Final Chapter Dinky Mix - Part III
Time management and overcoming comparison
Welcome to the final part of my interview with Chi, the founder of Dinky Mix - an amazing family-focused company that sells charming art prints to use as wall art, and in the form of t-shirts, themed party sets, and more. Dinky Mix’s main mission is to celebrate the cultural diversity of children and their families. This is something she is very passionate about.
In this final part of the series, Chi talks to me about how she does it all! Balancing her top priority, her four wonderful children and her marriage, alongside a new and thriving business. A lot of what she said is a pleasant surprise…
“My 4 kids take priority, of course!” Chi says, “seasons change for me - some weeks the focus is mostly on things relating to the business, and sometimes I have to lay the business aside for a time, and concentrate on the kids, making sure that nobody is hurting each other, basically! It’s definitely not 9-5, more like working to do something from 6 in the morning for about an hour, getting a coffee, and doing a bit of work, or last thing at night when everyone is in bed. That is the beauty of having my own business, I can prioritise what I need to. This is the great thing about taking a slower and more organic approach. I can let my kids be the main priority”.
It took Chi a while to get used to this new way of doing things, especially in the area of the general expectation that if you have a business, it has to be GO GO GO all the time, and that you have to everything as soon as possible and fill up all of your spare time. She kept bringing herself back to that part of her manifesto about being slow, and reminding herself of the reason she started the business in the first place - for herself and her family. She highlights the importance of remembering what’s best for her family and also for her sanity!
A lot of people might have a business idea somewhere in the back of their minds, but if they have a family, it might put them off from doing anything about it, because of the heavy demands it would place on their already stretched schedule and personal capacity, and the expectation that you have to be super busy all the time in order to make anything happen with it. But actually, for anyone balancing both things, there are two things that are critical for making this work: time management, and how you manage your resources.
“As with any business, you have to be ok with the fact that there are slow times and fast times, times when orders are coming in, and times where you’re like ‘hello, is anyone out there?’, Chi explains, “you have to be ok with that and find a way to make it work around you”.
I was curious to know the practicalities of how Chi manages everything.
“I make sure I know which are the busy times and which are the slow times”, Chi said, “when it’s busy, I make sure everything is in place, and when the slow times come, I kind of work on things in advance, so I put all the work in during the slow times that I would need to have done by the time the busy times come around, so I am prepared and not overwhelmed when things ramp up. For instance, Christmas is coming up soon, so I have to do a lot of rushing at the moment. In January, it is super quiet for the whole month, so I use that extra time to do my prepping for the end of February and beginning of March, when it starts to get busy again. I am always ahead of myself. It’s all about thinking ahead and being prepared”.
Chi’s lifestyle, since she left behind the 9-5 routine, is not nearly as regimented as it used to be. She remembers that when she used to work full time, she would feel obligated to do overtime. She would come in early, and drop off her son at the breakfast club, For fashion shows, the company would often ask her to work during the weekend. Of course, this was a great opportunity for her to get to travel, but she hardly had any time leftover to see her child! These days, Chi is now in total control of her time. If she so chooses, she can work 9-5, or from 6am to 9pm - whatever suits her to work around her circumstances. She is secure in knowing that if her child gets ill at school, she can drop what she is doing at any moment to bring them home, and not worry what her boss is thinking.
I asked Chi what the biggest challenge is that she has faced since becoming an entrepreneur.
‘The pressure I put on myself to do as well as others that I see, especially other brands on social media. I often think, ‘how are they doing as well as they are doing? Am I doing something wrong?’ And thenI have to remind myself that, actually, it’s ok to do it my way, at my pace. I will get there in the right timing. I know I need to stick to the slow and steady approach, rather than the quick rise, which works for some people”.
When Chi feels comparison kicking in, she reminds herself that she does not know what is going on behind the scenes in their businesses. In the social media world, a lot of people talk about followers, and it seems that this is how people measure success - and then it begs the question of how well the followers are engaging. For Dinky Mix, like a lot of other things in the business, the followers seem to be organic too! When Chi goes off the radar for a bit, the followers are still there when she comes back, and a lot of them are like “welcome back, we missed you!” It’s about reminding yourself that there are so many different stories, and different ways of doing things, and Chi brings herself back to focusing on her own rather than everyone elses.
The people you compare yourself to, that you see on Instagram or Twitter or wherever, what you see is the results of a lot of hard work that they have put in behind the scenes. And that is most likely to have taken many months and even years.
