Connecting the African Diaspora through fashion and entrepreneurship

As an undergraduate at University of Pennsylvania, I was blessed with the opportunity to study abroad twice in Ghana. This was the first time that anyone in my family, since we were brought to the USA as slaves, had the chance to return to our ancestral land.

While in Ghana, I was exposed to the vibrant and stunning Ankara fabrics and traditional Kente cloth. I instantly fell in love with the fashion there and it’s potential to grow beyond the shores of West Africa and take root and blossom around the globe.

I was also intrigued by the prospective economic impact that fashion could contribute to the households of Ghanaian artisans.

Then LaBré was born

Over the past year I’ve been vigorously working to realize my goals of creating and launching an African inspired fashion line, LaBré. LaBré exists to increase economic growth in Ghana through job creation. It also aims to provide Ghanaian artisans and their products with access and exposure to the international market. LaBré primarily employs women, a population that is often the most disenfranchised.

We just recently led a Kickstarter campaign which culminated into a little under $11,000 to employ more Ghanaian artisans with our company. I am proud of the fact that all of our items are handmade in Ghana by Ghanaian artisans.

My inspiration comes from my ancestors

At the end of the Civil War, most southern African Americans who didn’t migrate to the North made a living through sharecropping which replaced plantation slavery. This is also known as tenant farming.

These systems required farmers to plant and grow crops for the owner of the land in exchange for a portion of the crop. Sometimes, it required farmers to use their labor as rent to reside on the owner’s land.

Sharecropping and tenant farming has persisted in my family to my grandmother’s generation. As a result of having to be self-reliant, my grandmother grew up knowing how to plant cotton. Through sewing, she also knew how to turn the raw material into cloth.

My passion and dedication to create LaBré has culminated into the inter-generational exchange of technical skills. Not only that, it continues to build upon the legacy of self-empowerment, ingenuity, and tenacity.

labreThe power of Diasporic connections

Learning to deal with the challenges that come with running a business overseas, has made me appreciate the diligence of Ghanaian entrepreneurs. I’ve had to work with electric cuts, language barrier and a lack of efficient telecommunication. Add to that the fact that I’m not physically present.

The networks I’ve made have been helpful. Particularly with entrepreneur Peter Paul Akanko, CEO of Kente Masters. Paul helps coordinate and implement LaBré logistical operations on the ground such as shipping, inventory, and photoshoots.

In February 2016, the unemployment rate for Black American ages 16-24 was 14.5%. This is similar to the situation in Ghana. Young people aged 24 and under make up 57% of the Ghanaian population. According to the World Bank’s “The Landscape of Jobs in Ghana” report, 48% of Ghanaians between the ages of 15-24 don’t have jobs. My friendship with Peter is a great example of what collaboration throughout the Diaspora and youth entrepreneurship can produce.

Telling history through fashion

When you wear LaBré you aren’t just wearing beautiful clothes, you are showcasing your resistance.You’re showing that you are critical of where you invest your money, from who and where you buy, and in what you wear.

The common narrative is the extraction of wealth and resources from Africa. Through LaBré I am seeking to invest in the Ghanaian economy by providing supply for the rapidly growing demand for African inspired fashion.

As an African American, many of us desire to reconnect with our place of origin in meaningful ways. Through LaBré I am telling history through fashion.

Our men and women summer collections are both named after Ghanaian liberation leaders, Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa and King Badu Bonsu II. These are people who we in America grow up with no knowledge of. LaBré is committed to promoting heritage and traditional fabrics through modern design by producing a compelling fashion-forward aesthetic.

labre_juneteenthI plan to build LaBré into a global Diasporic community connecting people through fashion, art, history, and culture. I am currently creating an online platform with Andre Glover of Indsic. The platform will allow Ghanaian artisans mass market and showcase their designs to a global audience and customer base.

This is a grassroots effort that will work with local artisans. From the Kente weaving villages of Andanwomase and Bowire to market women in Kejetia and Tamale. I didn’t realize I would be using my International Relations and African Studies degree to create LaBré. If I could go back and give myself advice before starting my company it would be to “trust God and do it now.”

Adomaa Music: Dare to be different and unapologetically you

adomaa

Adomaa is a Ghanaian fast rising afro-jazz singer  who is known for her distinctive style of singing, insightful messages, and creative video concepts. This sensational artiste who believes that music is her drug has chosen to pursue a genre which is totally different from what people are used to. Though she faces disapproval from people who do not relate to her style of music, Adomaa still holds on to what she loves and believes afro-jazz is the next big thing. Judging from the recent Vodafone Ghana Music Awards show where she won the 2016 Unsung Artiste of the year, we believe Adomaa is underway to success.


Why did you choose the afro-jazz music genre?

I wouldn’t exactly say I chose the genre. It’s who I am and how I know best to express myself. I grew up on a lot of jazz, blues, and soul till it became part of me. When the decision came to pursue music as a career, it’s what came instinctively. Still staying true to my love for jazz, I wanted my Africanism to be represented in my music as well. So, I decided to fuse the Jazz sound with African rhythm, hence the name: Afro-jazz!

What makes you think this genre is here to stay?

When I started, I was truly stunned by the overwhelming response from the public. I didn’t think anyone cared about the type of music I did because it isn’t mainstream. The feedback though made me realize that there’s a huge market for Afro-jazz here! It’s still in its beginning stages but it’s catching on. It will soon become a staple!

