The sole is the part of the sneaker that you feel, the part of the shoe that your body has the most intimate relationship with. It is the strength of the sole that carries your entire being as you walk the streets of your life. It is “from the dusty streets” of Phake, a village near Hammanskraal, where Theo’s soleprints were laid. The “dusty” part is not a representation of poverty but a reverberation of Theo putting his best foot forward.
It was here where Theo spent much of his childhood. For him, it is important to point out that even though Phake is a village, he grew up in a middle-class home. Both his parents were working professionals. It was his father who demonstrated his earliest understanding of entrepreneurship. After working for years as a male nurse, he quit to work for himself as a real estate agent. He carried Theo’s school report with him to see clients and would show it to anyone whom he felt might have an interest in his son’s academic ambitions. It also helped that Theo’s knack for numbers was cultivated during his formative years, as he excelled in accounting.
It was also his father who gave Theo his first taste of the entrepreneurial world. As Theo was about to matriculate and head off into tertiary, the 2008 recession ricocheted across the world and left a bloodied real estate market in its wake. Ultimately, his family fell on dark times. To pay for his son’s tertiary registration, Theo’s father sold his own car. For Theo, this gesture alone meant that whatever he was going to do with his life from that point on, he had no room to fail. The firm layers of bravery, loyalty, and sacrifice had now been deeply embedded in his sole.
The uppers are the body of a sneaker. They give a shoe its structure and distinct look. The uppers tell the story of what a shoe is and what it wants to be. What Theo wanted to be when he left home, was an accountant. He left Phake and went to live with his uncle in Alex while he attended classes for his BCom at Damelin.
First day, first class. The lecturer walks in and asks the class to list the top four accounting firms. The young man from Phake was left confused because ko difemeng is where people wearing blue overalls go to manufacture products. “What do accounting firms make?”, he asks himself. “Accounting textbooks?” It is at this point that he realizes that tertiary will ask a lot more of him than his kasie education has provided, and he needs to figure out how to deliver. He resorted to one of his foundational principles: sacrifice. The first to go was his high school sweetheart. A teenage heart is a heavy load to carry for someone wanting to move as fast as they can. Then he went “cold turkey” and cut out alcohol from his life. Probably a more startling casualty considering how, for so many of his peers, it is in this very phase that blackouts and hangovers become badges of honour.
Unlike high school, tertiary offers more free time for juggling other aspects of one’s life. The rapid pace of life in Alex can make idleness unbearable. Theo and his childhood friend, Andrew, decided to leap into the unknown and pursue a side hustle to make extra cash. They met a madala [old man] who sold cufflinks and pocket squares. There was one hurdle standing in their way, though: the youngins did not have capital to buy stock. Solution? They convinced him to sell them the inventory on consignment. The madala gave them stock; they sold it with a markup, then paid him back and kept the markup profits. Genius.
In 2010 they hit up the then-new Gautrain station, targeting corporate types with suited ambitions. The business took off instantly and thus ignited the entrepreneurial bug in Theo Baloyi. As an astute natural analyst, he noticed that, apart from looking good, people in the hood love smelling good too. While you will always be mocked for wearing fake Gucci’s, no one would ever say that you are wearing fake perfume. He figured that he could source generic oil-based perfumes, which last longer, and sell them. In no time, the perfume business was doing so well that he no longer had to go door to door. He had a clientele that came to him directly. At its peak, the perfume business had the then-19-year-old Theo sitting with over R150k in the bank. A far cry for a kid who once had been swindled by hackers who left his account on a minus.
But it was in the classroom that Theo found his M.O. [Modus Operandi] in life. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson put it as, “Be the hardest worker in the room”. He had discovered that regardless of his background and that of the more privileged students around him, his work ethic leveled the playing field for him. As a result, he became the top accounting student in his class for the entire duration of his tertiary years. The dedication from his studies paid off when international accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, a donor of the bursary that paid for his tuition, came through looking for the best student. There was no one else to consider but the son of Baloyi. This move secured him his first job straight out of tertiary and thrust him into the plush passages of the multinational conglomerate.
Pivoting into the corporate world meant starting over for Theo. The accolades that he had accumulated from school and his street cred weren’t going to automatically land him in a corner office. He was now among the best of the best who were fed privilege with silver spoons for breakfast. From his first day on the job, he knew that it was game-on. “I knew then that anything was possible”, he says. “I’m in a room le bo ngamla (white people). I’m in a room with smart kids, some of whom graduated from Cumlaude. And there I was, a kid from a village. I knew then that there was no going back. And things were also starting to come together. My dad bought a new car. All the sacrifices [made] were now starting to pay off”.
His reflection on learning the landscape of the corporate game is that of someone who was self-aware from the onset without being apologetic. He quickly realized that there was a corporate methodology that had to be applied. Apart from being good at your occupation, your presence needed to feel indispensable, and you had to be resourceful. People needed to want to have you around. What became as important as delivering on targets was the delicate art of having soft skills.
