A 31-year-old single mom from the small Mulenzhe village in Limpopo, is slowly but surely busy busting stereotypes in the male dominated motor repair industry, fuelled by determination, talent and that typical DIY Mzanzi grit.
Princess Mukhari is the proud owner of The Automotive Pros in Randfontein, a seven-person outfit that refuses to take no for an answer. Princess, however, explains that her journey to establish herself as a serious operator, albeit small, wasn’t easy and is still a work in progress.
“My father was a mechanic, panel beater and spray painter who worked for a company in Johannesburg until he was involved in a car accident in 1999, which forced him to return home because he couldn’t work for the company anymore. He had to support us, his five daughters, so he started a small motor repair business from home. He trained all five of us in the business, including me who was seven at the time,” she remembers.
“I had to be a spanner girl and do all the small things. I really hated it because I would rather be playing with my friends, but my dad used my playtime to train me. Out of the five of us, I was the only one who eventually followed in his footsteps,” she explains proudly.
In 2011 she started studying mechanical engineering at the Central Johannesburg College and finished her N1, N2, N3 and N4. On completion of her studies, she applied for every apprenticeship that appeared on her radar but had no luck. She suspected that her gender played a role in the repeated rejections she received. By 2016, she had to resign herself to a job in the furniture and decor industry.
Her break came when she answered an advertisement on Gumtree that offered apprenticeships in panel beating and spray-painting. She was told outright that she did not qualify for the panel beating apprenticeship as she was female, but that they were willing to take her on in the spray-painting position. By 2018, she finished her apprenticeship and worked for different companies. She earned a decent income but had a nagging, disgruntled feeling.
When COVID struck in 2021, her then employer could not pay salaries and after a time of conflict and turmoil, she had to find other means of making a living. While other businesses were going bust owing to the pandemic, Princess made the counter-intuitive decision to start a business. Her seemingly flagrant disregard for common sense paid off.
She started approaching people for funding and was “lucky” enough to find a benefactor who believed in her idea and respected her work ethic.
“I started it all by myself. The first car that came in I had to get someone to strip it for me. I then worked on the car and did everything myself, from the prepping to the painting to the polishing. When the customer came to collect his car, he was very impressed and this gave me the confidence boost I needed,” says Princess.
According to Princess, getting funding was the relatively easy part of her journey, the bigger challenge was getting customers, especially during COVID when people were suffering financially. But again she used what was available to overcome the obstacle.
“I was already very active on different social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Tik-Tok. I have a huge following of more than 100 000 followers on Tik-Tok, so I decided to start marketing my business on these platforms. My main aim on social media is to entertain and inspire but it just seemed to be logical to advertise to the audience I had,” says the resourceful young entrepreneur.
But it wasn’t long before the sexist monster once again reared its ugly head. “I got a lot of criticism on social media from males, especially those competing with me. Many would log on and make negative comments to scare customers and potential customers away. But my faithful followers would come to my rescue and support me. They would encourage me by telling me to ignore the negative criticism and believe in myself because I knew what I was doing,” she says. She also used positive self-talk to overcome the problem.
Princess says that of the seven people she employs, two are female. Although they are employed as cleaners, she encourages them to learn the trade. One woman has enthusiastically taken to the training. “One of the problems we face is that so many people knock on our door wanting to be trained but they want paid apprenticeships, which we just can’t afford. If I take them on, I will have to let my experienced guys go , which would set the business back. Another problem is that we are not SETA registered, which means we can’t just start training people left and right. We have also been trying to get government to fund training, but without success,” laments Princess.
There are other challenges as well. “If you are a small operator like we are, customers often don’t take us seriously. Some insurance companies also demand that we should invest in big, expensive equipment before they send customers our way, but we need their customers to make the money to buy the equipment,” says Princess about this vicious circle. Currently, her workshop repairs six to eight vehicles a month.
Another huge challenge for Princess and her team is the electricity situation, which handicaps the country. “We need government to do something about load-shedding; to assist us in some way or another. Yesterday, we had three hours of electricity, and we must deliver a car in two days. It is not going to be possible. When there is power, we push while we can but when the next wave of load-shedding comes around, we must lay down our tools again. Government needs to help us at least with funding for generators and fuel if it can’t keep the lights on,” she says.
Before she gets back to assist on her workshop floor, she has some final words of wisdom and advice on how others can make their entrepreneurial dreams come true.
“It’s easy if you know what you want, just do it. Do your paperwork, a business proposal or plan, get ready and be well prepared. There is always someone with money out there looking for an investment opportunity. But safeguard your idea so that those you approach for funding don’t end up stealing your idea. Of course you can go the government-funding route but it seems like you need magic to be successful with that,” she jokes.
“You should trust yourself and not just copy someone else’s idea because it is working for them. If it is working for me, there is no guarantee that it will work for someone else. We all have different talents. It is best you invest your time in your own talent. I don’t mind if people approach me for advice, but they need their own original idea,” she concludes.