The owner of tour operator Soul Traveller, Siphesihle Penny Ndlela, 45, is an entrepreneur who’s turned her love for travel into a niche business.
Siphesihle Ndlela credits her upbringing for igniting the love travel business and entrepreneurship. As she explains: “I’ve had a love-hate relationship with entrepreneurship. I come from Empangeni and grew up eSikhawini, both in KwaZulu-Natal. My father was a businessman. He had a license to operate and run a stadium, restaurant and clubhouse, so my brothers and I worked there while growing up. We were tasked with stock taking and managing logistics. We’d host concerts for stars like Brenda Fassie and MarkAlex. We sorted out marketing, promotions and ticket pricing. So, I grew up in a family where entrepreneurship was part of our daily lives,” says Penny, as she’s known to family and friends.
“We didn’t get paid. Our reward was when we all went away on holiday as a family. My parents were adventurous and we’d travel twice a year, in June and December, to places like Durban and St Lucia.”
There are many sides to this vibrant woman, who started her career in hospitality while studying hotel management, and served as an intern for hotels such as the Cape Sun and City Lodge. She switched to public relations and worked at the rail transport company Spoornet (now Transnet) and elsewhere. She later obtained a degree in communications through Unisa.
But the entrepreneurial spirit was always there. “In 1998, I met a woman who owned a company called Lemon and Lime Marketing, and we clicked. She was selling 51% of the business. It started as a customised gifting company, but we developed it into an integrated communications and marketing business. I bought her out in 2000 and sold the business in 2009.”
Penny had great successes as the director at Lemon and Lime. “I looked after international clients and brands. In 2004, international high-end luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Fendi started to set up shop in the country. Lemon and Lime successfully pitched for the business to represent the Louis Vuitton brands in South Africa. I did so, and it gave me first-hand exposure to what luxury really is. Getting the opportunity to work with one of the world’s most iconic brands was invaluable. I learnt that it’s not always about the product you’re selling, but the feeling you get when you get your hands on it. That’s what I based Soul Traveller Tours on.”
“I started Soul Traveller in 2013 as an outbound company, specifically focused on faith-based travel for the black market. I’d run a marketing and communications agency for a long time and I’d gone around the world, taking people on trips paid by clients. I started this travel business because I needed something new.”
“I’m a serial entrepreneur. I love creating new and exciting businesses and being a part of exciting ventures. I’m not risk-averse at all.”
The first country Penny explored under Soul Traveller was Israel. “I approached the Israel Tourism Ministry to ask how many South Africans visited the country since we’re so religious, and Israel is the Holy Land.” She found that only 6 000 Jewish South Africans went to the Holy Land annually, and that very few black people had travelled there. So, Penny built her business on creating lasting memories. “I package the tours as an event. You don’t have to worry about food or anything else because it’s all-inclusive. You concentrate on the main thing, which is your faith.”
Most of the clients were first-time travellers. They asked her how they could go about getting a passport or visa. “What we take for granted as experienced travellers is daunting for first-time travellers,” she says. As Soul Traveller Tours grew, Penny was approached by Thebe Tourism Group, a tour agency based in Cape Town which Penny refers to as a “big brother”.
“They were interested in applying my business model to the rest of the South African market, so I created a proposal for them, and then we launched the local tours in 2016.”
The businesswoman is clearly passionate about travel. “It feeds your soul. The structure of Soul Traveller domestically is a six-in-one approach – six being the number of routes we have. Six is also for the colours of our flag. It’s a five-day trip. Four is the number of nights, three is the number of meals, two is the number of cities you’ll see, and one is the soul experience.”
Her business is flourishing, but there’ve been many challenges. “One of these was managing cash flow without using loans or having to use my house as surety – which I didn at some point. Also, I find it challenging to meet like-minded people with whom you can work and grow.”
Penny has a great partnership with the Thebe Tourism Group. “Our values and visions are aligned. I’m glad that I met the target to have our first trip together this year,” she says. She hopes her pioneering six-in-one plan will thrive in the domestic market and create a new travel culture among South Africans. “I want to make an impact on people and our country. Money has never been my driver. It comes in abundance when you find purpose.”
Penny is also a mother. “I’ve never tried the work-life balance. My kids are all grown up now; they’re 19 and 26 years old. I love what I do, and when I go to work I don’t feel guilty about it. I want to hear about their soccer games, but I don’t like attending the matches. But if there’s an important game, I go. But of course, mothering is a part of who I am,” she explains.
Penny reflects on how far she’s come in business, thanks to her faith. “I feel a deep gratitude to God. I used to dream of this and now it’s reality. It’s amazing how much you can achieve with God on your side. Faith is a big part of my life.”
Source: Truelove Magazine – WOMAN OF TOP FEATURE: “TRAVEL WITH A PURPOSE” – 25 October 2017