Diarra Bousso: It’s hard to be taken seriously in the beginning

Diarra Bousso

Diarra Bousso is making significant waves in the global fashion industry with her bespoke luxury brand Dakar Boutique Group. The brand houses DIARRABLU and Diarra Bousso target swanky and contemporary consumers. Her work has been featured in The New York Times and The Huffington Post among others., and was showcased at New York Fashion Week.

Diarra has gained recognition and acclaim from the global business community. She was a panelist at Harvard’s Africa Business Conference last year where she discussed the evolution of Africa’s consumer growth story. We caught up with her to talk about her journey.

Tell us a bit about yourself

I was born and raised in Dakar, Senegal and moved to Norway at 16 to finish high school. Upon graduation, I moved to the States where I attended Macalester in Minnesota for a B.A. in Maths, Economics, and Statistics., before moving to New York and starting a career on Wall Street.

Two years later, I resigned and returned to Senegal to found Dakar Boutique Group, a luxury holding company that celebrates ‘Made in Africa’ through my various brands: Diarra Bousso and DIARRABLU.

The Dakar Boutique Group – what does it do and why did you decide to start it?

I always knew I was going to end up in fashion and for me. And it only made sense to do it in Africa, because I wanted to also focus on development and rebranding the continent.

Dakar Boutique Group is a luxury holding company and basically owns other companies such as Diarra Bousso and DIARRABLU. Each subsidiary has a particular focus but they all share the ‘Made in Africa’ signature.

Diarra Bousso focuses on premium leather goods whereas DIARRABLU focuses on womenswear in geometric cut. Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 10.52.16 AM

Coming up with an idea is the first step. What did you do next?

My next step was to raise awareness. We launched at a big party on a private island and followed it up with a traveling fashion show in June 2013 titled African Voyage.

This allowed us to get a lot of attention, both in Senegal and abroad. It also marked our first appearance in the media.

Talk us through the first 6 months of starting up DB. What were your priorities and how did you determine them?

My main priority was visibility. I was focused on the African Voyage event production and PR and put all our energy on it. I have no background in fashion but I definitely knew that I needed to set a high standard for the brand’s image.

For me, the best way to achieve that was through a high profile original event.

What were the key challenges you faced when you first started? How have they evolved over time?

I think it’s always hard to be taken seriously in the beginning, especially when you are not trained in the industry. I was always confident about my vision and so I didn’t let anything discourage me.

I focused a lot on communicating aggressively on social media and sharing the essence of my brands in a very transparent manner. I believe this makes you more credible and engages your audience.

You’re a fashion designer but you also run a fashion business. How do these roles interact? Is there ever a conflict?

The two roles compliment each other very well actually. My background is in finance so business comes naturally.

That said, I spent all my free time growing up daydreaming, drawing, painting and designing. This job now allows me to align what I learned in school and what I am naturally good at, which creates the perfect balance.

In the fashion business, making beautiful clothes is one thing, getting them to your customer is another. Tell us about your distribution strategy

We are available online on the main website, www.dakarboutique.com, where customers all over the world can shop at their convenience.

We are currently working on a few in store placements, especially in New York, and will be announcing that very soon. Our strategy focuses on distributing to areas we have customers.

You created two lines DIARRABLU and DB . What was the business rationale of creating two separate labels?

I wanted to reach two different demographics:

DIARRABLU is a very trendy womenswear brand priced under $500. The brand focuses on daydreams which is something accessible to everyone and suits the bold, fun and modern shopper in major cities such as New York, Lagos, Paris, Rio etc. It is therefore only natural for us to aim for distribution in such places.

Diarra Bousso is more exclusive and focuses solely on leather accessories. Everything is limited edition, so the customer has to find us, create a relationship, live the experience and then get their bags made to order. It’s a completely different business model as well as a different customer.

How have you funded your business growth and what was the fundraising process like for you? Any specific tips and tricks for startups out there?

We have been self-funded so far which has been challenging and rewarding at the same time. I think it is important for startups to first try on their own and show what they can deliver before approaching investors.

It’s a good test of the viability of your business and definitely makes you more credible when it’s time to raise capital.

Can you talk to us about some of the specific marketing strategies that you have used?

We have a very strong marketing team that’s very focused on the digital space. Our customer is modern and online, thus it is important to focus on high quality images alongside strong social media fluency and transparency.

Lifestyle marketing has also played an important role, and we achieve this with the African Voyage concept which we share on social media through photographs and videos.

You’ve managed to get over 12,000 followers on Instagram. What role does social media play in your overall strategy? How have you grown your following?

We have grown our following in a very organic manner. I think our audience likes to see our progress and feel like part of a movement. They like to tag their friends, use our hashtags and share our posts which creates a channel for more followers.

Instagram is a major tool today for brands and plays a very important role in our strategy. It has allowed us to find great partners, sponsors and influencers to work with.

Finally, your clothes are absolutely beautiful. How can people from our community get their hands on them?

You can order online at www.dakarboutique.com and in stores in New York at Bene Rialto starting April 1st – 13 W 38th St, New York, NY 10018.


Tell us what amazing entrepreneurial things women are doing in your communities here

Business incubation hub in South Africa focuses on women

she hive participants she leads africa

Statistics indicate women-owned micro enterprises in South Africa currently experience higher barriers to success relative to those owned by men. This trend is unsurprising given the country’s predominantly patriarchal culture and history of exclusion of women in the work place. Thankfully, more effort is being directed towards correcting this injustice by both the government and civil society. Among key interventions is the growing number of business incubation hubs.

These hubs differentiate themselves by levels of support, entry requirements and industry focus. At their core, they aim to help early stage businesses thrive amid the incessant challenges new business face.

One recent entrant is the newly founded 1Accord, located in the East of Johannesburg, an industrial perimeter that has been hollowed out by the closure of manufacturing plants in the country. Founded by Mduduzi Dladla, an upwardly mobile businessman, the hub prioritises women enterprise support through a special program called the ‘Women Entrepreneurship Accelerated Program (WEAP)’. WEAP is aimed exclusively at women entrepreneurs at various stages of their business journey.