What would you do if this genre does not get and hold the attention and crowd you expect?

I don’t think that will happen because like I said so far, the feedback has been massive. It can only grow and it is growing. Nonetheless, even if no one was ever interested, it’s still where I will be because quite frankly, it’s who I am. I can’t change who I am.

How is Afro-jazz different from the other music genres? Why should we look out for this genre?

Afro-jazz is simply a unique blend of jazz, blues, soul (basically vintage music) with an African rhythm or flavor to it. Jazz is not a popular genre of music in these parts and even outside, it’s still somewhat low key. The fusion is very different from what we are used to hearing. It’s music like you haven’t heard before. It’s a refreshing, fresh and unique. Who doesn’t want all that?

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Which other musicians are taking or have already taken the Afro-jazz route?

It’s still fairly early days to say any artiste, in particular, has taken this route. But there’s this super talented singer, Cina Soul that has released some music along those lines. Also, I haven’t heard of anyone before me doing what I do. It’s a new wave of music that I’m proud to say I’m pioneering.

Tell us Adomaa, is your type of music for everybody? What’s your target audience?

Music is universal and Afro-jazz is no different but for now, I think it boils down to preferences. It will take sometime for some people to warm up to it but it will catch on eventually. A classic example is dancehall. Who ever thought it would be the most popular genre in Ghana? My target is everyone! For now, though, I’d say the people who appreciate it the most are the middle class to elite groups of people.

Since you started singing, what has been your major challenge and how did you handle it?

My biggest challenge since I started has definitely got to be my stage fright. I used to dread live performances and would have panic attacks and meltdowns but the best way to overcome an obstacle is to face it. There’s been a tremendous improvement over the months and it can only get better in the years to come. I love being on stage now.

What is the worst thing anybody has said about your type of music?

It’s boring and for old people. Oh, but that’s about to change.

There were some rumours about how you did not deserve to win the Vodafone Ghana Music Awards unsung artiste of the year, how did you handle this issue? What provoked this rumour?

Ha! This issue… Well, you know I started out with doing covers and recreating other people’s songs. It’s what put the spotlight on me and probably what most people still know me for. In the category I was in, the other nominees (Feli Nuna, Wan-O, Ebony, Nii Funny and Perez) were more deserving because they have put out original content. I have original content out as well but I guess the covers are more popular.

Some people didn’t even know I had my own songs out there so there were questions about why I was nominated in the first place. For me, negative comments fuel me. It made me want to challenge myself even more to sell the genre till it becomes a household name. It’s my main goal now.

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How do you react and respond to criticisms?

I listen, sieve through to see if there’s anything to learn, take the constructive ones, discard the chaff and move on with my life.

Why do you think your type of music is critiqued?

It’s different. It’s a change from the normal. People don’t welcome change easily. That’s normal. It takes a while to embrace what you don’t understand. The criticisms are to be expected when you decide to break away from the norm.

Have you ever considered switching to another genre?

I’ve explored a little. My EP, Afraba was solely for that. I tried pop, rock, highlife, classical music, etc. but my heart still belongs to Afro-jazz. Of course moving forward, I’ll still venture out some more but at the core, Afro-jazz is who I am and who I’ll always be.

For our readers who have never heard your music, explain your sound in 5 words.

  • New
  • Creative
  • Different
  • Afrocentric
  • Refreshing

Where would you really like to perform? Who would you most like to open for?

Madison Square Garden and the Grammy’s. That would be a milestone for me.

Opening for Asa or Erykah Badu would be major! I doubt I’d be able to sleep after that.

Do you play any instruments? What hidden talents do you have?

Yes! I play the recorder. It’s in the flute family and I’m currently learning to play the guitar and would want to learn the sax too.

With hidden talents, I’m very good at nailing accents and impressions. I’ve mastered the British, Indian, French, Nigerian, American, Italian and of course, Ghanaian accent. It’s a fun hobby learning them.

What personal advice would you give to someone wanting to pursue this career with a unique genre like yours?

In two words. Be you!!!

People try so hard to fit in because they think it’s the fastest way to make it. I say, yeah you’ll make it but will you last? No one can do you better than you, so be you! Also if you must, dare to be different. It sets you apart.

What’s your motto or the advice you live by?

If you dare to be different and unapologetically you no matter what and always keep a positive outlook on life, you’re basically going to be unstoppable.


Want to see women you know featured on SLA? Tell us what amazing things women are doing in your communities here.

Dorinda Mawuenya Matey: It never started as a business, I was just sharing my passion

Dorinda Mawuenya Matey is a natural hair enthusiast and entrepreneur who turned her love for natural hair into her profession. She started the “We Naturals Team” as a Facebook page to share her discoveries and knowledge about her hair journey. In time as her followers grew, they needed more than just advice; they needed quality products to grow healthy hair. Dorinda saw this as an opportunity to turn her passion into a profession. Currently, her company is one of the leading hair products brand in Ghana and Nigeria. We Naturals has 19 employees and 68 retailers in Ghana, 39 in Nigeria and one in Cote d’Ivoire.


What ignited the spark to start the We Naturals Team?