“You have to be persistent and determined, knowing that you will eventually get there, and not trying to rush anything, because if you rush in, you rush out. We need to build things with foundations that can be sustained”, Chi says. Wise words indeed.
The good kind of comparison is where you remind yourself where you have come from. You get so caught up in the day to day running of things that you can easily forget to zoom out and look at the bigger picture. When you take the time to zoom out, you can surprise yourself when you notice how far you have actually come.
Five years ago, Chi was miserable in her job. But it was necessary for her to gain the experience that would benefit her where she is today. She is now glad that she stuck it out for as long as she did, because now, she has the commercial awareness to know how businesses work, and this has played a huge part in informing how she runs and operates her own business today. As well as this, she can identify things that she would do differently, which she can take forward when her business really starts to scale up. Even though she didn’t like it, it was necessary.
As well as commercial awareness, that hard slog in commercial fashion instilled some good qualities in Chi. One of these is a thick skin, as well as a lot of patience. “Fashion is very ‘dog eat dog’, she says, ‘you always need to be looking over your shoulder. You have to be super confident, and push yourself forward. Before learning that in that job, I wasn’t very confident. I am still working on this, but I am much further along than I was before that job. I am getting there!
Coming back to the whole thing about fast fashion, and how the industry has made it so that clothes tend to be more disposable and instantly accessible than ever before, Chi is adamant that she does not want to contribute to a throwaway culture. She would like to see a change in the way people use and relate to things. She wants to create items that are of a very high quality - for example, she uses strong paper and good quality inks, and packages her things in a way that encourages people to value what they have bought, and to see the beauty in it. She wants to make things that will last a long time, so that people can pass them on to the next generation of their family, so that there are stories and memories attached to them.
This is a big thing in Nigerian and African culture. They pass stories on to each other by word of mouth. With that, there is a lot of guidance for younger people, as people share their life experience, teaching the next generation in a relational way. This is part of the values that Chi weaves into her business and the art she makes with such passion.
‘The thing is, with fast and throw-away fashion’, says Chi, ‘companies on the high street, like Primark and New Look, find the cheapest possible materials, which buys into this trend where people are more likely to buy something and wear it once, and then not use it again. But if you spend money on a designer coat or bag, you are mindful of the workmanship that has gone into creating that thing, and you are more likely to value it and keep it for many years. I’m a great believer in passing things on to someone else if you don’t want them, and not throwing them in the bin. I love going through vintage clothes, and making them more me. It’s like I get to be part of the next chapter in the story of that item’.
I think we could all learn a lot from Chi’s attitude to stuff. As someone who shops high street, I definitely can!
Dinky Mix always gets a great response from both kids and adults.
Chi says, ‘with the kids, they always are like “this is me!” when they see the pictures. It’s always about that sense of identity. I got a great response when I started doing superhero themed drawings, because you don’t often see a brown superhero. A little boy or a little girl, when they see a picture of a kid with their skin tone with a cape on, doing all the poses makes them think “I can be that. I can be part of that story, it’s not just me having to watch from the sidelines and watch others in that role”. Representation really matters. I got really into the Black Panther movie. It’s the first time, and I am approaching my 40s, that I have seen on the big screen an African who is a superhero. I also saw strong women in the film - not the stereotypical villain or drug dealer - that is all I ever saw black people represented as when I was growing up. The only way of success open to people of colour that I knew when I was growing up, was to be a rapper or a sports star’.
Children seeing someone who looks like them as superheroes, ballet dancers or astronauts sparks their imagination, which leads to having ambitions and goals. This starts with how they imagine themselves. Chi believes that every child deserves the right to imagine themselves as whatever they want.
‘My daughter graduated from nursery recently’, said Chi, ‘and was like, ‘when I grow up, I wanna be a rainbow!’ I was like ‘yayyy!’ Of course, she’s not really gonna be a rainbow, but it’s amazing that she can imagine herself as something like that. I love to let her imagination run free. At the moment my 4 year old son is going to be a dinosaur, and we are all for that! My oldest son is 16 and has started a course in video game development. The youngest is 2, and wants to play with lego and get lots of cuddles. Kids are my main inspiration for Dinky Mix’.
My final question to Chi, was what would she say to anybody who is in a full time job, and believes they want to break out of that and do more?
This was her answer: ‘Just do it! Start small. It doesn’t have to be all in straight away - start a business and leave your job - I started on Etsy, and began experimenting with my drawings on social media. If you have the guts to leave your job and jump in head first, do it, why not? I am more cautious. Just doing little bits at a time is priceless’.