Though he had all the traits of a street-savvy black youth, Mduduzi Dladla or Mdu, 26, as he is affectionately known, carries himself with a level of seriousness that’s rare among his peers. He sees himself as the new face of South African business: ambitious and well educated with a developmental approach to business. With his passion and drive, he’s on the way to being a business leader in South Africa.

An accountant by profession, his first taste of entrepreneurship came while working full-time. For two years, he juggled his job and the start-up. When he did decide to go entrepreneurial route full-time, it was not without challenges, ranging from lack of finance to competitors. It was with this in mind that he developed 1Accord Innovation hub to provide business support, skills transfer, and linkages between small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) and corporations.

Mduduzi decided to dedicate a full program to women because, 21 years into South Africa’s democracy, the odds are still stacked against female entrepreneurs, especially in the mainstream sectors of the economy. “Women entrepreneurs have dominated the ‘softer’ sectors like catering, events managements, the beauty industry and the informal economy in this country,” he said. “Due to this fact, there is a growing need for structured programmes to get more women into previously male-dominated industries.” In his opinion, such a programme must provide support encompassing access to finance, markets, supply chains of large buyers of established businesses and the government, and assistance with developing business systems. “For women to learn and grow – especially those at the early stages of business – they need to learn from established women-led enterprises,” Mduduzi said. “This is key because women have a better appreciation of the subtle and not so subtle challenges women face in trying to establish their businesses.”

WEAP provides support in the following areas:

  • General information and business educational programs
  • Financial assistance through access to finance granting institutions
  • Mentoring and coaching programmes, and
  • Support for networking structures.

The program has been especially designed to help women entrepreneurs take charge of their journey and empower themselves. Participants are provided with expertise to enable them achieve both business and personal success. They are exposed to tools that will help become effective communicators and networkers. They also have the opportunity to upgrade their by learning finance and sales as it applies to small business. 

Participants also have access to a network of successful women entrepreneurs. This network provides support, guidance and links to the mainstream of the economy.  Women in the program take part in business, strategic and financial workshops that accelerate their preparedness to run successful businesses. The ultimate goal is to ensure that participants leave the programme as confident, competent and motivated business women.

The emphasis on ‘self-awareness as the basis for sustainable business success’ sets WEAP apart from other support initiatives. The intention is to empower women to overcome their internal inhibitions and rise to the challenge of entrepreneurship without mimicking their male counterparts, or losing what makes them successful in the many other complex roles they fulfil in society. 

Launching WEAP during the African Union’s Year of the Woman was vital. With the right support and access to opportunities, women have demonstrated their resolve and ability to run successful enterprises that add value to their communities and shareholders. And in the entrepreneurship landscape for women,  1Accord is a welcome addition.

Beyond handmade: Looking past Western obsession with handmade African goods

Sisi King, cofounder of the accessories brand ZikoAfrika, writes about her challenges developing a business model that allowed her to tap into efficient technology and ramp up scale while responding to growing demand for handmade African goods. Sisi King raises important questions about responding to short term market demands against long term growth opportunities.


Two years after the collapse of a garment factory that killed more than 1,100 people in Bangladesh, the race to the bottom in the fashion industry may finally be slowing. Consumers are demanding products that have been made in a socially responsible manner, and brands, both large and small, are responding. With this increase in authentic goods with a social impact narrative, made-in-Africa products are gaining significant traction. Handmade items from the continent are especially in high demand; they are being carried across the retail spectrum, from low to high end luxury retailers.

ZikoAfrika Artisans

While this interest in handmade goods is to be celebrated, Africa is unable to compete with the high volume, low cost goods from China and India. The change in global consumer spending trends presents both unique opportunities and challenges for African production. If we buy into the hype of handmade in Africa, we ignore the bigger picture of working towards sustainable socio-economic growth for a quick marketing fix.

The Story of ZikoAfrika

Co-starting ZikoAfrika, a locally produced accessories brand in Kenya, I absolutely believed in the power of small-scale community focused production as a driver for fair employment opportunities. However, we were unprepared for the huge challenges we would face, producing a consistent high quality product at a price buyers were willing to pay.


“Handmade goods have the powerful draw of connecting the consumer with the producer, providing a sense of meaning and transparency in a world awash with amorphous goods and murky supply chains.”  

Still, this is what consumers are largely unaware of: a lot of handmade production takes place in the informal work sector, which is unregulated and outside the bounds of government set minimum wages and conditions. Furthermore, the process is slow and quality is inconsistent. These issues present significant barriers to scaling.

Learn to Grow Your Business

Manufacture in Africa

In our case, these challenges made it difficult to meet timelines and low costings set by wholesalers. It became clear that to have a viable business, we would have to centralise our operations in a formal workshop and mechanise parts of the production line. As such, we explored the idea of finished by hand, not made by hand. This process involved re-evaluating our materials, designs and production line.

We replaced natural materials such as bone and horn whose supply are inconsistent with perspex, a low cost and readily available plastic. This changed enabled us to utilise lasers to cut components that were then sent to an audited workshop for assembly and polishing, eliminating a huge degree of uncertainty in our production process.

Available for hire in downtown Nairobi, lasers enabled us to cut high volumes of our material in a couple of hours with a 0% rejection rate. This task previously took at least a week, with up to 30% rejections. The change in production meant the opportunity to fulfill larger orders on time and with no rejection. For the workshop, it meant getting the pieces out faster, enabling employees to take on more work.


In harnessing cutting edge technology available in our city, we combined two disparate worlds and broke through some of the barriers inherent in manufacturing by hand with a low-skilled labour force.

 The Challenge with Alternatives

Being able to significantly increase production capacity, efficiency and quality was extremely exciting and motivating. However, on informing our main international client of the changes in our manufacturing process, we were told under no circumstances would products that were not 100% made by hand be accepted.

