It was a normal day in 2018 when Michelle Mokone made plans to go to a local market in Pretoria, South Africa. However, when a friend canceled, Michelle’s sister Mo offered to accompany her.
What neither of them realized at the time was how that day would trigger a new trajectory for the sisters, one that they would never be able to turn back from.
Mesmerized by the artisans at the market – particularly those who made crafts from recycled materials – Mo and Michelle were inspired to create something of their own. That same night, Mo went home and researched how to break into the market, and a year later, Mo and Michelle not only regularly exhibited, but also won Best New Product with their baskets handcrafted from recycled materials.
Meanwhile, the sisters were still working full-time – Mo as Nestle’s VP of HR and Michelle as an economist – so their sideline, dubbed Mo’s Crib, remained a fun hobby to spend time on weekends.
“It’s not like we needed the money in any way, shape, or form, but that was the start of it all for us because we felt right at home in that market,” recalls Mo.
Although the sisters enjoyed their jobs at the time, Mo’s Crib and the market – its energy, customers and artistry – increasingly became a focal point in their lives. By the end of 2019, Mo’s Crib was doing business in markets across South Africa.
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However, when the pandemic hit and the world shut down — including Mo and Michelle’s main way of displaying their wares — it was time to reevaluate. Rather than abandon Mo’s Crib or put it on the back burner until the world opened up again, the two decided to go all-in.
“When the pandemic hit, that’s when the real challenge was because we had to be bold enough to leave our jobs and rely full-time on Mo’s Crib,” recalls Michelle.
When they realized the limits of their business and how they couldn’t sustain themselves or the brand by selling exclusively in markets (especially now that most were closed), they had to find alternatives. They changed their business model and started wholesale to retailers across South Africa – but getting there? This definitely wasn’t easy.
“In those moments, you’re like, Is this really worth it? But then you wake up in the morning and think to yourself: It is worth it. I will continue to run today.”
Having left their jobs, Mo and Michelle were working tirelessly to keep Mo’s Crib afloat – funneling savings, time and energy into the hopes of making ends meet on the other side.
“Back then, there were days when we were starving, when there was literally so much money in the business that we were running out of savings,” recalls Michelle. “There were a lot of nights where we questioned whether we made the right decision because we were struggling so hard. In those moments, you’re like, Is this really worth it? But then you wake up in the morning and think to yourself: It is worth it. I will continue to run today.”
Hustle they did. After successfully launching to home improvement stores in South Africa, the sisters decided to expand further and launch internationally. The two attended the New York Now fair in 2019, where they received honorable mention in the Best New Product Artisan Resource category. They decided to reach out to some of the brands they were exposed to at the convention, one of which was Crate & Barrel – which went on to become one of Mo’s Crib’s biggest distributors.
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Now, as Mo’s Crib continues to thrive, with their products sold in home improvement stores around the world, Mo and Michelle are committed to the craftsmanship and quality of their handcrafted baskets. It is ensuring that the people who make them have a high quality of life.
“It’s not just about lighting up the actual product, but it’s (ensuring) that the people who actually make the product, that their dreams come true too,” says Michelle. “Because more often than not, you find that the dreams of the people who make the product are forgotten or not even mentioned.”
The sisters, who grew up in a working-class family, are open about understanding what it means to go to work and not knowing whether you’ll have a meal that day or shelter when you get home. For Mo and Michelle, Mo’s Crib is more than a brand, it’s an opportunity for others to fulfill their dreams and break the cycle of poverty.
In addition to providing their workers with a living wage, the sisters take a number of steps to provide shelter and resources for their artisans, including free lodging if needed, transportation vouchers, access to books, in-house medical assistance, and what they call “Fridays- wellness fairs, “where workers are given a day off at the end of the month to recharge and focus on themselves.
“One of the things we take pride in is making sure our employees leave Mo’s Crib better than when they came in,” explains Mo. “We have a 100% retention rate.”
Additionally, the sisters provide various resources for workers to achieve financial literacy, as many of the artisans never had a steady income before working for Mo’s Crib. Through collaboration with banks across South Africa, Mo’s Crib staff are educated on how to be smarter with their spending and savings.
“We had to put aside what we teach, the doctrine of running a business and the status quo and just lead with our hearts”
One craftsman, Franz, arrived at Mo’s Crib on the brink of poverty, living in a tin house and barely able to support his family. Now he is able to support himself and his family and send his daughter to university – something he says he would never have achieved without his work at the company.
“It’s a way to break the chain of poverty in her lineage – so that her daughter has (an) education and can enter the workforce and get a high-skill job that will change the trajectory of the family,” Michelle says.
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When asked about the importance of other companies offering similar benefits to their employees, the sisters emphasize that it has to be people over profit – something that comes naturally to them because of their humble beginnings.
“We know what it’s like to be a black girl in South Africa growing up without a family that can help her, get her an education and support her,” says Mo. “It was really important for us when we build a company to remember where we came from, honor our journey and make sure we can sustain the livelihood of those who work for us.”
While they say that not everyone who starts a business has experienced the journey to their point, one pillar they preach to fellow entrepreneurs is to lead with compassion. Instead of falling back on the unspoken doctrine of what people learn about business, lead like a human being first. If an employee is constantly late, instead of scolding or admonishing him, ask him why he is late – what is going on in his life?
“We had to let go of what we were taught, the doctrine of running a business and the status quo, and just lead from the heart,” says Michelle. “By doing this, you’re meeting people on a human level. You get to see that we’re one. And it’s important to understand compassion even in a professional context.”
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