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Interview with Claire Alexander: Cofounder of Africa Scotland Business Network

Updated: Aug 10, 2021

In recent times the term "Ally" has been given a lot of definitions by scholars, the media, and everyone who is given the opportunity to have a go at it. I don't have a definition for you, or a description, I just have an example, and that is Claire Alexander. Born in Scotland, Claire moved to South Africa 14 years ago, and within that time she has Cofounded three successful businesses, one of which is a business network called the "Africa Scotland Business Network (ASBN) ".


ASBN originally started with the purpose of facilitating trade between Africa and Scotland. Since then, it has grown into a network connecting the western world to Africa. I am proud to say I am a member of this network.


We had the opportunity to undertake a Q&A session with Claire and she shared her entrepreneurial journey with us.

 
Claire Alexander

Please tell us a little about yourself, your initial career aspirations and what drew you to entrepreneurship?


Claire: I always knew I was destined to do big things but I believed I would achieve this through sport. When my swimming career was tragically cut short by a head on car crash in my home town of Stirling, Scotland, I had to start again and carve a new path. This took lots of courage and grit and I often found myself feeling lost, trying to navigate life without everything I was ever good at – swimming. Now that I’m 38 and a little wiser, I now know that the bumps in my journey were meant to redirect me 6000 miles away to South Africa to build a legacy through entrepreneurship instead.


In South Africa, I literally started at the bottom. Dish washing to be precise. I was then given an opportunity in the event management industry and decided to leverage from it wholeheartedly. After self-teaching myself everything there was to know about event management in the NGO and corporate sector over 5 years, I co-founded my first company Firecracker Marketing & Events with corporate marketing expert Nicola Probyn in 2012.


Although myself and Nicola share a personal value system, a star sign and a ridiculous sense of humour, we come from very different backgrounds (which is partly what makes us work). Therefore, our motivations, at the time, for starting Firecracker were not similar. I was in a ‘do or die’ situation. I had nothing to lose, quite literally. I either start a business and throw everything I have into making this work on my own in South Africa or I’m making the call to my parents to put me on the next flight. The first option seemed the most interesting, character building (and challenging). Firecracker celebrated it’s 9th birthday this year.


Claire Alexander and Nicola Probyn
Claire Alexander with Cofounder Nicola Probyn

How much of your upbringing, surroundings and environment influenced your entrepreneurial journey?


Claire: I’m the daughter of a pest controller turned self-made entrepreneur and a champion swimmer turned swimming coach. My upbringing in sport and watching my parents start their own business when they were 40 was undoubtedly a massive influence on my own career. I also grew up in a family with a grandmother matriarch who loved me to bits as her first of six granddaughters. She thought I could do anything, so I did too.


Growing up in competitive sport meant that I had few good friends but those friends are still in my life 35 years later. I’m loyal and committed to my friends in the same way I was to sports, and now have the most fantastic friendships and support network north and south of the equator. It’s hard to be an entrepreneur on your own. Sports built essential qualities that would guide me throughout life and business, such as, discipline, work ethics, understanding wins, losses and being driven to be the best. At 5’2 in stature and not having a typical swimmers’ physique, the odds were stacked against me in the pool. It taught me so much about resilience and pushing my own boundaries, and whenever I’m challenged in business, that’s all the fuel I need to rev the engines. I’m very competitive and determined.


An event organised by Firecracker events and marketing
A Firecracker Event

As an entrepreneur, what criteria do you use to define success?


Claire: Living and working in two very different countries – Scotland and South Africa, my definition of success can be interchangeable:

  • Success is having ‘enough’ to ensure my family’s wellbeing and financial security is intact for a long time. What is considered ‘enough’ by me is a matter of my own perspective;

  • Optimum mental and physical health is part of my holistic success. These are components of life that must be nurtured every day and are extremely valid to entrepreneurs. The business counts on you to be healthy in body and mind to make sound decisions on a daily basis.