At a crossroad, we had to decide whether we should continue to produce exclusively by hand, securing the short term survival of our business, or commit to a long term vision we believed had greater potential for both our business and our producers.


A larger conceptual issue also loomed – is the largely western vision of the romantisized artisan and new obsession with handmade actually limiting development and fair growth in Africa rather than enabling it?

ZikoAfrika Jewelry

To a large extent, I would argue that the obsession with handmade African goods limits development and fair growth opportunities. The global demand and value for fashion provides countless opportunities for product and market diversification. But to take full advantage of the potential for design industries to drive socio-economic growth, our products must meet quality standards, volumes, price-points and lead-times consistently. This requires some element of a mechanised production line, as well as significant investment in centralised manufacturing units that can be well managed and monitored.

This is not to say that artisanal handmade production do not have a place in socio-economic development. It does – particularly in rural areas with limited money generating opportunities, or in the preservation of unique cultural handicraft techniques. However, without significant growth in the formal manufacturing sector, Kenya cannot grow from a low skill, low capital economy to a medium income one. Formalising and investing in fashion production units that utilise modern technology to eliminate bottle necks while continuing to retain an element of hands on production provides a viable hybrid to intensive industralisation. This hybrid enables our products to be competitive in international markets.

Asking Ourselves the Difficult Questions

As brands producing in Africa, we have a role to play in this emerging narrative. The handmade label has strong marketing currency – it is personal, the very antithesis of fast fashion and sweatshop labour, and it’s what the world wants now.  But, we need to ask ourselves: is it viable? Are artisans actually making a living wage, are they working in conditions that are safe, are they working fair hours? Is what we are doing scalable and sustainable?

For some it will be, particularly those in the luxury goods sector who have the working capital to invest in and equip small, highly skilled production units. But for many of us, it may simply be limiting the long term growth of our businesses and by extension our continent.

 

Mildred Apenyo: Creating a safe space for women’s health

mildred apenyo she leads africa

Mildred Apenyo set out to create a warm, supportive and safe space for women when she started FitcliqueAfrica. The women-only gym, the first of its kind in Uganda, offers a wide variety of classes including; aerobics, African yoga, dance, kickboxing, strength training and personal safety. The Kampala-based startup is focused on the overall wellness and safety of women rather than attainment of the elusive “ideal body.” By so doing, it aims to provide women with the tools that they need to empower themselves both physically and psychologically.

Mildred wants women to be able to workout without harassment, discrimination or any restriction. Through FitcliqueAfrica, she hopes that women will be inspired to own their bodies and their spaces. I caught up with the fitness entrepreneur, who is also a writer and human rights activist, to talk about her experience and her unique venture.


Tipping point

Mildred didn’t start out in the fitness industry. After graduating from university with a degree in Mass Communication in 2012, she worked in advertising. Her office was located in Kamwokya, a neighborhood she calls the hub of street molestation. Having to navigate this environment daily caused her to experience anxiety. Running became her coping mechanism. “It helped me learn how to inhabit space,” said Mildred. “It made me feel like I owned the streets. It made me feel like I owned my body.” Mildred broke her leg and had to stop running, then decided to join a gym so that she could workout.

Her gym experience was awful. The trainers did not pay attention to female clients unless they were in the aerobics classes. Mildred, who was interested in weightlifting, was dismissed by some of the instructors. The people who paid attention to her instead were lechery men. While working out one day, a man threw a dumbbell at her because she refused to give up the exercise equipment she was using. “I vowed never enter a mixed gym again,” she said. It was then that she decided she wanted to create a warm and supportive space for women.

Two months after the idea solidified in her mind, the first draft of Uganda’s Anti-Pornography Bill was released. The media and the minister of ethics and integrity turned the narrative it into an anti-miniskirt campaign. As a result of this, there were many women who were undressed and violated on the streets. This enraged Mildred. “The only thing that presented itself to me was that nobody cared about the safety of women,” she said. “Not even the men who society says are the protectors.” This further fueled her desire to pursue her idea. She realized that she had to find a way to ensure that women become stronger and have more agency. “While rage will be the spark for an idea, the building of the idea depends largely on how you can begin to channel this energy to something practical, something that people will come to,” said Mildred. “That is how the space and the gym happened.”

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Building blocks

Mildred’s plan was to start with a Facebook page where she would discuss body ownership and self-love. She wanted people to able to talk about bodies and women enjoying activities that are typically reserved for men in regular gyms. “I wanted it to be that kind of space online and offline,” said Mildred.

She first had to come up with a name for this space. The naming process varies from one startup to the next. It takes anywhere from several hours to months. The key is to pick a strong name that adequately represents the ethos of your brand. As a copywriter, Mildred could have come up with a name utilizing the same process she used for her clients. However, she wanted it to be a community space, and as such sourced for name ideas from her friends on Facebook. Solomon King, one of her friends, suggested the name Fitclique256. “It got the most likes,” Mildred said. “I decided to call the space that.” In March 2014, the fitness movement officially began.

Mildred decided to quit her job so as to fully focus on and dedicate herself to Fitclique. “I said to myself, ‘How can you be seated here writing copy about products that you don’t care about when women are out there being undressed on the streets?’” she said. “FitcliqueAfrica hit me in the soul and demanded to be started.” With two salaries saved from her job, she embarked on taking the open and safe online space offline in the form of a gym.

The first order of business was securing gym equipment. Mildred, aware of her financial limitations, had to get innovative so as to do this. Having done her research, she knew that there were people who had bought exercise and fitness equipment in the hopes of working out but ended up not using them. She started a campaign where she traded training for equipment. People would be able to get a personal trainer to work with them for a certain duration at a reduced cost if they gave Fitclique their equipment. The concept excited people and they responded positively. There are also those who simply ended up donating their unused equipment. Mildred was able to significantly drive down costs using this strategy. The gym has grown since then and is now able to buy its own equipment with the money it makes.