And that concludes this series of articles on Dinky Mix! A big thank you to Chi for being so open and honest about her business journey, and taking the time to meet with me.
DINKY MIX Part 2
Catch up on PART 1
Chi, the creative brains behind Dinky Mix, which makes and sells beautiful artwork prints aimed at children with the aim of celebrating their varied cultural heritages, is of Nigerian Heritage. Growing up in Manchester in the 1980s, she had to cope with the challenges of an environment that does not celebrate or encourage cultural and racial diversity in the same way it does today.
I greatly admire Chi’s resilience, in using these very tough challenges as a catalyst to becoming the confident person she is today. Her creative and colourful business, Dinky Mix is truly a testament to that. In this second part of the article series that details the recent conversation I had with her, she tells me more about the beautiful ways she grew and developed in spite of, and indeed, because of the intolerance she faced in the environment she was living in.
‘From a child’s point of view’, Chi explains, ‘life was hard. Everything about me was different to the people around me. I would be called names about my hair texture, my skin colour, and everything, so trying to navigate that, and fit in, I lost a lot of self value’.
I would encourage our readers to have a look at Chi’s blog on her website, where she describes in more detail, in a very eloquent way, what that felt like. In the blog, she also discusses her experience and the journey it took to rediscover her identity, and becoming proud of who she truly is.
“It was difficult”, she admits, “but I wouldn’t change any of it, because it made me a tough cookie. In the neighbourhood we lived in, there were two black families, and I became really good friends with the daughters when I was about five. We are still the best of friends now, and we still make time to see each other. It is due to the fact that we grew up in the same tough situations together, that we are still as close as we are today, and we are in the positions we are in now.
When I grew up and was doing my degree in fashion design, I would always depict my models as caucasian women with blonde hair. That was how I had been conditioned to perceive conventional beauty. Once, my teacher asked me why I always draw white women. This made me think more deeply about the reasons for this, and I talked to her about it.
She told me that I have absolutely no reason to devalue other kinds of beauty, and to to have such a narrow definition of what is beautiful. She told me that there is beauty in all races and all colours, and all kinds of hair, and all skin tones, and all cultures, and that I should allow myself to be comfortable drawing people that look like me, and what represents me
It was as a result of this amazing teacher that Chi started doing just that, and enjoying the creative process of breaking out of the mould of what mainstream society sets up as the norm for beauty. That was the significant moment where things shifted for Chi.
I asked her what she loves most about her Nigerian cultural heritage.
“Everything!”, she laughed. “I guess the Nigerian culture is so vibrant, and the resilience definitely comes from that. Anyone who has gone through difficulties, whether they are rich or poor, they will still cling to their joy in life. I love the music, the colour, the patterns, the language, and how they do humour - there is a lot of humour. And then there is the British side of me. I love the same things, and it is so diverse, and I love how it comes together in me, and how I express it. It’s CHI CULTURE!”.
Chi has, and continues to, pass on her pride in her background on to her own children. She commented on the fact that they have what she didn’t have access to at their age. When she was growing up, she had nobody to share that joy with other than her parents and immediate family. It was an awful feeling to me made to feel ashamed of being Nigerian, so she is overjoyed to see her children’s genuine pride in it. When anyone asks her kids where they are from, they say without hesitation, “oh, I’m Nigerian!”.
They love it, and there is no negativity associated with it. This is such an important thing to Chi and her family, and the fact that that positivity has been there from day one for them. The fact that Chi’s kids have had a better experience than she did, is as a direct result of her staying strong and sticking out the hard times, and choosing growth instead of bitterness.
Chi gives a lot of credit to her own parents overcoming their own challenges. Things were a lot harder for her parents when they first arrived in the UK from Nigeria before Chi was born. “My parents arrived over here in the 1970s, and the stories they tell are absolutely horrific, of the lack of welcome and the hate they experienced. Bad though my experience was, it was not as bad as theirs. That is because they stuck it out and stayed strong through the challenges. And I did the same thing, so it would be even better for my children. It is my parents that really put in the hard graft.
WOW. Just wow. I love hearing stories like this of how different generations can work together to build up a huge picture of progressive improvement. So much of the freedom and harmony we experience today, that we normally take for granted, the people who went before us, our parents and grandparents, put in the hard graft. And the Chi’s of this world are putting in the hard graft to make things even better for the next generation. It is important to zoom out sometimes and appreciate the bigger picture and the bigger story we are all part of, and that our part, though it feels mundane and tough at times, REALLY COUNTS, both for now, and for the future, not just for ourselves, but the people around us, and the people that will come after us.
