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‘Creating opportunities for our local beauticians is something that has been burning within me’

By Tobi Awodipe
15 August 2020   |   4:20 am
The passion began in my final year in the university; I had just decided that I wasn’t going down the white-collar route.

Ayo Bassey is the founder and the CEO of COC Beauty School. A serial entrepreneur, she is a certified cosmetic formulator with over 10 years experience in cosmetic product formulation. With a B.Sc in Mathematics and Computer Science from the Rivers State University of Science and Technology (RSUST), Ayo has equally obtained diplomas from schools in India, the U.S.A, the U.K, Spain and France, with certificates from schools both home and abroad. Doubling as a cosmetic business coach and head tutor at COC Beauty School, she has helped raise over 100 beauty entrepreneurs in 10 countries and counting. Originally starting out as a fashion designer, she’s now focusing on the Beauty and Fashion School, as well as her product lines. In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, she talks about creating opportunities for local beauticians in the global market, how indigenous brands can help entrepreneurs at this critical time and the need for Nigeria to raise standards in cosmetic formulation.

You are a cosmetic formulator, perfumer and herbologist, which is not common in this part of the country. How did it happen?
The passion began in my final year in the university; I had just decided that I wasn’t going down the white-collar route. So, I searched within myself to find my excitement button. I found that what I wanted the most was to be a musician and to own multiple product lines alongside. Music didn’t quite work out for me, so I put all my efforts into making my second part of the dream come to fruition. I wanted to launch a skincare product line, a perfume line, and a clothing line; I searched for where to get the required skill but to no avail. I could only find a fashion school in which I enrolled and became a fashion designer.

While designing clothes, I didn’t stop searching for how to make beauty products. Finally, I got a lead that got me excited. I summoned up courage, raised money from my fashion business and my parent’s support, and then travelled abroad to learn how to formulate products. It was so exciting for me and I never stopped since then. I kept enrolling for different courses here and there, expanding my knowledge. After all my courses in beauty products, I discovered herbology. I was simply blown away by the power of herb; so much healing, so much fixing, so much perfection, all from nature. It’s been such a fulfilling journey and I thank God I took that bold step to go study.

You studied Mathematics and Computer Science, what made you decide to go into the beauty industry fully?
I realised I was more excited about the beauty industry. I simply followed what I enjoyed more, and I genuinely love what I do.

Having bagged several degrees and certifications from both home and abroad, would you say this adequately prepared you for what you are doing right now?
Yes, every single degree and certification I have acquired adequately helped me in my field. While some helped me frame my way of thinking, others helped me perfect my skills. Some to help me interact with people better, while some helped me to build structures. Everything has worked hand in hand to play a significant role in bringing me to this level.

It’s no secret that the beauty industry has been badly hit by this pandemic, how can it rebound and come back even stronger?
Yes, the pandemic hit some sectors of the beauty industry badly; some areas like the makeup industry, salons, spa, and more. It’s been business as usual for those in the personal care and hygiene industry; there’s been a rise in the purchase of washes and sanitisers. The primary way I believe the industry can rebound is for the industry players to diversify. There’s a drop in demand for some products, but there’s also an increase in demand for some products. Now is the time for industry players to switch to hand sanitisers, hand washes and hygiene products to stay afloat until things balance out. It’s time to notice demands and be innovative enough to meet those demands.

Industry players that offer services simply need to take extra care to ensure their services follow the laid down guidelines. It’s just a matter of tweaking things here and there with a new mindset to make things work.

The global beauty industry is a multibillion-dollar one, which experts have said Nigeria is yet to fully tap into. How can we achieve that?
Nigeria is indeed yet to fully tap into this multi billion-dollar industry. The average Nigerian is more prone to purchasing foreign products because they don’t notice enough homegrown products. We need more indigenous manufacturers dedicated to quality and innovation, to tap into this market fully. COC Beauty School exists in Nigeria to raise more indigenous brand owners that understand standards, quality and industry trends.

Nigerians also need to encourage more by embracing indigenous brands as much as they embrace foreign brands.

How can we create opportunities for our local beauticians in the global market?
Creating opportunities for our local beauticians is something that has been burning within me; creating opportunities for them in the global market. First, we need to show the world our uniqueness through amazing products with Nigerian root ingredients. We also need to promote our style of beautification; our traditional spa methods, Nigerian hairstyles, Nigerian hair maintenance methods, Nigerian beauty regimens and others. There’s so much our great grandmothers did then with amazing benefits; we have lost all of it chasing after what we see on TV. We have got to project our traditional beauty culture as fashionable, showcasing the amazing benefits each step brings.

