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 When the head meets the heart, entrepreneurship thrives

 

 Entrepreneurship is a strange mixture of head and heart, emotional commitment and rational thinking, driving passion and careful calculation. Erna Storm experienced this intensely since the day she visited a small preschool in Centurion about two years ago.

The owner of the school had asked her for some business advice. “I fell head over heels in love,” says Storm. Might this be just the venture that she had been looking for ever since she sold her successful media and marketing agency?, she thought at the time.

Her heart took the lead, but all the time her precise and practiced business mind was also at work, carefully measuring the gap in the market, the room for innovation, the scale-ability, and to what extent building a preschool system would fit her need for a legacy project.

With her head and heart in sync, it took Storm a year to build a group of three top-quality preschools, called Thrive Preschool and Aftercare Academy, consisting of the school that first grabbed her heart, and a further two that she built from scratch.

Her vision for the fledgling business is huge. “With preschool education, everything came together for me,” says Storm, a 58-year-old media strategist, marketing expert and entrepreneur.

On the one hand, she saw an enormous market opportunity. Working parents not only need child care, but are desperate to ensure a good start to their children’s education and are willing to pay a premium for it. The preschool market, however, is highly fragmented. Pockets of excellence exist, but in a sea of mediocre to very poor facilities spread throughout nearly every community in South Africa. The market is ripe for a high-quality preschool offering.

On the other hand, preschools offered Storm the perfect opportunity for self-fulfilment. It gratifies her love for research and analysis which she had developed over years of building her own media strategy company. The Thrive system is intensively researched, and is constantly absorbing the best aspects of preschool systems internationally.

Her creativity finds expression in the systems which Storm and her team are developing – the carefully designed colour scheme, the educational playground infrastructure and innovative educational tools, right down to the furniture especially designed for the schools.

But perhaps most importantly, the Thrive project represents for Storm a venture that can fulfil her urge to help empower South Africa. As an entrepreneur who has already experienced major business success, Storm was looking for a venture that will have a lasting positive impact, and that will become “much larger than myself”, she says.

As a marketing graduate from Potchefstroom, she cut her teeth as a media planner and strategist at various advertising agencies in Johannesburg in the eighties, and when the large advertising firms started to outsource their various functions in the early nineties, she pioneered one of the first specialist media-strategy firms on her own, starting from home.

Her company, called Media by Storm, grew phenomenally, and caught the attention of an international group which bought a majority stake in the business. Storm’s market grew to the whole of Africa and the Middle East and her company grew to more than 70 employees. By the time she sold her stake in the business in 2004 to make way for an empowerment partner, her company was doing a turnover in excess of a billion rand a year.

The fact that she raised three children at the same time and also got involved in property development – “as a hobby, to relieve the pressure” – gives an indication of her entrepreneurial capacity.

After selling, Storm travelled the world, consulted, got involved in projects such as the marketing of South Africa prior the World Cup, and weighed and turned down countless ideas for new ventures until she was swept off her feet by the small pre-school in Centurion.

Rather than buy the school outright, she partnered with the then owner, Angenita Geldenhuys, who today runs the educational side of Thrive, while Storm leads the strategic business and product development side of the venture.

The idea was to develop a quality preschool based on proven best practices that can be replicated consistently to cater for the huge demand in the market.

Apart from adopting the latest high- and low-tech innovations in education, Thrive does not compromise on the qualifications and training of their staff. Each highly qualified teacher is supported by one or two assistants and all staff members constantly undergo training as the Thrive system develops.

Thrive’s plan is to build schools from scratch rather than setting them up in existing buildings because of the huge amount of thought that has gone into their design, which is aimed at enhancing physical and intellectual development and well-being of the children, from the special colour scheme to the playground furniture.

Rather than use her own capital, Storm approached Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS) to finance the purchase of the third school’s property. It was a strategic decision, based on her expansive vision for Thrive. If she were to use only her own capital, the number of schools that she could establish would remain limited, she says. But in a strategic partnership with BUSINESS/PARTNERS the growth of Thrive is potentially limitless.

BUSINESS/PARTNERS, the leading risk-financier to small and medium businesses in South Africa, has seen the same market opportunity as Storm, and has set up a dedicated Educational SME Fund for ventures aimed at turning the country’s educational crisis into opportunities for sustainable development.

Thrive is well ahead of its growth targets. For now, the focus is on replicating the successful model that they have established, but Storm is already working on developing affordable systems to roll out to poor communities, and on the possibility of merchandising their innovative toys and educational tools.

The market is hungry for educational solutions. All that is needed is this potent mix of passion and business thinking

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