Coming back to Dinky Mix, I wanted to learn more about the process it took to start it up.
I was surprised to hear how new it actually is. The original concept came about in 2016, it was launched in 2017. For 2 years, a lot of work has gone into bringing the business to life, and getting it to the point it is at now, where Chi is starting to think about scaling up. The start of the business overlapped with Chi finishing her Masters degree
The story of a woman whose kids inspired her to sell a new kind of art
Part 1: Meet Chi! From Fast Fashion to a slower approach…
A few years ago, Chi, a mum of 4 from Manchester, was looking for wall art for her little girl. Like many little girls, Chi’s daughter was into princesses, ballerinas and unicorns - all things cute and magical. But she ran into a problem. She couldn’t find anything that represented her family’s cultural background. Proud of her Nigerian heritage, Chi wanted to instil the same sense of pride into her children, and to affirm their cultural heritage and that of many other children. So she put her creative talent to good use, and created the kind of art she couldn’t find anywhere else. The result of this is Dinky Mix, a fun, playful and empowering brand of print artwork for kids to hang on their bedroom walls. All these prints carry a positive message that exudes the mission statement of Dinky Mix - to nurture pride in heritage, positive self identity and belonging in all children - that all children have hope for a fantastic and exciting future.
Chi’s artwork, which, as well as wall art prints, includes t-shirts, house ware, and greetings cards, as well as being super adorable and endearing, is bursting with slogans including ‘No Hood Like The Sisterhood”, ‘Pretty Fierce”, and ‘Queens Rock Afro Puffs”. As Chi was taking me on a tour of her stunning new website, she showed me a new recently added feature that made me smile a lot: when purchasing a piece of artwork, customers can choose the skin tone they want the featured character to have, allowing them to receive something that accurately represents themself, and their kids. And not to leave out the boys, there are all kinds of superhero themed items to choose from as well!
Chi has always loved drawing. For as long as she can remember, the Christmas and birthday presents she asked for were art related, because drawing and doodling was her number one favourite hobby. She remembers one day when her dad brought her to a big toy shop called Children’s World, he told her she could choose anything she liked. Out of all the hundreds of different toys that were available to her, Chi picked out a colouring set, that had a wide selection of pens, crayons, and felt tips.
Dinky Mix became Chi’s route out of the 9-5 grind that she found limiting, and very very tiring, when she discovered that there was a demand for her new kind of art work. She worked in the fashion industry for seven years before her career took this new turn. After graduating with a fashion degree, Chi spent many years working for a large company that supplies the high street fashion chains that we have all heard of - the likes of Primark, Top Shop, and New Look. Eventually, she progressed to being a senior designer, which involved a lot of overseas travel to fashion shows and similar events. “I found it soul destroying”, Chi said. “I am quite a creative person, so going into that industry, I had the idea that I would be creating all these great things, and would be seeing people walking down the road wearing what I had designed. But the reality was that my job was to observe what was going on on the catwalk, and what other high street brands were doing, and to basically copy that”. Chi very quickly realised that she was not really creating - she was producing something in order to make money for someone else. She stuck it out, and was patient because she knew she needed to build up her experience, but she reached a point where she was just not looking forward to going to work each day.
Though she found her day job in fast fashion deeply unfulfilling, she kept sticking at it - but she did not let it kill her passion. There was a build up of frustration from always having to colour within the lines, but the tipping point came when her boss began to micromanage her work - Chi is someone who likes to be fluid and flexible - as a fellow creative, I can totally relate to that! It felt like her boss was controlling what she created, when she created it, and how she created it, and she reached a point where she had had enough, and decided to leave that life behind for good. This job, though she worked at it with diligence, was going against her personal values that were so important to her. “It was very much for the mass market”, Chi explains, “I value quality very highly, and fast fashion is about getting the cheapest thing, making it look good for now, and if it rips in two months, it doesn’t matter, because the customer will have gotten tired of it by then anyway. That never sat well with me”.
Chi showed me the manifesto on her website, where she has outlined her values plainly for all to see and appreciate. Zooming out, her big-picture vision is to change the world, infusing it with a culture of belonging, inclusivity, and celebrating all of humanity, its differences and similarities.
She values taking a personal approach with her customers and whoever she conducts business with, valuing connections and relationship as well as, if not more than, money and profit. “I try and get really personal with my customers”, she explains, “I treat them like more than customers - for example, there was a lady in the USA who was very sick, and she Dinky Mix, but wasn’t able to afford to buy anything due to her circumstances - so I asked her what she liked the most, and surprised her by sending her what she liked most as a gift. She was amazed, and was like “I can’t believe you would do that for me!”
