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Ubuntu Baba founder on navigating family life and a growing business

A mother and entrepreneur, Shannon McLaughlin is the founder of South African babywear brand Ubuntu Baba. If the company name rings a bell, it's because McLaughlin's small business made headlines for its successful 'David-vs-Goliath' battle with Woolworths.

Shannon McLaughlin, founder, Ubuntu Baba.

It's was McLaughlin's own quest to create the perfect baby carrier for her son that translated into a promising business idea. “My goal was to create an easy-to-use, breathable and comfortable carrier with a supportive waistband that was gentle on C-section healing. I wanted it to be adjustable so it didn’t have to be replaced too often as my baby grew,” she says.

The interest she received from other mothers in the product she designed made it clear that what had started out as an answer to a personal need could become a fully-fledged business.

Four years ago, McLaughlin started out with just one machinist; today Ubuntu Baba employs six machinists and six in the management team. The carriers are shipped worldwide, from the most rural areas in South Africa to major cities in Australia, Dubai, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Amsterdam, France and the United States.

Woolworths accused of copying baby carrier design

Woolworths has once again been accused of plagiarising the product design of a smaller business. This time, the item in question is a Woolworths baby carrier, which entrepreneur Shannon McLaughlin claims is a copy...

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Balancing work and family isn’t easy, regardless of whether there’s a man or woman at the reins. But McLaughlin hopes to make a positive statement in the South African entrepreneurial space and show that women belong in the community of successful business owners.

Here, she chats about female entrepreneurship and attaining a work-life balance.

How do you feel about the term ‘mompreneur’?

I don't really like being referred to as a mompreneur, to be honest. Nobody calls men ‘dadpreneurs'. I was an entrepreneur long before I became a mother, but that doesn't mean I can't excel in both roles. As soon as people hear the term mompreneur, they often discount it, like "oh she's a mom with a hobby business, good for her..."

That might be true for some, and there is nothing wrong with a hobby business, but there are just as many successful female entrepreneurs who also happen to be moms.

Do you have any tips for women/moms wanting to start their own business?

Make sure you price your products correctly from the start. As women, it's our natural instinct to want to nurture and help others, so we often try to price our products so that they're in reach for our customers. We don't want to 'rip anyone off' by pricing them too high, but we don't consider that we have to make a profit from the product from day one, otherwise it's going to be very hard to build a sustainable long-term business.

If you're selling a great product or service, then the buying decision isn’t about the price, it’s about whether your customer can or can't live without your product.

How did you get people/investors/the public to take your brand seriously before the Woolworths debacle?

I took it seriously myself. If you believe in your brand wholeheartedly it shows; and your team, your customers, or potential investors, will feel that and the energy will spread. By being consistent with our social media, our blog posts, our newsletters, and just showing up every day and doing the work - people can see that you're doing something you truly care about.

How do you see the future for working moms around the world?

“The future for women, in general, is looking up. There is more support for women and mothers in the workplace, but it's also up to women to speak up when they feel that a change is needed. If we don't use our voices then no one will hear us. Entrepreneurial moms have such a great opportunity to make a change. As a mother myself, who employs other mothers, I have so much empathy for what they're going through.

For example, when they have a sick kid it allows me to be human with them and bend the rules here and there when necessary, and they really appreciate that they are able to still hold a job and be a mother. I think it's quite sad to see how some companies treat new moms, but again, these moms need to speak up and help make the change.

The reason that the world doesn't know how hard it is to be a mom and what we actually go through, physically and emotionally, is because society has been set up that way. Men would do the work, women would make the babies. Now with the rise of feminism it's become, "oh, you want to be equal? Here's a full-time job, oh and here's a baby - now handle it all, get your body back, do your work and care for your family." Not that we can't do it all, but in order to do it all (if we choose to), we require different working circumstances because, well, we grow humans.

Do you have more time for your son running your own start-up than you would if you had a corporate job?

Hmmm, that's a toss-up. I've never had a corporate job so I can't really say. I have some friends who work corporate jobs who never see the light of day, and when they do, they're still on call. I suppose it depends on the type of corporate job you have and what company you work for. I don't think corporate is the devil, it's all about the culture of that company.

I make sure that I integrate my son into my working life, so I do spend a lot of time with him. I'm not 100% present a lot of the time because I may be busy working while he's playing, but I do make sure that I connect with him one-on-one every day for at least two to three hours on week days, and my weekends are all for him.

If you could change one thing or do something differently, what would it be?

I'd make it the law that working moms be given at least 6 months of fully paid maternity leave.

Where do you fit in your ‘me-time’ between prioritising family and business?

I get up early, usually 5am, and I do some yoga and a quick meditation. Then I have a cup of tea and listen to the birds in the early morning and just soak up the silence before the house wakes up. It makes such a difference to have that silent time for myself.

Did you ever have a ‘eureka’ business moment when you felt complete satisfaction?

{Laughs} I have these all the time. Sometimes they are amazing in the moment and then the next day I'm like "hmmm... yeah that's probably not going to work." But the most satisfaction I get out of this business is reading the emails from happy customers or the reviews on our Facebook page. Nothing compares to the feeling of knowing that we really are helping new moms through their days.

Woolworths apologises for copycat Ubuntu Baba carrier

Woolworths has removed a line of baby carriers from its shelves following a meeting with Cape Town entrepreneur Shannon McLaughlin, who claimed the retailer had copied the design of her Ubuntu Baba carrier...

9 Jan 2019

Who is your support community?

I'm really blessed. I have so many people I can count on for support when I need it. Friends, family, my Kindle books, and groups I belong to. You have to create what you need to support yourself as an entrepreneur, but when it really comes down to it, I think that you need to be your biggest supporter - if you don't believe in yourself 110% you will struggle as an entrepreneur.

If you can celebrate all the tiniest of wins and look at mistakes as stepping stones rather than failures, then you'll start to enjoy the entrepreneurial journey more, and when you're happy doing what you love, people will support you.
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