Published on 9 July 2018

Words & photos:

Marinda Van Zyl

Entrepreneur Story

Mavis Ureke, Human Behaviour Specialist

Mavis Ureke is an author, international speaker, and a human behaviour specialist who specialises in emotions for success. We had an insightful conversation about the path that led her to pursue the area of emotions and their effect on various aspects of our lives.


Where did this journey start for you?


I was passionate about reading from a young age. My brother was a student teacher, and he brought me a book. I was sitting under a mango tree in rural Zimbabwe, reading about Tokyo being the largest city in the world, and I wanted to go there. I wanted to travel. Dreams defy logic. There I was, in a rural village, dreaming of Tokyo. I hadn’t even been on a bus, but the travel and reading seed had been planted. My book bag always had more books than I needed during the day. I’ve always had a passion for learning.


What is your employment background?


I studied Human Resources. I worked in the HR space for close to a year, and I left that and started teaching at a University. After a year I felt that I wanted something different, so I went overseas to study for my Masters in Human Resources and Development. When I returned home, I wanted to get back into lecturing, but things were very tough economically in Zimbabwe, so I moved to South Africa. I had many challenges getting absorbed into the HR space in South Africa, I realised it was a protected area. I searched for a job for almost a year. Eventually, I had no option but to start working for a training company. I was doing conference registering, signing speakers for conferences, coming up with conference programmes, and doing research for conferences.


How did working for the training company shape your decision to go solo?


I was probably the most educated, but lowest paid employee at that company. My boss didn’t even have a degree. Initially, I thought it was a race issue, but looking back with an informed mind, I had just come out of University and I hardly had any working experience. Because I’d found out that my boss didn’t have a degree, I became insubordinate because I lost respect for her. I resigned emotionally. My director called me in and told me that my attitude was disturbing the whole team. It came from a place of being misinformed, of thinking that education was everything. She had many years’ experience that I didn’t have. She knew how to do the job practically, vs. my theoretical framework of how things ought to happen in the workplace, which is a totally different ball game. I came out of University with high expectations of what the world of employment would be like, but those expectations were distorted. It was a wake-up call to realise that the world doesn’t work that way.


How did you finally decide to leave?


I became disengaged by just doing the bare minimum, I was defensive and offensive. I started asking for off days non-stop to go to interviews. My director who had called me in for my attitude had given me the option of either shaping up or leaving, but I still needed the job and I wasn’t ready to leave. I was a single mother. My salary wasn’t even enough to cover my expenses. I realised that you have to start at the bottom despite being well educated. I took some time to process the situation, and I realised I didn’t want to work there anymore. I had resonated with the speakers I’d booked for our conferences, and I didn’t want to be behind the scenes anymore. I resigned on a Friday. I woke up on the Saturday morning, thinking ‘what have you done’?


What were the early days as an entrepreneur like?


I started working from home, I did marketing for my courses and I started on the journey of building the company. One of my biggest challenges was that the majority of the speakers were white people. I doubted whether I could do it. The first conference I arranged was a Fatigue Management conference. It was about how to manage the impact of working 24/7. I had speakers from Canada and Australia and attracted people from the Mining sector. In the process, I came across the concept of emotional intelligence. When I finished my Master’s Degree, I had high hopes of where my life would go. I felt that, because I had a Master’s Degree, the world should just open up for me, and that I should have all these opportunities because I’m well educated, but it wasn’t like that in practice. So reading and learning about emotions helped me to adjust my expectations and also manage the emotions that came with that,


I was the only staff member. I started reading about emotional intelligence, and it resonated with me. I had a Master’s Degree, but I was broke. There were days I wasn’t able to pay my own rent. I always recall an incident when my son was crying because he wanted yoghurt. Back then a six-pack of yoghurt was R5, and I just couldn’t afford it. Money didn’t automatically flow in. There were days I didn’t have money to buy airtime so that I could make sales calls. I started right at the bottom. Nobody wanted to give me capital because I was a high-risk person, partly because I am a foreigner, and partly because of being self-employed. It was challenging, but I made it work.


What made you pursue the journey of emotional intelligence?


There were lots of things I didn’t know in the beginning, especially about myself. I was clueless. I started a journey of self-development, developing intimacy with myself, and thinking about what legacy I’d like to leave behind. I began running emotional intelligence courses. I would hire speakers who would teach this, and it would provoke something in me, and I would research it further. I felt that one particular speaker was doing good work, but that she was only scratching the surface. I wanted to specialise in this area, but I realised I needed to be certified because this was different from Human Resources. I contacted someone who runs an emotional intelligence company in the US. I couldn’t afford his fees, but I offered to host a course that he could present in South Africa. The conference was successful, and I gained certification in the process. As I applied the principles, used the tools and techniques of emotional intelligence, I saw my life improve holistically, so I kept wanting more. Another course followed, and I realised there were gaps in the training. I did another yet another course, and I realised there were gaps in the training. It’s been a continuous journey of filling in the gaps.  I wanted to solve the challenges I saw in the market relating to managing emotions. I’ve done a series of courses since then. I realised that emotions permeate every area of our lives. I was interested in how emotions affect leadership, performance, health and wellness, finances, etc. It’s an interesting area to explore.

