Female auto repairs entrepreneur beats unemployment and gender barrier

Despite being discouraged by many, Thembi Sithole ventured into a business widely dominated by men. She runs a shop in South Africa that fixes and refurbishes vehicles. Thembi – defying worrying unemployment trends in the country, has secured a regular customer base and won the trust of some of the top motor companies in the industry.

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA (REUTERS) – Along a busy street in Randburg – a suburb northwest of Johannesburg, G&T Autobody shop stands out for being one of few motor workshops run by a woman in the city.

Thembi Sithole says her love for cars started 13 years ago when she worked in a similar workshop as a car washer and later on a receptionist.

She says she learnt whatever she could about cars on the job.

Years later, Thembi grabbed an opportunity to open a new panel beating business when a friend asked her to partner with him. She now has majority shares in the business, which offers a range of services from major structural repair to panel beating and spray painting.

“Yeah, when I started; I was cleaning cars, I was in a wash bay – that was my first job and I was enjoying it. I mean, it was a job but I didn’t know that one of the days I would be owning my shop,” said Thembi.

Thembi says starting out was not easy. She had to take bank loans, use up all her savings and try to convince customers that she could service their cars.

Things started to look up in 2012, when she won a contract with an insurance firm to fix damaged vehicles that no one would take.

The entrepreneur was able to expand her business and purchase more equipment and attract more customers soon after.

Thembi says working in a male dominated field means she has to do a lot of convincing for clients to sign up.

“The minute when I start to discuss the damage on a car, when I’m estimating, that’s when people, they start gaining confident, that’s when they starting to realize that this person, though it’s a female, she knows what she’s doing,” said Thembi.

Africa’s most industrialized economy has grown lethargically over the last six years, and unemployment is now at its highest since 2003, according to Statistics South Africa.

Unemployment increased after manufacturing, mining and agriculture sectors all shed jobs in the country.

The government is encouraging people to take up entrepreneurship to support themselves and create job opportunities instead of relying on formal employment.

G&T Autobody shop has 15 employees today, and brings in about 430,000 US dollars a year.

It is also accredited to fix major structural damage on some top carmaker brands.

“It’s a biggest killer of us, it’s a fear. They (women) need to conquer that fear and to get advices to people who are positive with life. Because if they go to somebody and say, ‘oh no I want to start a panel beating shop’, and I heard a lot — ‘a panel beater? What are you gonna be… no man, why don’t you start maybe a catering business?’ But that person if they’ve got that vision, that drive, to do what they want to do – they can make it! It’s all the passion, the love, the drive and they must just persevere,” said Thembi.

The entrepreneur says there is still a lot more to do; she wants to grow her business further and build a brand across the country that can make a significant contribution in services offered to vehicle owners.