Last Word - Gugu Nkabinde

Nude intimacy

Gugu Nkabinde. Photographer: Stills By Tom

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Zimbabwe and South Africa, and a little bit in Botswana.

What did your parents do?

Strategist and entrepreneur Gugu Nkabinde shares her journey and how Gugu Intimates, her 'skinned coloured underwear for brown skinned girls', was born.

I’m a general’s daughter. My South African father was in exile in Zimbabwe while my Zimbabwean mother, who passed on, was the daughter of a prominent politician. She was involved in protecting and aiding Umkhonto we Sizwe soldiers of which my dad was one. After 1994, my father was integrated into the SANDF, from which he retired a few months back.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be in entertainment but, at about 13 years old, my brother, who was in his first year at UWC, came with a prospectus. There was something about communications that resonated with me. I then decided on that and ended up doing a BA Media Studies.

What was your first job out of school?

It was at Unilever, as assistant brand manager for Knorr.

What are other jobs have you had?

I looked for jobs that allowed me to dig for insights and inform product development. Within Unilever, I also worked on brands like Dove and Shield Teens. I then moved to Castle Lite, followed by Bacardi, before going into advertising.

How did you get into strategy?

At Unilever, they train you to become a problem solver and a consumer champion. The strategist is the person at the segue between what the problem or opportunity is and what people actually want.

What are the biggest lessons you learnt from marketing?

The gold is in identifying what people actually want. Is it enough of a problem? And how do I highlight it so that they gravitate towards a solution? I need to see things through the eyes of the consumer all the time because that’s who is meant to pull the product off the shelf, click and buy, or simply engage with it.

Why did you start Gugu Intimates?

I went to a pitch for a client, and the whole time I was uncomfortable. It was a warm August day and I was wearing a long-sleeve black top under my white shirt. Afterwards, I was chatting to some colleagues about what everyone wears beneath a white shirt. The consensus was layering. My question was: “Why can’t underwear do what it’s supposed to do?” I found some nude brands internationally, but ended up paying R3 000 for a set of underwear. Nothing fancy. That’s what inspired Gugu Intimates.

How did you get from that to manufacturing?

I was hitting a wall in South Africa in terms of manufacturing, so I jumped on a plane and went to China. I found a company and we started reverse engineering – from skin tones and dying material, to what the basic underwear to test the market is and land it.

What are the things that you wish you knew about entrepreneurship?

It’s continuous learning. It will humble you. You have to learn how to not know, and the quicker you realise you don’t know, the quicker you’re going to learn it. It demands that you expand and access the infinite capabilities that you didn’t even know you had. 

How do you stay motivated to wake up each day?

I’ve learnt to be kinder to myself. I’ve learnt it’s okay to take a day when I’m disappointed; to let my inner five-year-old bitch and moan and then tomorrow, we get up and get it. Also, finding my tribe has been so important; the people who know how to balance me.

What excites you?

Sitting with likeminded people to ask questions and ruminate over possible answers. Creation and doing new things excites me, except for food. I don’t like trying new things with food.