When I started my natural hair journey in 2011, I was completely lost. I had no idea how to handle my hair and eventually relaxed it again. In 2013, I went back to natural hair, I realized it was much easier this time as I was reading a lot about my hair and experimenting with different hairstyles, products and regimen. On my first anniversary, I decided to start a Facebook page (We Naturals) to share all that I’m learning to help make the journey easier for others. It never started as a business; I was just sharing my passion. The business We Naturals came in after my followers on Facebook started asking about products. I saw an opportunity in there and started selling other brands until I started making my own products.

How did your followers react when you started making hair products?

They were excited and received it very well. We won’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for our very amazing followers and customers.

Our very first sale was made on Facebook.

What was unexpected when you started We Naturals?

Well, I realized people will do anything to undermine others just to get ahead. You have to be diligent not to compromise on your integrity and focus on your goals to keep moving forward.

What creative strategies did you use to acquire funds to start the business?

I had funds from a 3 year life investment policy I started in 2011. Because I had this money, it was fairly easy for me to get going when I decided to start selling products. It wasn’t enough to do everything, but it was a good start.

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Did you get the products right on the first try or did you have to do more trial and errors?

We often do a lot of trials until we are satisfied with the efficiency of the product, the consistency, scent, colour etc. We have a production team who make the products, they’re then sent to labeling and quality control before it moves to store.

We experiment on employees, friends and family. We sometimes also request for product testers from social media who also serve as our final testing point before the product is introduced.

Why do you focus on only natural hair products? Do you have plans on making products for relaxed hair?

The company started off with my passion for natural hair, because of that the products were automatically perceived to work for only natural hair. However, most of our products can be used for all types of hair, though in some cases with slight difference in method.

Have you had any formal education pertaining to your choice of career?

Yes I have a certificate in Natural Products Formulation from the USA. I had to learn how to make the products from a credible institution to be able to make quality products. I have experience in business and marketing which come in handy.

What do you enjoy most about what you do?

I love reading positive feedback from our customers. Fortunately about 90% of all the feedback we receive is positive and they come in very often. Every single time I receive a positive feedback, I smile. It makes me really happy because that is one more person we have provided a solution to, not just sold a product.

How did you distinguish yourself from your competitors?

Our primary target groups are individuals on a healthy hair journey, mainly the natural hair journey and these are people who are looking for results. Our business is built on selling solutions, not just products. We solve hair problems and I believe this is what our credibility is built on.

I am passionate about making the hair journey for all my customers a delight so I always go out of my way to help them find solutions. That is what automatically sets us apart, the genuine passion to make our customers happy always.

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Describe a typical day at work.

No two days are ever the same with me. It depends on what needs my attention the most but generally I go over accounts with the sales team and allocate monies for various things that need to be taken care of. I then go into production, mainly supervising and sometime making products myself when necessary.

I handle our social media platforms personally so I am on and off social media throughout the day responding to questions, sharing contents and taking orders. I also check for orders on our website and respond to emails. I go to our store to check on stock and bulk orders going out, as well as inspecting products especially labeling and responding to complaints and other issues.

What difficulties did you face expanding to other African countries? What was surprisingly simple?

The major difficulty we faced and are still facing in Nigeria, is the exchange rate. The Naira keeps falling and we end up losing money through exchange. With the Francophone countries, I will say the language barrier has slowed our efforts but we are taking necessary steps to resolve these issues.

What was surprisingly easy was how quickly Nigerians accepted our products.

What are your goals for the company?

Our goal is to be the number one in Africa not just in product quality, market share and revenue but also in the impact we have on our customers and change caused in our communities.

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What habits and mindsets helped make you successful?

We are very dedicated to what we do and do not compromise on quality. When it comes to making products, there are so many short cuts our competitors take to make products smell nice, look good, increase volume etc. that compromise on the quality. We have never and will never do that.

Ultimately, it is the favor of God that has brought us this far. I could have done everything right but without the favor and blessings of God, this would not have been possible.

As a child, was it your dream to start a natural hair company?

No. I wanted to be a pilot, soldier, geologist, psychologist at different points in my life but my real passion is entrepreneurship. We Naturals is not the first company or venture I have started and will certainly not be my last.

Which African Celebrity rocks her natural hair best? Why do you think so?

There are so many amazing celebrity naturalistas out there but I am currently crushing on the Nigerian actress, Omoni Oboli. She enjoys her hair and I love that!

Rafiat Kasumu: I was literally weaving history

The kente cloth of the Ashanti is one of the most recognisable African fabrics worldwide. We’ve seen kente dashikis, kente wax print and now kente graduation stoles. Rafiat Kasumu is a Nigerian-American who developed a love for kente while working with kente weavers in Kumasi, Ghana. Rafiat took this love to the next level by co-founding Kente Master which seeks to expand the international reach of Ghanaian kente weavers. Here, Rafiat schools us on international social impact and the importance of maintaining the tradition of kente weaving.


What was the spark that lead you to start Kente Master?

Kente Master started as an idea amongst a group of my peers and I who participated in University of Pennsylvania’s joint International Development Summer Institute (IDSI) with KNUST in Ghana. While I was in undergrad, I was fortunate enough to be one of 15 UPenn students selected to go. There, I was placed in a small group of students who worked directly with local kente weaving associations daily to help scale their businesses and practices. It was a life changing experience! Thanks to it, I fell in love Ghana’s culture and history.