“There is a saying that goes, ‘you can get hired for skill but get fired for attitude’. So, I always had an amazing attitude. [And I was always willing to learn”.
While there is a prevalent culture of feeling as though a 9-5 is merely a necessary evil, Theo embraced the philosophy of always availing himself to do more work and go the extra mile. This approach helped him build great relationships with partners and managers at the company. Two years into working at PWC, an opportunity opened for a secondment to the Dubai office. This was a rare occurrence, and it was usually offered to those who had been with the company for many years. Who were they going to choose? “Oviaas…” he exclaims with the wry smile of someone who exudes confidence, not just in himself but also in the work that he knows he can deliver.
From the bustling streets of Alex to the golden sands of Dubai, Theo found himself on top of the world. Back then, the jewel of the desert hadn’t become the mecca for business moguls and slay queens, but Baloyi got to see how a Sheik empire was built firsthand. To understand what kind of influence Dubai had on Theo and what he went on to build, it is important to understand how Dubai works.
While it is one of the most popular business destinations in the world, there is an understanding that Dubai, like the rest of the UAE, is a strict Muslim country. It carries a very distinct sense of pride in its Arabic identity. Yet what most people do not know is that the actual number of Emiratis [people born in the UAE] is only 10% of the population. This means that 90% of the population of Dubai are expats, or as we call them, foreigners. Those who have moved to Dubai for work have a clear understanding of the fact that they are there to labour for Dubai. While they are there to further their careers, they are also there to help build the country. For Theo, this gave him a deep understanding of the economic value of a cultural identity. Something that would become crucial in his later years. “It also exposed me to what it means to work as a collective”, he explains. “I was exposed to what it meant to have great leadership and what it [also] meant to be authentic to your cause”.
Living in Dubai and having to visit home, Alex gave Theo a sobering punch in the gut. In the UAE, life was progressing at breakneck speed. Yet, when he came home, not much had changed. “I would come home, ko kasie [Alex], for holidays, and I would be exposed to my reality. As much as my life and career were changing, my reality of who I was and where I came from was not changing. You see the demographics, and they haven’t changed. You’d speak to majita, and you’d realize that they had lost hope”.
Three years into his stay in Dubai, Theo had an epiphany. “When I went back to Dubai, I asked myself, ‘am I going to be the guy with the fancy office in a fancy suit, with the fancy job in the UAE, and then look down on majita ko kasie and say, ‘you guys are lazy?’ Or am I going to be the guy who’s going to go back [home] and be of service to my community and build something inclusive?”
He takes on a zen-like gaze when he details what ultimately led him to climb down the corporate ladder and give up his seat at the table. “Some people call it an inner voice; some people call it purpose. Some people call it intuition. It never screams, but it always whispers”.
The decision to start a sneaker brand originated from Theo’s passion for footwear. He looked at his shoe collection, and, channeling his lessons of economics and cultural value, he realized that there was not a single shoe that resonated with the pride of being African. The founding of Bathu as a pursuit of purpose rather than solely creating a brand is evidenced by the fact that, within the sphere of clothing and footwear, sneakers are by far the most complex and demanding product to make. For example, a normal shirt has 25 components. A typical sneaker, on the other hand, has 65 components that require, on average, 350 steps to put together. To enter this market, competing with well-established global brands with no prior experience or training meant that the level of business and product innovation had to be spectacular. Someone once said that ‘’Sometimes not knowing how to do something is the very reason [why] you can do it better”.
Between the years 2014 and 2015, during the 18 months of research and development, it became clear to Theo that, for Bathu to exist, he could not do what his predecessors had done. He had to break the rules. In fact, so audacious was his disregard for the rules of sneaker-making that 13 manufacturers turned down his first mesh concept. The look and functionality of the product were not based on international trends but encapsulated the local love for bright colours of products such as the happy socks that were popular around 2015.
The first 100 pairs of Bathu sneakers were sold out of the boot of Theo’s car. Before the proverbial brick-and-mortar warehouses and retail stores were set up, the Bathu brand essentially lived on the streets of Joburg. It was in 2018 when Bathu opened its inaugural retail store. Today, the Bathu brand has more than 16 stores nationwide and exports to the entire SADC region as well as the AUE. The company boasts its own 3700 sqm warehouse with offices that should be gracing the covers of interior design publications. If you can think of a business award that exists in South Africa, Theo Baloyi probably has it hanging in his office. These awards are a testament to the fact that, not only is Bathu an iconic shoe brand but it is also a solid and sustainable business that lives outside of its owner. Perhaps the most astonishing part of Theo Baloyi’s story is that while it reads like the autobiography of a seasoned business mogul, his story is just beginning, how’s that for Walking Your Journey?