Women have a unique perspective to add to any senior management team - Chirene Jelbert, founder and MD of CFruit

Chirene Jelbert is the founder and MD of CFruit. She has never thought of starting her own business until someone told her they thought she was entrepreneurial. 

After several years of working in the agriculture sector, Chirene decided to start her own company in 2017. "It took a few years for me to recognise that not everyone saw the world the same way I did," she says.

Chirene saw an opportunity in the berry industry and she took it. She set up C Fruit to assist growers who tried to diversify from other crops and lacked experience, support, infrastructure and opportunities to market their fruit. "Growing up, men constantly told me that I would never be able to do certain jobs because I am a female," she says. "Over time, I’ve proven them wrong."

The company expanded into a multifaceted business that grows, packs and distributes fresh, frozen and dried berries & fruits throughout the world. "I learned that like any natural skill, entrepreneurship also becomes better with practice." 

Today, Chirene has 30 full-time staff members, and in the season, the packing shed team grows to 60 people.

As MD, her job is to focus on the company's strategy. During Coronavirus COVID-19 lockdown, Chirene concentrated her efforts on keeping everyone safe from the pandemic, ensuring that at least one person per household had an income. 

"I refused to let staff go, and so we started an online shop to keep our seasonal staff busy until the next season time," she says. "The project was able to not only sustain staff but create some more seasonal work, and some of the team member's husbands or wives that had lost their jobs were able to work for us."

Not bad for a woman constantly told she was not going to amount to anything except the traditional gender roles dictated by society. "I may not have done it in the same way they would have, but I learnt that as long as you create value and provide a good service, there is going to be someone who appreciates your way of getting things done," she says.

Imposter Syndrome

Having fought to get to where she is today, Chirene believes that gender equality and having a more diverse workforce is vital, especially in senior management teams.

"We all carry a unique consciousness influenced by our culture, gender, values, etc.," she says. "That influences the way we see the world, ask questions, assess risks and make decisions. The collective consciousness of a diverse team is paramount for a business to succeed in the volatile business environment today."

She believes that women can occupy any position in the agriculture sector, even in those sectors that may not have transformed as much as we would have wanted to yet. "Women have a unique perspective to add to any senior management team," she says.

At times, business owners experience intense feelings of self-doubt despite evident success. Chirene says most women struggle with imposter syndrome because they tend to be very detail-oriented, which is an advantage but also a curse because it can influence their confidence when they don’t know all the details about a subject.

She says she often doesn't feel like she knows enough and "thus have no right to be at the table." She has to remind herself (or have others remind her) that everyone knows about the same amount as you, maybe just about something else, but also not the whole picture. "And if I can find my voice and bring the right people around the table, together we can see the whole picture."

The juggle is real

Chirene has learned that business is tricky. "To every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you swing too hard, you can hurdle off the swing, and if you swing too little, you can stall and die. You are constantly trying to find a balance."

And working full-time while raising kids is a balancing act that creates its unique stressors. Chirene says a great business, is built on a firm foundation. "I started CFruit to create value for all communities in the value chain, including my family," she explains. "It important to ask what this value looks and feel like to my kids. Being present and switching off my phone to play with my kids is way more valuable to them than a new toy. But to have this luxury, I have to rely on an amazing team that allows me to step away from the office without the place falling apart."
To keep motivated through the ups and downs of both motherhood and business, Chirene says, I enjoy having conversations with a diverse network of people to help me see life more positively. I’ve hit more than a few walls on my journey. It has been the networks of business associates, old colleagues, friends and family that have encouraged me to keep going through their advice or helping me to laugh during difficult times.

Tips and Strategies

Chirene encourages women who are dreaming about being agripreneurs but are afraid they might fail to start small. 

"I know of many businesses that started in a garage with only a few bags or a few punnets of fruit or veg," she shares. "Explore your environment. If you do not see yourself starting something from scratch, see if you can collaborate. We, as an example, run a berry lady network where (ladies mostly moms) sell frozen fruit in their communities."

She encourages agripreneurs to network. She says this will help them to ask for help when the time comes. "Nothing stops you from popping an email with some questions to people in your network. There are amazing members of the community willing to give you sound free advice. And remember, if it were easy to start a business, everyone would be doing it."

Chirene also advises business owners to pay attention to the details. "Pay careful attention to your resources like time and cash. Meetings and costs are like nails; if you do not keep trimming them, they will get too long. And when you start feeling resentful toward your business, your most important investment will be time to rest."

With the demands of her job, Chirene admits that she doesn't take enough time out but she loves swimming to destress. "My mission for the next summer is to swim in each of Cape Towns Tidal pools."

You can get in touch with CFruit via Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.