It is true when they say dynamite comes in small packages. I first met the beautiful, young Zoe Msutwana while I was studying at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. She was doing Information Technology at the time. Fast forward to 2017, Zoe is a Senior PR Account Director at VIVIDLUXURY, Founding Editor and CEO at GuideToCeleb.com. Oh, did I mention that she is also a Style Maverick and Pop Culture Expert, you must check her instagram account.
We had a chat to her about her career moves and what keeps her going.
Theo Tshanga: Please tell us about your childhood, what type of a child were you growing up?
Zoe Msutwana: I was a very fragile and spoilt child, thanks to my grandparents. I was born in a small town in the Eastern Cape called Centane, where I spent the first 8 years of my life before moving to Port Elizabeth, where my mom worked as a nursing sister. Adjusting from a village to a big city was a huge challenge. I didn’t really struggle with making friends but I think I faced some challenges when it came to adjusting to the standard of education. For the first time in my life, I was exposed to quality education and I had to push myself to keep up to being taught in English for example and I guess that helped me become the super diligent student I was throughout my schooling life.
Theo: I understand that after matric, you went and studied IT. What made you choose IT?
Zoe: After completing my matric, I went on to study Information Technology, majoring in Software Development at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. When I was in Grade 11, I was 14 and just coming into my own, I caught the Fashion & Beauty bug. The following year, I sketched and designed my matric dance dress. Naturally, after matric, I knew I wanted to do something in either sector. My dad, who is a Professor and a huge advocate for education shut me down because I needed to study “something substantial”. IT was the next best thing.
Theo: Did you end up enjoying IT?
Zoe: I’d be lying if I said IT was something I enjoyed. I hated everything about it. Something you need to know about me is that I don’t work hard, I work smart, and I felt like IT required me to work hard. I found programming to be particularly challenging, as it requires effort and passion, because the best programmers become great because of the amount of time they spend exploring code. I spent most of my time at the computer labs creating moodboards of Rihanna’s style, stalking Paris Hilton’s paparazzi sightings.
Theo: And That was the reason you changed from IT to PR?
Zoe: The biggest takeout from me studying IT was that it exposed me to the idea of passion and how much I didn’t want to ever find myself doing something I didn’t love. I’ve always wanted to be in the fashion and beauty space, but as I grew older, I learned that I could still play a part in the industry, without really making clothes or becoming a make-up artist. I decided to pursue a career in PR by enrolling for a Public Relations Management qualification at UNISA, while doing an Internship at a JHB-based PR agency. PR has proven to be the perfect tool to exercise my knowledge and skills in a space I love so much, enabling me to work with some of the biggest names in SA fashion and with beauty giants such as Revlon and Rimmel London.
Theo: Tell us what you love the most about your PR career?
Zoe: I absolutely love that it has exposed me to some of the brands I love the most. I’ve been fortunate enough to work on and represent brands that are authentically “Zoe” and fit my personality, which makes it a lot easier to be excellent in your job. I also love the fact that the PR industry is constantly evolving, hugely influenced by the media trends we see today. The way I think as a PR professional today is very different to how I used to approach PR solutions five years ago. Back then, a strategy that would result in a DPS for a brand was a win, nowadays, clients value digital presence and engagement more, meaning my creativity has be in line with what brands value now and in the next few years.
Theo: What brands did you oversee/managed thus far?
Zoe: In 2011, I joined At Vogue Communications as an Intern, working on the NBCUniversal account, which houses brands such as E! Entertainment, The Style Network, KidsCo, Universal and Studio Universal on the DStv platform. I was later promoted to PR Assistant then Account Manager on the same brands, overseeing Press Junkets for Kim Kardashian, George Kotsiopolis and local launches for Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Fashion Police, Tia & Tamera. The most memorable campaign I did being the Brand Evolution for E! Entertainment in 2012. Sylvester Chauke later poached me to join and head up the PR division of his DNA Brand Architects consultancy in 2013. At DNA, I managed the Brutal Fruit, Vodacom, Rimmel London & SAFW brands, while acting as PR Manager to the Bonang Matheba brand for three years.
Theo: In January 2016, you took a leap of faith and decided to go into business by starting a company called Mode Brand Studio, talk us through that?
Zoe: Starting Mode Brand Studio took me on one of the wildest rides in this journey called life. I had always imagined that at age 30, I would be this high-flying exec, moving into my husband’s Bryanston mansion. At 28. I was single with no hope of ever getting married lol. I started imagining a life where, perhaps, I would be living in that Bryanston on my own. I knew that continuing the way things were would not make it possible for me to achieve that goal. Together with a friend, we decided to start our own PR agency, which would specialize in strategic concepts that connect brands to the young and cool market. In our first year, we were fortunate enough to work with the likes of Boity Thulo, Sarah Langa-Heaton, Ayanda Thabethe, Nape Phasha, Luthando “Lootlove” Shosha, Candi & Co, while acting as the first local PR agency for Lucozade SA.
Theo: What challenges have you experienced as a young, black female entrepreneur in the industry?
Zoe: I could write about the challenges we faced in our first year. What kept me going was the fact that the opportunities were there. So many reputable brands gave us a chance as a young agency and I will forever be grateful for that. I got to learn very quickly that the system favours those with solid backgrounds, not so much the girl with a dream and a family that can’t necessarily give her that start-up/working capital. What also proved to be a huge challenge were the clients that would not honour their own payment terms and threaten to fire you when you chase up on outstanding invoices.
