It was an otherwise regular day in 2018 when Michelle Mokone made plans to attend a local market in Pretoria, South Africa. However, when a friend canceled, Michelle’s sister, Mo, volunteered to accompany her.
What neither of them realized at the time was how that day would spark a new trajectory for the sisters, one they’d never be able to turn back from.
Mesmerized by the artisans at the market — particularly those who made crafts out of recycled materials — Mo and Michelle were inspired to create something of their own. That very same night, Mo went home and researched how to get into the market, and a year later, Mo and Michelle were not only exhibiting regularly but also won best new product with their handwoven baskets made of recycled materials.
Meanwhile, the sisters were still working full-time — Mo as a VP of HR for Nestle and Michelle as an economist — so their side hustle, dubbed Mo’s Crib, remained a fun hobby to dedicate time to on the weekends.
“It’s not like we needed the money in any way, shape or form, but that was the beginning of everything for us because we were so at home at that market,” Mo recalls.
Although the sisters enjoyed their jobs at the time, Mo’s Crib and the market — its energy, customers and art — increasingly became a focal point in their lives. By late 2019, Mo’s Crib was doing business in markets throughout South Africa.
However, when the pandemic hit and the world shut down — including Mo and Michelle’s primary way to exhibit their products — it was time to reevaluate. Instead of abandoning Mo’s Crib or putting it on the back burner until the world opened up again, the two decided to go all in.
“When the pandemic hit, that’s when the real challenge was because we then had to be bold enough to leave our jobs and depend full-time on Mo’s Crib,” Michelle recalls.
When they realized the limits of their business and how they couldn’t sustain themselves or the brand by exclusively selling at markets (especially now that most were closed), they had to find alternatives. They pivoted their business model and began to sell wholesale to retailers throughout South Africa — but getting there? That definitely wasn’t easy.
“In those moments, you’re like, is it even worth it? But then you wake up in the morning and think to yourself, It is worth it. I will continue to hustle today.”
Having left their jobs, Mo and Michelle were working tirelessly to keep Mo’s Crib afloat — funneling savings, time and energy in the hopes they’d make it out on the other end.
“During that time, it was met by days when we would go hungry, where there was literally so much money in the business that we were running out of savings,” Michelle recalls. “There were many nights of questioning if we’d made the right decision because we were struggling so much. In those moments, you’re like, is it even worth it? But then you wake up in the morning and think to yourself, It is worth it. I will continue to hustle today.”
Hustle they did. After successfully pitching to homeware stores in South Africa, the sisters decided to expand even further and pitch internationally. The two had attended the tradeshow New York Now in 2019, where they received a special mention in the Best New Product Artisan Resource category. They decided to reach out to some of the brands they were exposed to at the convention, one of which was Crate & Barrel — which ultimately became one of Mo’s Crib’s biggest distributors.
Now, as Mo’s Crib continues to thrive, with its products sold in homeware stores across the globe, Mo and Michelle are committed to the art and quality of their handwoven baskets and ensuring that the people who make them have a high quality of life.
“It’s not just about shining light on the actual product, but it’s [ensuring] that the people that actually make the product, that their dreams also come true,” Michelle says. “Because more often than not, you find that the dreams of the people that make the product are forgotten or are not even spoken of.”
The sisters, who grew up in a working-class family, are open about understanding what it means to go to work and not know if you’ll have a meal that day or shelter when you get home. For Mo and Michelle, Mo’s Crib is more than a brand, it’s an opportunity for others to live out their dreams and end the cycle of poverty.
Beyond giving their employees a living wage, the sisters take a variety of steps to offer shelter and resources to their artisans, including free lodging if needed, transportation stipends, access to books, in-house medical care and what they call “Wellness Fridays,” wherein workers are given one free day off at the end of the month to recharge and focus on themselves.
“One of the things that we pride ourselves on is making sure that our employees come out of Mo’s Crib better than they were when they came in,” Mo explains. “We’ve got a 100% retention rate.”
Additionally, the sisters provide various resources for workers to achieve financial literacy, as many of the artisans had never had a steady paycheck before working for Mo’s Crib. Through collaboration with banks across South Africa, Mo’s Crib employees are educated on how to be savvy with their spending and saving.
“We had to really just put aside what we have taught, the doctrine of running businesses and the status quo and just lead with our hearts”
One artisan, Franz, came to Mo’s Crib on the verge of poverty, living in a tin house and barely able to support his family. Now, he’s able to support himself and his family and send his daughter to university — something he says he never could have achieved without his work at the company.
“It’s a way to break the chain of poverty in his lineage — for his daughter to have [an] education and be able to get into the job market and get a high-skills job that will change the trajectory of the family,” Michelle says.
When asked about the importance of other companies offering similar benefits to their employees, the sisters emphasize that it has to be people over profit — something that comes naturally to them because of their humble beginnings.
“We know what it is to be a Black girl in South Africa growing up without a household that can uplift you, get you to education and sustain your livelihood,” Mo says. “It was really important for us when we built a company to remember where we come from, honor our journey and make sure that we can sustain the livelihood of those that work for us.”
Although they say not everyone who starts a company has experienced the journey to their extent, one pillar they preach to other business owners is leading with compassion. Instead of falling back on the unspoken doctrine of what people are taught about business, lead as a human being first. If an employee is consistently late, instead of reprimanding them or giving a warning, ask why they’re late — what is going on in their life?
“We had to put aside what we’ve been taught, the doctrine of running businesses and the status quo and just lead with our hearts,” Michelle says. “When you do that, you are meeting people at the human level. You’re able to see that we are one. And it’s important to understand compassion even in a professional context.”