organization, supporting each other and sharing resources but at times it got too much and I founded myself having two jobs, on top of it fighting to stay afloat in a challenging industry but you still have your business to run and try to make it survive. I remember I isolated myself and focused on the job in front of me and it put things in place.”
Like so many industries worldwide, the South African wine industry is undergoing a transformation at the hands of entrepreneurs like Kleynhans. From when she got into the business to now, she has seen noticeable shift.
“In the wine industry things are smoothing out nicely. We are getting to a point where we can see the change. There’s still still a lot to work through. We need to own our own infrastructure such as a wine cellar and bottling plant. And we need to be less dependent on others.”