The most profound moments of this experience were when I heard about the history of kente from the weavers themselves. I witnessed it’s traditional production from thread to final product, and got to try my hand at weaving traditional kente cloth. I was literally weaving history and this was the spark! Learning about the significance of kente –down to the meanings of colors and patterns– really opened my eyes to how important this craft is. From that moment on, I knew I wanted to be a part of the movement to expand this craft internationally. Not only the significant story of kente needs to be spread.

International social impact might be a new term to some, what exactly does it mean?

Sure, “social impact” is a broad term that has been used a lot over the years by different organizations and within different contexts. Because of this, the definition of social impact is continuously in flux. It is really determined by that institution in that given time.

Kente Master is a social enterprise that promotes African entrepreneurship by servicing premium Kente graduation stoles to major universities abroad. For us , “social impact” is the positive impact an action has on a community or society. At Kente Master, we create international social impact through the connections we facilitate between local Kente weaving associations in Ghana and top universities in the United States. These connections provide greater opportunities for local entrepreneurs to scale their craft and businesses. With the influx of inauthentic and over-priced kente textile merchandise coming from China and other non-traditional manufacturers, these opportunities are essential for local Ghanaian entrepreneurs.

What steps do you take towards economic self-empowerment for the weavers you work with?

As I mentioned, Kente Master is all about economic self-empowerment of the artisans and weavers we work with. As an organization, we do not change any of the current business practices of the various weaving associations we work with. Rather, we give them an online platform as well as resources to market and sell their products and goods globally.

Economic self-empowerment of the weavers is also tied to the fact that they are still able to use the traditional weaving methods of kente. These methods are passed down from generation to generation. For weavers, self-empowerment is the notion of knowing they can continue their craft the way their ancestors taught them as well as knowing that their clients value these traditions.

Kente weaving

Share with us a brief history of kente weavers. Is the tradition as prestigious as it presumably was in the past?

Sure! To understand the history of kente weavers, you must first understand kente itself. Kente cloth is the finished product of a traditional form of weaving that originated in Ghana from the Ashanti Kingdom. It is a fabric made of interwoven silk and cotton strips that has a really unique texture. According to Ashanti legend, centuries ago the first piece of kente was sewn and was given as a gift from two weavers to an Ashanti king as a symbol of royalty and wealth. Since then, the brightly woven kente has been passed down through generations of esteemed royal families, with each symbol and colour standing for a particular meaning.

As the years went by, kente became widespread beyond royalty and was used to mark important stages of life in Ghana, such as weddings and baby naming ceremonies. Today, its significance to these important passages of life has transcended both continents and cultures. Kente stoles are now, among other things, seen as a wearable staples of a collective heritage in the United States.

In Ghana, the craft is as prestigious as it was in the past, as skilled artisans still customize kente for important ceremonies. Abroad, we found that though people may wear kente stoles at graduations, many may not know the origin or creation process of the cloth. Kente Master was created to solve this critical gap so that students at universities abroad understand this unique tradition and know that their stoles were made in Ghana.

Who are the clients that go for Kente graduation stoles?

Great question! Some of our past customers have been the black cultural centers of universities and individual student organizations that identify with the African Diaspora such as multicultural Greek organizations, Black Student Leagues, or African Student Associations. But, we’ve also had clients that fall outside of these groups. Really, kente stoles are for anyone who wishes to stand out at their graduation by wearing a customizable piece of graduation regalia!

Do you work with any universities in Ghana or other African countries?

Yes! During its early stages, Kente Master was selected to participate in the World Bank-backed Kumasi Business Incubator (KBI) at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST). This program equipped us with tools we needed to turn our innovative idea into a practical, successful social enterprise. You can read more about us here and watch our World Bank Africa video feature here.

UPenn Gradution_ Photo Credit - Rafiat Kasumu

What did you learn from your partnership with UPenn and what advice would you give other Motherland Moguls looking to secure partnerships internationally?

As our first Kente Master client, the University of Pennsylvania partnership was crucial to our humble beginnings. It has taught us a lot about how to build rapport, nurture connections, and place customer satisfaction at the very top of every interaction. By communicating to University of Pennsylvania stakeholders the mission and vision of Kente Master and by driving home the impact their relationship would make, we were able to secure a partnership with the school that has been 2 years strong!

My biggest piece of advice to Motherland Moguls would be to never give up, practice pitching your story and value proposition to potential international partners, and maintain every relationship you create!

If you could meet one woman from Ghanaian history, who will she be? And why?

If I could meet any woman from Ghanaian history, I would meet Patricia Mawuli Nyekodzi because she is currently making history today and continuously reaches back so more women can follow in her footsteps!

If you don’t know Patricia, she was the first female certified civilian pilot in Ghana and the first female aircraft engineer in West Africa certified to build and maintain aircraft engines. She currently teaches young girls to fly in Ghana –talk about the sky’s the limit!


If you’d like to share your story with She Leads Africa, let us know more about you and your story here

Aphia Sekyerehene: I design clothes for non-conforming women

aphia sekyerehene fashion

Aphia Sekyerehene is an emerging fashion designer, choreographer, singer and event decorator who discovered her passion for fashion at age 14. However, she could not fully pursue her passion until her 20s. Even now after going through design school and establishing her brand, Aphia still feels unsatisfied. She believes that starting her career later in life has deprived her of opportunities she would have had if she had started at 14. Aphia shares with SLA her experience in fashion design and developments in the industry.


