We had the good fortune of connecting with Mary Ritz and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Mary, we’d love to hear more about how you thought about starting your own business?
After working for different corporates for many years, one thing became apparent: I didn’t enjoy working within a “system”, especially one where I felt constrained in being my best self. Though I gained a lot of my experience and appreciated the opportunity, I became aware that I didn’t take pleasure in being assigned a singular role or within a department with the expectation of operating within a set of strict guidelines. I fully recognized the importance of different roles, responsibilities, and departments, but I felt it was inside the restrictive parameters of established systems that hindered fluidity across the organization and restrained true collaboration. This kind of restriction limited how teams functioned and negatively impacted the overall organizational performance. This awareness helped me reckon with the fact that I was not my best-self when working in structured systems, thus my enthusiasm and curiosity about entrepreneurship was quickly sparked. It became obvious that I preferred the independence and creativity of entrepreneurship because they naturally complimented my strengths and career passions. I enjoy trying new things and pushing boundaries without being restricted by rules, especially if they fail to add value.
Following this realization, I considered the industry in which I would participate, the business I would establish, and services to be offered. In direct association, I had to identify target customers and existing industry gaps as well as understand the strengths of the active market players. Deciding on the industry and service offerings wasn’t difficult. You see, as a pre-teen I had been so fascinated by the teaching profession that after school I would become a “pretend teacher” with “imaginary students” and “teach away” in our home. My siblings even labelled me “The Teacher”. During high school I became passionate about customer service and looked forward to the time when I could to teach and consult for organizations that I felt weren’t offering excellent service. As an adult, I found that I was most fulfilled in roles where I was providing customer service to clients or educating others on products, services, and processes. Consequently, I knew from the inception that my business had to provide a means of fulfilling my purpose and calling, which is teaching, facilitation, and serving others. And, as I said, I was fortunate enough to know this as a pre-teen. As a result of this understanding – Almenta International was birthed.
Since the industry and offerings were easily identifiable, I knew that I needed to think creatively on how I would differentiate my business from the rest of the market players. The industry was significantly flooded by both large and small corporate trainers, so it was critical to think carefully about my unique value proposition so I could establish a competitive advantage. During this period, the training and professional development market (in South Africa) consisted of many players who were providing programs that took a one-size-fits-all approach. I saw an opportunity to differentiate my business by providing customized products and services according to the client’s needs. In addition, I also leveraged my business as an international brand based on my previous exposure and work experiences at an international level. I was also very aware of the fact that I had limited resources in comparison to the bigger corporate training companies and couldn’t match them head on. As a result, I positioned my organization as a “boutique” training and consulting company that provided personal service with great flexibility and nimbleness. These three aspects really helped set my business apart.
My final consideration was the initial capital investment because I didn’t want to start a business that required a large amount of upfront cash since I had limited financial resources and was debt averse (was avoiding a business loan). A training and professional development business became the ideal idea for me because all I needed to launch the business was a computer, printer, desk, and chair. Therefore, having limited financial resources wasn’t a barrier to entering the market.
Please tell us more about your business. We’d love to hear what sets you apart from others, what you are most proud of or excited about. How did you get to where you are today business-wise. Was it easy? If not, how did you overcome the challenges? What are the lessons you’ve learned along the way. What do you want the world to know about you or your brand and story?
My business, Almenta International, is a training and consulting company based in Atlanta, GA that provides professional development training, consulting services, and mastermind programs in three specific areas: Customer Management, Leadership Development, and Workforce Development. The services I provide include, but aren’t limited to, Customer Service, Customer Experience, Customer Centricity, Effective Presentation Skills, Leadership and Management, Employee Engagement, Resilience, and Conflict Management. I’m also a John Maxwell certified teacher, speaker, and coach.
I’ve been in business for 12 years and during this time my business has grown. I’ve had the good fortune to partner with diverse organizations from North America but have also enjoyed serving clients at an international level, including African nations such as South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe to provide corporate training and consulting services.
Almenta International’s value proposition is based on many factors. What makes the organization different is the international perspective, exposure, and experience that I bring. The world is becoming a global village so the experience I’ve gained from working at an international level provides a competitive advantage and helps my clients tremendously. In addition, Almenta International takes a holistic perspective (systemic point of view) when solving problems and this approach helps us provide well thought-out, end-to-end solutions for our clients. Furthermore, due to its size, Almenta is flexible and fluid in its approach, which means I can pivot quickly if my customers need that. Because every client is unique and experiences different challenges, it’s essential that I provide custom-made solutions that are relevant to the client based on the experiential learning approach to training. Developing these solutions first requires getting to know the client and understanding how they work followed by helping them forge the right trajectory for their success. I believe in being client-focused and building long-term relationships by creating unique and superior customer experiences. The lasting partnerships I’ve developed with my clients are based more on relational principles than transactional, and this has served our partners well.
I think we all know that entrepreneurship is not a “walk in the park”. Though starting a business is an exciting venture, the reality is that establishing a strong, reputable brand and breaking into any market can be challenging for several reasons. These include stiff competition, the ability to find the right customer, and ensuring that the products and services offered are differentiated. In my case, I started my business in South Africa (as a non-citizen of that country) and after that had to re-establish the business when I moved to the US (again as a non-citizen). I had to break new ground twice so to speak and that’s not easy for any small business. Overcoming these challenges took determination, courage, and a willingness to learn and grow as I dove into new cultures and countries. Though I’ve been quite good at adapting and adjusting to new ways of operating, it hasn’t been effortless.