How does your passion for learning influence your life?


One of the tools I employ is having a learning goal. Although I am passionate about learning, I’ve found that not everyone else is. The truth about the world we’re living in today is that you can’t succeed with maintenance learning. Before you know it, what you know is obsolete. You can’t get further by just working hard, you need innovative learning. For me, learning isn’t a nice to have or a hobby. I have a personal development plan and budget. I set money aside every month for training and books. I have seen myself in the last 10 years being able to share the stage with people I used to look up to, and I believe it’s a direct result of continuous learning.


What would your advice be to someone entering the workforce?


I would advise them to be ready to build. You come out of the education system thinking you’ll be at a certain level, but you have to be ready to build. The sooner you identify a niche you’re willing to give your all to while you’re building it, the better. Find yourself, what matters to you, what resonates with you, what you want to dedicate your whole life doing, and what legacy you want to leave behind. A lot of people who find that they don’t like their chosen career path, end up just sucking it up and staying there.


How do emotions affect different areas of your life?


My interest in finance and emotions grew from my own personal journey. I realised that my emotions affected everything. I started looking at the seven key areas of my life, it was an introspective process. I looked at whom I socialise with, and how we socialise. I looked at my belief system and my attitudes towards life. I looked at my spiritual life, and how emotions drove that; I specifically looked at why I was driven by fear in this area. I also looked at my finances. I was a giver, but I was spending money unnecessarily. If I knew what I know now about finances, I wouldn’t have spent as much on my wedding as I did. I felt that I wanted to prove to people that I was making it. As a little girl, I was taught that a big wedding was proof that you’d arrived. This is a fallacy.


Another component is physical health. My stress levels grew while I was building my business. I had to recalibrate my mindset and begin to navigate through challenges in a healthier way. When I didn’t have money, I would be filled with fear and anxiety. There was a period I borrowed money from loan sharks to stay afloat. That experience helped me to connect the dots in terms of my history and financial experience. I started thinking about my financial behaviours and where they originated, as well as what emotional debt I had, that I was trying to fill with money. I got to know my fears and insecurities, and I worked on meeting those unmet needs in a healthy way.


Given what you’ve learned, how do you currently manage your emotions?


I have my days of overwhelm, but, because I’m aware, those moments are short-lived. I interrupt my own thinking patterns. I realise that I can only sustain an emotion with a thought. So if I’m not thinking in that direction, there’s no emotion there. I’m now aware of the link between thought and emotion. You need to regularly check in with yourself. Now, I just know when something isn’t right. I feel it in my body, and I self-regulate. I always say people need an emotional toolbox. I exercise regularly, and that helps to build the emotional and stress capacity. I also drink a lot of water and do emotional freedom techniques. I read a lot of self-development books. Even though it’s part of my work, it’s my passion and I find it relaxes me. I also try to get out in nature whenever possible. All these things help me to self-regulate.


How does this practically play out in the workplace?


I worked with a female executive at a company. Going through her life story to try to understand her emotional setpoint, she told me that her father walked out on the family when she was growing up. When he left, he said: “because I’ve moved out, you’ll never amount to anything, I won’t be surprised to see you working the streets”, implying that she may become a prostitute because he’d walked out on them. From that day onward, she told herself she would work hard to avoid ending up in that situation. She’s almost 40, in the executive team and very successful, but she’s being driven by fear of failure. She manages her team from a fear perspective, and this comes from her own formative years. Without awareness, it’s difficult for a person like this to build skills towards delegation and collaboration as she wants control, which is a false safety net for fear of failure.


Where do you see this journey taking you in the future?


I want to talk with leaders about emotions. Politicians and advertisers are brilliant at using emotions, we can learn from them. People usually have their assumptions about a situation, but I bring in the facts about emotions, what they are, what their impact is, and together we assess the challenges. There will be an upsurge in wellness courses in the next couple of years. As a result of repressing and denying emotions, there’s an increase in mental health issues in the workplace. Leaders can’t ignore the impact of emotions in the workplace anymore. I believe EQ will be a mandatory subject in schools in the future. There is a need for more empathy in organisations. Leadership is moving from competitiveness to collaboration. You can’t collaborate without understanding emotions. We’re moving away from traditional leadership styles, and to do that, we need to know how to invoke or prime or illicit positive emotions in the workplace. Without trust, there can be no collaboration.


Lastly, what are the titles of your books, and where can people get hold of them?


I’ve written the following books:


  1. Navigating the Rapids and the Waves of Life.

  2. Power Kids: Life Skills for Children.

  3. Heart Boundaries.

  4. Self-Leadership Matters.

  5. The Change: Insights into Self Empowerment.

  6. Managing Emotions for Financial Freedom.


I sell my books at my speaking engagements and on my website at this link.