Why do you think you would have gained more grounds in the fashion industry if you had started at age 14?

Having an early start in a career offers you ample time and opportunity to try your hands on the various aspects of the job. This means more time to delve into related options and more time for trial and error. Starting at age 14 would have given me more experience and variety to explore but now, I have to first build a brand before I can try my hands on other options.

What prevented you from pursuing your passion after your discovery?

I would say lack of funds. This is because fashion designing is more of a practical course than theoretical. So you need to get materials needed for the course and this was something my family could not afford at the time.

In order to keep my passion alive, I came up with alternative methods like connecting with fashion designers across the world through online forums.

Were there any setbacks when you finally got into the industry?

Yes! Raising capital was one of my major setbacks. I am glad I have crossed that hurdle. Now, I am very excited to achieve more and more.

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Photo Credits: K-Qube Photography

Now that you have acquired a certificate in Fashion Designing, do have plans of furthering your education?

Yes! Certainly! There is so much more to see, learn and explore. I will never limit myself to just the basics. I have to expand my knowledge. I am looking forward to acquiring a Master’s Degree in Fashion or any other course which will add value to my work.

I am hoping to get into the Parsons School of Design in New York.

How does your designing process work? What are you currently working on?

Every project I work on has its own procedures. But usually I sketch ideas as they come and do clone drafts before the actual design. Some projects take just a day to figure out, others are time consuming. The latter requires a lot of inspiration which I get from the various colours that surround me.

I am currently working on my summer collection. It is a hip, fun, free, colourful, light, stylish and original for every woman. This collection depicts the African culture in a creative way. It will be out in July.

What part of your job do you find most challenging and how do you tackle it?

Working with indecisive clients is very stressful. I tackled this challenge by coming up with a very detailed order sheet that allows clients to vividly explain what they want. This way, we get a win-win situation.

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Photo Credits: K-Qube Photography

In one word, define your work.

Unique.

Who is your target audience?

My main target is the woman who is not afraid to stand out in her own unique self. My designs require my breaking free from the usual expectation so I target those women who stay true to their nature and are non–conformists. Having a target group also creates a niche for you, making your brand easier to handle and be identified.

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Photo Credits: K-Qube Photography

Which African fashion designers do you admire the most?

For one there’s Christie Brown, I admire her abstract, sophisticated and classy designs. Then there’s Pistis, her beading creates exceptional masterpieces. I also admire Oswald Boateng, his eye for clean cut is evident in his designs.

I would love to work with Christie Brown. She is sophisticated and transfers that attribute into her work. She has a way of blending totally different styles into an admirable design. Her designs are modern yet traditional; contemporary yet antiques. This is something I will love to learn.

What developments on the horizon could positively affect future opportunities for fashion designs?

For an African designer, I would say the removal of cross-country trade barrier laws could be an opportunity. Though this would introduce more competition in the fashion market, it would also provide designers with the chance to diversify and expand their market.

If you were to design an outfit for an African celebrity, who would it be and what would you make?

I will love to design a fitted floor length backless lace gown with long sleeves and beading for Nigerian actress Genevieve Nnaji. Genevieve has an hourglass figure and a high front neckline fitted floor length dress will compliment her figure perfectly. The backless part will give her a sexy touch and an opportunity to show her amazing skin tone.

Alima Bello: My fashion company was becoming an expensive hobby

Alima Bello

She Leads Africa connected with Alima Bello, a fashion entrepreneur from Accra, Ghana to learn more about how she’s turned her passion into a full-fledged business. This is part of our series, From Startup To Grownup, which shares how young women entrepreneurs have moved beyond the startup phase and transitioned their businesses into sustainable enterprises. 


How did you start Bello|Edu and what did you know about business before getting started?

This might sound cliché, but Bello|Edu started off as a personal need. It was hard looking for clothing or fashion pieces of my own aesthetic so I started designing my own stuff to have them made for me. This developed into designing for family friends and then later on I took a pattern drafting course to further develop my passion.

I majored in business administration both in secondary and undergrad so I had theoretical knowledge in business. I was also fortunate enough to work in a family-owned company so I had a bit of experience in business management before I ventured into Bello|Edu.

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How long did it take for you to view your company as a serious business and start to professionalize it? Did something happen to get you to that point?

I always viewed my passion as a business. But I guess what you’re trying to ask is at what stage I started treating it as business. There came a point where I had to be firm with myself and admit that it was becoming an expensive hobby and I needed to put certain things in place in order to realise my dreams.

I tell myself that until I am able to lock down 300 – 500 orders per collection or season, this will remain a hobby.

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What bad business habits did you need to give up in order to help your business grow?

Just because I like it doesn’t mean it has to make the cut. That’s a grown-up decision. This is where the business side of me has to override my creative side. I know most creatives go through this process where we tend to create or design something that speaks to us or reflects our mood at any point in time.

In business however, that design piece might not be feasible and so you have to do the bold thing and drop it. And oh, I have this impulse to buy any fabric that speaks to me. Now, that’s not a smart business choice.

What business investment was hard for you to make that you are now so grateful for?

With my theoretical and practical knowledge I don’t think any decision was hard to make. It was just a matter of prioritising and timing.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs interested in building a sustainable fashion business?

