The things Esmeralda De Souza has done to get where she is now: Gave birth at 19, became a cocktail waitress, sang as a background vocalist and at product launches, sold hotdogs, French fries, used books (she’s a book addict), African jewellery to diasporans clinging onto shreds of heritage, dropped out of university, started a briefcase catering company when she didn’t know what she was doing. But then she made amazing cakes and she says “everybody loves a blackforest cake.”
She started Spez Limited, a catering company and grew it to two branches and over 60 employees.
And now at Serena Nairobi, she cries in an interview with JACKSON BIKO, not because she is sad but looking back at her 12-year journey, she sees how hard it has been to get here and how blessed she is.
When did you know that this is what you wanted to do?
I used to bake cakes. I’ve always been the cake girl. (Chuckles) I would do it at home. One day, one of my friend’s mum— who assumed I did catering —asked me if I could cater for her work’s annual general meeting.
I thought, AGM? I only do cakes! (Laughs). So I told her, ‘let me call you back.’ I called a friend from culinary school. We met the client with a menu and did the event. My parents had just retired, which is why I needed the job. I felt like I had burdened them with having a child at 19.
How did you tell your parents that you wanted to drop out of the Geology course and make cakes?
Very interesting question. My mom has an HR background and for her education is everything. I think they agreed because they saw how passionate I was about baking cakes; I’d wake up at 4am to bake then go to school.
If they had they had not agreed I would have been a very unhappy geologist, maybe in Tullow Oil, or somewhere. Maybe I’d be rich, but I’d be unhappy.
What would happen now if your 14-year-old son said, ‘mom, I don’t want to stay in university anymore, I want to dance in a band, because I’m pretty good at dancing.’ Would you support him?
Actually, he plays the saxophone, so that’s not too far off. (Laughs) I think I would let him quit. My husband however (Chuckles) I don’t think he would.
What do you think your son learns from you, by watching you?
Gosh. That’s an interesting question. (Long pause). Honesty. I’m a pretty honest person. Also, perseverance and persistence. And the biggest of them is problem-solving because that’s what business is about most times. He’s growing up watching me solve business problems.
Where does your name come from incidentally?
A song from back in the day called Santa Esmeralda. My dad is Goan Indian, born in Limuru. My mother is from Nyanza. They met while they worked at British Airways in the 70s. My mom was working as a secretary before moving up in HR. My dad was a mailman, delivering letters, but he rose to customer care, then to IT.
You’re setting up a dinner for five, you included. Who are the four you’d invite, dead or alive?
(Long pause) Wangari Maathai for sure. She was courageous. Sir Richard Branson, because it’s someone I’ve always wanted to meet because he sparked the whole entrepreneurship journey. Jamie Oliver, I love his passion for food. Then of course Oprah Winfrey.
How happy are you with your life so far, ten being very happy?
(Chuckles) I’d say nine, perhaps. I’m happy now that I’m clearer about the business. I’m happy that the team is coming together, slowly but it’s coming together. I have an amazing team. (Pause) And just being able to see my children grow.
How much of your life is tied in the business in terms of percentage. I get a feeling the business probably takes a lot of your life.
It does. It’s probably 80 percent.
Is that a danger that should something happen to the business, 80 percent of your life will come tumbling down?
Yes. Probably. But if anything happened, I think I would start over. I have 12 years of unbelievably long lessons that I’ve learnt.
(Pause) 80percent? I suppose it’s a bad thing because my family should be the majority. But when you have 66 other families to take care of you by virtue of being an employer, you can’t just think of your own family.
What do you fear the most now at this stage of your life?
Failure. (Pause). You want to make me cry. (Long pause) It’s been such a long journey. (Breaks into uncontrollable tears) You know you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s a shame not to get there, you know, not to achieve this dream that you have worked hard for. It’s.. just there. (Cries)
When you say light at the end of the tunnel, describe that light. Are you seeing it now?
Yes. It’s very bright. It’s just being able to see the vision through, being the best catering company in Africa. Nobody holds that. I want to create an experience with food, something clients will remember. So, yes, it would be a shame if I didn’t achieve that.
I’m curious, when you cry where did those tears come from, do they come from fear or gratitude?
Gratitude. There are many miracles that have happened in the last one year. Inexplicable miracles..(Cries again). I need to stop crying. Please ask me something else that isn’t emotional.
How much of doing business is tied to your self esteem?
Gosh. (Chuckles, wiping her face) I said not emotional, not difficult. (Pause) If I lost a client it might not shake my self esteem but it will definitely make me feel very sad. On the flip side, it feels so damn good when a client sends positive feedback. Maybe the business is connected to self-esteem and happiness. But also, I’m more that business; I’m a wife, a mother, a friend and a relative.
Are you a good mom?
What makes you a good mom?
(Pause) I've really been intentional with pushing the children to do stuff outside studies. I noticed very early that my son had an ear for music and although he really didn’t want to take up the saxophone initially, when he picked it eventually, he loved it. Only problem is him pissing off the neighbours because that instrument is loud! (Laughs]. I’m encouraging my daughter (turning 4) to paint. There are paint books all over the house, putting up her pictures.
I suppose they take the artsy bit from you, not your husband?
Of course, they take it from me. (Laughs). My husband is a doctor.