Susan Mashibe, founder and Chief Executive of VIA Aviation Ltd, Tanzania
You trained as an aircraft maintenance engineer, have a license to pilot commercial aircraft and hold a degree in aviation management. Today, you are a successful businesswoman and the founder and chief executive of VIA Aviation Ltd, based in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. Could you explain how you got there?
Susan Mashibe: My initial goal was to be a pilot at Delta Air Lines in the US, but I was not able to secure a job following the terror attacks of 9/11. I instead returned to my native Tanzania where I decided to set up my own company, which provides centralized ground services to private jet operators. VIA Aviation is the single place of contact when a private jet uses our services. We offer services such as fueling, access to secure hangars, the process of obtaining landing and overflight permissions, immigration and customs clearances, or catering and additional security. These types of services are still rare in most of Africa.
How much financing was required?
My start-up capital was only US $20,000.
What type of challenges did you face?
At first, I did not realize the importance of non-core operations such as accounting. I was initially doing the accounts on my own, a grueling and time-consuming task. The handling of human resources also turned out to be a headache. Another challenge was corruption. Prior to VIA Aviation, private jets could not pay for their ground services with credit cards. They had to pay in cash, so parts of the service fees paid became an extra income for the people collecting them.
How did you overcome the corruption?
VIA Aviation has accepted special credit cards from private jet operators since its foundation in 2003. We have always maintained our ethics and never given in to corruption. It was actually the first company to accept these special credit cards in East Africa. Our clients appreciate our clear and transparent invoices. The company has managed to expand solely thanks to word-of-mouth advertisement. VIA Aviation's website actually only went live earlier this year, a decade after its foundation.
How has the Credit Suisse mentoring scheme aimed at female entrepreneurs that you are part of helped you to improve VIA Aviation?
I studied aviation management, but only worked as an aircraft maintenance engineer and never worked in a management position prior to setting up VIA Aviation. This lack of management experience was slowing down the growth of the company. I for instance needed to secure additional funding from potential investors to scale up our expansion beyond Tanzania. To succeed, I had to be able to show them a proper business plan. Credit Suisse mentors helped me draw up a bulletproof plan with all the necessary information included. Another difficulty was the calculation of the company's value. A critical factor, as potential investors typically want ownership in the company in return. My coaches told me about the existence of specialized local consultancies that provide such services. I did not know that they offered services like this. The company also needed a good human resource structure and employee manuals. My mentors helped here as well.
How have you implemented the advice you received, and how has it impacted your business?
Right now, we are looking at potential partnerships. My mentors have helped me to draw up a presentation, which was held to prospective partners last month. Thanks to this successful presentation, we are now looking into a feasibility study and exploring further options for the future.
Would you describe yourself as a role model for other African female entrepreneurs?
Yes. Young Tanzanian women or African women in general have few role models. Some write to me from remote places, just because I'm African and run a successful business. Some of them may have been thinking that only whites can do this. Now they hear about someone like me, who looks just like them, and see that it is possible. They have often been raised to believe the opposite.
I try to inspire people and give them the courage to act by telling them they can do anything they aspire to or wish. There is absolutely no reason that they cannot. Not everyone needs to become a pilot or set up a business like I did. But everyone can do something they are good at.
What advice would you like to share with aspiring entrepreneurs around the world?
My key messages are the following: Focus on your passion, then you can do anything. Be unique or special. Offer goods or services that stand out from those of competitors. An entrepreneur needs to take the time to sit down and think: 'What makes us different? Why should a customer use us rather than the competition?' This is probably the best advice I can share with prospective entrepreneurs.
Interview by Dorothée Enskog. Image source: VIA Aviation.