There’s never the right time to start a business. The time is always now.

Data is also very vital for your business. Keeping the number trends will let you know which smart and not so smart business choices to keep or to drop.

Lucy Quist, CEO of Airtel Ghana: Have huge dreams and be extremely ambitious

Lucy Quist

Lucy Quist is a Ghanaian business leader whose commitment to Africa’s youth is palatable. CEO at Airtel Ghana, she is the first Ghanaian woman to lead a multinational telecommunications company. Trained as an electrical and electronic engineer, Lucy has received numerous awards for her vision and strategic planning for the expansion and integration of various telecoms businesses in Ghana and also across the continent.

Lucy Quist (LQ) sat down with SLA Co-Founder Afua Osei, at She Hive Accra, where she shared powerful insights on leadership and integrity. After her talk, Femi-Abena Senola (FS), former Vodafone manager and She Hive Accra content intern, spoke with her about more personal matters – from her family to her role models and her legacy. In this candid interview, we learn about the goals and dreams that truly inspire this global leader to continue her work.

lucy quist

FS:  Hi Lucy, Thank you for joining us at She Hive Accra. Lucy, boss, what are you most proud of?

LQ:  You’re welcome. I’m extremely proud of my family and my kids. My kids have demonstrated so much independence. I am also proud of the fact that over the years, I have been able to demonstrate to Ghana and the world that leadership is not a function of gender. I believe that black women, African women, are able to lead big businesses.

FS: What quotes sums up your career to date?

LQ: Impact driven by integrity, excellence and generosity.

FS:  Who is the first person that pops into your head when you think about leadership?

LQ: Tidjane Thiam. He is the CEO of Credit Suisse. I have never met him but really admire his professional record. He inspires me to sustain a global path in my career. From what I know about him, he was at McKinsey, then he became a sector Minister in his home country, Cote D’Ivoire.

After a while he left the ministerial job to become the CFO of Prudential, then rose to become the CEO. Because he did such a great job at Prudential, Credit Suisse poached him. On the world hearing that a black African man was becoming the CEO of Credit Suisse, the share prices of Credit Suisse automatically went sky high. I think he is a man of full of integrity and that also resonateswith me.

We talk about changing Africa; we talk about creating the Africa we believe in. We know all our entrepreneurs are really important but it is equally important to have visibility in big businesses. When you look at revolutions that have taken place in the western world, aside the economic ones, they were all led by corporations, by businesses which means that companies change the human story. As Africans, we must be willing to play the corporate games, not play it for personal gain but play it for positive change.

lucy quist

FS:  What are three things people would be surprised to know about Lucy?

LQ:  That I don’t have a favourite food, the thing is I like variety. I may want this today at another time, I may want something else. The second thing is that I really like to sing.

FS: Really? I’m surprised.

LQ: I love [ love, love,] to sing. I really look forward to being part of an organised singing group one day, whether it be part of a choir or a band, etc. I look forward to the opportunity but I do not have the time right now. If you’re going to work with other people, you must fully commit. I look forward to a time when I can make that commitment, but I am very passionate about singing.

FS:  So we can look forward to Lucy the professional singer maybe?

LQ:  Absolutely.

FS:  And the final thing we’d be surprised to know about you?

LQ: Final one: I feel very global, I really believe you can make a life anywhere. I tend to believe that I can live anywhere. There are a number of places I feel at home at, from DRC to Europe to Ghana, etc.

lucy quist

FS:  During your presentation, you stated that you could not have achieved what you did/do without support from your team and you made reference to your husband who has been very supportive. Many think that this may be the case because you met each other at a young age. Would you like to shed some light on this?

LQ: I was not very young actually; I was about 26 when we met and we got married a few years later. At that point I was mature enough to know what I wanted, who I wanted to be with and what values were important to me.

FS: Do you feel that if you met a different person your life would be different?

LQ: It is an unbreakable yes and I’ll give you concrete evidence: Before I met my husband, I had never heard of INSEAD [the business school]. I knew I wanted to pursue an MBA, but at the time I had no idea which school to choose. My husband said to me: “Lucy, you’re the kind of person who goes to INSEAD”. And I was like what school is that? And he said, it’s a wonderful school, one of the best in the world for MBAs. The rest is history. He literally sent me there.

There are so many examples and instances where he would lead and say to me this is what you need to do, go, go, go.

FS: OK, moving on to next question, what advice would you give an African woman at the start of her career?

lucy quist

LQ: Have huge dreams, be extremely ambitious, develop a consistent routine, make sure you’re known for some great things and make sure your name pops into people’s minds. Be very confident in what your dreams are and the rest of the world will conspire to get you there.

FS:  What’s one app on your phone that you cannot live without?

LQ:  Facebook

FS:  Really you still use the app?

LQ:  Yes, I do and I’ll tell you why. I use Facebook as a platform to mentor and coach people. I use Facebook to communicate, to engage and to inspire others.

FS: Ok, please elaborate.

LQ:  As part of my commitment to pay it forward, to mentor and coach people, I post on Facebook at least 3 times a week. This is my way of keeping in touch with people I would have loved to meet but cannot. I share lessons I’ve learnt or things that inspire me with the hope that it will spark something in others.

