HERStory Donna Rachelson

Feb 2020 // Johannesburg

Donna Rachelson is honest, straightforward and hard-working and doesn’t seem to have the word “small” in her vocabulary. She has come a long way from the little girl who rode her bike (with fairy wheels) through the Bulawayo suburbs to school every morning.

The fairy wheels are gone, but Donna has been on an incredible journey – morphing from a self-conscious schoolgirl to something of a force of nature in the world of business and entrepreneurship.

“Get Sh**t done,” could well be her mantra, and you are bound to hear this phrase at least once if you spend any time around Donna and her team. It’s all about focus, and when there’s a deadline around the corner, there is no time to mess around – making an impact is not about half measures.
Donna is a director and shareholder of Seed Engine, which incorporates Seed Academy and the WDB Growth Fund and founder & CEO of Branding & Marketing YOU which specialises in personal and team branding.

Donna is a director and shareholder of Seed Engine, which incorporates Seed Academy and the WDB Growth Fund and founder & CEO of Branding & Marketing YOU which specialises in personal and team branding.

Her story begins in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. She was something of a “laatlammetjie” (much younger than her two older sisters).

“My parents weren’t well off,” says Donna, “My mother was a creative artist and my father didn’t have a really stable work history. I remember, as a child, that times were sometimes tough. And money was an issue. I suppose that played a key role in terms of me feeling that I never wanted to have money issues in my life and that I had to pave my path to success.”

Surprisingly, she wasn’t an ace student at school, and probably wouldn’t have realised her potential if it hadn’t been for a certain Mr De Beer.

“He really made me believe that I could be someone. He made me feel that I was important and that even though I didn’t get the top marks in the class and I didn’t make the top sports teams in the school, that there was a little magic sitting inside. And I’m forever grateful to Mr De Beer and those positive thoughts he instilled in me.”

It’s hard to believe that the self-assured Donna Rachelson had an “awkward” childhood. She is not shy to admit that she battled with being overweight, having acne and really battling with confidence.

“I really felt inadequate, especially in my teen years. I felt I was ugly and I felt I wasn’t worthy. I remember all the other girls getting invited to the year-end dances, and I was that person who never got that invite,” reflects Donna.

From Bulawayo to Jozi

In 1984 she ventured to Johannesburg from Bulawayo; the only person she knew in the Big Smoke of Jozi was her sister.

She says, “I went to the University of the Witwatersrand and I started studying law, which lasted all of two weeks. I hated the Latin. I found it incredibly boring.” Donna then met a friend at the Jubilee Hall Res who was studying social work, and while she didn’t realise what the subject actually entailed at first, she thought learning about Freud and Marx sounded really cool. After quite a bit of legwork, she was finally accepted to study social work.

For her honours degree she decided to study industrial social work. During her honours internship, she was placed with AECI (African Explosives and Chemical Industries), where she worked on their employee assistance program. After a year of doing her honours internship, AECI offered her a job as a change management consultant.

Her lucky break came when she was identified by the company as “having potential”, and was put forward to do an MBA.

“It was during the MBA that I totally fell in love with branding and marketing,” Donna says. “I just knew that this was going to be my career. It just felt natural. It made sense. I could see the money side of it, and it was very, very exciting.”

She approached the powers that be at AECI after completing her MBA about taking on a marketing position, although all she knew about marketing at that stage was theory. They gave her the chance and a whole new world opened up.

Donna says: “I learnt at a very early age that even if you didn’t know what you were doing, you had to fake it until you made it.”

She went on to have a very fulfilling time at AECI, but after 10 years at the company, she felt she needed something different and was lucky to be offered a marketing director position with the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA).

After her time at SAICA, she decided to go to Australia “to look for a husband or a job”, but found neither. She landed up in the UK, on her sister’s doorstep. A fantastic opportunity came up in Bristol that was everything she could have dreamt of, so she came back to South Africa to pack up her life. And then she met the man she was going to spend her life with.

“I phoned the UK the very next day, and I said, I’m so sorry, I cannot take your position. I’ve met the man I’m going to marry,” recalls Donna. “I suppose that that kind of symbolises that family is really important to me.”
She then joined Standard Bank as a project manager in the marketing division in the retail department, and was head-hunted by Nando’s as marketing director. Her time at Nando’s was a defining period in her life.

“At Nando’s, I learnt the power of brand-building; the power of PR and the power of internal marketing, all key aspects to this journey that I was going on from a marketing perspective.”

After Nando’s came a supply management company called DNA Supply Chains, which she joined as marketing director, marketing an entirely new and innovative concept of the integrated supply chain – a totally new concept in South Africa.

The Big AHA

And then a big AHA moment happened…

“I realised I was making everybody else wealthy. I was making companies rich through building amazing brands,” she says. “There was something in me, this fire that wanted to just break free to become an entrepreneur.”

So she left DNA and started her first business, Branding & Marketing YOU. She was asked by Standard Bank to build an elective for the leadership on how they could brand and market themselves.

Her business also had a marketing component that helped medium-sized businesses brand and market their businesses. The opportunity to be part of Seed Engine as CEO soon followed with a focus on fast tracking youth and women entrepreneurs. She also invested in a number of businesses in the Fintech and social impact spaces and has recently started some new and exciting ventures. She has thrived on every level and being her own boss has always felt right.

Key Learnings

Giving advice to young (female entrepreneurs) is not only her work, it’s her passion. She says it’s imperative to ditch the small, incremental moves if you want to get ahead. “My big advice is to think big, and to aim for the stars. Don’t focus on goals, focus on that big vision.”

Knowing what you want and stating it is key, she says, “Ask, don’t hint,” she says. “I have learnt personally that when you are straightforward, you ask for what you want”.

She advises that one should focus on results and deliverables and learn the business. Find your biggest blind spot but focus primarily on your strengths if you want to get ahead.

“My strong advice is learn the business backwards, understand the financials, focus on your results and your deliverables and make sure that you execute and deliver fastidiously.”

Personal Challenges

Donna says work-life balance is her biggest challenge, but it’s something she says is a myth. Over the years she has learnt to ditch the guilt about being a working mom and to invest rather in quality time with her two children.

She has developed some very powerful habits that are not negotiable.

“When I get home in the evening, I switch my cellphone off, put my computers away, and I really engage with my children in a quality way.”

Donna says she is grateful for so much and that she practises gratitude and also acknowledges her achievements as a daily practice.

“I have a great marriage. I’ve been married for 19 years this year. And for me in this day and age, that’s a huge achievement. I have two incredible children. They are super-bright. They’re super-funny. They’re super-talented. They’re super-driven. And for me, that is a huge accomplishment.”

She says her MBA is a great personal achievement especially because she was never financially orientated or inclined towards economics or statistics. She is also proud of having written four books, two of them best-sellers. But she says affecting the lives of others is perhaps her great career achievement – “the biggest mark of success is having shifted someone else’s life for the best”.

For Donna Rachelson, the sky is the only limit and that little girl from Bulawayo has reached for her dreams, and continues to come up with handfuls of stars.