Then Mildred had to find a physical space for the gym. She approached a gym  she had worked on a marketing campaign for while at her advertising job. They agreed to let her hold one class for an hour in their space. “It was a yoga class that was massively successful,” said Mildred. After a while, the owner pulled out of the agreement because the classes only had women. “He asked, ‘Why yoga? Why only women? Are you witches? and added ‘I don’t want this to happen anymore,’” she said. Mildred had to go back to the drawing board, a practice that is not uncommon in the entrepreneurial journey.

Sheila Afari: Mistakes and hardships were my best teachers

Sheila Afari is a young pan-African entrepreneur who launched Sheila Afari Public Relations at the age of 26 after recognizing the opportunity to promote African brands across the globe. Sheila wants to create one of Africa’s leading boutique agencies, and with clients in Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa, she is well on her way to pan-African domination. In this piece, she shares with SLA her entrepreneurial journey and some advice on how startups can develop a public relations strategy that turns heads. 


You resigned from a marketing manager position to start your own business. How were you able to make the transition from a steady job with a guaranteed paycheck to the uncertain world of entrepreneurship?

Having been an entrepreneur before taking on the marketing manager position, I was aware that I was able to create something from nothing. The plan was to work to get more business skills and leave. Fortunately for me, I had no debt or people dependents, so I was fearless and able to make the transition being comfortable with my odds in the risk vs rewards scenario. I also had a degree to fall back on as well as invaluable skills to offer if things have not worked out for me. And since I had no large monthly overheads/expenditures, I was able to offer my services for free and do jobs at low paying rates to build a portfolio and show my worth.Sheila Afari By Xavier

What are the branding and marketing tools that you have used to grow your company and differentiate it in the marketplace?

From day one, I decided that I wanted my PR agency to take on a bespoke approach to the clients we service. With that in mind, growth came from referrals as clients were happy with the services they were receiving. Word of mouth is known to be one of the most powerful marketing tools, so I go out of my way to ensure that every client is happy. I’ve spent the past 3 and a half years very hands on in shaping the business and overseeing the work done for each client.

I believe my agency stands out in the marketplace because of the below reasons:

  • We have a continental focus and reach outside of South Africa
  • We work with traditional and non-traditional media platforms
  • We incorporate a social media drive to all campaigns and projects
  • We have a bespoke approach to each client
  • We have a strong brand development focus
  • We operate under unconventional business hours
  • We believe in ethical business practices; integrity, honesty, exceptional service and team work

Sheila Afari PR LogoAs a lot of our clients are entrepreneurs and don’t operate with an “8-5” mindset, there’s a need for an agency that can keep up with them and service their needs in “real time”, which is what we do. We are available 7 days a week and after hours for our clients.

From a branding perspective, I’ve stayed behind the scenes and that has positioned the business as somewhat exclusive. People won’t often see me unless it’s business related and they’ve done their homework. The work we do is better known than me or the company’s name, so if clients haven’t come via referral then they have done their homework and sought us out.

My 2016 approach to branding and marketing will change somewhat as the company has grown. I’m tackling different industries, and there will definitely be a concerted effort with B2B marketing and advertising/visibility in key industry platforms.

Sheila Afari By Xavier

What advice would you give to startups that are looking to develop a PR strategy but don’t necessarily have the funds to hire an agency to work with them?

1) Draft a PR Plan. Even if it is just a one pager, you should be able to answer the below:

  • Who am I/Are We?
  • What am I trying to achieve in the market place?
  • Where do I want to be in the next couple of months, 1 year, 5 years, 10 years?
  • What do I want to be known for?
  • Who are my competitors?
  • Who do I strive to be like?
  • What is my unique selling point? i.e. What do I bring that is different from my competitors as well as different from who I strive to be like?
  • How can I get my message/service/talent across authentically?

Then take a blank piece of paper and understand that your PR plan is a blank canvas that you can do anything with. Don’t try copy your competitors or the people your strive to be like. Pave your own way. Come up with fresh creative ideas and map out a way to get there.

2) Get online! Make sure that you have a strong online presence. With the digital age, and Google being one of the first platforms people go to search, you need to make sure you have a presence online and can tell your story the way you want it to be told.

To start off with, get on the below platforms (may vary slightly for different industries):

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • YouTube
  • Soundcloud
  • LinkedIn

3) Identify 5 people or platforms you deem important/relevant to giving your brand publicity and start making your way through the list.

4) Understand that contacts aren’t necessarily secret and content is king. Pick up a magazine, call the telephone number there and ask for the contact details people relevant to your field that you need to get in touch with. Also understand that media platforms need content, so “pitch” your story with an understanding of who their target audience is and how your story will be of interest to them.

5) Don’t give up. You will need multiple interactions in order to build your brand. Every attempt you make at building your brand’s presence all adds up and you will surely see results even if they may appear barely visibly.

Sheila AfariWhat is the one thing you know now that you wish you knew when Sheila Afari PR launched?

I wish I knew that mistakes and hardships would be my best teachers. I spent so much time “playing it safe” out of fear of not being perfect or not keeping clients happy, that it took me quite a while to learn a lot of the things that have helped my business grow exponentially. Had I allowed myself to make more mistakes at an earlier stage, I believe my company would have been where it is now about a year or two ago.

Rahama Wright: No is a pathway to yes, eventually

Rahama Wright she leads africa

Young African entrepreneurs have turned their sights to manufacturing on the continent with new fervor. Just as the world has come to know China for its manufacturing prowess through the Made in China brand, many young Africans look to do likewise with finished products from the continent.

To provide insights and effective strategies for aspiring young entrepreneurs and professionals, we’ve turned our gaze to African brands pioneering their Made in Africa products to the global market. Rahama Wright, Founder and CEO of beauty brand, Shea Yeleen, is one such mogul. Wright says what others see as ready baked success is a 10-year journey of persistence and openness to failure and learning.

