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Celebrating femininity with shoes

Shoe entrepreneur and founder of Umzee shoe brand, Tsele Khoabane-Lepono is a self-professed shoe-explorer breaking barriers in a male-dominated field. Her love for a good leather shoe has kept her rooted in her femininity despite the influences of her career as an enterprise security architect. Our writer Melissa Nare speaks to her.


Her dream to design and manufacture her own shoes led her to launch the Umzee brand, which is targeted at corporate women who value comfort and style. She shares her experience and learnings, as well as her thoughts on entrepreneurship in South Africa.

Tell us a bit about yourself I'm an enterprise security architect with a background in Information Technology. I've always focused on the technical space in my career but found that I’m often the only female. I've therefore made it a point that I don't lose that femininity and that is where my love for shoes came in.


My dream has always been to design and manufacture my own shoes, inspired by Italian craftsmen. I envisioned having my own studio to create and customize shoes but costs that accompany this dream have led me to starting with importing. I’ve built a good relationship with Brazilian shoe manufacturers and have launched the Umzee brand, designed by me but manufactured in Brazil.


What have been some of the challenges and the learnings from starting the business?

Importing shoes can be challenging due to the fluctuating exchange rate between the US dollar and local currency, as well as the additional costs such as shipping, custom duties, and VAT, which can drive up prices for customers. To address this, I strive to create a pricing model that is suitable for corporate women, who are the target market for my business.

Growing a business while working a full-time job can also be challenging, especially when it comes to delegating responsibilities and selling your vision to the team. I've learned that trusting and empowering your staff is essential for the brand's growth.


When did you launch your business?

While I started importing and reselling other brands in 2013, I only launched my own brand, Umzee last year. I started an online store umzee.co.za in July 2021, but faced the challenge that many locals were uncomfortable with online shopping. Having realised this, I opened a physical store in Nelson Mandela Square in July last year, which has increased the credibility of our brand and, in turn, boosted our online sales as they know where to find us.


What has been your experience with not being fully present in running your business?

Training is important, the more you train people and have processes in place it makes the day-to-day running of the company a little bit easier. I had to implement processes and have systems in place where we can measure the performance as well. We have been so fortunate that people that are working for the brand are really putting in a lot of effort, so it makes it easy.


How do you ensure the empowerment of women happens in your business?

My passion for shoes drives me to ensure women feel comfortable and confident in our footwear. We aim to boost confidence in women regardless of their size. It's also about empowering women through our business because most of our store assistants are females. I think we know that women are quite vulnerable in their society.


What are your thoughts on Entrepreneurship in South Africa?

Entrepreneurship in South Africa is still a challenge because we still have a lot of issues around funding and support and being up-skilled in entrepreneurship as a whole because most of the time, we make the mistake of not being able to differentiate between your personal life and your business life. Listening and understanding that the customers are the driver of the business is also important especially now after the pandemic, we've realized that customers are becoming a bit more difficult show that the dynamics have changed.


“My dream has always been to design and manufacture my own shoes, inspired by Italian craftsmen.


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Editor's note

American novelist Louisa May Alcott said it best when she said “Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.”

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