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A little girl from a small town of South Africa grew up watching planes fly overhead and dreamt of going around the world flying one of those someday. Her curiosity took her to the cockpit on a flight trip to home when she was a kid. When she grew up, she decided to make a career in the aviation industry and applied for the position of flight attendant with South African Airways. But she was rejected as she could not meet the minimum height requirement. The closed doors motivated her to dream of something more challenging. She dreamt of starting her own aviation company and achieved it. The journey of Sibongile Sambo, the founder and Managing Director of SRS Aviation in running a successful private business in an industrial sector that is one of the toughest to break into, is bathed with passion and determination. She owes it to the unending support of her family and her confidence. The success story of this young, female, black industrious entrepreneur is a great example of working tirelessly to make the dream a reality by appreciating every chance and challenge as an opportunity to grow. She has won numerous awards in the international platforms for her leadership and entrepreneurship, which according to her "shows that I’m heading in the right direction."

Early career....

Her early career took Sibongile into the human resources sector. From 1997 to 2004, she worked in public administration, defence and mining, energy and natural resources companies such as De Beers, City Power and NSA Securities as HR manager. This corporate job gave her the foundation to venture into entrepreneurship later in her life.

The launch...

Sibongile saw an opportunity to fulfil her dream upon passing the Black Economic Empowerment Act, in 2003, which enables people from previously disadvantaged backgrounds to start their own enterprises. However, she had no prior experience or formal training or capital to establish an aviation company, but the passion. With the small amount of money she pooled in by selling her car and borrowing her mother’s pension money, she formed Africa’s first female aviation company, SRS Aviation, to broker contracts between aviation companies and clients. SRS stands for the initials of her name Sibongile Rejoice Sambo.

The take off...

The early days of entrepreneurship was very challenging for her. SRS aviation opened its account by winning the contract when the South African government invited aviation firms to bid for cargo transport. The contract was awarded as a joint venture between SRS aviation and a competing firm. Unfortunately, the other firm withdrew from the contract leaving the novice to learn things the hard way. During turbulent days, she took help from others, including her clients, to learn the backend operations and the contracting process. Many didn't take her seriously as she was a woman. But she is grateful for those days as it was a tremendous learning experience.

Flying high...

SRS kept the overhead costs to the bare minimum. It operated in a virtual office space with four employees. In 2006, SRS Aviation received the Air Operating Certificate, making this 100 percent black female owned aviation company the first black operational enterprise in South Africa to become a full operator in the industry. Soon thereafter she started to offer professional and personalized flight options that include VIP charter, air cargo charter, tourist transfers, medical evacuations, aerial photography and general air security services. The company started growing. It served corporates to government to heads of the states; moving cargo to animal lifting. When the returns were high enough, the company contracted to transport people as well. It had a few customers who chartered SRS private jets instead of flying first class with a commercial airline. SRS Aviation also became the African distributor of new and overhauled aircraft spare parts for the commercial, commuter, corporate, Military and Cargo aerospace Industries.

Getting financial support was always a challenge for this black woman. She then turned to her network of friends and families who were willing to lend money promising them to return it with interest in a reasonable time.

Giving back...

Sibongile did not sit idle after achieving her dreams. Also a motivational speaker, she wants to lend a helping hand to the other African women in achieving their dreams. She passionately mentors young women from previously disadvantaged backgrounds, helping them become pilots, leaders and entrepreneurs and generates employment opportunities. She encourages more women to enter the aviation sector. She is connected with many organisations such as South African Entrepreneurs Network, Business Women Association that supports youth and women empowerment, entrepreneurship and aviation. She invests in her staff and has helped three of them obtain private pilot licences. She does not turn away any opportunity to talk to the kids of local schools about the possibilities in the science and technology and encourages them to focus of maths and science.

Personal life...

Sibongile had gone a long way in academics. She holds a Bachelor of Administration degree from the University of Zululand, a Bachelor of Administration Honours and an Advanced programme in Organisational Development from the University of South Africa, a Marketing certificate from the Institute of Marketing Management, and a Mining Executive Preparation Programme from the University of the Witswatersrand. Sibongile is currently working on her Masters of Science Degree in Management of Technology and Innovation in Aviation and is training to be a pilot.

Sibongile is fond of reading about the life of successful business and knowing their struggles, how they overcame etc. She keeps herself updated by reading business magazines, attending conferences and industry events regularly. Her mom who lost her husband very early in her life and raised her kids as a single mother is her role model. Sibongile tries hard to strike a balance between her work and her family.

The two cents for the aspiring entrepreneurs...

Go into business with an open mind.
Know you can have a very good business idea, but be prepared that sometimes the environment will not allow you to achieve it. Be flexible.
Think out of the box. Think about ways to diversify.
Think of ways to be profitable at all times. Once you are in business it does come down to profitability. It doesn't help to be so passionate about something that is not bringing in money for you. You should be able to realize profits. If you can’t make money from the initial idea, then alter it to help keep you afloat.

Associations and memberships...

Member of Fly South, FABCOS (CHAMSA), Enterprise Development Forum, Black Management Forum, Women in Aviation International
A Member of Think-Tank of the World Entrepreneurship Forum
Appointed as one of the Ambassadors for the World Entrepreneurship Forum in 2012
Featured in the World Bank report entitled Doing Business: Women in Africa in 2008

Awards and accolades...

Received International Women’s Entrepreneurial Challenge (IWEC) 2010 held in Cape Town
Nominated for the Queen Victoria Memorial Award (International Socrates Award) by the European Business Assembly in 2009.
Named as a Leader of Tomorrow by Fortune magazine in 2007
Received Presidential Award of Youth Business Leadership from Black Management Forum
Received Regional Business Women of the year from Business Woman Association, the SRS Aviation Fidentia Award and the Top Emerging Gender Empowered Company award in 2006
Received Top Entrepreneur of the year 2006 – Female award from Impumelelo
Received BIBA (Black Woman in Business Awards) from European Federation for Black Women Business Owners


What I'm proud of about our company is that we have managed to penetrate the male dominated industry
I didn't fear anything. Inside, I was confident that I wanted to get into aviation. I love it. I've done enough research, and I think I would be able to make it in the industry. No, it wasn't easy, but because of the love and passion I have, I've persevered.
I’m a risk taker. I fear nothing. When I apply my mind to do something, I go for it. The worst answer I can ever get is a ‘NO,’ but NO will never kill me. I wake-up the following day and do something different. For me it is the positive attitude I have in life. It has carried me to today.
Nobody will see you if you are sitting in your own corner. You have to go out there, you have to be visible, to do something to be able to get even more support and assistance.
It hasn’t been easy, it’s been a huge task but it’s been worth every sleepless night I’ve endured. The company is now well established and is a growing enterprise, with an annual turnover of R54 million. To me, that alone is an incredible achievement.

Hope readers caught up the spark …