‘Have a vision so big it scares you’

I recently met up with Claire Alexander at an entrepreneurial network. I asked her to tell us a bit about herself…

Claire: I’m a Scottish national who moved to South Africa in 2007 when I was 24.

I literally started my journey in Cape Town washing dishes for R10 an hour.

Today, I’m a double business owner, NPO board member, a guest speaker, business mentor and I’m also what is known as a Global Scot, which is a network of international Scottish business- people appointed by the Scottish government.

Despite my strong connections to business and family in Scotland, I’m proud to call South Africa home. I live here with my husband, Bernardus, and two children, Eilidh, 3, and Caelan, 1.

Steve: You lead two businesses, Firecracker Events and Marketing and Africa Scotland Business Network (ASBN). Please share a little about how these businesses began.

Claire: I started Firecracker with my South African friend, Nicola Probyn. I was personally in a do or die situation and had two options in front of me − start my own business or go back to Scotland.

I chose the difficult option and myself and Nicola launched Firecracker Marketing and Events in April 2012.

Firecracker is now a leading, award-winning events and marketing company working with local and international clients on three continents.

In 2018, I spotted an opportunity to use my business experience in South Africa and large cross-sectoral networks to start a new, contemporary and proactive international business connecting organisations across the African continent to each other and to the country of Scotland.

Africa Scotland Business Network became a reality in November 2019 when it launched from Bowmans Law firm in Cape Town at an invite-only event. Despite launching three months before the pandemic struck, ASBN has exploded and we now have a direct members’ footprint in 13 countries.

Steve: You have had your share of highs and lows. What lessons can you share to assist others in navigating challenges?

Claire: Highs and lows are part of the territory in business. We celebrate success while challenges should be embraced. My tendency, when faced with a challenge, is to pull the team together and problem solve. When we can’t find the answers internally, I collaborate with external, trusted forces. Our support network of mentors and advisors is critical to our team being able to fast track ourselves out of adversity.

When I was a younger entrepreneur, I was a bit too proud (I’m Scottish after all) and I tried to fix everything myself.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in life is to be completely comfortable with feeling vulnerable and ask for guidance. You’ll be surprised how many people will be there for you.

Steve: You spoke of having goals that frighten you. That talks to having a strong entrepreneurial mind set. What are some attributes that you see as essential to the entrepreneur’s journey?

Claire: a. Have a big vision or you’ll always play small. The visions of both my companies are so big, they do sometimes scare me. I was told by a consultant in Scotland if your goals don’t scare you, they’re not big enough and that stuck with me. You need to start with one big, scary lifetime ambition for your business and work back by putting the shorter term goals and strategies as the roadmap to greatness.

For example, our purpose at Africa Scotland Business Network is to build Africa’s most impactful international business network. The foundations are already in place.

b. Get comfortable with saying no. Goals and strategies are then required to journey towards your destination. Many entrepreneurs make the mistake of saying yes to everything to get by. Having the gentle confidence and experience to say no to people who may take you off track is critical to staying aligned and focused on your journey to success.

c. Be resourceful. I have a reputation for getting the job done but I wasn’t born into nor do I have exponential wealth (yet). In current times where uncertainty is here to stay, it’s amazing how small tweaks in how money and resources are managed can have a huge impact on growth and outcomes.

d. Trust yourself and have belief in yourself. The famous saying by Henry Ford rings true − “whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right”.

Steve: You and your business partner are both successful women entrepreneurs. What encouragement could you give to aspiring female entrepreneurs?

Claire: Master your confidence, self awareness and expertise in different business environments and with different people.

This is a process that never ends but does show results in time. Ten years into the game, I can spot patriarchy at play a mile off but I’ve got the experience and confidence to kick it right out of my arena.

Steve: Do you have a favourite quote or statement that helps keeps this “Firecracker” going?

Claire: Everything that keeps Firecracker’s sparks alive and Africa Scotland Business Network’s growth trajectory going ultimately comes from our own actions as business leaders, not someone else’s quote.

● Steve Reid is the manager of the Centre for Entrepreneurship at False Bay College. Contact him on Steve.Reid@falsebay.org.za