#WIB – Q&A With Beth Cook Founder Of Progression

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1. Can you please tell us more about your business?

A. Progression’s vision statement is: We see the butterfly where others only see the caterpillar, which is precisely what Progression is all about. We partner with our clients to find solutions in accessibility, inclusion, and integration in the workplace. As such, we offer services in managing disability in the workplace, skills development, and enterprise development, all to assist with creating employment and entrepreneurship.

Our solutions follow a best practice approach, which focuses on the individual. We understand that SA is a diverse nation. We are passionate about driving sustainable transformation for all South Africans, particularly those who do not have access to formal education and, therefore, limited opportunities to enter the open labour market.

2. When, how and why did you start your business?

A. The business was started in March 2002. At the time, I was employed in an NPO that was offering training to people with disabilities. This was funded by the Department of Labour and mainly training for the sake of training. When the Skills Development Act and Learnerships came into being, I saw an opportunity to utilise learnerships as a vehicle to give people with disabilities the opportunity to gain qualifications and relevant work experience while creating awareness in corporate South Africa around the employment of people with disabilities.

3. What is your role in the business?

A. I am the CEO, and as such, I drive vision, strategy and objectives, and the development of new products. We are an SMME, so even though I am the founder and CEO, I also play an integral role in overseeing some high-level management functions.

4. How did you finance your business?

A. My business partner and I cashed in our pension funds and used that money to pay our bills while we set up the business. We signed up our first learnership project with W&R Seta and the JD Group in November 2002 and earned our first salary nine months after the business started.

5. Describe your average workday, if such a thing exists.

A. No day is the same, but most start off similarly. I wake up at about 6 am, and spend the first hour or so reading and researching what is happening in our industry and, in particular, I’m interested in what other emerging economies are doing right when it comes to enterprise development, skills development, integration and equity and how some of these countries are addressing high unemployment rates successfully. I then spend time on my emails, go into the office and the rest of my day is either spent collaborating with my leadership team and the various department heads or operational matters.

6. How do you balance your home life and your work life?

A. Work/life balance is extremely important to me. When I first started the business, we worked long hours, and I think it is a sacrifice you have to make initially. However, as the business has grown, it has become vital for me that we all have a good balance. We live in a society where there is so much on the go. In my opinion, ‘busy’ is overrated and contributes to the high rate of mental health issues being experienced globally. 

To assist in the work/life balance, we give additional leave to all of our team members over the December holidays over and above annual leave. We also allow for shorter working hours where possible. If the team consistently takes work home, there’s a problem with the process/systems. I am creative and have carved out time every week for ceramics and jewellery making. I also fetch my grandchildren from school once a week, allowing me to spend time with them and come 7 pm, it’s feet up with a glass of wine and good conversation or a good book. 

7. What drives you and inspires you?

A. Working with like-minded individuals, companies that want to make a difference, who are mindful of their impact on the global economy and welfare of all of the world’s citizens, is what inspires me. This sounds idealistic, but I feel that we can find the balance between realism and idealism with what is available. And I am both inspired and driven by the commitment and drive of the people I meet in my everyday life who have overcome so much without losing hope, who still believe in themselves and their ability to overcome and succeed – these people could be team members, learners, potential candidates, providers, clients, friends, and family.

8. Where and when do you have your best ideas?

A. Usually, inspiration comes to me when I’m driving, especially after reading something motivational or confronting a challenge.

9. Where and how do you market/advertise your business for sales leads?

A. Most of our business comes from word-of-mouth, and our client base has grown mainly through referrals or networking. We have an excellent reputation for doing what we do well with a high standard. We’ve also recently started spending more time on social media, supporting our marketing efforts.

10. What is next for your business?

A. We don’t ever want to grow too big. We want to maintain the ability to be innovative through collaboration with our clients, who we see as our partners more than just clients. There was a time when we had pretty significant growth. Our employee numbers were more than double what they are now, but we saw a drop in our ability to offer a high-quality service to our clients. Keeping a small intimate team allows us to be flexible and adapt what we are doing to meet the ever-changing needs of our unstable economy and our clients’ needs. 

What’s next for us? I see the next step as being always looking at our “Why” to make a difference – “see the butterfly”, which right now means focusing on creating solutions that lead to employment, changing the status quo, and reducing poverty and unemployment. To do this, we continue to explore solutions and methodologies in doing this better – at this time, it is looking to automate and continue with our online solutions.

11. What advice would you give to female entrepreneurs hoping to start their own business?

A. Ask for help, manage the female entrepreneur imposter syndrome, and follow your gut. Three people who helped me incredibly in my journey were my accountant, business banker, and financial advisor. I developed strong relationships with all three, and the advice and support that I received were incredible. 

My team and I have recently started working with a business coach, which has helped enormously with consolidating and keeping us on track as we move into this new phase.

Surround yourself with a team of people who believe as much as you do in your vision and mission, have skills that you don’t have, complement your skillset, and are the right skills for the business. 

Re-visit your vision and mission regularly, have a plan, and don’t be scared to restructure if you need to. Sticking to something that isn’t working harms your business in the long run. Learn to love what you do and make sure you are having some fun along the way.

Short Bio:

Beth founded Progression in 2002, at a time when there was a gap in the market for an entity that opened the labour market and provided market-related qualifications for people with disabilities. As the organisation’s CEO, Beth has grown Progression into a 20-person team that offers specialised consulting services in skills and enterprise development, socio-economic development, disability in the workplace, and B-BBEE consulting.

Contact Information:

Tel: 0860 Skills (754 557) 

Email: bethcook@progression.co.za

Website: https://www.progression.co.za/

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