An entrepreneurial spirit succeeding against all odds

By Terrena Rathanlall

Caroline van Rooi
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“I feel alive,” says Caroline van Rooi. Not what you would expect from a diabetic, blind woman who has had both legs amputated.

Caroline calls herself ‘differently abled’, and you cannot help but feel immense admiration for a woman who is not just sitting back, accepting her fate and collecting a disability grant at the end of every month. She has a clothing manufacturing business, Red Pilot, in the impoverished community of Delft and is employing and training the jobless so that they can put food on the table as well.

Caroline’s brand of positivity is infectious. She exudes a confidence that belies the serious health challenges she has overcome. “I want to show people who have a disability that their life is not over, you can live a fulfilling life,” she said.

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It has not been an easy journey for her. “After my health problems, I thought I had nothing to offer and felt useless, so dependent on everyone. But now, even though I cannot see, I have a picture in my mind of what I would like things to look like and I train people accordingly. It’s my system and it works for me and my business. I have a passion and I put that passion into action.”

Caroline started Red Pilot with just one machinist. Today she employs 4 permanent staff and 2-4 temps depending on work contracts. With the help of her business mentor, Ockert Fransch, her turnover has quadrupled. Ockert was extremely sceptical when he first met Caroline. “I could not understand how a blind, double amputee was able to run a clothing manufacturing business, “ says Fransch.

“I quickly saw that she was oblivious to these disadvantages. She had extensive experience in clothing manufacturing when she became blind. All the details of her designs are imprinted on her mind and so her brain coupled with her enthusiasm to succeed is her greatest asset. She relies extensively on her sense of touch to feel and design patterns.”

“In addition, she surrounds herself with a capable and trustworthy team to augment any shortcomings. Caroline’s attitude is a fantastic motivation to the disabled and abled. Her business has provided her with a greater purpose in life,” said Ockert.

One of Caroline’s goals is to give back to her community. Here, says Caroline, everyone is looking for work and the means to put food on the table. She sources casual workers from the surrounding areas and even teaches unemployed matriculants how to sew garments, cut fabric and draft patterns.

Running a business in a township like Delft is not without its challenges: “You cannot attract the wrong attention. It would be nice to put mannequins outside and advertise but there are gangs that you have to pay ‘a tax’ to so that they don’t break into your business and vandalise your business,” said Caroline.

“But because my business is situated here, I am able to help others to feed their families and pay them a living wage. I feel like I have impacted someone’s life, my employees’ lives.

“There is a world of opportunities if your eyes are open to them. Running a business has brought me like-minded individuals across my path, people who I have learnt from and who learn from me. And it has boosted my confidence.”

“I now have a sense of purpose when I get up in the morning and go to bed with a sense of fulfilment. I am living,” says Caroline.

Red Pilot is at 4 Hartbees Street, Leiden, Delft. Contact her at 084 794 3098 or email her at vanrooicaroline@gmail.com


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