“If you can’t join the table, make your own table,” says entrepreneur Chiedza Makwara. And she has done that, challenging stereotypes and finding success in several fields.
A 2019 Mandela Washington Fellow, Chiedza is an entrepreneur, bestselling author, and talk show host from Zimbabwe. She is the managing director of Charlie Stevens International, a logistics company she co-founded. A leader in her community, Chiedza is determined to empower young people and create a path for others to follow.
In this YALI Voices podcast, Chiedza shares her passion for telling stories and using media to empower young people across Africa.
Chiedza is an advocate for female empowerment. In 2017, Chiedza self-published her first novel, Bongile: Journey to Redemption. It is the fictional story of a woman in whose life many of the challenges facing women in society play out.
From a young age, Chiedza has been challenging stereotypes in her community. As a professional, Chiedza began asking herself, “Am I creative? Am I a businesswoman?” She realized, “You can be both. You can be all things. You don’t have to be put in a box.”
Chiedza stresses the importance of supporting women. “The more we’re open and the more we create spaces for women,” she says, “the more the world starts becoming a better place.”
Listen to the full podcast or read the transcript below to find out how Chideza is changing the narrative of female empowerment through her writing, advocacy and community initiatives.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
YALI Voices Podcast: CHIEDZA MAKWARA
CHIEDZA MAKWARA: I am out in front. I challenge all stereotypes just by manner of being me. I am that person. I have a very big personality. I have a very strong personality, and, yes, I live in a very patriarchal society. But I think you need to fight for what you want and who you are. You know, there’s a popular saying these days that, oh, you know, “If you can’t join the table, make your own table.” I literally have made my own table.
My name is Chiedza Makwara. I am from Zimbabwe.
♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪
VOICE-OVER: Welcome to the YALI Voices podcast, your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. Be sure to subscribe to the YALI Voices podcast and visit yali.lab.dev.getusinfo.com to stay up to date on all things YALI.
Chiedza Makwara will not be contained. An entrepreneur, bestselling author and talk show host, she is a powerful voice in her community for women — determined to raise awareness and create a path for others to follow. She is the managing director of Charlie Stevens International, a logistics company she co-founded, who in 2017 self-published her first novel, Bongile: Journey to Redemption. It is the fictional story of a woman in whose life many of the challenges facing women in society play out.
Chiedza always knew that she had something to say. We begin our YALI Voices podcast with her early memories as a young girl in Zimbabwe, sure of her belief in herself.
CHIEDZA: I grew up in Zimbabwe, in a small town called Gweru. I live in Harare now, but I grew up in Gweru. I think I was always a writer. I was always an orator from a very young age. I loved to tell stories. I was writing at a very, very young age. I was reading very big books — set books like Shakespeare, Julius Caesar. I was reading those books at a very young age, so I knew very early on who I wanted to be. I knew I wanted to be in the media space.
Actually, I knew I wanted to be on TV more than anything. I just did not know how my life was going to turn out. All I knew was, I want to be on TV, I want to write something. So, my influences were a lot of pop culture. You know, we watch a lot of Western TV and also Southern African TV. South Africa was a very big influence on me, and I wanted to be one of the media greats.
Zimbabwe is the kind of society where they take academic education very seriously, and things like writing and film and television weren’t, at that time, really considered as things like careers, so it was about excelling in school and being the best.
My dad wanted me to be a doctor. He used to call me Dr. Someone, and all he thought in his mind was, if you are great, you’re a doctor or you’re a pilot. There were no careers like you’re a businesswoman, you’re an entrepreneur, you’re a media person. Careers like that were not there.
VOICE-OVER: We asked Chiedza to tell us how a little girl whose family wanted her to be a doctor found her creative muse. Later she tells us about her work as an entrepreneur in a male-dominated business.
CHIEDZA: You know, she had to fight through it and make sure that her authentic self came out through going for what she wants. Reading, like I said, was a very, very big part of creating that imaginative world for myself, so I created a very, very imaginative world for myself where I’d write about a dog eating a chicken. I remember that was very popular, something that I wrote in high school. I started writing series of books, and one of my teachers said to me, “You’re gonna do amazing things with this writing thing,” and he really believed in me.
