Shérie ‘Palesa’ de Wet, Founder and CEO of Palesa Pads, says her leadership style is “based on radical honesty and a whole lotta love…”
Giving Dignity and Growing a Dream
Shérie grew up in Germiston and studied accounting at UJ before starting her career as a maths teacher (she always had a love for education and empowering young people). She then moved into the world of business landing a sales and marketing role at a software development company. The position involved extensive travelling across Africa where Shérie saw poverty first-hand.
She says, “For me, seeing people living in poverty was horrific and caused me to pause my career and turn my attention to solving at least one of the many problems our people face,
period poverty*. This is how Palesa Pads was born.”
In 2017, Shérie’s idea of manufacturing of high-quality reusable sanitary pads (pads made from cloth that can be washed and reused), into a business became a reality.
“I always laugh when I think about the early days,” says Shérie. “We started out as four ladies in my dining room at my townhouse. Cutting fabric and sewing 20 pads a day and doing our best to put together our first sponsorship of 30 buckets (of pads). I remember the seamstress in tears one day because we had so many pads to make. This same lady can now sew pads at least 10 times faster than when she started and has trained dozens of other ladies (and some men) to do the same!”
Today Palesa Pads employs nearly 40 people, and with an investment from the WDB Growth Fund, purchased highly automated machinery that allows them to sew around 1 000 pads a day.
“Being a business owner is tough but being a social entrepreneur has even more complexities and nuances which are not always easy to handle,” she says, “However, the amazing feedback we receive on a daily basis from girls and women who are using Palesa Pads and loving them, calling them a “game changer”, makes every challenge worth it.”
Being a business owner is tough but being a social entrepreneur has even more complexities and nuances which are not always easy to handle
She says that like many start-ups, Palesa Pads made a lot of mistakes along the way, but they learnt quickly and found ways to incentivise workers.
“I have an amazing team who has worked with me to improve efficiency all the time. Perhaps the reason is that they are paid per piece, rather than per hour. This means that inefficiencies in the assembly line are a direct inconvenience to the people involved and they actively work with management to fix the problem and streamline the process so that everyone earns more money per day.”
The self-reward system has had amazing results, Shérie says proudly. “Many ladies who had never touched a sewing machine are earning above minimum wage within two months of their training. It takes a strong woman to push herself through the training and pursue excellence in her quality while earning a living.”
The Palesa Pads team members have grown immensely, and so has their confidence.
“Seeing my staff transform and blossom into their true potential is a great privilege and one of the things I love most about my job,” Shérie says.
The Palesa Pads business model is based on raising sponsorships, and she says the consistency of signing sponsorships proves to be a challenge from time to time.
The seasonality of the school year and fluctuating economy made it difficult for corporates to commit and she points out that there are often delays in the sales cycle, which means a case of hurry up and wait. At the other end of the spectrum, Palesa Pads often receives the bulk of its sponsorships at the same time, and at short notice, which means they are then under huge pressure to deliver large quantities in a short space of time.
“To do this we have to have stock on hand, and this costs money,” she says. “Managing these fluctuations alongside fixed expenses causes cash-flow shortages, which puts a strain on the business. This has certainly improved and become more predictable with time. We are hoping that our additional distribution through retail channels will help stabilise our production requirements on a monthly basis and ultimately create more permanent jobs.”
Nothing like A Happy Customer
Shérie finds her work fulfilling and rewarding and loves to receive messages from happy customers.
“I have read them over and over, and I tear up every time. Knowing that these girls now have a real chance at life because of something as simple as pads moves me more than words could ever describe.”
She says the remarkable response to Palesa Pads is simply because “it’s a really good product that solves a genuine problem at a very affordable price”.
Marketing also plays a big role and Shérie and her team aim to grow the brand so that Palesa Pads becomes a household name and the byword for cloth sanitary pads in South Africa.
“We aim to be the leader of the “Cloth Pad Revolution”; the paths that we forge help other cloth pad brands to join the industry in future. I long for the day when I can walk down the sanitary pad aisle at the supermarket and see as many reusable pad brands on the shelf as there are disposable brands. Ladies deserve a choice.”
She is grateful for the investment Palesa Pads received from the WDB Growth Fund in 2020, which she used to purchase machinery that helped to lower labour costs and therefore keep pricing consistent.
“This has made us the best value-for-money pad on the market,” she says. “The balance of the funds was used to build stock so that we were able to supply our first retailer, Ackermans, on credit, which was a big deal for us. The launch was nationwide and the opening order was substantial. We would not have been able to fund this without the additional investment support, and we are certainly very grateful for that.”
What Does the Future Hold?
For Shérie and her team, the only way is up.
“In my dreams, I see Palesa Pads providing a full range of sanitary pads, maternity pads, breast pads, nappies and so much more. I see these being available in every supermarket or pharmacy that sells their single-use alternative,” says Shérie. “I hope to grow the factory and spread our wings a bit more in South Africa and eventually into our neighbouring countries.”
She is inspired by her team and the tenacity of women in South Africa and on the African continent, and continues to lead with her heart.
“I love to see people, and women in particular, succeed and overcome their circumstances. A strong woman to me is a success story because I know there is no turning back for her, and she will inspire many more women,” she says, “To quote my dad, ‘Shérie, your heart is like a taxi, there’s always place for one more.’”
* Period poverty describes the struggle many low-income women and girls face while trying to afford menstrual products. UNFPA
The celebration of women should never be an occasion but a daily practice. Join us as we honour women across industries by nominating a woman who inspires you. #CelebratingWomen #EveryDayofTheYear
Shérie has nominated Fatima-Joyce Packery of DRA Global.
“She has the most amazing energy and is so active in her community and in promoting women in mining, golf and so much more. She’s a delight to be around and truly someone worth taking note of.”
Look out for our upcoming profile on Fatima-Joyce Packery. Watch this space!