To lead, we need to learn. I like learning from other people’s lives and stories. I believe that when sharing my experience, I am helping people to shortcut. [And for others not to repeat my mistakes]. I want people to think, oh I heard Lucy speak about this challenge or mistake and how she overcame it – therefore I do not have to make that same mistake. I strongly encourage people to learn from other’s mistakes so that we can get there [to our destination] quicker. This is why Facebook is important to me.

lucy quist

FS: I didn’t know you had a Facebook page. I thought you were only on LinkedIn and even that I feel you probably do not have time for that.

LQ:  Actually, I do. I am quite active on LinkedIn although not as much as I am on Facebook and the reason is that as a professional, I believe that inspiring the next generation is extremely important to me. I would not have achieved anything if no one in this next generation is impacted, and that’s why Facebook is so important. Facebook enables me to reach out to people of all walks of life and receive immediate feedback.

I am active on LinkedIn primarily for professional news and knowledge sharing. There’s a lot you can learn on leadership, career progression, managing people, technology etc. on LinkedIn.

FS: I think people would be surprised you’re on Facebook that much. They may even think it not you but rather an Airtel initiative, an Airtel PR piece, etc.

LQ: No, it’s not. It’s me and I make it a point, as much as possible, not to post commercially oriented materials on my personal page. My page is to inspire people to reach out and engage a great number of people. Actually, to make it clear, my Facebook page is to inspire the potential of the next generation. I am there to help them to realise their full potential.

lucy quist

FS: What would you like your legacy to be?

LQ: For inspiring the next generation of Africans– to inspire them to lead the world. This is why Tidjane Thiam is so important. He demonstrates to us that we have what it takes to lead the world, not just our country or the continent. The world needs us but we need to step up and we need to step into the world of leadership.

FS:  Lucy, thanks so much for your time. Before we finish, do you have anything to say to your fans and our audience, and tell them how can they reach you?

LQ: They can engage with me via Facebook and Twitter. I usually tweet what’s on my Facebook page. I am also on Instagram but to be honest, I am a bit of a learner on that platform. I don’t post too often. I only post every now and then.

Facebook and Twitter are the best ways people can reach me and on these platforms, I share so that we can learn together.

Want to reach out to Lucy? Have any questions or want to request for mentoring or any other opportunities, you can connect with her via Lucy Quist Official.


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3 young African women software developers want to give you global hair inspiration

SLA interviewed Priscilla Hazel, Cassandra Sarfo, and Esther Olatunde, cofounders of the Tress App. In this interview, they share insights on how they met, their Tress app, and their vision for their enterprise.


Who are the women behind Tress and how did you all meet?

We are three software entrepreneurs from Ghana and Nigeria who are passionate about using technology to improve lives. Priscilla Hazel is the team hustler and is responsible for business strategy, public relations, and keeping morale high.

Esther Olatunde is the hacker within the team. She’s the backbone of our technical development and responsible for keeping the app running. Cassandra Sarfo is our resident hipster – she has a keen eye for detail, and is responsible for the user interface design and user experience of the Tress app.

tress app

We’ve known each other for about 2 years after first meeting at the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology, and we’re are excited to be working on something that affects us on a daily basis.

What is Tress ?

Tress is a mobile app and a fun, passionate community of black women from around the world sharing and discovering hairstyle inspiration. mockup-phone-for-web-front---feedWith Tress, women can:

1.  Discover new hairstyles to inspire them the next time they’re at the salon.

2. See detailed information about hairstyles such as the products used, the name of the salon, and price range.

3. Share their favourite hairstyles and get compliments and recommendations   from our supportive community.

4. Follow fashionable people and discover their hair care secrets.

Whether you’re rocking a weave, extensions, cornrows, braids, locs, relaxed hair, wig-caps, or anything in-between, Tress is your home for hair inspiration and information.

What was the inspiration for the app? What problem are you trying to solve with the app?

It’s surprisingly difficult to find accurate information about hairstyles. Many ladies have at some point walked up to complete strangers to compliment and inquire about their hair, or stalk social media accounts not only for inspiration but adequate information about the style.

We wanted to bring the experience of getting answers on the mobile phone, without the hassle. So now on the app, women have access to hairstyle inspiration that is relevant to them and they have adequate information to help rock the look they want.

Tress App

Who is your target market?

Our target market are the 100+ million black women around the world who have access to a smartphone and are crazy about hair. According to Nielsen, black women on average spend a disproportionately high share of their income on haircare products, which is 9 times more than other races.

Mintel estimates the black haircare industry to be worth 500 billion dollars. We consider the market to be extremely attractive.

You are currently based in Ghana, what’s your vision for Tress in Ghana? What about in Africa and globally?

While we piloted the app in Ghana, where we’re currently based, Tress is available globally. We want Tress to be synonymous with anything hair: hairstyles, hair-products, hair-stylists, hair-extensions, you name it. It should be the go to place for hair related queries.

What’s one of the biggest challenges you face right now?

Our biggest challenge is distribution. Getting the word out there about Tress has been challenging, as well as getting the kind of community engagement we aspire to have.

What would a successful Tress look like?

mockup-phone-for-web-front---post

A successful Tress will be an app that is used by practically all black women for their hair and hairstyle needs. It should be the go-to app for any woman looking to find hair inspiration, hair-stylists, and high quality hair products.

