The hero we need
Originally published in Balanced Life magazine
As she sits down for our interview, you’d never guess that Allegro Dinkwanyane, the founder and CEO of Orgella Media, is running on two hours’ sleep (in fact, I only discover this information much later, thanks to a little Insta-stalking). The BL cover shoot has just wrapped and, despite a red-eye from Joburg, an early Cape Town call time and hours on set, Allegro sits before me talking animatedly about everything from the pillars of entrepreneurship, to Olivia Pope’s outfits. Her cellphone is beside her on the couch, plugged into a power bank so she doesn’t miss a beat. Its screen lights up every now and again and her eyes flick to it; it’s either a message from one of her tight circle of loved ones, or an email concerning one of her nine companies.
Yes, nine – including entities in the fields of communications, events, property and organic farming, not to mention her NPO, Orgella Helping Hands. It’s safe to say that Allegro deserves the ‘mogul’ moniker everyone is attaching to her. Forbes Africa featured her on its ’30 under 30’ list in 2017, and in February this year she travelled to Mumbai to accept an award for excellence at the 5th World Women Leadership Conference (where she was also the event’s youngest panelist and speaker). Just two days after our interview, there’s a camera crew in her office in Joburg, capturing footage for the Ghanian reality show Making of a Mogul. This is a woman who moves.
‘I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. I would sit in Maths class at 16 and scribble down ideas for my company,’ she says. ‘I didn’t know what it would be, but I always knew it would be called Orgella, which is my second name backwards.’ She’s in good company, if you consider which other self-made woman reversed her name, creating the empire we know as Harpo Productions. ‘No one does it better than Oprah,’ Allegro says simply.
Five years later, during her final year at UJ, Allegro began to make those high-school dreams come true. She came top of her online journalism class for her mock-up of a celebrity news blog, and was encouraged by her lecturer to take the project further. So, while her peers used their downtime to watch series or party, Allegro began working on what would become her future empire, capitalising on the campus WiFi and library to learn about the blogging business. ‘I knew I had to make the most of the time I had left on campus. I didn’t wan’t to graduate and be another face in the crowd looking for a job.’
She began writing for various campus publications, squirrelling away the money she made until she could afford to pay a web designer and register her fledgling business. In October 2011, one month before leaving UJ, she officially launched Orgella Entertainment. The blog curates and celebrates news pertaining to the entertainment industry. ‘I always distanced myself from tabloid culture. We don’t attack celebrities – we uplift.’
By March the following year, the blog was making enough money from its advertising clients that not only was Allegro able to pay her own rent and live in Joburg, she was also sending money home to her mother in Polokwane. That same year she launched her charity, Orgella Helping Hands, and in 2013 she branched into PR with Orgella Communications. ‘After that, it was Orgella Productions, Orgella Events… It happened organically because I knew I wanted to keep money in-house. Why outsource an events company to plan our client’s album launch?
‘I launched my ninth entity, Orgella Foods, last year. It’s an organic farming business. I had bought land in Polokwane and wasn’t sure what to do with it – I considered building a library, or an events centre for the community. But then I saw unemployed members of the community selling tomatoes and mangoes on the side of the road, and realised if we could get them for working for us, we could empower them.’
Empowering people has always been at the core of what Allegro aims to achieve with Orgella. At the Mumbai women’s conference, she opened her address by thanking the event’s organisers, because ‘it’s not every day that women come together to celebrate and uplift one another.’
‘That’s why I started my company,’ she tells me. ‘As much as Orgella was my dream, I knew it wouldn’t be mine alone. I wanted to create a legacy that would empower other young people.’
And she certainly has. To date, there are 39 people employed by the various companies under the Orgella umbrella. They also take on interns whenever possible, helping young people get a foothold in the industry. ‘There are no jobs out there; that’s just a reality. We’ll get emails from people offering to work for free, because if they can reference a reputable name like Orgella on their CV, their chances of getting a job are higher. That makes me feel really good, that I’ve created that space for people to find themselves.’