Wright’s work is influenced by her mother’s story and those of women in Northern Ghana and Mali where she worked and volunteered right after college. In 2005, Rahama Wright founded Shea Yeleen International, a social enterprise with a mission to provide living wages to women shea butter producers in West Africa.

The enterprise’s profit arm, Shea Yeleen Health & Beauty LLC, was founded in 2012 and manufactures and distributes shea based products to international markets. Foot to the pedal and consistent hard work has brought Shea Yeleen to more than 100 Whole Foods Markets and independent stores. It is worth noting that Whole Foods is a Fortune 500 global supermarket chain.

Shea Yeleen Producers

In Part 1 of this feature, Wright unveiled the secrets of her marketing sauce that has landed her coveted product placements and press features. She shared how using one’s personal brand can position you for success. Wright told her story better than anyone could and it is her openness and commitment to sharing her insight with all aspiring entrepreneurs and marketers that left a lasting impression.

So to start, some questions on getting Shea Yeleen to market. How were you able to get your products into Whole Foods?

This is the advice I would give to someone who is just starting out and trying to get their products into retail: Be persistent! I pitched 3 times before I was able to get my items into Whole Foods. One thing I have learned is that NO can be a pathway to YES, eventually.

Of course, you should get feedback and understand why you are getting the NOs; don’t write it off as a rejection but as a way to improve for the next pitch. The primary reasons I was rejected 3 times was because I was talking to the wrong buyer and I needed better packaging.

I upgraded my packaging including putting the soaps in boxes instead of sleeves, and used the space on the packaging to share our community development story and the benefits of our ingredients. I also created packaging that would pop off shelves by comparing my packaging to brands that were already on the shelf. This helped me better position my products. In short, if you want to get into retail, first pitch, adjust your pitch and product based on feedback and keep pitching until you get a yes!

Also, if you are not getting traction in one area, move to another area to get in front of the right buyer. I wasn’t getting traction in one Whole Foods region and moved to another region. Getting in front of the right buyer required identifying someone who was looking for and thinking about products that Shea Yeleen was offering.

The [final] thing is start small. For some retailers, you have to pay thousands of dollars to get your products in and if you don’t do well, they kick you out, which will cost you more money. Understanding the differences between big box retailers is really important.

Shea Yeleen Product Images

In terms of strategy, did you employ different methods getting into the local retailers like the mom and pop shops than you did the larger retailers like Whole Foods?

They are almost the same but Whole Foods is a bit more corporate than the independent stores. A mom and pop shop is more accessible, because you can schedule a meeting with the owner or buyer and say, ‘would you give me a chance and bring my products in?’ and that’s literally what I did.

I’ve learned about working with sales brokers, and there is a whole industry around sales brokers and distributors that’s a part of retail, and I made the mistake of relying too much on sales brokers who just did not deliver. Early on in your business you are the sales person. I wasted thousands of dollars on the wrong sales brokers.

Even though it is hard and takes a lot of time to go door to door, you need to build your business initially until you get to the point where you can attract the right talent to manage that business. The region that is our best region, I opened all of those stores; I literally went door to door and was able to cultivate a really great relationship with the regional buyer.

Shea Yeleen Product Images

We also brought two of the shea producers from Tamale, Ghana here to the U.S. and they toured the stores with me, which was an incredible experience for the customers and the shea producers, who could now see where their shea butter ends up. This is an important part of the Shea Yeleen mission.

It is not just about getting an African product and selling it. It is really about opening the doors for women producers of that product to understand the global supply chain and what they are a part of. Although the women come from rural communities, they can still be global leaders in the marketplace.

What about other distribution channels? I know that you were recently in the subscription beauty box, Curlbox. Do you plan on doing more subscription boxes?

We’ve done 2 subscription boxes and the verdict is still out. I believe that these subscription boxes are geared towards brands that are more well-known than smaller companies.

My advice is don’t do a subscription box if it is just about getting a sample in a box. You should have an entire marketing strategy around getting into a box that employs social media, couponing, and driving traffic to your website. You have to be very strategic about giving away free product because it costs you money.

It is probably more valuable to give products to potential buyers than to do a box. If I am giving away 5000 free samples, I’d prefer to give them to buyers in stores so that they can give samples to their customers. This level of store support is much more beneficial than just giving free product to a box that may not convert to customers.

If you decide to do a box, try to get some analytics. Participation in a subscription box might not convert to customers but being able to get data on your potential customers may be beneficial for future marketing tactics.

You have received wonderful press, from Oprah to Black Enterprise to Women’s Health Magazine, how did you attract those press product features?

The Oprah feature happened because of a leadership program I applied to with the magazine and an organization called the White House Project. Even though I didn’t know if Oprah was going to be present, I made sure to be prepared. I came with 100 handmade gift boxes.

I brought enough for everyone who was attending, including beauty editors and writers. Since I was the only person who brought a product, I was able to stand out. A direct result of my preparation was a spotlight in the beauty section in Oprah Magazine a few months after the leadership program!

Is print press an important tool in your marketing strategy? Do you consistently reach out to press?

We do reach out. Print press won’t give you sales conversion but what it will do is give your brand credibility and help to open doors. Getting into Oprah Magazine was something that I could reference when I was pitching my products.

People tend to think if you get into a magazine feature, all of a sudden you are making millions of dollars. That is not necessarily the case. It is about creating brand presence and credibility that allows you to get access to other resources and tools.

Are there other tools or strategies that you have found allows you to connect Made-In-Africa narrative with local brands and retailers in the U.S.?

Doing speaking gigs has been an important tool to getting my story out. I have spoken at various events from the U.N., the U.S. State Department, and several universities. I’ve traveled to 6 embassies throughout Africa as a guest speaker on issues around women, entrepreneurship, youth development and these opportunities have opened doors and built credibility. Additionally, it’s a way to tell your brand story in your voice.

