07 Aug Interview with Shanèy Vijendranath
Founder and CEO of MomSays and You, Baby and I
Shanèy, better known as ‘Shan’, is a mom of three children (aged three, five, and eight), an entrepreneur, and a blogger, and was listed in Forbes Africa 30 under 30 in the business category. She is the co-founder of the parenting start-up MomSays, a platform that helps moms find the right products for them and their children. Collaborating with global brands such as Mattel, Disney, LG, Volvo, Samsung, and Unilever, You, Baby and I was named Africa’s most influential parenting blog in 2016 and won Best Parenting Blog in 2017. She is also the Johannesburg Chapter Lead for SoGal, the largest global platform for the education and empowerment of entrepreneurs and investors. Their mission is to close the diversity gap in entrepreneurship and venture capital.
Tell us your story — how did you get to where you are now?
When I was 15 years old, I realised that I wanted to have my own business. I started attending business seminars and listening to motivational speakers to get an idea of how to do business and boost my self-esteem. I became interested in the modelling industry, in being both in front of and behind the camera — the planning and background of it all. I decided to open a promotions company, my first business, where I helped girls get promotional jobs, and taught them how to be confident during interviews. Around this time, I discovered social media and realised that there’s room for growth in this space.
Then I met my husband; I was 18. We worked together. He did the photography and I was the people person and headed up marketing. We got married when I was 20, and I had my first child at 21. I realised then that I had lost all my friends. I was a young mom, and they were all studying and partying. It became very lonely. So, I decided to start blogging, on You, Baby and I, not knowing that there was a blogging industry in South Africa.
Six months later, brands started approaching me, even though the aim of my blog was just to connect young moms, moms who bought products and either loved or regretted it, and had had other experiences than I’d had. I made a post of about 15 products new moms should have, and it went viral. This was when I realised that blogging was an industry in South Africa. You, Baby and I continued to reach more moms in South Africa and Africa. We began winning awards and working with the biggest local and global brands. We built an incredible community with You, Baby and I, but, four years later, I realised I didn’t want to be known as just a blogger, I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I always had that mindset.
I noticed that South Africa did not have its own stats around baby- or parenting products; most stats came from the USA or the UK. I wanted to know what products South African moms were buying, loving, and hating, because we have completely different incomes, preferences, lifestyles, and cultures to moms in the USA or UK. This was where the initial idea for MomSays came from, but I knew nothing about start-ups then. Luckily, we had a very engaged community of moms through You, Baby and I. My husband and I wanted to leverage this. I asked the community to support us in this crazy idea, and nearly 2 000 moms signed up in the first two weeks. They trusted me.
I took that number and started approaching brands for products for moms to review in exchange for the data. Eventually, I used the network and data to pitch the idea in start-up competitions. I didn’t get funding as fast as I thought I would. Finally, the I’m In Accelerator Programme saw the potential and believed in our idea, and invested in MomSays. Last year, we went live with the new site. In the past year, I’ve seen how MomSays has grown, and we’re growing every single day.
But what I love most is the community we’ve built. Community has always been at the centre of everything I do.
What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in getting to where you are now?
Number one is being a woman entrepreneur. People didn’t take me seriously. Being a woman and a mother pitching to male investors has been very challenging, because many of them don’t understand the struggles of women or the industries that women want to get into, and then do not fund such projects, which is frustrating. Women worldwide are not getting enough funding. There is a lot that South Africa still needs to catch up on when it comes to the funding space — believing more in women entrepreneurs, but also understanding their businesses.
The second challenge was getting a good team together. A lot of start-ups have this problem. I’m grateful that I work with my husband. He’s a partner I can always trust and rely on, because we have the same passion and goals for the company. Building a team initially was difficult. We had to get through the bad before we got to the good. A lot of people let us down. We lost money in that process, but we’ve learnt from it. Any investor will tell you that they invest in the team more than the business. We learnt that the hard way.
Another challenge is trying to build your identity and place in the industry. You need to be good at networking and have an online CV, which can be tough to establish. I was lucky that, because of my blogging experience, I had already built a name for myself in the industry, but if you don’t have that, you will struggle trying to connect with businesses, and if you want to get funding, you need to have an online presence.
Looking back on your career and life, what advice would you give your younger self and other young women in South Africa?
Firstly, don’t doubt yourself. I’ve always doubted myself, but you’ve got to learn to back yourself, no matter what. If your gut tells you to do something, put your head down and do it. A lot of people will say you can’t do it and you could never do it. Prove them wrong. Understand that failure isn’t a bad thing. We should never look at failure as the world ending.
You need to fail in order to grow and understand what you’re doing and who you are. As an entrepreneur, you will always deal with failure, so, go in that mindset of, ‘Yes, I will fail, but I will also learn from that and move forward.’ Never be afraid to pitch yourself.
Secondly, it’s so important to have a mentor or a support group, especially in the entrepreneurial space. It can be lonely, and this can break you down. You need people to back you and motivate you and pick you up when you’re feeling low. Another piece of advice is to network. Connect with people in your industry. Use the platforms that are available to connect with people around you. Check in on people and just connect. That’s how I got a lot of my business now, during Covid — just connecting with people after months. I think that’s so important, just being visible, being present, being transparent.
What are you most proud of in your career and personal life?
I don’t think I would be where I am today without my daughter. The whole idea of You, Baby and I started because of her. She has been my motivation to just continue, even today. I’m proud because I think I can be a role model to her. She could grow up thinking, ‘OK, this is something that I want to do, because I look at my mommy, and she’s done it really well.’ My husband is the CTO of my company, and, without him, the company wouldn’t exist. I’m also proud of the engaged community we have built. Very few people get that right.
I’m also proud of the campaign we are running at the moment, called Back-a-Mom on backabuddy. We’re trying to raise R50 000 to support one hundred moms in South Africa. I know everybody is feeling the pinch right now, and I wanted to give back to my community using the network we’ve built. I’m proud to say that we reached R31 000 in one week. Hopefully, we’ll reach our target of R50 000 in August.
The awards have also played a big role. For example, last year, MomSays won Best Newcomer at the Southern African Start-Up Awards, which was big for us, because we were only a few months old. It’s amazing, because it shows that more people believe in our idea.
Last year, I featured in Forbes Africa 30 under 30, which was a huge achievement for me personally. It was on my bucket list of things to do, and I’m grateful that it has also opened doors for me.
What is your wish for gender equality and women in South Africa?
I don’t understand why women still have to fight for a place and positions and the right to speak. It’s 2020! I wish this weren’t the case. It’s a mindset issue, and comes back to how we are raising our kids. Our girls and boys are treated differently. We are telling our kids that girls are only supposed to do certain things. We need to educate our kids from a young age the understanding that men and woman are equal, and we’ve got to stop putting them in a box.