Nigerian root brands must be ready to bring their products and services up to the world’s standard.

They must be open to international travels to exhibit at trade shows, attend international beauty conferences, and join networks. In these things, opportunities are found. With our homework done right, we can then create more options like agencies that promote Nigerian beauty brands globally and vast directories that list our beauticians. These directories must then be promoted globally to allow patronage and adequate collaborations. In a nutshell, we’ve got to merge our cultural beauty uniqueness with the world’s standards; make our uniqueness fashionable, then promote it globally to unlock opportunities for our local beauticians.

A lot of Nigerians don’t patronise locally made beauty products because they feel they are inferior to foreign ones, what do you make of this?
I believe it’s a mindset thing; the belief that whatever comes from outside the country has more quality. Most of our Nigerian beauty formulators take extra care in creating products because they feel the need to match up and beat the quality of imported products. Yes, we have some bad eggs here and there, but it shouldn’t be generalised. I believe we Nigerian formulators have to come together and change the narrative. We have to put together a means to educate Nigerians on how detailed our processes are, how beneficial our products are, then build better trust.

How best do you think we can we raise the standard in cosmetic product formulation in Nigeria?
We can raise the standard by ensuring product formulation rules are adhered to. These rules are designed to provide excellence and safety. To boycott rules automatically produce low standards from ingredient suppliers to packaging suppliers to equipment suppliers, lab personal and production. These laid out rules must be mandatory for all. Only then can we raise the standard.
We can also raise the standard by investing in innovative tools and technology.

As an experienced player in this industry, what major challenges plague it and what do you think can be done?
We have a lot of quacks fronting like they are the real deal; their actions ruin the perception of the beauty industry in Nigeria, making it difficult for genuine vendors. We also encounter challenges like fake ingredients and inconsistent supply. Things that can be done; developing some licensing for ingredient stockists to ensure ingredients are traceable and tested for purity before reselling. For genuine vendors, resilience is vital; you must be skilled in and out. Know how to defend your products, know enough to warn about effects or side effects, because doing these things help you stand out from quacks.

As a cosmetic business coach, what does this entail?
Being a cosmetic business coach entails encouraging and counseling clients on how to set up profitable cosmetic businesses. In my case, I take my mentees from zero to hero. I begin with teaching how to create cosmetic products from scratch. Then, I explain how to test the finished products and package these products into high standard product ranges. Once done with production coaching, I move on to offer guidance on the best ways to register products with government agencies. After the registration coaching, I rub minds with my students, offering the best product launch strategies that can help them raise seven figures from their first product launch. I also guide on how to build required structures to maintain and expand their newly found beauty business.

Being an entrepreneur in Nigeria can be challenging, what are some issues you have faced and how did you overcome?
I’ve faced several issues. First, I can think of is funding; the vision I had for the brand never matched my pocket. To overcome, I had to learn to start small. I learnt to make the best of what’s available while reaching for the goal in the vision. I learnt to grow organically by reinvesting a lot of the profits into improving the brand. I also faced challenges with getting competent staff. The right team is always a blessing; I overcame the staffing challenge by taking an HR course. It taught me how to spot the wrong staff while recruiting and train staff with potential to the required level.

I face operational challenges like lack of electricity and basic amenities. Like most businesses in Nigeria, the only way I’ve been able to overcome is by investing in power sources like generators, inverters, etc. The issue of trust is also a challenge; a lot of people have the fear of being duped. So, I always have to work overtime, reassuring them that we are different and deliver on our promises. These are a few challenges that come to mind now, but there’s a lot that go on that can’t be adequately put into words.

What are some of the things you have contributed personally towards women empowerment in the Nigerian beauty industry?
My clients/students are 95 per cent women, so I’ll say I’ve contributed immensely towards women empowerment generally. Focusing on Nigeria, I have trained over 300 women in cosmetic product formulation, amongst which I have helped raised over 50 women entrepreneurs in Nigeria that now run thriving cosmetic businesses. I meet most of these women clueless about cosmetic product formulation and cosmetics business. After weeks under my tutelage, they are transformed into skilled, confident, and inspired women, ready to take on the world. I ensure I keep a warm and close mentorship relationship with them to guide them enough till they stand firm.

