I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, into humble beginnings. Today, I live in Dallas, Texas, and am a passionate mother, wife, serial entrepreneur and a catalyst for empowering women in the workplace. From a young age, it was clear I was a born entrepreneur and had an obsession and fascination for fashion and jewellery. At around 8 years old during family vacations, I began to collect a variety of seashells to make jewellery. I would pierce holes into the shells and thread the shells with string to create bangles and necklaces. I would go on to sell these pieces to my classmates and neighbours. I was known for my style and flamboyant fashion sense. At the age of 11, I was selling stationery to my school friends—business was just in my blood!
After graduating from high school, I began working in the marketing, advertising and sponsorship industry; however, I had a burning desire to gain my own independence and eventually, braved the elements to start my very first business in 2005. I was flat broke and 25 years old! I was pursuing a partnership with one of South Africa’s big four banks for my “One Call Home Solution” programme. With persistence, tenacity and an ability to push through my own doubts and fears, I landed a deal with a major bank, and my journey as a young, female South African entrepreneur shifted into high gear.
My first business was a great foundation to help me understand the business world and gain as much business experience, but my love for jewellery never left me! In 2012, I went on to launch a bespoke range of quality, fashionable and affordable jewellery — Crystal Creations by Natalie Mills. The jewellery line is available in leading African department stores and due to demand and strong customer base, I went on to launch three boutique stores across South Africa. In just five years, my brand became an established premium brand in female jewellery, with the unique designs epitomising my love of all things creative and making available an affordable line of jewellery, maintaining high quality and fashionable.
The designs in my latest collection, come from a personal tough experience. Designing was my therapy when I became ill and as an artist, I wanted to articulate my story and into my designs, reminding us of our strength within. I think it’s normal for people to be attracted to outwardly beautiful things, but my unique design styles are inspired to remind us that true beauty, strength and vitality all start from the inside, and then resonate outwards. I want my jewellery to remind women that although we can see the beauty around us, we should also be able to feel and appreciate the beauty that is inside each one of us.
“New” and “Possible” seem fitting descriptions for my journey! I have never let my lack of tertiary education or formal qualifications hold me back from being a prolific businesswoman whose business drive is balanced by my passionate commitment to women empowerment and giving back! My early childhood had a profound effect on shaping my life—my mother was a phenomenal entrepreneur and businesswoman but sadly suffered through depression after my stepfather’s suicide. My incredibly close relationship with my father was tragically cut short when he passed away suddenly, and as a teenager, I soon found myself having to go out and work to support the family when we fell on hard times. I had no financial prospects to study after finishing high school, so I threw myself into everything I did and relished every opportunity I was given at work. I was incredibly blessed with many special mentors in my life who are to this day, good friends. I was street-smart and self-taught, likening myself to a sponge that absorbed everything going on around me—traits that have not diminished over the years.
I have incredible aspirations for myself and am tenacious about going out there and getting what I want, accepting that there will always be bumps in the road, and that these are all part of the journey. I have always invented myself as I go, and don’t believe in overanalysing anything. The bottom line is being successful in business isn’t about having enough of or the right resources before you start. Being an entrepreneur means you have to be resourceful with what you currently have — skills, drive, ambition, mentors, passion, attitude, faith and all that good stuff. It’s about doing what you can, with what you have, where you are.
The U.S. is the world’s largest market, and I wanted to test my capabilities and ideas against some of the most prolific entrepreneurs and business people in the world. In 2015, I exhibited my jewellery brand and product range and tested the market reception for our offering. It was an eye-opening and life-changing experience, and I knew that if I wanted to make it in the U.S., I would need to focus here.
A year later in September 2016, my husband Jacques, 2-year-old daughter, Tuscany, and I packed our bags and headed for the U.S. We arrived in Texas with high hopes, a few bulging suitcases and very little else. It was a huge adjustment to start all over again, in a new country, a new culture and an incredibly competitive market; I spent 36 years of my life building everything and was walking away for a fresh start!
The one thing that really surprised me about the U.S. is how supportive the people are of each other—in business, they take networking to a whole new level. I was expecting to have a tough time as a foreigner and that finding my feet would be difficult as an outsider, but it was exactly the opposite. I have been incredibly fortunate to meet dynamic business people who have encouraged and supported my ideas. The real breakthrough came when my brand and designs were identified by key U.S. executives and brand experts as having international appeal. Consumers want a story connected to a brand that they can relate to, and pretty soon I was dreaming of being the next Kendra Scott, Michael Kors or Tory Burch. It was during the executive development meetings I had in the U.S.A. that my message and vision for the business was shared and encouraged by the most incredible fashion brand names. The next phase of my business dream was born, and the brand I created in South Africa is now well on its way to being reinvented in the U.S. market as Natalie Mills.
Personal philosophy — Be fearless in pursuit of what sets your soul on fire. Attitude above all things is more important than formal qualifications.
Keep pushing forward — Faith keeps me pushing forward, as well as my belief in the universe, the power of manifestation and the law of attraction in that you get what you give. I start each year with a vision board, and I meditate daily to manifest what my heart most desires. Last, but not least, my family pushes me forward — I love being an entrepreneur and while that may demand many sacrifices, my family understands this and supports me. I want my daughter to grow up and know that there is nothing she cannot do as long as she has a dream, along with the grits to put her dream into action.
On what it takes to make it as an entrepreneur — You can fall as long as you rise again, stronger and wiser. Take action, don’t overanalyse everything— sometimes you just need to let go and invent some of the stuff along the journey. Believe in your capabilities—if you don’t believe in yourself, you cannot expect anyone else to either. Never be satisfied with the status quo. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are and really listen to people and their ideas.
Lessons learned — Being an entrepreneur doesn’t mean you are fearless and have all the answers. Quite the contrary — being scared and afraid of failure is what drives me to channel my emotions and hyper-focus on the end goal. Not everyone will be happy for you and being an entrepreneur often means you won’t be accepted, even by those you think are closest to you. You will be seen as opinionated, demanding and over-ambitious, and that’s OK.