Theo: Hectic. Talk us through your exciting moments as an entrepreneur?
Zoe: There were so many! That first client sign off means so much more, knowing it was all “you”, no boss, just you and your beautiful mind. My confidence grew tremendously when it comes to my capabilities as a leader. People were saying yes and wanting to work with us because of our credentials as PR professionals. That was very exciting for me, very re-affirming too. Becoming an entrepreneur was the best thing I could have done for my personal growth. It forced me to become responsible with money, to be responsible for the work I was putting out there. I got to know myself a lot better, and it highlighted some of my hidden strengths. Being an entrepreneur requires bravery, that bravery made it easy for me to tap into my other interests and pursue them alongside Mode. The journey also taught me that being the “Independent woman” is overrated and dangerous. I learnt that it is ok to seek out help, and this has brought me closer to God, to my parents, and the rest of my family.
Theo: I believe you have recently received an offer you couldn’t resist. You are now a Director in Cape Town at VIVIDLUXURY, Africa’s premier luxury brand agency, tell us about that?
Zoe: I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some great brands, but I had never managed a luxury brand before. This was a skill I felt I needed to acquire, particularly because of the Guide To Celebrity brand I am building and the direction I wanted to ultimately take moving forward. Oprah once said, “God can dream a bigger dream for me, for you, than you could ever dream for yourself.” I believe this is what happened in my instance. Joining VIVIDLUXURY and moving to Cape Town has been both a blessing and an adventure of a lifetime. However, God imparted the spirit of entrepreneurship in me, and it has done nothing but evolve me into a better woman, daughter, sister, friend and last but certainly not least, the best employee any employer could ever ask for. I view myself as a multifaceted businesswoman, with interests in PR, Publishing, Fashion & Beauty. For now, my focus is PR and Publishing.
Theo: You are also the Founding Editor and CEO for Guide To Celebrity, what is this about?
Zoe: Working in the PR industry has exposed me to a lot of behind-the-scenes action when it comes to this world, from how much brands would pay celebrities for endorsements, appearances, shoots, TVCs, bookings etc. Managing some of the biggest names in SA Entertainment taught me about the effort and investment it takes for celebrities to appeal to brands. I started Guide To Celebrity because I identified a gap in the market, no one in SA was reporting about celebrities and brands the way I do. Guide To Celebrity is positioned as an all access pass to the “Business of Celebrity”, whose mandate is to inform, educate and highlight the behind-the-scenes action of celebrity brand alignments, from the most iconic and lucrative endorsements, to the most forgettable and not so successful partnerships of our time. So if you’re a fan of pop culture just like myself and have a keen interest in understanding Celebrity Branding, PR and Marketing Campaigns, then www.guidetoceleb.com is just for you.
Theo: Where do you want to take Guide to Celebrity?
Zoe: GTC has recently celebrated a few milestones, including turning 1 in June. I’ve also enlisted some of the most brilliant women and even bigger fans of pop culture to join the team. That is an indication of growth, because it means the platform is bigger than me. Last week, we also celebrated the reveal of the site rebrand, which I’m really excited about. I’m also looking into line extensions that include Books, Video Content and a YouTube channel for the Guide To Celebrity brand.
Theo: Anyone who knows you or follows you on social media knows that you are a POP CULTURE expert, what drew you to pop culture?
Zoe: I’ve always had a keen interest in the world of celebrity, not so much their personal lives, but how much money they were making and how they were making it. A lot of people don’t seem to understand why I love the Kardashian family so much, they know how to make money, it’s that simple. It doesn’t hurt that they are drop-dead-gorgeous and they continue to be about family, love and their wallets.
Theo: You are truly an epitome of beauty and brains. Let’s talk about your style, who is your style inspiration?
Zoe: Right now, it would have to be Zendaya Coleman. I love that her style is very chic, simple and effortless. I never want to come across as trying too hard.
Theo: Can you advise us on the items that women should invest in this season?
Zoe: Since we’re still in winter, it would have to be a killer pair of thigh high boots, a statement coat and I’m loving designer stockings, which I pair with skirts and dresses.
Theo: If you had an opportunity to start your career journey over again, what would you do differently?
Zoe: Hmmm…maybe waiting until I had all the necessary resources before going into entrepreneurship on a full time basis. In the same breath, nothing about my career journey has gone “according to plan” and I’ve come to accept that perhaps, things have been going according to God’s plan. All the denials, detours, failures and all the lessons build character. I am the woman I am today because of my journey, and I absolutely love the woman I am today, so I wouldn’t change anything.
Theo: What drives you?
Zoe: One of my favourite quotes is “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I always knew the woman I wanted to be” by Diane Von Fusternburg. The quote represents everything my life is about. Knowing that each step I take is getting me close to the woman of my dreams keeps me going.
Theo: You’ve done a lot in your career, what’s next for you?
Zoe: There is still so much I haven’t done! I think this move into luxury brands is the first move. I also have a few goals I haven’t met yet and so many dreams to fulfill. God is in charge from here onwards; I trust Him with my dreams, so I’ll just be following his lead.
Theo: Thank you for your time Zoe.