‘When situations of life come knocking at you, don’t let it win’
A serial entrepreneur, mentor and coach to women across spheres, Kiki Okewale is the CEO of Hope by Kiki Okewale, a Lagos-based fashion outfit. After a diploma programme at the University of Ibadan, she proceeded to the Williams Shakespear College, (an affiliate of Portsmouth University) for further studies. She bagged a master’s degree in Business Administration at Ladoke Akintola University of Technology (LAUTECH) on her return to Nigeria and has since added other certifications to her portfolio including Green Cleaning, coaching, marketing, sales, and business structure and client service.
Her distinctive collections have carved for her, an enviable niche in the hub of high fashion. Her passion for lending a helping hand to the less privileged spurred her to set up the Hope Foundation, with the aim to fulfilling her mandate. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, she shares her passion for fashion, empowering other women and living her dreams.
Take us through your journey into the fashion world?
It started from when I was a child; I never felt beautiful, I looked so much like a man, so much like my father. I didn’t use to feel so beautiful, so when my mum bought me clothes, I would add a bit of my own effect just to give me that attention with embellishments. I would say then that I want to be a fashion designer when I grown up.
As life happened, I forgot about that thought; I went to the UK to study and when I got back, I was totally confused. I didn’t have a clear direction of what I wanted to do, so I got an internship job where I wasn’t paid for a whole year and because of my dedication to the job, I got a job with a PR firm; Marketing Mix and later TPT.
However, I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, I wasn’t someone that could be limited and so I gave so much more than I was getting and for every company that I worked, they double or triple my salary when I want to leave, which shows that I was doing something extra. When I was getting married, I had a rethink. I love event planning a lot, I was always travelling and I didn’t want to be away from my family especially raising my kids. Having lost my father at the age of 12, I knew what it was like not having one parent. So, I asked myself, if I can’t plan events, then I could style people that go to events.
Also, planning my wedding sealed it; it was hectic finding vendors. It wasn’t the era of social media and then I told myself I would set up a one-stop store where a woman gets everything she wants from head to toe. That was how the dream started six years ago.
What are some of the highlight and challenges running the business?
I started without having a mentor or coach, or anyone I knew that was in this line of business; I went in afraid. I didn’t have suppliers or vendors. So, the first time I bought was from Alibaba; there were fears of getting scammed or not getting the right products. But then, I did it with fears and here we are. However, I cannot forget when a client came into my store and said, ‘I cannot shop here; your store is empty.’ I cried; I had just spent all my money stocking up the place and I was just starting, but then that gave me a mindset shift. I also realised along the line that friends and family might not be my target audience, because I used to be upset they were not buying from me. But then, I realised that its either they don’t need what I am selling or they cannot afford it, which is part of what I teach new business owners.
Also, in terms of staffing, I would take them as family, but over time I realised it wasn’t good for business. A staff stole three million naira from me; she continuously gave my clients her personal banks details to make payments, until one day, a client called me and said she is about to make payment and wanted to confirmed the account details with the name ‘Bimbola.’ As soon as I heard that, which is my store manager’s name, I couldn’t believe it. I got to the store and with the police; we got her bank statement and saw payments from high profile women I didn’t know were my clients.
Apparently her accomplice was her husband. I would see fabrics on these people on TV and will be telling myself that I also have them, not knowing they are actually wearing fabrics from my store. All of that has changed now, because I have persisted and leveraged on building the right structures to tackle these challenges.
Nigeria seems not to have tapped into the multi-million dollars fashion industry, how do you think this can be achieved?
Being a Nigerian business owner is hard, and trying to push your brand to an international platform is even harder. First, we have not been positioned in that space because we don’t get that support from our government. So, everything Nigerian entrepreneurs have done is by themselves. Hence, we have tried to support each other. Now, a lot of people wear Nigerian brands; I have a lot of people I ship to who are not Nigerians or Africans.
So, what we need to work on is ensuring that the quality of what we give out can stand the international market. We all know the cost of running a business here is tasking. For example, I pay for water and electricity and then running a generation totaling about N900,000 in a month and it is frustrating. It takes courage to move on, we have what it takes, a lot of Nigerian designs are so good, but we don’t mass produce, which is a problem. Hence, I started my garment factory where we mass-produce, because a lot of people buy from Turkey, China and the US; we can make it here. So, at our factory, we mass-produce for fashion entrepreneurs.
What inspires you?
As a creative, a variety of things inspire me; I have used my centre rug to create an outfit, which became our best seller. If I am creating a collection, I look at what message I am trying to pass. During the ENDSARS protests, I created T-shirts where we put different inscriptions around that theme too.
When I am in my creative space, music and the sound of water helps me get creative. My vacation is incomplete if I don’t go to where there’s a beach, because that is where I can be really calm. I don’t go anywhere without my sketchpad too, even by my bedside. I could be sleeping and just jump out of bed, to put down a sketch I dreamt about.
You are a woman of many parts, how do you manage all of these and still be at your best?
First is that I don’t compromise family; my kids and my husband. I spend my time at home more, except it is absolutely necessary. I have done time mapping for myself to figure out what really matters and make sure it is not lacking.
For my different businesses, I have invested in good managers and staff, which makes the job easier. Yes, I have to train them every now and then, remind them of the values we stand for but then they are willing to do the work. I have an agricultural line of business, a supermarket and pharmacy, a fashion school, a garment production factory and this fashion house. So, what I do is fix dates to attend meetings at the different places and still get daily and weekly reports, and then Saturdays and Sundays, I don’t work.
So, I have invested so much in structure, so I can stay even up to a month without being at a place and everything goes fine. I have also invested in auditors; with the right structure in place, it helps largely. I want to build a business that can outlive me. This has always never been like this, because when I started, I was the manager, cleaner, accountant, cashier and all; I didn’t rush, I let everything take its course.
I am on a mission to die empty and so my life’s purpose to help people fulfill their purpose and so I needed to create time for it. No one is here without a purpose and a lot of people can’t identify their purpose. I am here to help, that is what I try to achieve with my programme on Instagram live, Pain to Purpose, where I get people to share their experiences and how they have lived above it. For me, I have had fair share of life too.
How can other women sit at the same table where you are?
So, when I talk to people, the first thing I tell them is to accept where you are, stop living in denial so that you can adequately address issues. If you are in a low season, accept it and stop trying to be like a strong woman; understand your reality, even though this is not where you want to be, this is where you are right now. So, the focus will be on what can be done to move from where you are to where you want to be. It boils down to your life goals; if you want to be a business owner, how can you achieve it and once you identify that, consistency. If you understand that you will face challenges, your approach to your situation determines the outcome.
I always encourage women; when situations of life come knocking at you, don’t let it win. When you fall, no matter how many times, rise again, because I have fallen many times. It is about determination and showing up; you never know the day that turn around will come. In all you do, make sure you put your best; for most of my international runway events, it is people who have recommended me.
So, I advise women, don’t get involved in mediocre; whatever is worth doing, is what doing well. I have had governors wives come into this store covering up and wearing slippers and not looking like what they are until later they say the reason I keep coming is because even when you and your staff didn’t know who I am, I was treated like royalty, which is really key. So, whatever you do, do it well, serve well. One day, your name will be mentioned in places your feet are yet to get to and doors will start opening. Always give your best, serve well and remember it’s about service. Carve a niche for yourself and do it with a genuine heart and the sky is your starting point.