Incredibly, Allegro was until recently the youngest member of her nearly 40-strong team. But while these days her youth is celebrated as a feature of her success, in the beginning it worked against her.
‘I was always “too young”,’ she says. ‘People saw my age – something that I thought was a positive thing – as a disadvantage. When I was looking for investors before launching Orgella Communications in 2013, all I got was “too young, too inexperienced, we can’t take that risk.” I understood where they were coming from, but them saying “no” only fuelled me to prove that it could be done. It reminded me of Oprah – she was told she wasn’t qualified enough, she wasn’t pretty enough. So when I kept hearing I was too young and inexperienced, I reminded myself of where Oprah is today.’
Without investors, Allegro made her own plan. ‘I decided that all I really needed was a laptop, data and a travel allowance so I could see clients and go to events. We had no office; I worked in coffee shops. If we had to have a meeting, we hired a boardroom in Rosebank for R100 an hour. Too often, young people in business want everything to look like the final phase immediately. But nothing happens that quickly. You’ll get to the Google-style office one day. I started in coffee shops. And in the beginning, I was everything – I was the CEO, I was the accountant, I was the cleaner.’
Allegro is proof against the cliche that millenials are entitled and lazy. While her success may look effortless from the outside, her trajectory was built on hard work and commitment.
‘Hard work has never failed me. People who have known me since childhood will say I’ve always been a big dreamer, but I get up in the morning and pair those big dreams with hard work. Everyone has potential, but the difference [between being successful or not] lies in making sure that potential comes to life. I was posting consistently on the blog. I was all over Twitter. I was coming home from events at 2 am and writing articles so that my links would be up first. I was covering local news, and then staying up to cover international news. I barely slept.’
Her work ethic comes from within her family, who she describes today as her ‘cheerleading camp’. ‘My mentorship started at home. My father was a teacher, then a principal, then a lecturer. He was always studying. I got my academic drive from him. I knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur but I never slacked when it came to my schoolwork. I get my independence from my mother. I don’t wait for anyone to do anything for me. She and my late [maternal] grandmother were strong women, and after my parents’ divorce she raised me and my three siblings singlehandedly. Before I ever discovered Oprah, I knew who my mother was, and I wanted to be the best version of her.’
She’s also been inspired by those women in the industry who have helped smooth the path for her generation – ‘Women like Carol Bouwer, Basetsana Kumalo, Khanyi Dhlomo’ – but there’s another set of people she looks to daily, too.
‘I’m inspired by every person in Africa who pushes, who decides not to throw a pity party and gets on with feeding their family or inspiring their community; the men and women who open a hair salon or a car wash so they can send their children to school. Not everyone’s story will be on the cover of a magazine, but everyone has a story.’
The day after our conversation, Allegro posts a self-portrait to her Instagram. She’s in blue jeans and a crisp white shirt, striking a power pose. She’s facing the camera – and her future – head on. ‘For as long as I can remember,’ reads the caption, ‘all I ever wanted to be was the woman I’m becoming.’ Thanks for letting us come along for the ride, Allegro.
ALLEGRO’S TOP TIPS FOR WOMEN IN BUSINESS
Don’t box yourself into a category
‘If you’re going to be the best, be the best – black, white, male, female, it doesn’t matter. Be the best human.’
Be your number one supporter
‘You have to invest in yourself before anyone else will invest in you. That’s how you get taken seriously. People need to know that you believe in your idea.’
Don’t forget to live
‘People who follow me on social media think I’m always working, always slaying. But I’m not. I aim not to take work home. I make time for church. I visit my mother during the week. I make sure my nieces and nephews can never say they miss me. Women in business often spend so much time putting in the long hours, trying to prove ourselves. But you can be a good friend, a good partner, a good mother, a good daughter, without compromising your CEO status.’
If you can, travel
‘It’s the best way to learn to understand other people better. And when I come back, I’m inspired, fuelled, ready to work.’
Photo by Gareth van Nelson