And he’d give me papers to make book covers because he said you are gonna — they never went anywhere, by the way. So, you have to sort of fight for your creativity and develop it, even if everybody else around you don’t believe you. My parents did not take me seriously until I was in my late 20s, in terms of my creative side.
So, I’m a businesswoman, and I am an author, a bestselling author. I am an anomaly because I feel like I am because I’m equally good at these things, and sometimes I struggle in my space. Am I creative? Am I a businesswoman? But I started realizing later, you can be both. You can be all things. You don’t have to be put in a box. So often as a society, we’re put in a box. You’re either this or that. But the world is changing. We’re evolving. You can be all things.
In America, I looked up to Oprah as the it all and end all. And she’s a media guru. She’s a writer. She’s a businesswoman. She has encompassed everything together, and that’s what I look up to. In South Africa, we have a lady called Basetsana, Kumalo. She’s a big media person, but she’s a writer, she’s a businesswoman, she’s a retailer. So, those are the things that have encouraged me and showed me that I don’t have to be Chiedza the businesswoman only. I can be Chiedza the businesswoman, the author, the speaker, and whatever else that I want to do. So, that is how I found it and balanced it.
CHIEDZA: When it came to logistics, I suffered so much for not being taken seriously because, oh well, she’s a little girl. People didn’t actually realize how old I was. In her 20s, and she wants to move our shipments of this product, our containers of this product? Nobody would take me seriously until I would go with my business partner to a meeting, and then they’re now getting wide-eyed and trying to understand what it’s about. I didn’t give up. I kept pushing their door.
When I was young, I never thought that the stereotypes were there. I used to think it’s things that we just talk about it. It’s women. We like to just bring out these issues and play the victim. Until I actually got in the position where I felt stereotyped against — the way I felt like I wasn’t getting the fair advantage or the equal advantage because I’m a woman, and because I’m a young woman and, maybe actually because I’m black, although our country is mostly black. But you find people supporting more white-owned businesses because they trust them more. And it’s a whole mindset that we need to change, that black people — black-owned businesses can actually do good and then can actually excel.
Charlie Stevens International is a logistics company. We do clearing for — customs clearing, forwarding freight, shipping, courier. We’ve launched a courier service, which is overnight packages like your big traditional companies like your UPS and DHL. So, our vision is to be the leading freight forwarder in southern Africa. Right now, that’s our five-year vision. And we’ve grown through that process.
Starting a business is hectic. How I got into the logistics space, I worked for a logistics company for 10 years, so I have the experience. And sort of moving from there, I realized I’m giving so much to this organization. I have a different vision. I can do better, and, according to me, and I can build a better system. And I opened this company with a business partner. So, the vision really is to be the best and to excel and to get people to get their packages on time, efficiently, and to link logistics worldwide. We have a lot of people with — I’ll use Zimbabwe, for example. We have a lot of people with family living overseas, a lot of people with family in the United States, U.K., South Africa, and there’s a lot of people who need access to what their family is bringing to them.
Any partnership is a challenge because there’s vision issues. Your vision is not always the same, but you must find a way where you are agreeable. You do not, you should not step down and play small. You need to step up and make your voice heard, and sometimes it’s uncomfortable. Do not be afraid of uncomfortable conversations when it comes to money, when it comes to assistance, how you want your business run.
Women are getting more educated through and through, so why is it that we’re afraid to start our own businesses and to think bigger and better and way beyond?
You can do it. Look at the people who have done it before. I’m a very big believer of mentorship. And when I mean mentorship, I don’t mean sitting with someone and exchanging their notes, but just replicating the people who inspire you in your life. And I’m not even talking about big, world-known celebrities. It could be somebody in your neighborhood who’s running a shop the way you like it, you know? Or somebody who is — if you’re a rural girl, a lady who’s doing farming and started from her tomatoes and now doing farming, replicate that excellence and those ideas.
That is mentorship, and it will show you that you can do it. Personally, like I said, I have women internationally I look up to who I have never met, who don’t know me at all, and they’re my mentors, and women that I know who have done very well in businesses in my country who are my mentors and friends that I have, and I kind of take this and I kind of take this advice or whatever from this person, so that is my advice to the women.
