‘I don’t believe any skill is gender specific’
Chika Ruth Nwajoku is a woman and youth entrepreneurship advocate and founder of The Leathercraft Academy, a shoemaking school created to foster socio-economic growth and reduce youth unemployment in Nigeria. A graduate of Soil Science from the Federal University of Technology Minna who has built her career in a variety of roles and industries, she is passionate about empowering women and girls in the communities who are denied access to education because of poverty, early marriages, and the patriarchal nature of the society. She aims to empower unemployed youths with vocational training, skill acquisition programmes in shoemaking, helping them to be financially independent and contribute to economic development. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, she shares her drive and passion for shoemaking.
What informed your decision to take on shoemaking?
I wanted to create value with something that I was passionate about. I have always loved shoes, but became increasingly interested in shoes when I joined shoemaking Community Development Scheme (CDS) group during my days as a Youth Corp member in 2012.
I started to dig deep into the art of shoemaking; it was fascinating to say the least. It had never occurred to me that I could make a living out of it, because interestingly, I am a graduate of Soil Science, so academically, nothing really linked to the career I have now. However, growing up, I loved making things; I loved the art. I loved creating, and this was rekindled during my youth service year.
At what point did you choose to take it up as a skill, knowing that it is not a trade a lot of women are interested in?
I do not believe any skill is gender specific; I believe a lot of women were not into shoemaking, because they had no interest in it, not because they cannot do it if they wanted to. I opted for shoemaking because I love shoes and I have a passion for making them.
Starting out, I saw the opportunities that abound in the field and I saw clearly in my mind how I could apply the skill to create a positive impact by empowering people economically through the art. With that vision firmly in place, it was easy to set out on the mission.
You are passionate about empowering women and girls, what do you consider key while carrying out this project?
Freedom and power are some of the keys I consider while carrying out women and girl’s empowerment projects. By empowering women and girls, we equip them with the freedom and power to do what they want and to have better control of what happens to them irrespective of their background.
By equipping women and girls, we give them the voice to speak, confidence to act responsibly, the financial independence to live freely and contribute to the community. My goal is to ensure that African women/girls and youths are actively building state-of-the-art projects, leading groundbreaking businesses and living their lives to the fullest.
Having operated your shoemaking school for a few years, how well would you say you have done?
We have a vocational training facility where we teach people how to make top quality footwears and other leather works; our training is 100 per cent practical. I would say that we have done tremendously well in ensuring that our work contribute to community development and to the sustainable development goals by empowering people with vocational skill to fight poverty, hunger, and gender inequality. We collaborated with Television Afrik (TVA), the first online youth entrepreneurial empowerment television platform in Africa on the project tagged, Rising Prime initiative, where we successfully trained 20 youths in the basics of shoemaking in Kaduna state, Nigeria.
Since January this year, we have been collaborating with Foundation for Resilient Empowerment and Development (FRED) on a project, End violence against women and girls; we have been training women survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in the art of footwear design and production. We also collaborated with the National Art in Health Conference Nigeria (NAHCON) where we designed and implemented a project targeted to fight the adverse effect of unemployment on health by providing vocational training of unemployed men and women in the art of footwear design, production, and marketing at our training facility.
We are in the business of reducing women and youth unemployment and fostering socio-economic growth through shoemaking. We are still working towards ensuring that shoemaking is adopted formally as a course in our universities; we are still working towards effectively putting Nigeria in the map of world footwear designers and producers by imbibing the spirit of entrepreneurship in the minds of Nigerian women and youths through vocational trainings to produce exportable shoes, increase investment so that we could not only have shoes we could trade within the country, but also outside the country and earn the needed recognition and foreign exchange that we need to make our economy work better.
What inspires you?
There are variety of things that inspires me from art, travels, networking, family, but what inspires me most is my desire to help others by using my business to provide jobs for those with special needs. All I have ever wanted to do in my life is to help people, especially women who do not even know why they are suffering, who are denied access to quality life, who are willing to work to get those two pieces of breads for themselves and their families, who should not suffer what others have created for them. I draw my inspiration from the hardships of these people.
What new projects or collaborations should we expect from your brand?
We are working towards collaborating with more NGOs for provision of vocational training opportunities for women victims of gender-based violence, young adolescent, homeless and street kids, people with disabilities, and young adolescents school leavers.
As an entrepreneur in the manufacturing industry, what key lessons has the business taught you?
The most valuable lesson I have learned is the benefit of strong, active networks. These networks provide referrals and opportunities that I otherwise would not have access to; they offer morale support and positive influences. Another lesson is never ever stop learning; those that think they know it all when starting-up are in real trouble. Whether it is from books, audiotapes, or attending meetings, conferences… each provides an opportunity to expand one’s knowledge and learn more about one’s field.
Also, a key lesson was learning that nobody builds an empire alone; I did not need eight arms and 24 legs. When I first started as an entrepreneur, I thought I would have to do everything on my own. The result was stress in all areas of my life; I had minimal success. One day, I realised I was not the only person on the planet and there were other people who possessed skills that could help move my vision forward. My brand has grown phenomenally ever since.
What advise do you have for young businesses like yours who are seeking to have a breakthrough?
Have a teachable spirit (humility) and find a mentor; despite challenging conditions, there are always experienced people with decades of experience to impart. If you find such a mentor, particularly one who has been successful in your market, do everything you can to hold on to them. Do not be afraid to challenge opinion; it is what makes an entrepreneur stand out from the crowd and your mentor will think more of you for it. Even if you do not have a full-time mentor, successful business people are usually happy to answer one-off questions if approached in the right way.
What’s your advice to women who are looking forward to be their better versions?
You can be anything and everything you set your mind to, with the right amount of ambition, commitment, and dedication, of course, hard work, you will do it. First things first, you need to realise what that best version of yourself looks like, that is what you need to figure out how you can take the next step. It is all about your mindsets and reprogramming your mind for success. The women we admire and look up to all have different mindsets.
How do you combine work and family?
It is never easy being a wife and a mother trying to juggle work with family life, so I created and organised a family calendar to figure out my family’s priorities. Once I spend time conversing and allow my family to have a say in how I am tackling the balance between them and my work, I find out they have a lot of helpful contributions and feedback. I make sure communication flows constantly.
What is your philosophy of life?
Dare to cause a change that will forever be remembered, be it small or big. Remember you are a link in the chain to draw a lot of people up, take a step and make real impact.
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