On Air with Ella - podcast episode 290
SHE HAD EVERY OBSTACLE. SHE DID IT ANYWAY.
I am always interested in why we do things, and equally in the excuses that we make when we are not pursuing our dreams and our most intentional life. Personally, I sometimes feel that I can be an excuse-generating machine, despite the fact that I also believe myself to me someone who has every advantage in this life. So, I am incredibly inspired when I learn of people who accomplish big goals in SPITE of the circumstances they face, and they invariably inspire me to live a fuller life.
I came across Aslina Wines at a wine tasting event featuring Black winemakers, and the sommelier was telling us a bit about her story. It was a story of beating ALL of the odds, and I knew immediately that I wanted Ntsiki to share her story with us.
"It's never too early, and it's never too late." - Ntsiki Biyela
Ntsiki Biyela is the Founder, head Winemaker and Director of Aslina Wines. She grew up in Mahlabathini, a rural village in the Kwa Zulu-Natal province of South Africa. Ntsiki graduated from university with a BSc in Agriculture, Viticulture and Oenology (in another language, since lectures were conducted in Afrikaans and she spoke only Zulu when she arrived to campus), and began her first job at the boutique winery Stellekaya in 2004. She won her first award in 2006, and three years later, was named Woman Winemaker of the Year in 2009, breaking bias after bias in this overwhelmingly white industry. In 2016, she established her own company, Aslina Wines, naming it after her grandmother.
Ntsiki’s story is one of unbridled optimism, determination and self-belief in the face of many obstacles. I asked Ntsiki to talk with us about the forces that compel her to continue to build such an extraordinary life of curiosity, pleasure, and accomplishment.
"When I make wine, I make a wine for myself to enjoy. I know that if I love it, I'm going to meet some crazy people like me who like the wine, too. I cannot make wine for someone else. I'll never satisfy everyone."
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My current fave is the Sauvignon :-)
EPISODE 290 TRANSCRIPT - condensed and edited
You are now a renowned winemaker, but that is not how life started for you. Can you tell me a little bit about what growing up in South Africa was like for you?
I grew up in the rural areas of the Kwa Zulu-Natal province in South Africa. I went to primary and high school there. [After not being accepted to study elsewhere,] I got a job as a domestic worker. My grandmother was absolutely not pleased - she was not happy! I had to beg her and make her understand that this was just a stepping stone. So, she eventually agreed. And when I got there, an extended family member said “Look, if you want to continue studying, you can study. Do your chores in the morning, and do your chores in the evening, and go to school during the day.” And, I was up for that challenge. It was one of those things - when you don’t know what to expect, you just go blindly, “oh sure, I’ll do that…,” you know?
Stellenbosch University told me that I could study winemaking. I had no idea what they were talking about. But, I agreed. And they told me that it was in Afrikaans, and I said “ok, I can do that. I can study.”
So you were invited to go to school for winemaking, something that had never been on your radar before.
What is your native language, Nstiki?
So you spoke Zulu, and they tell you the course is in Afrikaans. Did you speak Afrikaans at the time?
And still, you said “sure, sign me up.”
Absolutely! They said “study” and whatever they said after that, I didn't hear. I was going!
What I love about that, is that I will find the smallest excuse sometimes to not do something, and here you are, you wanted to get an education, and when you're presented with an opportunity to study in a different language for a course of study that had never entered your mind, and you leap at the chance.
You have that right - and in a completely different culture, by the way, moving from a province to another province. They were very different.
Tell me more about that.
The first time I arrived at Stellenbosch, it was very interesting. I remember standing at the library and looking around, and it's only white people - you can't see any black people around. And that is like a shock. Where are the people I know? Where are the people that look like me?
You are a black woman and you grew up surrounded in a community that looks like you, and now you're in a different area. A lot of people don't understand what the culture was like throughout South Africa at that time - extraordinarily segregated.
It’s still segregated, but it's much better now, compared to previously [just post-Apartheid]. But at that moment, that's the early days of the change and it was a shock. Like, am I still in the same country? The people are talking and you don't even know what they're saying. And, and then you realize, oh, the course is in Afrikaans. And then the reality kicks in: How the hell am I going to study?
How on Earth did you do it?
I think it was the realization that if I go back home, I don't have anything to do. So this, I must do. There was no choice for me, there was no choice. It's either I do this, or if I don't do it, I'm going to go back home and do nothing. So there was no choice, I had to make sure that I do this.
And so I had to find help on campus, and I went to Student Counseling. I remember the first time I said to them, “Look, I know I'm gonna fail. But they cannot kick me out. I need to study, I need to stay. So you guys need to help me. I know I can't go back.”
So they told me they would help me, and then I could study without stress. I could focus on my studies. I had tutors and classes to go over the work, and that helped a lot.
Let's flash forward a little bit to what happened when you left university. You completed this degree, despite the odds that were not in your favor, and you had enough self-belief to take the next step. I know you didn't graduate from that program, and immediately go open your own winery. You had a job in between? Tell us a little bit about that.
