Vimbai Chagonda is the cofounder of Betvel limited operating as Belle Vita Fashions, a fashion boutique in Zimbabwe. She launched Betvel in 2011, straight after university to cover a gap in the Zimbabwean market. The business has performed well and now operates in three different super regional malls in Harare. Betvel specialises in high end clothing and accessories and provides full-time employment to five women. Running a business in a tough economic climate, where challenges such as electricity, cash and fuel shortages and inflation are normal, has made her adaptable and taught her to think outside the box. She has learnt important business skills such as negotiating contracts, leadership, incentivising and motivating staff and cost management.
In 2019, Vimbai also co-founded a solar start up which provides solar systems and installations in homes in Zimbabwe. During her MBA, she will be working on this start up to see how she can partner up with banks and micro-financing companies to enable the company to offer solar systems on credit.
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I grew up in Africa and was raised by both an entrepreneur and a professional. My dad is a lawyer and my mum has been involved in a number of different entrepreneurship ventures and more recently has been into fuel. However, growing up i was probably influenced more by my dad, so as a result i saw myself climbing the corporate ladder and taking a similar path to him. I studied accounting and finance at university and qualifying as a chartered accountant. However, whilst at university, i was found myself more interested in the business courses and fascinated by new ventures and new businesses.
I think its probably safe to say i stumbled into entrepreneurship and loved it, so it was never an intentional path for me.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
For me, entrepreneurship is about finding a gap in a market, no matter how small and turning it into a viable business. A lot of people always think it has to be a grand and unique idea, but sometimes its all about how you can offer a product differently.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
Whilst at university, I travelled a lot with my mum to Europe during the holidays. I mainly went so I could shop whilst she worked. One holiday i came back with a few evening dresses, with the intention of choosing one for my college ball. I showed the dresses to a few students in my college and they loved them and offered to buy them from me, as they had been struggling to find reasonable priced dresses in the area. It was then that I began to see a gap in the market, and the following year brought about 10 extra dresses to sell. At this point I knew that there would be a market for my dresses and that opening a retail shop specializing in evening dresses was a good idea.
I told my mum in passing that after University i was thinking of opening a store selling evening dresses as there was a gap. A few months later, a lady that my mum knew with a shop in one of the prominent malls in Zimbabwe mentioned that she was looking for someone to take over half her shop as she was getting too old to manage. My mum encouraged me to take up the offer. I was hesitant at first as I had just graduated and had hoped to work for a few years to raise capital. However, i also knew how difficult it was to secure a space in that mall, so it was an opportunity i could not forego. With very little savings and help from my family, I managed to get just enough dresses to start my boutique.
A year later, the lady I was sharing with decided to retire and I took over the entire store.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Resilience – there will be times when you will fail or when things do not always go as planned, but one lesson that i have learnt operating in a tough economic climate, is to believe in yourself and have the strength to continue even when it seems like all hope is lost.
Patience – so often in business we have an end goal but this may take time and i have learnt to not be discouraged and have patience
Negotiation skills – a really good skill to have especially when it comes to negotiating contracts prices etc. In business, one must negotiate everything!!
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
I love actually seeing an idea play out and come to life. With both my businesses, i dreamt about what i wanted to do and imagined how it would be long before it actually happened.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
I am inspired by Lululemon Brand. I love how they have captured the athleisure market and how they care about the quality of the products they offer. One of the executives at Lululemon mentioned in an interview that all their staff in the stores are not sales assistant, but rather “educators” because they believe that they do no need to try and sell a product to a customer, but rather that their job is to educate the customer on the product and once the customer knows and understands the product, they will mostly likely make a purchase. I found that very inspiring.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I would love to find out more about their brand strategy.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
For me being able to create sustainable employment for the five ladies that work for me is satisfying. Even during the tough times, eg. during covid, my business was able to pay all the employees whilst we were closed and that for me is satisfying.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
I learned in my first business the importance of thorough market research. When I first started my fashion business, it did not go according to plan. People loved my products, but my dresses were not selling as fast as I wanted and was barely breaking even. This was mainly because I had stocked up on incorrect sizes. Most of the clients who were coming into the shop, could not fit the dress sizes I had. This was really discouraging as my suppliers only specialized in smaller sizes. i then had to find new suppliers to cater for the market and raise additional funding to buy new stock. Not analyzing the market and doing enough research almost destroyed my business and thus would advice all entrepreneurships to really ensure that you have covered all the bases and through carefully about the market you are entering.
How have you funded your ideas?
Mostly has been through savings and raising funding from family and friends.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
Entrepreneurship Centre, Oxford Seed Fund.
Any last words of advice?
Do not doubt yourself, just do it, worst case you fall, but you can always try again.