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If you do nothing else for your business, you have to tell your story. I think this is lacking when it comes to African products. Either someone else is bringing our products to market or someone else is telling the story of that product. Although shea butter has been in the U.S. market for decades, in 2015 people still do not know where it comes from, or what the raw material looks like.

They think it comes from a calabash because that is how they see it sold at farmers markets. When we are talking about African branding and as we bring our products to market, it is all about sharing the true authentic story of where these products are coming from.

You just mentioned this in your last answer, but just to be clear, how has your own personal brand helped with your marketing strategy with Shea Yeleen? You mentioned speaking engagements, but are there any other ways your personal brand and work has helped with marketing the company?

The fact that I have direct ties has been really important. I think there has been a huge shift over the last few years around Africa in general. I definitely remember when people wanted to be very separate from the continent, when it wasn’t cool to be African or come from the continent. I believe that is changing and it is changing because Africans are beginning to tell our own story.

When I talk about our producers, I talk about Joanna and Gladys and Tene. They aren’t just vague numbers or statistics, they are people. I think this has been the difference when it comes to Africans creating our own companies and bringing products to market. We have a greater connection to our products and I think people want to be more open and connect to these stories and products.

I did Peace Corps because I genuinely wanted to learn more about the people that I have direct connection to. I’m African, I’m Ghanaian and this has been a huge part of why I created Shea Yeleen.

Would you recommend that founders establish or connect more directly with their companies? I know that the narrative has changed from founders being on the back-end to, with more recent brands and companies, hearing more about the personal narratives of the  founders. Would that be your perspective?

Absolutely. People don’t simply buy things; they buy from people. Founders shouldn’t become obsessed with themselves in anyway but it is important that people are able to connect with whoever is behind that brand or product, whether it’s the founders, the team members, or the producers.

I think more and more, especially with the millennial generation, people care about where their products are coming from, they are becoming more inquisitive and that’s why you see these large brands coming out with corporate social responsibility divisions 50 years after they have created the company.

Social responsibility should be the core of your company from the beginning. And I think that’s why more of us are creating companies that are impactful, and telling the story from day one, and that’s important.


Want more of Rahama Wright’s story? Stay tuned for Part II where Wright shares gems about social media and bringing her brand to African markets.

 

Louisa Kinoshi: Be OK with failure, that’s how you learn

Louisa Kinoshi - Beauty Rev NG she leads africa

Louisa Kinoshi created BeautyRevNg to celebrate the diverse beauty of African women. The Nigeria-based company, which officially launched in April 2014, aims to revolutionize the beauty shopping experience in Africa.

It seeks to put brands that cater to the needs of African women in its clients’ hands at the click of a button. BeautyRevNg also provides an online space for African beauty enthusiasts to gather and learn from each other.

“It is more than just selling makeup,” said Louisa, who is also a fashion and beauty blogger, and has written for various online publications. Before relocating to Nigeria to work on BeautyRevNG full-time, she worked for Clean Line Energy in Houston.

Prior to that, she worked in corporate public relations and marketing for seven years. Her clients included Starbucks, Pepsico and Pfizer, among others. I caught up with her to talk about her entrepreneurial journey so far.

Light-bulb moment

Louisa Kinoshi - Beauty Rev NGThe idea to start a beauty business came about when Louisa was at Carnegie Mellon University. As a student, she often travelled to Nigeria for holidays. During one of her trips, she lost her makeup bag. “It was a surprise that there was nowhere I could go to replace its contents at an affordable price,” she said.

The few places that she did find sold the makeup that she wanted at exorbitant prices. She realized then that there was a need in the market for reasonably priced beauty products that compliment African women’s skin. “I also heard from family, friends and blog followers that this was something African women want to see,” she added.

As a blogger, Louisa spend time figuring out what was missing in Africa’s beauty and fashion industry. She talked to people on the ground who shared their beauty wants and needs with her. She also cultivated relationships with beauty influencers, who included celebrity makeup artists and bloggers, in Nigeria.

It is through this research that she was able to find out the type of products that her company would initially feature. The relationships she had built came in handy when the business started. It was easy to get people to join the beauty revolution because they had heard about it from these influencers.

Louisa Kinoshi - Beauty Rev NGLouisa wanted to start small. This approach would give her leeway to make mistakes as she worked out the kinks of her business and tested to see if it was something that people really wanted. Armed with personal savings and a little bit of investment from family and friends, she embarked on turning the idea into reality.

The first order of business was getting inventory. “We live in a society where there is scarcity of product so whoever has the most inventory is queen,”she said. “If you don’t have anything to sell then that’s a problem.”

She then had to develop a website for the company. “I didn’t have to spend too much money on this,” she said. “I have web and graphic design experience so I did a lot of the web development myself.” Louisa had also fostered relationships with photographers and designers who agreed to work with her at a reduced cost.

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Growing the brand

Louisa and her team, which consists of herself, a creative director and logistics manager, identify beauty companies to partner with through research and crowdsourcing. They first find out the brands that African women like, want and respect. “Respect is a really big factor,” Louisa said. “Then we ask, ‘Do these brands have products that cater to us?’”

They then reach out to the brands to find out if they are willing to work with BeautyRevNG and have a foot in Africa. Louisa also travels to Los Angeles and attends trade shows where she can meet with the brand representatives in person. She lets them know about her company and her mission and vision. “Once we have an agreement with them, we bring the brands to our site and market them to our customers,” she said.

Fostering these business partnerships has not been without its challenges. Some of the brands that customers desire don’t understand the opportunity in Africa yet. Others aren’t quite ready to have a presence in the continent. As such, they are not willing to form a wholesale relationship with BeautyRevNG.

“There are also some popular indie brands that are owned by small businesses, but they are struggling to provide inventory for America so they can’t quite expand,” Louisa said. “It’s not their priority.” This doesn’t deter her because the beauty industry has so many options. “If one brand says no, it definitely doesn’t kill your business,” she said.“There are also new players coming in.” “If one doesn’t work there is always the next one,” she added.

