‘Don’t restrict yourself to just acquiring skills, learn the business’
Princess Kelechi Oghene is the Managing Director of Gmyt Fashion Academy, leading fashion institution training and creating a new generation of fashion entrepreneurs. An alumnus of Lagos State University, Lagos Business School, London School of Fashion and Harvard Business School, she is an epitome of beauty with brains. With over a thousand men and women graduating from the academy in the last 15 years who are making significant strides today with their respective fashion brands, Oghene’s vision is to create millions of entrepreneurs and eradicate poverty by training and empowering men and women with the necessary skill-set to thrive and become financially independent. Hence, she founded the Gmyt Foundation where she is fulfilling purpose of empowering and impacting on society. Oghene also holds a yearly Gmyt African Humanitarian Awards and Fashion Show, which recognises and celebrates philanthropists, including students of the academy for their exceptional performance. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, she shares her passion for fashion and her charity projects.
At what point did you decide to be in the business of fashion?
Fashion has always been a part of me right from home; my mum was a seamstress before she passed on. I used to also own a boutique, which I ran for nine years; even my foundation and the humanitarian awards are about fashion. So, fashion has always been a part of my life.
How did you develop passion for what you do?
Experience made me develop passion for fashion. Like my mum would always say, it is best to strive for independence. Now, see how the world is today; imagine if she has not given us that room to learn soft skills asides going to school. So, experience has helped me as I started making money while I was still in school; I opened my boutique while in school.
My mum also made sure we attended computer
(Graphics) school and today, even though I have an IT department, I still oversee their activities. So, the same experience that I have gathered over the years, have helped me carve a niche for myself, which is fashion education, which I am doing today.
Having been in the industry for this long, how has it evolved for you?
It has really evolved; our culture is no longer limiting us to what we could wear. We are also beginning to appreciate our traditional wears unlike when we were very particular about wearing foreign brands like Gucci, Armani, because how many people can actually afford the original design?
Now people would rather wear our African attire, than a copied one. Even our celebrities now wear and promote our designs, so it has really evolved.
There are different fashion academies in the country presently, what really sets your fashion school apart?
There are a lot of benefits our students get; asides the ambience, we have a very standard facility. We even have international students, students from South Africa, Philippines, Ghana and the United Kingdom. Comfort is key and so we have hostel accommodation for people coming from a far distance.
Another thing is mentorship; after the programme, we grant our students mentorship to ensure that they do well in the fashion industry. We also have internship, so when they finish from the school, they are entitled to internship so they learn further than what they’ve been taught. We have quite a large number of facilitators to attend to the students. We also give out sewing machines to students who pay their fees at once; this is a way of encouraging and motivating others to do the same. However, for every fee completely paid, the foundation empowers one student to attend the academy all for free with same benefits.
Running a fashion academy, then a foundation and hosting annual humanitarian event, how do you put them all together?
At the end of the day, it all boils down to the benefits; the humanitarian award is one of the benefits that the students get. Having completed the training process as a student; being inducted and started your business by carving a niche for yourself, at the end of the day, we know that we can celebrate you. We don’t just want to give them certificates; we want them to understand that it is beyond basic. Hence, the humanitarian award helps them showcase their brand to the world.
For the foundation, I have always been a giver, and it got a point where we needed more hands. So, I said, ‘Why don’t we get people to come learn for free?’ They help while work is going on, but they are also learning and they also get paid in the process. But while we were doing that, we had our clients saying they wanted to register for the training. People would come in, park and say they wanted to register for the training; they liked the fact that we were so structured. At the end of the day, I decided that we were going to take them in, charge them and design a curriculum for them and that was when we launched the fashion school.
It started as a foundation, but now, the fashion school is the parent company and we have started to teach a lot of people for free. So, how do we make it sustainable? We don’t have sponsors, partnerships or support from the government. I decided that for one student that pays school fees, we give out scholarship. Every scholarship student that comes here gets the same benefits and certificate. Over the years, it has been sustainable because we have a standard platform for funds coming into the organisation.
What is the most challenging thing about running this business?
The most challenging thing like I always say is managing people; it takes God and grace to have people fall in line with your vision. When you have a goal, you have to teach, guide and mentor them. Individuals need to motivate themselves before going to work. If I need to continually motivate you, then you are not right for the business. The fact that you are not right for this business does not mean that you will not be right elsewhere. As a leader, you have to make that decision of letting someone go so that they can shine elsewhere and give room for someone else so that they can shine here.
Asides managing staff, we have to manage students. Some come in very passionate, but along the, line maybe because of project or intensity of the work, they want to select what they should learn. But that is where the policy comes in; you must follow the curriculum, you don’t choose what you learn.
Also, by now as a country, we ought to have stable power supply, but we burn hundreds of thousands on diesel every week. Salaries are running into millions as well. We add value to the economy by creating jobs, making people independent and yet we still pay the same tax as those who run a profit based businesses, because we don’t have a choice.
What key advice do you have for women who are willing to sit at the same table as you are?
Start! That is the most important thing. Secondly, you have to be passionate about what you are doing. Don’t go into any business because you assume that it is easy, no business is easy. You have to learn the skill and understand the business; nobody should understand your business more than you. You don’t stop learning, when you start a business, you don’t just restrict yourself, and you must go for courses. Don’t restrict yourself to just learning the skill; also learn the business side of it. Every business needs accounting, so make sure that you know what is coming in and what is going out on a daily basis. Also, learn customer service; it is important to know how to relate with your clients.
What would you tell women who seem to give the excuse of minding the home front for not chasing their passion?
I think women are beginning to change their mind-sets when it comes to that; gone are the days when we take those excuses not anymore. They now know that they have to be independent and bring something to the table; it is now left for our culture to encourage women. Women give excuses because they don’t know what they want; when they find out what they want, they will give it their best shot.
Women need to take the bull by its horns; not everybody can be an entrepreneur. There are a lot of people that are doing a nine to five and are doing very well and trust me, even the nine to five is not a joke. Just find what you are good at and develop yourself in that. Be a leader in anything you do; do your research to make sure that you are creative at doing it. You have to know your competitors; you need to know why they are strong so that you can develop yourself; it is about you making up your mind to add value.
Who or what inspires you?
The fear of being average; I don’t want to be average. I am an upgraded version of my mother and when I look at my daughter, she says she wants to be like me, that also inspires me. Even when my students tell me about their achievements, it keeps me going.
What is your number one fashion wear?
I love corporate attires, but I like to be simple because I am always working.
What is the future of your fashion academy?
The future is London College of Fashion and beyond. I attend programmes for further learning and I try to imbibe their kind of structures into my fashion school. We hope to set up faculties and an entrepreneurship department so that while we teach the skill students also learn the business side of it.