How can we use business as a driver for social change and nation building in Nigeria?
Businesses provide income for people and they provide a source of livelihood and basic amenities. These provisions create positive social changes that build the nation. With more people catered to, with food and shelter, much more is achieved; even security is improved. Businesses have a way of influencing social behaviors positively, giving room for innovations, doors of opportunities, and growth. We can use business as a driver of social change and nation building in Nigeria by creating a suitable environment for businesses to thrive, offering more grant opportunities and encouraging entrepreneurship so more companies can be established to help more people.

Before going into the beauty industry, you used to be a fashion designer, what made you quit?
I didn’t dump fashion designing per se; I simply found more value in building people. I still design bespoke pieces here and there, also my fashion school COC Fashion School still runs full time. To be honest, I believe the beauty industry needs me more than the fashion industry. I think there’s more work to be done in the beauty industry, that’s why I focus more on the beauty industry.

You said you are passionate about helping and developing young girls, how are you achieving this?
I achieve developing young girls by showing them a career path. This career path lets them see that they can earn from their passion. Young girls need to know that they don’t need to be dependent on a man to survive, so I show them success is possible via beauty. I also give them the right environment and support system to learn and thrive. The beauty route is a fun and lucrative sector that they can develop skills in and become relevant role models.

How can we get more women to become successful and rise to the top as you have done? What tips do you have for young women?
Women need more encouragement. We have so much ability and capacity within us, some of us just need a little motivation to see that it is possible, then, they begin to fly high. I have a few tips for women entrepreneurs to help them succeed better. First, the mindset has to be right. There must be a belief that you are worth it, you are beautiful enough, you are smart enough; you have what it takes to be successful. Second, start from where you are and build up; don’t wait till things are perfect.

Believe that what you have presently is all you need to get started. Begin and the rest will follow. Third, be disciplined. Decide, do you want to build a legacy that will outlive you or you just want the business to put food on your table? That decision will propel your discipline. Finish what you started, don’t procrastinate; schedule your days every day and follow the schedule. Simplify your goals into actionable steps and follow each step to the end. Fourth, Always feed the business; reinvest in the business, improve the business with every chance you get; it will open doors to better opportunities. Fifth, always invest in personal development; take courses in as many areas as possible. Get coaches, get mentors, get networks, get exposure… these things make your work easier and limit the number of failures you experience. Sixth, do the work; don’t wait for that knight in shining armor to come and rescue you. Get the job done!

Again, discover your passion and build your career around it; it’s much easier when you enjoy your work. Finally, sometimes, slow and steady wins the race while fast and shaky amounts to nothing. Work at your own pace; don’t get lost comparing yourself to others. Have your vision and stay on course till you accomplish all you set out to accomplish. Don’t be distracted by peer pressure, social media, and the need to fit in.

You wear so many hats, how do you combine everything and make them work?
Combining all the hats come effortlessly because they all work hand in hand. I’d say it’s like dressing up when a task needs to be done; I wear the hat that fits.

How do you get inspiration and stay motivated when things aren’t going the way you want them to?
I receive my inspiration from the Holy Spirit. I believe in Jesus Christ, and I believe in all of the realities stated in the Bible. I stay motivated, knowing that “I can do all things through Christ that strengthens me.” I know God designed me to be a success and not a failure; that motivates me to press on. I’m also aware that I have God’s grace at work in my life, so it keeps me going. When things aren’t going the way I want them to, I spend time praying about it, and I ask God for direction. I also make confessions and decrees based on scriptures that apply to the situation. I activate my faith towards the results I want to see and God always comes through for me.

Tell us something you did/do that has turned your career around positively?
One thing I do that helps is, at every step, I put myself in the shoes of my target market. If were in their shoes and I wanted the best, what would that be? How would I want it? I answer these questions then I take down notes. I go further to chat with people that fit into my target market; I ask casual questions and get them talking. I do this to get into their minds and figure out how to satisfy them; I also take notes of striking things. With the notes taken, I frame my services and my approach to suit accordingly.

A second thing that has positively turned my career around is investing in courses. Every month, I set aside a budget for a new course; I literally pile up knowledge, and I find that it opens my mind and my way of thinking.

What last words do you want to leave with women reading this?
If I can go this far, you can do better! Just be you; run with your vision and be dedicated. Soon, you will be celebrated.