Thursday, 14 November 2013

Stilling The Whirlwind Of Business: Jenna Clifford

Jenna Clifford A Whirlwind of a BusinesswomanVENTURES AFRICA – “Hello, hello, hello, I’m here. I’m here.” Jewellery designer Jenna Clifford breezes through the lavish house-come-studio in leopard-print leggings, a small black poodle trotting at her heels. I follow her through rooms rich with plush settees, antique tables, oil paintings and quirky ornaments. The house is discreetly not advertised as a studio from outside, and is designed to make clients feel as if they’re in the home of a friend, rather than in a showroom with a saleswoman.
Clifford is a highly successful jewellery designer who worked her way up from almost nothing to achieve the high profile that has resulted in her handcrafted designs being worn by celebrities including Celine Dion and Venus and Serena Williams. Her business has two flagship retail boutiques and one showroom, Clifford preferring to maintain her exclusivity in the market.
Clifford talks almost non-stop at a phenomenal pace, covering a broad range of topics and speaking knowledgeably on seemingly anything and everything. We’ve barely sat down before she’s saying that Africa is in such a crisis that it’s about time it turned its eye to what will liberate the world. Gender equity. That’s what we need, she says. Educated women in the workplace to bring balance, hard work, level-headedness and emotional understanding.

I’m astounded by her range of knowledge, and ask how she’s gained so many opinions about so many subjects. “I was as thick as a plank at school,” she says. “But I’m an avid reader. I’m a non-academic but nothing stopped me studying so I studied avidly and looked for creative solutions to the problems of humanity.”
When she first started her business, Clifford struggled to secure seed capital from local banks. Nothing has changed for women, she says, even though they are a lower risk than men and far more likely to repay the loans. “It’s the same old banking story – if you have no money they won’t give it to you; if you have money, they want to throw more at you. Women are very resourceful but they need leaders and mentors like me and material to read to give them information about the facts.”
I ask how she managed in those early days when she was starting out alone, and she waves a hand dismissively. “I have always saved bits of money and lived very frugally and invested the little I have made back into the business and not spent it,” she says. “I put down a small deposit and got to the point – well, even those stories are hairy. But I’ve never let a bank down.” Her early years were marked by a number of false starts in both her personal and business life, with many setbacks and considerable personal heartache before she finally found her feet.
All around the house are photos showing her with celebrities and sportsmen like Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Lucas Radebe. She says that some people call her narcissistic for having so many photos of herself on display, but she believes it just proves that if she can come from the scrapheap and make a success of life, then other people can too.
I ask about that scrapheap. Clifford says her parents were ill equipped to rear children, her mother only a teenager herself and her father unable to work as a plasterer after contracting a skin disease. Her father often quoted golfer Gary Player’s comment about the harder he practices the luckier he becomes, and raised Clifford to practice a strict sporting regime. “That was my father, but I thank him for it today because he prepared me so well for life. That’s why I’m a great believer that all children should have a sporting endeavour because it teaches discipline and sticking to it and moving up the ladder step by step.” Clifford says it was this gruelling sports training that taught her self-discipline and determination, and which later defined her as a businesswoman and entrepreneur.
Clifford has daughters aged 25, 18 and 12, with a first-born daughter who died. Her first husband had an affair and their marriage didn’t last long. At that time she was a behind-thescenes jeweller at Urdang Jewellers, where she first learnt the craft. “I was emotionally destroyed but I used it positively. I took my young daughter and I started Jenna Clifford Designs and worked 18 hours a day every day for 12 years,” she says. She first established her own small retail business in 1985 in an office in Roodepoort, on the West rand of Johannesburg, designing affordable, low-end jewellery. A second marriage came and went, and Clifford is now married to her third husband and business partner, Dex Kotze. Together they set up this studio-cum-headquarters, which has now been going strong for 18 years and employs 70 people.
Over time, the pair have together devised campaigns to establish the company as a brand leader in the industry. While there was no one major breakthrough that set her name alight, she got people talking when her risqué advertisements for Jenna Clifford featured naked women, their modesty protected by strategically placed larger-than-life pieces of diamond jewellery.
Clifford’s specialty is remodelling heirloom jewellery that has broken or fallen from fashion. She also produces ready-to-wear collections at various prices as well as bespoke designs for well-heeled clientele. When I say the personally designed pieces must be expensive, she takes a little umbrage. “You assume it’s going to be expensive. I think assumption is the mother of all bugger-ups,” she counters. “It’s a complete misnomer that we are in the high end. I grew up poor so to me it’s not what they cost, it’s how they feel and what has gone into it.”
One of her collections is dedicated to saving the rhino, its profits supporting antipoaching initiatives led by The money buys resources such as vehicles, communications equipment and ammunition. Dogloving Clifford has also sponsored her work as proudly South African. The current setup does rather restrict two dogs to be trained to recognise the scent of rhino horn to detect poachers in the reserves.
Ethics are a large part of Clifford’s business practices, so she uses only conflict-free diamonds sourced through reputable channels. She is also fiercely supportive of local workers, outsourcing some of the manufacturing and promoting her marketing opportunities and means her designs “can’t be all over the place,” she says. This keeps her brand elite, though at some stage she would like to see her designs reach a wider market. “I believe our work should be global,” she says. “We need top international brands to see the value in what we do. A lot of brands copy us, so there must be some value there,” she laughs. Increasing the volume of pieces being produced would mean enlarging her own factory and probably outsourcing to other factories too. She says she’s not averse to this, provided such endeavours remain to the benefit of the South African population and that there are cross-training opportunities available.
Clifford aside, there are only two other designers on her team, though she has trained many who have since branched out on their own. Her role as a teacher and mentor expanded recently when Octagon, a thought leader in sponsorship marketing, chose her as one of four initial ‘Mould Breakers’ in South Africa. The ‘Breaking the Mould’ campaign is about empowering women by using role models who have risen above their challenges to motivate others. The campaign has seen Clifford lecturing and hosting conversations with students on university campuses across the country.
Clifford’s preferred charities are those supporting women and young girls, although she sees the problems everywhere – in education, healthcare, abuse, corruption and “analysis paralysis”, which she says prevents politicians from devising any solutions. She is a feisty speaker on issues like women’s health, breast cancer, careers, mentorship and entrepreneurship. Her passionate call for gender equality has often seen her branded as a man hater – even by her father. “I love men,” she protests. “I get along far better with them than I do with women because I have been forced to harden up, so my behaviour is a bit like a man’s. Although I work longer hours than men work, I still grow my own vegetables and cook and design and have children and a husband. I still hope in my lifetime to see the balance of the sexes.”
It’s difficult to tell whether money and success, an enduring third marriage and three daughters have made Clifford happy. She seems so fired up about the problems and inequalities in the world that it seems her personal satisfaction might be marred by knowing that there are limits on her ability to do more to improve the lives of others. “Everybody thinks I have a beautiful life because I’m a jeweller only dealing with the rich and famous and sitting at my desk having fun all day. That’s partly true, but I work 16 or 18 hours a day,” she says.
At least these days she works such long hours because she wants to, not because she has to. Yet with plans to find a distributor to take her creations into more countries, staying hands-on as the head designer and mentoring youngsters, Clifford has no interest in slowing down. And Africa had better be prepared, because this hurricane of a businesswoman looks set to make even greater impact in the future with her work, her opinions and her leadership.

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