The company has also dealt with logistics challenges. Initially, it was tough to get the product from the website to the customers hands. “It would take almost three days in the same city,” said Louisa. She worked closely with her delivery partners in order to tackle this. “Now we are at a point where it takes 24 hours for most deliveries within the city.” Her goal is to cut down the product delivery time to 3 to 4 hours. “That would be the sweet spot,” she said.

Louisa Kinoshi - Beauty Rev NG

Powering the beauty revolution

The startup sets itself apart from its competition by actively engaging with its clients. “From day one we have focused on building a community,” said Louisa. “So our brand voice has always been very inclusive.” Customers participate in the company’s story. They share pictures of products they have purchased from the store as well as beauty finds they are interested in.

Through this online community, clients can also access tutorials and get beauty advice. “We are their friends,” said Louisa. “We are who they go to when they want to have conversations about beauty.” “Even if you aren’t purchasing at the time, we still want to engage you.” she added.

This online community keeps Louisa going in the face of challenges. “People are always encouraging me with their words and pictures,” she said. Her family and friends also constantly cheer her on. As a part of Tiffany Amber’s Women of Vision Mentorship Programme, she has been able to connect with other female entrepreneurs. This community of women business owners has been her sounding board and source of strength.

Louisa is excited and energized by the reception that BeautyRevNG has received so far. She is working on launching the first beauty shopping app for African women which will not only enable them to buy products, but also read their reviews and engage with beauty experts. She wants to build a beauty experience center.

Should she win the 2015 SLA Pitch Competition, Louisa plans to use the funds she gets to accomplish these two goals. “We are going to get there eventually, but winning will fast-track the process,” she said.

Her advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is: “Be OK with failure, that’s how you learn. Mistakes are lesson plans for the next phase.”

Abai Schulze: Your initial purpose has to be strong

Abai Shulze - ZAAF Collection

Abai Schulze moved to to Addis Ababa in 2013 to start ZAAF – a company that specializes in handcrafted luxury leather handbags and accessories produced by Ethiopian artisans. The Ethiopian-American entrepreneur has been able to combine her background in economic development and love for fine arts and creativity into a successful brand. Through ZAAF, she seeks to create unique products, open up avenues of opportunity for talented local artisans, and promote brand Ethiopia.

Schulze graduated from George Washington University where she majored in Economics and minored in Fine Arts. At the core of her entrepreneurial journey, which she terms as an exciting adventure, is to be able to impact people on an individual level. She spoke to me about how she has been able to grow and market her brand.

Taking advantage of learning opportunities

Schulze, who was born in Ethiopia and adopted by an American family at age 11, remained connected to her culture. She travelled to Ethiopia during her summer breaks to do volunteer work. It was during one of these trips that she interned with USAID where she worked with artisans and designers, and helped them to create websites to market their products internationally.

This enabled her to see how businesses work in Ethiopia. Frequently visiting the country also gave her the opportunity to witness its economic transformation firsthand and ignited the desire to return in her.

Her senior thesis analyzed Ethiopia’s potential for exporting textile. “I wanted to go into that field but it didn’t make sense because the initial capital is huge and you have to have actual hands on experience,” Schulze said.

She later found out that Ethiopia has the finest leather in the world which it exports to European countries to be used as raw material by famous brands.

“I wanted to tap into that,” she said. “Why not make it at home, by our own people, add value to it, export it, and market and rebrand Ethiopia?” “That was my initial take on it,” she added.

245f7c_84bce64e62b54c219c0d9393cc7e3b33Schulze’s plan was to get some work experience in the US and go to business school before starting her own company. After graduation she interned at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and later worked at Ashoka. It was while there that she met many entrepreneurs who inspired her to start her own company.

“I changed the timeline and decided to jump in,” she said. “I told myself, ‘If it fails, I am still young, I can start over.’” She then made the physical move to Ethiopia. “You can’t do this type of business from a distance,” she said. “I had to leave everything behind and focus on ZAAF.”

Branding and marketing ZAAF

In trying to figure out how to brand and market ZAAF, Schulze kept in mind the different connotations that come with products made in Africa. “A lot of it has that NGO feeling,” she said. “The language used is often, ‘It is made by poor people. Buy it otherwise they won’t have a job.”

She wanted to reject this guilt-driven purchase angle. “I wanted to show that we are talented, we just need to invest in our own people and we can produce something beautiful,” said Schulze. “You are buying the product because you like the product, not because you are feeling guilty.”

“Otherwise you are not going to have loyal customers who come back,” she added. “If they feel like they have done their good deed of the day, then they will move on to the next company.”

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Schulze and her team were careful and deliberate about the language that they used in branding the company. Its products are made by talented Ethiopian artisans who went to school to sharpen their craft.

“They are not people who you just tell to piece two items together,” she said. Working with skilled artisans also ensures that the products are high quality. “We are trying to compete with international brands,” she said. “We want people to buy based on that.” The language they use to talk about the brand reflects all this.

“Our products stand out,” said Schulze. “When we produce them, we really want our customers to feel a sense of where the products are made.” ZAAF integrates ageless geometric patterns created on traditional looms with leather.

“Talented weavers meticulously count knots to produce patterns of fantastic combination of color and style,” she said. The unique aspects of the handbags and accessories has attracted media attention. “That organic attraction has helped us grow,” she added.

Abai Schulze - ZAAF CollectionCustomer engagement is critical to the brand. They engage with customers primarily through social media. They are committed to providing excellent customer service. “If a customer is not happy with a product then we will redo it,” Schulze said. They also work to ensure that products are delivered in a timely fashion.

Another way that Schulze keeps her customers happy is by investing in her team. She creates incentives for them based on their desires and needs. “That way they are loyal and create high quality products,” she said. “When you have a high turnover of employees, you can’t be consistent and your customers won’t be happy.”