Beyond the app, we’re also excited to have Tress become active in all kinds of media products for black women – television, magazines, events, and more. A successful Tress would also be an active social network of black women thriving in all aspects of their lives.

Is there any other insight about being business women and entrepreneurs you would like to share?

My co-founders and I have grown extremely close through working on Tress together. We have our individual and collective ups and downs, but we’ve learned to support each other mentally and emotionally, while also having fun together to maintain our sense of humour.

When embarking on the entrepreneurial journey, it’s extremely important to have a great team with you that you can trust to be with you through both the inevitable disappointments as well as the exciting times.

Finally, we’ve really enjoyed working on a deeply personal problem. We’re able to use our unique experiences as black women to inform the development of the company and this also helps us empathize with our users and anticipate the needs of women like us.

I’d encourage more women to start business focused on solving the unique challenges we face. Black women wield a large amount of purchasing power, and their multiple businesses waiting to be started to harness that.


Want to know more about Tress? You can find them here:

FacebookTressApp
Twittertress_app
Instagramtress_app

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How integrity and soft skills keeps Lucy Quist at the tippy top of the corporate ladder

First of all, a big shout out to the SLA team for this empowering conference in Accra. If they are in your country, don’t snooze or you’ll lose out on the keys to success.

Lucy Quist, MD of Airtel Ghana came through the SheHiveAccra and laid down nuggets for making it in corporate Ghana. While she highlighted teamwork, leadership skills and personal values, if I had to pick one word to remember from Lucy Quist’s session, it would be integrity

Integrity

It was eye opening to hear Lucy Quist highlight the ways in which the lack of integrity in Ghana and Africa as a whole is culturally engrained. For her, it is this lack of integrity that holds Ghana back and I must say I agree with her 101 percent. Lack of integrity makes it hard to trust that any task delegated to subordinates or left to the system will be performed efficiently, which is a stark difference from the Western world.

When you do not have integrity or do not hold yourself to a higher standard in developing economies, where people are constantly looking for ways to shortchange the system, it is impossible to reach your fullest potential and be excellent at what you do. This issue of integrity among the masses results in the creation of unnecessary problems that waste time and money.

As African women in leadership, we must hold ourselves to a high standard. We can’t say one thing and behave another way. We must walk the talk and stay true to our values. It is the only way to preserve our integrity. It is when we show that we have integrity that we can inspire others to do the same. We must lead by example.

Role Models

Lucy also honed in on the fact that although women have a place at the table, the challenge facing Ghanaian women is the reluctance to push oneself up the ladder and the absence of female role models at the top to help pull others up.

Because Lucy has had role models since she was 17, she stressed the importance of having people around you who support you and drive you to be the best version of yourself.

Leadership Skills

Another important point Lucy made was that in Africa, compared to the Western world, people openly state that they disagree with women in charge. While this may seem demoralizing, Lucy has shown leadership by sticking to her guns. As a leader, she doesn’t feel the need to justify herself to anyone or prove why she has her position.

In simple words, you are in your position because you are doing something right, so keep going, stick to your instincts and lead your team to success.

Lucy added that being a leader, however, does not mean that one should lose sight of their soft skills aka people skills. As you go further up the corporate ladder, your job slowly diverts into managing and influencing people.

To succeed, you have to be able to create an environment within which people can shine. You have to be able to put yourself in their shoes and be willing to learn consistently. Be a leader that people respect and look up to, and you will lead a successful team.

The A Team

Finally, Lucy advised that you need an excellent team around you. You need the crème de la crème who filter and think things through before they present it to you. This group reduces the burden of micro managing and taking on extra work, their work. 

Lucy used the analogy of the captain of a ship for how she views her role and the support staff around her. As the leader, you must have people around you that do all the work under deck, to allow you the mental space to see ahead and steer the company for success. Say no to mediocrity. But also, give people room to succeed, learn and grow. Allow lessons and growth in the company.

Hats off to Lucy Quist. After her session, I knew I had found myself another role model.

Top 5 quotable moments from our Twitter chat with Anita Erskine

anita erskine

On January 18th, we were lucky enough to spend our afternoon on Twitter discussing career breakthroughs and opportunities with Anita Erskine. If you didn’t catch our chat, you can get a full recap here.

Anita Erskine is a woman of many talents. She is the host of three popular shows on DSTV, an oral narrator, producer and entrepreneur. Anita is also the founder of ReVerbGH, a strategic communications firm targeted at aiding small organizations and entrepreneurs fresh on the scene.

In addition, she lends her support to social issues through her organization BrandWoman Africa, which promotes the advancement of African women through television.

Here are the top 5 quotable moments from our chat with @TheAnitaErskine:

5. On the pressures facing African women in the media industry today

https://twitter.com/TheAnitaErskine/status/689077411762286592

4. On the uphill battle faced by professional Ghanaian women

https://twitter.com/TheAnitaErskine/status/689082359384248320

3. On encouraging healthy collaboration between men and women

https://twitter.com/TheAnitaErskine/status/689084557170225160

2. On the importance of mentorship

https://twitter.com/TheAnitaErskine/status/689077046618775553

1. On turning dreams into reality

https://twitter.com/TheAnitaErskine/status/689088320442347520

A huge thank you to all our #MotherlandMoguls who chimed in and to Anita Erskine for sharing her wisdom with us!

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