  • I’ve always wanted to build businesses in different countries, which is a tough feat. Anyone can start a business, but not everyone can grow one, nor take it across borders successfully. Firecracker has clients on 3 continents and my second business Africa Scotland Business Network has members in 11 countries, so far. We are extremely proud of these achievements but complacency isn’t in our language. Success in business should never stand still.

  • I count my reputation more than my pennies. My legacy matters to me a great deal, especially climbing the ranks and then launching businesses in one of the most unequal countries in the world. Success comes with a huge responsibility to do the right thing in South Africa. I view it as my duty to give back regularly, whether that’s in the form of donations to NGOs, employing young people and mentoring the next gen of entrepreneurs. I’m not interested in people knowing what my bank balance is but I am interested in people responding to me as someone that inspired them or gave them a hand up to go on and unleash themselves as successful, responsible citizens.


Claire Alexander

What would you say is your must valuable attribute as an entrepreneur?

Claire: Authenticity. In business, life is a lot more fluid and less complicated if you move through it as your true self. I am driven by a huge sense of purpose to use entrepreneurship as a vehicle to benefit more than just myself and my immediate friends and family. I genuinely want others to succeed in life and that’s my truth.


One of the reasons I decided to start an international business network was to build prosperity and connections amongst a large community of businesses, so lots of businesses can thrive, as opposed to investing in one tech start up! I might not become as wealthy but I’m happier creating businesses based on what sets my heart on fire.

What key challenges has there been to your entrepreneurial journey, and how have you navigated these?


  1. Claire: Be compelling. Understanding what you are known for is equally valuable to entrepreneurs than simply being a specialist or being passionate about something. Being a business expert is one thing but understanding what sets you apart and how you communicate that is key to your success. We were selling our ‘passion’ for our jobs and not what makes us different. It took us about 5 years to realise this and use our compelling stories and competences to our advantage. It comes with personal growth and confidence, not just as subject experts but as business leaders too.

  2. Claire: Business is about trust between two parties. In the early years, myself and Nicola placed far too much trust in others, especially in those big brands that everyone aspired to work for. We were thankful to gain those accounts and even more thankful for what a couple of them taught us. Little did we know, that trust was being abused as small business owners who wouldn’t stop at anything to get the job done for clients. We were walked all over and we paid the price for it, not just in a financial capacity, but our health suffered too. Today, boundaries, contracts and the power to say ‘no’ to people we don’t want to work with are all firmly in place.

  3. Claire: Business partnerships. I have a really successful business partnership with Nicola and the world knows there’s not much that will get between us. About half way into our business journey together, we realised that we weren’t aligned in what we wanted for Firecracker and that’s why we kept bashing against brick walls. People also change and evolve over the years, hence the dynamics of a long term business partnership is bound to shift and for that reason, open communication with one another is essential. Sometimes it’s wise to pull in a strategic consultant in these times, which we did. It was the one of the best investments we’ve made for ourselves and Firecracker and hence a new vision and set of goals were born.

What advice do you have for women aspiring to become business leaders and entrepreneurs, especially in Africa?


Claire: Write down your big, scary lifetime ambition or ultimate purpose. Remember there is a difference between ‘passion’ and ‘purpose’. No matter how passionate or purposeful your ambition is, if you want the term ‘entrepreneur’ to feature in it, you need to be able to sell it.


Break down your purpose into manageable goals over a period of time and figure out how you’re going to achieve those goals through an effective business model. You might need the help of other people – call them. You might need to read certain books – buy them or borrow them. You might need some cash to invest in your dream – borrow it sensibly or save it. You might need to learn about strategies or finance or marketing – find mentors, join a trusted network or if you’re driven by digital learning, watch YouTube tutorials. Mother Africa provides so much help through people and life when you actively look for it.


Living in this great continent for the past 14 years has been a great honour as well as an experienced that has shaped my being for the best. I’ve embraced, befriended and been welcomed by African women from across this land for most of my adult life and what I’ve observed is the unique strength, resilience and incredible spirit of the divine African feminine.




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