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 Unschooled child labourer rises to build thriving education business

 

 At the age of 13, Delia Cupido was taken out of school  to work in a meat factory, a blow that would condemn most people to a life of  semi-literate poverty. Cupido, however, has not only managed to recoup the  education that was denied her, but today the successful 55-year-old business  woman runs a thriving group of schools in Cape Town.

When asked where her extraordinary entrepreneurial drive comes from, she says: “I’m not sure. I think I’ve always had the desire to be better. I believed that I can do anything that I put my mind to.”

From very early on, she developed a feel for money. “I can make money from of a piece of polony,” she says, referring to the sandwiches she sold for 25c each as a child. The polony came from the factory where her father worked, and where he wanted her to work when he took her out of school in Standard 6 (Grade 8) to help the family make ends meet.

The move shattered her dream of becoming a lawyer, and she was enraged by the fact that it fell to her to leave school because she was a girl. Her brothers remained in education.

But rather than accept her fate, Cupido immediately started a slow, life-long climb out of her predicament. Her first step was to get into a clothing factory, which she was told was a step up from a meat factory. This she managed after her first year of work, and she did it secretly so as not to upset her parents, only announcing it once she got the new job.

She was employed to bring cotton to the machinists, the most menial job in the factory, when she was spotted by one of the administrators who saw that there was more to the young girl than just being a runner. She employed her in the office.

For years, Cupido worked as administrator and book-keeper for various businesses, each larger than the previous one as she built up skills and experience. All the while, her drive to improve her education and her restless entrepreneurial spirit kept her busy. Typically, when she at one stage attended night school to further her education, she brought her daughter along to help her sell cakes and snacks to the participants after she noticed that the institution was situated far from any shop.

Her after-hours baking activities culminated in owning a confectionery shop in the Cape Town CBD while she kept her day-job.

Despite her incremental progress as administrator, she finally hit a ceiling when she was told that she was disqualified from a new job because of her lack of a matric certificate. It angered her at first, but characteristically spurred her on to finally complete her schooling. At the age of 39, she passed matric as her daughter completed Grade 10.

Immediately, she enrolled part-time for a law degree at the University of the Western Cape in order to fulfill her childhood dream of becoming a lawyer. But then the property bug bit her. She was captivated by property law, which prompted her to buy her first property and ignited a passion that drove her to start her own estate agency. Today, she owns almost three dozen properties. “I love the wheeling and dealing, and the idea that their value increases,” she says.

Among them are the properties on which her three pre-schools and one junior school are situated. Ten years ago, she entered the education industry when she was looking for a job opportunity for her Canadian daughter-in-law, who was a trained educator. After spotting a newspaper advertisement, Cupido bought Chameleon, an established preschool in Sybrand Park.

Since then, Cupido has added two more preschools to her stable, one in Kenwyn and another in Athlone. Because Chameleon follows an inclusive approach to education, which among other things mean that they accommodate children with special learning needs, Cupido saw how some parents struggled to find a place for their children in mainstream primary schools after they graduated from Chameleon.

This spurred her on to buy the properties next to Chameleon in Sybrand Park to start her own inclusive junior school. The pioneer class in the fledgling school, which is already bursting at its seams, is now in Grade 4 and will grow to Grade 7 in the next three years.

Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS) financed Cupido’s purchase of her first school, and has since given her two further loans to buy properties related to her growing group of schools.

If she clearly has enough collateral through her extensive property portfolio to make bank finance possible, why does she choose BUSINESS/PARTNERS as financier? Cupido says firstly, the banks’ turnaround time for answering a finance application is too slow, and secondly, BUSINESS PARTNERS considers not only the property that is being financed, but takes a holistic view of the entrepreneur and the business for which the property is being bought.

Cupido takes on the role of managing director of her four schools, which each has its own head. In order to prepare herself for the task, she studied early childhood development, and she is a strong believer in the professional development of her 38 staff members. No-one, she believes, deserves to be handicapped through a lack of education.

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