CHIEDZA: Some of the lessons that I’ve learned when starting your own business, the first thing I would say, make sure your contract is airtight, and there are contracts. If you’re starting a business, especially with other people, make sure that everything is cut and dried in terms of your contracts, the fine line, and how everything’s going to work out. Because what happens is, as you grow and you start making money, people start claiming this and that. And I had to go through that, you know. And a lot of relationships were lost, and I will take my accountability for my part because I wasn’t thorough. So my advice is be thorough when opening your business.
Research is important. That’s the second thing. Know which industry you’re going to — know who your competitors are. We think that we have a great idea, we can start our business, but you don’t live in a bubble. That competitor really should be your friend because you really should know why they’re where they are, what competitive advantage they have against you. It’s a game, so that’s important. I think those two things for me are very important. And faith in yourself. You know, people are going to tell you you can’t, it’s too big, wow, who do you think you are?
Believe in yourself. Believe in the vision. It might seem unattainable, but believe in yourself, believe in your vision. And the last thing is, if you’re building something that is really, really big and really, really grand — I’m not talking about a business that is a small business, okay? I’m talking about a vision business, and I believe my company’s a vision company. You might not make money for a while, but stay true to the vision. The money will come. Money is not everything, especially at the beginning.
Build a good name. Build a good brand. Build your systems. When you start breaking even, you’ll be happy, you know? After years — for me it happened after three years — you will get there. It’s not about money at the beginning. It’s about building the vision and the brand.
CHIEDZA: Where did I get my startup? I’m a big believer in saving money, and that is one of the things that I teach the ladies that I mentor and the young women who come up to me. So as you’re working, because sometimes you don’t just start a business, you know? You need to save the money.
I’ve heard people saying, I’ve $1 million. My business is worth $1 million. Who’s going to give you $1 million? Who’s going to give you $100,000? Let’s be honest. Start with what you have. Do what you can and make it happen.
VOICE-OVER: But it’s Chiedza’s work as an author that she says is the fulfillment of her dreams. And she has seen her novel become a catalyst for shedding the secrecy around gender-based violence, the rights of women and girls, and their overall experiences in male-dominated communities.
CHIEDZA: When I was, I think I was 23 years old, and I met a woman, and she gave me — it’s based on a true story, Bongile, Journey to Redemption. It’s a true story of a lady’s journey to redemption, you know? It starts with a lady holding a dead baby on a bus, so we’re sort of going through how she got to that position, the way she’s holding a dead baby on a bus.
Why I wrote the story — it was riveting and compelling to me because a lot of women have so many untold stories. You meet people, you immediately judge them. You’re meeting on the bus. “Why is she so dirty? Why is she so broken?” So, I felt like I needed to tell that story. And I wrote it at 23. I wanted to publish it. I looked for publishers, and I was rejected, before people even read the book, because they thought, “Oh, well, small girl writing about HIV.”
They didn’t even read the book, and those doors were shut. But again, I didn’t give up. I sent it to South Africa, just as a manuscript, and seven years later, they gave me a call. I went to South Africa. We had the conversation. We didn’t agree. I didn’t think that this was going to be very beneficial to me. I didn’t believe in the terms because I believe a lot in contracts.
I went back to my country, and I said, “I’ve got to publish this book, and I’m gonna self-publish it. I don’t care who wants it or who doesn’t want me.” And I tell you, I had the biggest book launch in the country. It became a women empowerment talk, you know, women crying, sharing their experiences. I had women come up to me, boardroom women, and say, “I went through this. I went through what Bongile went through.”
And this story, particularly Bongile, is supposed to come out as a platform for women to start speaking out about some of the things that they go through.
You have children that have child marriages, are going through child marriages. You have children where maybe your sister is married to a husband, and he can come and touch you in the wrong way, and you’re not supposed to talk about it. We have an environment where it’s closed. People cannot talk about things or they’re not allowed to talk about things, so it’s kind of brought through some issues to light.