When I graduated, I got a job at a small winery in Stellenbosch, called Stellekaya. I worked there for 13 years. I did this with my mind set that at some point, I'm going to start my own business, and I was aware that I needed to learn as much as possible. I learned finances, doing my own budget as a winemaker and planning all those things that are part of running the business. Then I did a harvest in Italy, France, and I visited California and New Zealand just to expand my knowledge. In 2015, I went to the United States with a program called African Women Entrepreneurship Program, which was actually funded by the State Department, to expose African women to business women, and business people in the United States. And that actually was more like a push for me to say, “Now it's the time. Now it's time to step out,” because when I was there, I realized that in our continent, there are still countries where some women run successful companies, but the company cannot be registered in their own name. Because they're a woman, they cannot get money from the bank. So what's holding me back? In South Africa, I can call it my own company, I can do this. And I still had fear, like the fear of not having money to do it. The fear of that, you know, how am I going to pay for this? How am I going to know I can do it?
Many people can relate to that fear, whether it's a fear of “how am I going to fund it?” or “How am I going to be exposed and let people see what I'm super passionate about?” I think it is important to point out that within two years of starting that job with the other winery, you had won your first award. And then a few years after that, you were named Woman Winemaker of the Year in 2009. Were you the first black woman to win woman winemaker of the year?
Absolutely incredible. And yet, you're still facing the fear that we feel when it's time to start something new, and to really commit 100% of ourselves. But, you did it anyway.
Yes. I think it's only now that I realize, if it doesn't scare you, that means it's not big enough. If it doesn't scare you, that means you're going to undermine it, you know. So I think that fear - it prepares you, actually. That once you start, you give it your all, you give everything to make sure that it works. Because if you're not scared, you're like, “oh, yeah, it's gonna work.” And then things can fall apart quickly. So I think that fear is actually to look at it in a positive way.
What would you say to the teenage version of you that just learned that she got rejected from University and the programs she wanted to attend? What would you tell her knowing what you know, now,
I think what I've learned is that everything that I've done, everything has been happening at the right time. It's never late, it's never too early. And I'll just give you one of the examples - in my final year, I failed one of the courses in my major. I passed everything else, but because of this one, I couldn’t graduate. And I was already anxious. And when I graduated later, I realized that if I graduated a year earlier, the job I got, I wouldn't have gotten it. If I had graduated a year earlier, certain opportunities were not going to be there because they did not exist at that time.
So I think sometimes we have plans, which is fantastic. We have plans, but we just need to know that whenever something doesn't work out - no matter how much you've put in, and it doesn't work out - it's because it's not the time for that. Whatever is best, it's going to come. I know it's difficult to tell someone actually who is struggling, but actually, it's just a matter of really, really accepting certain things to say, “okay, fine.”
You are, and always will be, South Africa's first black female winemaker - busting glass ceilings and stereotypes all over the place. Thank you. But despite the honor and the privilege of that, and the hard work that got you there, and you being able to set an example for so many other people, I have to imagine that it hasn't all been “rainbows and sunshine.” What are some tools you've developed? What are some ways you have persevered in the face of people who said “You can't do it? You don't belong here.”
When I started working, I remember there used to be farmers who came to sell grapes. And when they asked for a winemaker, I told them I’m the winemaker. They're like, “No, no, no, we're not asking for a supervisor. We're looking for a winemaker.” And I thought to myself it's a shock for them because they're not expecting that person, a black woman.
They didn't know you were the winemaker?
Even when they're being told no, she is the winemaker! They say “no, no, no, we're talking about the winemaker, not the supervisor.” And I personally showed them the office to meet my boss. He would say to them, “I've got no idea what you're talking about. I can't even make wine.” And then he would bring them back to me. And he would say, “This is my winemaker.”
It was a matter of really understanding that you know, \we're human. When you've been put in a space where it's a shock, you know, you're going to meet a winemaker - your picture of a winemaker. You already have created the picture that it's going to be: it's a man, he is white. That's what they expected. And you see a woman - not even a white woman, but a black woman. And so I had learned to say, “I'm going to meet people who are negative, those will be for me the minor part of it.”
I love that you're out here pursuing your dream and showing people what that looks like when Ntsiki Biyela does it. And what else are we here to do, other than to live our best lives and set an example for others and show them what is possible?
Exactly. And for me, it's always important to focus on the positive. Whatever you focus on is going to expand. There are so many people in the industry who are positive. There's so many people in the industry who support me. There are so many people I could pick up and call, not even knowing them. So I've made a choice to focus on the positive.
You said, “When I make wine, I make wine for myself to enjoy. I know that if I love it, I'm going to meet some crazy people like me who like the wine, too. I cannot make wine for someone else. I'll never satisfy everyone.”
Imagine a world where we all did what we were moved to do, and then hoped that there was a world to receive it, instead of trying to make sure that there was a guaranteed reception before we did our thing.
I think those are the things that stop us from doing certain things, but if I like it, that's guaranteed number one that somebody likes it, and that's me! So I'm going to share my love, my passion with other people. And I understand you have different tastes, and not everybody will like it, but I am loving this. Laughs.
But isn't that the beauty of it? We are here to share love and spread love. And how do we share love? By sharing the things that we do, whether it's conversations or a glass of wine or food that we’re sharing. It’s a symbol of love, sharing.
She told me “when you do something, do it from a place of love.”
Thank you so much for sharing your story, Ntsiki.
Thank you for having me and thank you for helping to spread the word of Aslina. The company is named after my late grandmother. And the reason for that was to honor her, to honor the person who has taught me everything I know about life. When I think of my grandmother, and naming the company after her, for me it’s about spreading the love. That’s what she taught me, and who she was to me. It’s like, “here’s is love, let’s share.”