Her advice to aspiring entrepreneurs:

Your initial purpose has to be strong. You have to be passionate about what you are creating because you will face a lot of challenges over time. This passion will help you find a way to solve them. Surround yourself with people who challenge you because sometimes you will be in your own bubble and you won’t know how far you are going.

The smart entrepreneur’s guide to cutting startup costs

The Smart Entrepreneurs Guide To Cutting Costs

Just when you thought entrepreneurship was a walk in the park. Fantastic idea? Check. Grit? Double check. Money? Not so much. Let’s face it, getting a startup off the ground requires money and costs can quickly pile up.

Often times entrepreneurs who are starting out have to operate on a tight budget until they get major funding. Raising money from investors is not an easy task either and it does take time. So how you do you make your dreams a reality with limited finances?

Be realistic

You may have envisioned working out of a glass-walled office on the topmost floor of the tallest building in your city. The reality however, is that you can only afford a co-working space or the vacant room in your parents’ house.

If you are running an online business you don’t immediately need an office space. Avoid the nice-to-haves at all costs and focus on the most important things for your startup.   

Hire freelancers

There are thousands of Nigerian youth willing to offer the services you need at a fraction of the cost you’ll incur hiring full-time staff members. They are flexible with their time and can be hired on an as-needed basis.

They have specific sets of skills and are used to working independently so you don’t have to invest in training them. Use that to your advantage.

Learn something new

In order to thrive, you need to know something about everything. So before you get to the “Hire people who are smarter than you are” phase, learn some basic accounting, be your own salesman, and run your errands.  

One of the benefits of this is that you are eventually able to wear more than one hat with ease. Trust us, it works.

Advertise through word of mouth

Word of mouth has for a long time been the strongest form of marketing for startups. You need your money to provide the best product or service not to make the most noise. Got a few happy customers? Great!

Ask for an in-person referral or a social media shout out. Leverage your network to get the word out to potential customers.  Get as much free marketing as possible – that way you’ll know when and what to spend on advertising.

Keep track of everything

Always remember the books. Keep in mind that you are running on a lean budget and those little expenses easily add up. Document how much you spend on a daily basis regardless of how irrelevant it seems.

Make it a habit to keep records. This will go a long way in both saving you money and supporting your pitch to potential investors.

 

Sharon Mundia: I want a fantastic, mindblowing life

Sharon Mundia - This Is Ess

Sharon Mundia started blogging regularly three years ago, right after graduating from Monash University in South Africa with a degree in Marketing and Management. She had always had a passion for literature, even receiving a high school literary award, but practicality won out when it came to choosing an academic major.

Luckily for her, the background in marketing came in handy when she started to think of her blog, This is Ess, – which started as an online avenue for sharing little pieces of her life – as a platform on which to build her brand.

As her community of readers grew, companies sought her out to advertise their products. Initially, she would feature the free products she received from them without asking for anything in return. Blogging, however, took up time and energy.

She realized she would burnout if she couldn’t make it profitable. Her parents, who were concerned about her, gave her a time frame to figure it out. The resulting sense of urgency compelled Sharon to rethink her approach to her blog and to start viewing it as a business.

Turning the blog into a business

Sharon Mundia - This Is Ess

Sharon had to first stop accepting freebies as payment for featuring products on her blog. “Imagine Company X chose to advertise at a media house– would they tell the media house: ‘Can we give you five pairs of shoes to run this on your platform?’” she said. “They would never, so I started to think of myself as a platform for companies to share their product.”

However, she is aware that a “don’t accept freebies” policy might not work for every blogger. “It depends on where you are,” she said. “If you’re just beginning then you need some flexibility.”

She then came up with a rate card for potential clients. The card clearly spells out the cost of featuring on her blog and social media accounts. As a rule, she gives this rate card to anyone she works with – including pro-bono clients – as a way of communicating the monetary value of her work.

In order to give her site a more clean and professional look, she started working with Victor Peace, a skillful photographer who now takes most of the pictures for This is Ess. For special projects, she also partners with Corrine Munyumoo, a hairstylist, and Muthoni Njoba, a makeup artist, who both ensure that she is camera-ready.

For the most part though, This is Ess is a one woman show. Each post that successfully goes up requires a multistep process that Sharon runs on her own. First, she drafts proposals and budgets to send out to potential clients. Since This is Ess is a lifestyle and fashion blog, she approaches companies that are in those industries and that are a good fit.

Once she has received a yes from a client, it is then up to Sharon to communicate with them, organize meetings, and send invoices and post-shoot receipts. Sometimes companies approach her to work with them. She then has to assess whether the products that they are offering align with her brand.

As the creative director for the photo shoots, Sharon scouts for locations, picks themes and directs Victor Peace on the specific details she wishes to capture. After Victor has edited the pictures and selected the final ones, Sharon then adds the necessary captions or graphics, writes a piece to go with the photos and finally uploads them to This is Ess.

The entire process can take up to several days and a lot of emailing back and forth, yet the final product can be consumed by readers in less than a minute “Sometimes people think you just show up and take a picture,” she said. “But you don’t know how much time – how many emails, proposals, time for the shoot – went into making that product.”

Investing in the blog has also presented Sharon with several other opportunities. It has opened the door to endorsement deals, for example. Sharon is currently a brand ambassador for Store 66 – a Kenyan clothing store, and for the Samsung A Series.

Last year, her blogging caught the eye of Capital FM, a leading Nairobi-based radio station that was getting into online content creation. She now shoots videos and writes articles for the station.

To prioritize, Sharon divides her day into neat chunks for each activity. During her most productive morning hours she is working on content for Capital FM. Afternoons are saved for emails, planning photo shoots and attending meetings.

In the evening, she might have an interview or take photos for her blog. She doesn’t party, after discovering early on that partying on Friday night meant that she’d be recovering on Saturday morning instead of taking pictures for her blog. That is one of the sacrifices that she has to make as a mediapreneur in order to achieve her goals.