Over the years, I’ve learned that I must keep growing and changing. As a business owner, you can put processes and systems in place that serve the business and customers well, but because we’re working in an ever-changing world, we need to be flexible and adaptive to new ways for achieving success. We must be willing to reinvent our business and challenge our tried and tested processes, products, and ways of working. This means re-learning and exposing ourselves to different aspects of the business by researching, re-training, and watching trend setters. Although not easy, it’s necessary if you want to remain relevant in the industry of your choice and with your preferred clients.
My brand wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t offer any assistance to the community. I came from humble beginnings and didn’t have much growing up, so my desire is to give back to the community in any way I can. One way of giving back that I enjoy is impacting the younger generation and helping them navigate life and their careers by using the content that I provide to my clients. I do this through teaching, mentoring, and coaching young men and women under the age of forty. The teaching also incorporates biblical principles that provide practical tools that this younger generation can apply in their everyday lives. This is such fulfilling work because I’m serving and helping young men and women without expecting any financial return.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc. In your view what are some of the most fun, interesting, exciting people, places or things to check out?
Most of my friends who have visited me have come from South Africa or Zimbabwe. So, with that in mind, I would begin by taking them to a Chick-fil-A or Wendy’s and maybe a Dunkin’ Donuts. No matter how “healthy” they are, they should experience our fast-food culture.
Yet again, because most of my guests love the outdoors, I would take them to Stone Mountain Park where we would walk up the mountain…and not take the Skyride. They would have to see and appreciate Atlanta from the top of the mountain. After this morning hike, I would take them to the Martin Luther King Jr National Historical Park/King Center for an appreciation of some of our rich history and give them to the opportunity to walk where Martin Luther King has walked. Sometime during the week, we would have to check out the Cascade Springs Nature Preserve just to have another chance to get in touch with nature.
In addition to those places, we would probably also visit the Georgia Aquarium, World of Coca-Cola, and CNN Center. A bus tour downtown Atlanta would complete the day of touring. For breakfast, we would most probably check out Flying Biscuit Café, but would also make time to stop by Alon’s Bakery & Market – the one near the Perimeter Mall. For a great dinner experience, we would definitely dine at La Petite Maison. And to satisfy our sweet tooth, on one of the days, we would visit my favorite ice cream place: Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in Buckhead.
The visit wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t take my Zimbabwean and South African friends shopping. Though we’re not a group of big shoppers, I know they would appreciate a bit of shopping starting at Atlantic Station and followed by Lenox Square, Perimeter Mall, and Avalon in Alpharetta. On Sunday I would take my guests to Victory Church in Norcross for a great worship experience. After church we would do brunch at Lazy Dog Restaurant & Bar in Peachtree Corners where we could eat slowly before heading home to relax for the rest of the day.
Alright, so let’s jump right in! The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there a person, group, organization, book, etc that you want to dedicate your shoutout to? Who else deserves a little credit and recognition in your story?
I’m very thankful that on my entrepreneurial journey I’ve had great support, mentorship, and encouragement from my family. My parents and some of my siblings are entrepreneurs themselves so they’ve naturally become my mentors and sounding boards. When the going has been tough, and I’ve briefly entertained thoughts of giving up, I hear the voices of my siblings and parents’ cheering me on and encouraging me to fight. At the same time, however, they’ve asked me hard questions about some of the decisions I’ve made. In the end, they always continue to challenge me to dig deeper when I feel overwhelmed. My husband has also been instrumental as he’s helped me significantly on many of my projects. As one-person business, my husband is the extra help that I need to get work done. My siblings and husband have really been great at pushing me to think creatively and strategically.
The associations and groups to which I belong have also been instrumental in providing support and guidance. I’m a member of the John Maxwell Team, The Atlanta Black Chamber of Commerce, Small Business Matters, Greater Atlanta Chapter Association for Talent Development, and Big Bend SHRM in Florida. All these organizations have provided resources and mentorship that helped me on my journey. I’m also grateful to my clients who gave me a chance on my first projects in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Canada, and the US. When I was starting out, they believed in me and saw my capabilities before many others. Most of them helped further my understanding of the different cultures as I was learning to do business in their countries. Most importantly, they provided valuable feedback that has enabled me to change and tweak some of my offerings. A few days ago, I even received a welcome phone call from one my clients who wanted to provide voluntary and unsolicited feedback on some work I recently completed.
I also want to give a shout-out to three of my influential professors: Bennie Anderson from the Da Vinci Institute of Technology in Johannesburg, South Africa and Steven Lifland and Michael McCully, both from High Point University in North Carolina. These professors believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself and invested their time and pointed me in the right direction at a time when I needed that.
Lastly, I believe that for human beings to function at their maximum capacity they have to work hard to improve these five areas in their lives: emotional, physical, spiritual, social, and mental. For many people, it’s the spiritual side that’s most neglected. I’ve been fortunate to have great pastors who have mentored and coached me along the way and provided spiritual guidance. Not only did they impact my spiritual life, but their leadership was exemplary. A big thank you to Pastors Andre Olivier (Rivers Church, Johannesburg, South Africa), Steve Dow (All Nations Church, Tallahassee, FL), and Dennis Rouse (Victory Church, Norcross, GA).