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In this episode, I chat with Thabisa Mjo. Thabisa is the designer, behind Mash.T an award-winning Johannesburg based design studio that is contributing to the continuing evolution of a home-grown contemporary South African design aesthetic.Thabisa started out in the TV industry designing sets and moved into creating spaces that people in the real world could interact with

Working for herself has taught her the value of social capital, which she defines as having a network of people you know with the valuable skills you need to develop and grow your business and can call on them for help. Her social capital comes from being able to tap into friends in the corporate world, and those in her older sisters circle who have started their own businesses and help to guide her.

One of the biggest lessons being an entrepreneur has taught her is about being aware of the privilege of being able to have her own business and not having to worry about meeting her basic needs. This she shays enables her to be in a position where she can take more chances. This privilege also means having to actively think about how does she goes out of her way to bring in someone who does not have access to the same opportunities and networks she has.

Won the Nando’s Hot Young Designer and this gave her a footing in the design industry however her success hasn’t been without its challenges. As she did not come to design through the traditional channels and is self-taught she talks of having to get past the gatekeepers who bar the way to those who do not have the right education, credentials, and so forth. And this experience impacts how she works with others and give them opportunities to enter the industry.

Storytelling is how she approached designing her products. When she started having never designed a product before, she didn’t know how else to approach the process other than thinking about it as a story and this has become an important part of her design process.

Her Nando’s win has helped her brand gain legitimacy and opened doors to game-changing opportunities. She is now focusing on the craftspeople she works with and cultivating the right relationships that will propel her business to the next level

Thabisa’s story is one of determination, self-belief. Now focused on how to build a scalable and sustainable business that creates true economic opportunities for the people she works with. When it comes to her potential Thabisa feels like she is only just scratching the surface and has not yet tapped in what she can really do.

“They [craftspeople] bring soul to my products, and their skillsets make my products.”

– Thabisa Mjo 

We talk about:

  • The reasons for working for herself 
  • The challenges of gaining access to market
  • Appreciating the value of social capital 
  • The importance of having systems in place to stop you working harder than is actually necessary 
  • Not letting failure stop her so failing 
  • Being aware of the privilege of being able to have her own business and the responsibilities that come with this
  • Breaking through the barrier of gatekeeping – The challenges of overcoming a system that is designed to keep people out 
  • How she did not come to design the traditional way 
  • Taking the initiative to go out there and ask for work, for the opportunities
  • The importance of ding your research 
  • Having confidence, determination, and self-belief 
  • Respecting the deep roots of generational know-how and the people you work with
  • Changing the way people think about African design

“What I don’t like is the way people who work with their hands, people who have these traditional craft skills are labelled as low labour, or unskilled-labour. They are not unskilled labour. It is such an incredible gift, a skillset. This is actually their inheritance. And how do we use this inheritance to create true economic opportunities.”

– Thabisa Mjo

Links and resources mentioned in this episode

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Sketchup

Oprah Magazine South Africa – now closed

Estee Lauder South Africa

Veuve Clicquot South Africa

Tracy Lynch

Nando’s Hot Young Designer

Louise Mcann

Chandelle Lighting

Where you can go to find out more about Thabisa: Mash T Design Studio and @mashtdesignstudio

You can listen to the podcast on iTunes (iOS) and Stitcher (Android)

And before you go I have a favour to ask, if you could take a few minutes to do the three R’s: that is: rate it, review it, and recommend it to anyone you feel would benefit. It will really make a difference and I would greatly appreciate it.

Thanks again.

Tapiwa Matsinde

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Thabisa Mjo Season 2 Title Behind The Design Podcast Atelier 55

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