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Cleo Johnson is the founder and curator of, well, quite a few things. There’s NueCleo, an award-winning hospitality marketing consultancy. Then there’s Koko Kollection, a medical cannabis dispensary. And finally, Blaque Book. She’s also occupying prime real-estate on the Forbes Africa 30 Under 30 list… and is one of the top 50 CEOs in Africa. Yup – Cleo is cruising up the rungs.

But that doesn’t mean she’s only focused on the top. Cleo is passionate about poverty alleviation and women empowerment. These, she says, are her “why’s” and she ensures her businesses have a positive social impact.

Here, she tells Go Hustle about the journey…

About NueCleo…

NueCleo, a hospitality marketing consultancy, operates solely on a digital platform, with every 10% made injected into community projects. “We volunteer our time at feeding schemes or related projects that restore dignity to people and offer an internship for women looking to gain marketing and business experience,” says Cleo. Currently, this dynamic local consultancy is working with international clients in the US, UK, Dubai and Togo.

Interested in the industry? Then listen up…

Cleo focused on the following subjects in high school: tourism, economics and history. “I’d started researching universities from Grade 10. Although I may not have known exactly what I wanted to study, I had an idea of what was required for admittance. If you are unsure, take an aptitude test to narrow [down] your strengths and interests,” she says. Got a passion for people and delivering a good experience? A good route to take is to study hospitality management at the Cape Town Hotel School.

READ MORE: “The One Piece Of Advice I’d Give My Younger Self” – Girl Bosses Dish Life And Leadership Lessons

Hospitality students should look out for internships offered by stand-alone hotels or hotel groups. “My internships were facilitated by the hotel school I attended, and I completed my internships with African Pride Hotels by Protea Hotels,” says Cleo. “[For marketing experience], you can approach firms and agencies for available internships,” she says. “And searching job boards like Indeed or PNET for internships is another avenue to consider. As early as possible in your career, set up your LinkedIn profile. This is a great networking tool and platform to look for new jobs, projects and investors.”

On overcoming hardships when working in toxic work environments… 

Unfortunately, Cleo once worked in a toxic work environment that affected both her physical and mental wellbeing. “I landed up in hospital quite often and would rely on anti-anxiety meds to get through a workday. I distinctly remember my first day at work, the PA to the GM whispered to me, ‘Don’t let them see you cry.’ [She was] referring to the men in management,” she says.

She continues: “They found it appropriate to comment on my face/make-up or my body, and whether I had picked up weight. [They] would say I [was] too emotional if I didn’t agree with a strategy or statement. My capabilities as a marketing manager were always commended, but when it came time to asking for a raise, I was told they can’t as I don’t have a marketing degree.”

But Cleo let her work speak for itself. “I wasn’t going to allow certain circumstances to overshadow my career. I understood the value I brought to the companies I worked for. If they didn’t see that, I gave myself one year to work [there] and thereafter looked for other jobs that paid more, had better working environments and challenged me,” she says. Keep focused on your long-term plans and goals, and let them be your guide.

On making it onto the Forbes List!

“I never thought this would be my life, but the Forbes Africa 30 Under 30 was confirmation of my journey as a businessperson,” says Cleo. It was significant in other ways, too: “Although I don’t fit the standard checklist or mould, I can still win.” And has the accolade totally changed her world? Well, to date she’s been approached with a few offers and projects outside of her comfort zone – and she looks forward to exploring this new territory, she says.

Advice for the next generation of leaders

1/ Comparison will kill you.

“It can be difficult in the beginning as you find your feet and are bombarded with visuals and articles of other people’s successes… But channel that determination into cultivating your own lane, keep your head down, and perfect your delivery, product or service and internal processes,” says Cleo.

2/ You can learn from others, but you cannot be them.

“You can admire their work and accomplishments, but know that you are forging your own blueprint.”

3/Learn from your mistakes and build on that.

“This is crucial for longevity! Wallowing in your mistakes does not benefit you or the client. You are going to fail more times than you’re going to succeed. That’s okay because in the end you won’t see them as failures, but building blocks that got you to your next win. The secret to success is reliant on what you perceive success to be,” she says.

Connect with Cleo

The best way to reach Cleo is on Instagram @cleo_anastasia_johnson or @nuecleo on Twitter

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Tshenolo Sebogodi

Artist And LLB Graduate