And what I liked is women then came up with their different stories, which were even different from Bongile’s stories, instead of saying, “Well, this happened to me, and, well, this happened to me.” And I think it was largely a popular book because a lot of people could identify with these issues, especially these closed-door issues — rape, raped by somebody familiar, abused by somebody, being shunned, you know, by family members.
Is there sort of an awakening for the men who read the book or who know about these issues that women are going through? I’m going to be very candid. I don’t think there’s enough, or I don’t think we are doing enough. Like I like to say, the world is evolving and ever changing, but some of these societal norms are not, you know. Men are not open to these discussions because they always feel attacked, so maybe we need to change our approach as to how we tell stories, which is why I like Bongile. It’s a story, and that’s what it is.
And honestly, I think, “Oh, they’re just saying that because they don’t want to bring about the issues,” but then I realized that they actually think like this across the board. So we need to change our approach, how we highlight the issues. And books is a way of doing it. Movies and film is the way of doing — and if they can see how this is affecting somebody else, maybe they can learn and act better and be better, because a lot of the perpetrators, when it comes to gender-based violence and just, you know, abuse are men.
It wasn’t about book sales. They’re great, but it wasn’t about book sales. It was about people starting to come out and talk about the things that have affected them, their awkwardness.They’re walking around, no matter how great you are, feeling not enough because somebody hurt you. So, that’s important to me. I wrote an article called “Still.” It talks about losing a baby, and I lost a baby. And one of the things that happened was a lot of people were coming on my Facebook page and talking about how they had lost children and how they had had miscarriages, because it’s something that’s not talked about in our society.
So, my thing and my vision as a woman and as a leader is to share and talk about those awkward things that people don’t talk about. Because I went through that, and I’m so happy that it’s inspiring other people to tell their stories.
When I would talk particularly to what I know, which is postnatal and prenatal and going through things like miscarriages — we need a better support system. We need people to talk about it. We need to take out the elephant in the room because in Africa, issues like that are not spoken about. You’re not supposed to speak about it. And when I went through this, there were no support systems. There were one or two, which were not good enough for me. I needed the real deal. I had to get a therapist living in the U.K. and would do video calls.
And I had the resources. Someone else doesn’t. So, that’s an issue that — more programs for mental health — that’s supposed to be addressed.
CHIEDZA: What I would hope women can do for each other as far as support is — I’m gonna start with this. There’s something known in my country. I don’t know if it’s a worldwide thing. It’s called PHD, Pull Her Down Syndrome, where you’re the woman at the top and you don’t want anyone else to get to the top. So, women are accused for that most of the time, and I’ve seen it in some women. Let’s change that. Let’s just change that negativity of you wanting to be the only person owning the space. The world is big enough for everybody.
And we’re stronger when we’re together, and we’re stronger when we’re supporting each other. And we change the narrative better when we’re fighting as a team, and we get more tables to sit on when we’re fighting as a team. So, I think for me, let’s do away with Pull Her Down Syndrome. Let’s go with Lift Her Up Syndrome. Let’s lift each other up. So, I think that’s the first thing that I want women to do for each other. And I always think that it’s a three-way. You should always be pulling someone up, there should be someone in the middle, and you, being the someone in the middle, someone must be pulling you up.
VOICE-OVER: And her advice to YALI Network members with regard to supporting and empowering women?
CHIEDZA: The first thing I’d say to them is think of your sister, your wife, your daughter, your mother, your grandmother, your girlfriend —anybody within your sphere of influence and the hopes and the dreams that you have for them in terms of the space, whether it’s the business space, the art space, or the career space and how you want them to excel, how you want them to achieve, and how you want good for them.
So, when you think about them, think about someone else’s sister, aunt, and girlfriend, and wife, and let’s start supporting and building towards that. Let’s stop killing people’s dreams because they’re not directly linked to you. Because when you’re not giving somebody equality, you’re doing that to yourself, maybe not directly, because somebody’s not gonna give your sister or mother or cousin or girlfriend the same equality. So, the more we’re open and the more we create spaces for women, the more the world starts becoming a better place in terms of that. And the narrative is changing in terms of that.
VOICE-OVER: Thank you, Chiedza. Congratulations on your success!
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