Ilse Ruthford: Fostering Growth and Unity in the Wine Industry
In the lush vineyards of the Cape Winelands, where the soil is rich and history runs deep, the story of Ilse Ruthford emerges as a beacon of resilience, leadership, and transformative power. As the Managing Director of Compagniesdrift, a trailblazing venture in the heart of South Africa’s wine country, Ruthford’s journey is not just about wine; it’s about breaking barriers, fostering inclusivity, and inspiring a community.
Hailing from Pniël, a locale steeped in viticulture history between Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, Ruthford’s connection to the vine was almost predestined. Her career, spanning over two decades, took off grounded in marketing, with her academic path tracing back to a bachelor’s pass from Bloemhof, followed by marketing studies at Stellenbosch College. Ruthford’s dedication to her field led her to the Cape Wine Academy for a preliminary wine course, culminating in a Business in Wine course at the Graduate School of Business (GSB) in May 2017. These steps armed her with a comprehensive skill set, preparing her for the challenges and triumphs ahead at Compagniesdrift.
The foundation of Compagniesdrift is a story of visionary collaboration and commitment to empowerment. Initiated by the Myburgh Family Trust to advance economic independence and uplift farmworkers, the project was buoyed by significant backing from Standard Bank and the Western Cape Department of Land Affairs. This collaboration facilitated the creation of a venture that would mark a significant milestone in black economic empowerment within the Stellenbosch Winelands. Ilse Ruthford joined Compagniesdrift at this pivotal moment, bringing her deep-rooted passion and extensive experience in the wine industry to lead the company as its Managing Director. Under her stewardship, Compagniesdrift has flourished into a 100% black-owned community enterprise, symbolising progress and innovation through its comprehensive range of services, including wine storage and labelling, as well as producing wines under its own label. Ruthford’s involvement has been instrumental in shaping the company into a beacon of empowerment and excellence in the wine industry.
Ruthford’s leadership extends beyond the operational to the profoundly personal. Her battle with breast cancer, diagnosed amidst the company’s transition to total black ownership, presented an unimaginable challenge. Yet, in the face of adversity, Ruthford’s spirit remained unbroken. Supported by her family and the Compagniesdrift team, she navigated her health crisis with grace and fortitude, emerging with a renewed zest for life and a deeper commitment to her mission.
The recognition of Ilse Ruthford at the 2024 Wine Harvest Commemorative Event as the honouree in the Growing Inclusivity category is a celebration of more than individual achievement. It honours a lifetime of dedication to empowering others, promoting economic independence, and championing the cause of inclusivity in an industry marked by tradition yet ripe for change. Ruthford’s influence extends beyond the vines of Compagniesdrift; she mentors young farmers, uplifts her staff, and serves on the board of the Stellenbosch Wine Routes, driving socio-economic development.
Ilse Ruthford’s story is a powerful narrative of triumph over adversity, visionary leadership, and the relentless pursuit of inclusivity. It’s a tale that weaves together the strands of personal courage, community empowerment, and the transformative power of wine as a conduit for change. As we raise our glasses to honour her, we not only celebrate the fruits of the vine but the indomitable spirit of a woman who has dedicated her life to uplifting others, making the wine industry a richer, more inclusive community for generations to come.