This also made me smile a lot. Chi and I talked about how the modern world is moving so fast, especially when it comes to how we do business. And that is to be expected in a lot of ways. But Chi has found that it is possible to be successful in business without going at breakneck speed. “Everything always seems to be “goals, goals, goals, gotta get here, gotta get there”, whereas I tend to want it to be quite organic, which it has been. I find that the people who follow me through social media genuinely engage in real conversations with me, , and we have built some really nice social media friendships. This is as a result of me taking the time to process the things that are happening around me”.
This point of view is so refreshing, even to me on a personal level. It seems that the world is going too fast for us to keep up with, and it’s easy to have a niggling sense of being less than if you cannot keep up with the speed of it all. I think we need more Chi’s in this world, who can demonstrate that it is ok to slow down a bit. Chi thinks that we can often fall into the trap of thinking we are losing something important if we are not living and working at this frenetic pace, but that, on the flip side, we are actually losing more by keeping up, because we are not really being present with what is happening right now, and truly and deeply engaging with the people in our world, and our unique processes and ways of being. For Chi, this is the main source where she gets the fulfilment in what she does.
“When you are working for someone else, you stop being driven by the personal. It becomes about the values of the company you are working for, and if their highest value is money, which has been the case in most of the places I’ve worked, then these values end up becoming your values, and your own values get held back. This made me feel almost like I was wasting away. Whereas doing Dinky Mix, it’s a nice feeling because I am not getting lost in the priceless. Myself, my core values and the brand are all interlinked. Anything I wouldn’t do myself, I don’t do in the business”.
In keeping with the aim of the brand being encouraging positive self identity in children, we got to talking about what it was like for Chi growing up in Manchester in the 1980s as a child of Nigerian origin. 30 odd years ago, I’m sorry to say that Manchester was not the culturally diverse and inclusive place it is today. “In terms of feeling accepted, like I belong, I didn’t have that - there was a lot of racism, and a lot of prejudice all around me. When I look at my own kids growing up, they still face that to a smaller degree, but I am eager to do everything I can so that they don’t have to face what I faced at their age.
If you look on the Dinky Mix website, you will find a blog piece written by Chi for her Masters degree, which talks in more detail about her journey from those tough early days, and how she grew from those experiences.
Stay tuned for next week’s second part of Chi’s story to find out more about how she overcame these challenges, and made her the courageous person she is today...
Cultural Awakening and Empowering Communities
Cultureville is all about benefitting communities, and bringing positive change to Africa, one person, one community at a time. Jane and Adeola want Africa to win! The long term goal of this company is to provide education and health care to their employees, as well as an opportunity to build a thriving livelihood, and to positively impact people for generations to come. The business tagline, Look Good, Feel Good, Do Good, refers to the effect of all aspects of the business from products, to the customer services, even down to the packaging.
Adeola explainsthat when she began spending time with local communities in Nigeria, a lot of the tailors she met could not speak English fluently. The more time she spent with these people, she realised that education is very difficult to access, due to it being very expensive, and that social mobility is almost impossible. People born into low privileged backgrounds do not aspire to anything such as going to school or university. This impacts the direction of people’s lives for the long term. There are some people who are lucky enough to get onto a course at university, or complete an apprenticeship to a trade, and eventually start a shop, or a place at the market.
The goal of Cultureville is to find talented people from less priviledged communities that would otherwise have no opportunities - people with exceptional talent and skill, who have something great to offer to the company - to train and mentor them, providing them with a job and a development opportunity that empowers them to help themselves. This would give them an alternative to education in a society where access to traditional education is the only way to succeed.
“We want to make it possible for their kids to go to school". Eventually, we want to build a school as part of Cultureville, and training workshops, so that people who are working for our company will have access to high quality schools and hospitals.
This will break down social and economic barriers that would have previously been impenetrable. Many people don’t see this as a problem, but having spent time in Nigeria, I could see that the people who have grown up in these communities do not see this as a problem because it is all they know. But there are so many talented people there, and unemployment rates are so high. We want cultureville to be accessible, in that people don’t need to have the right connections or know the right people in order to work for us. If they have the talent and the skills, they can come as they are.
Cultureville is already starting to expand beyond Nigeria into the surrounding countries, particularly Ghana. A lady who works for Cultureville is originally from Ghana, and has connections to Ghanaian suppliers and tailors. They also want to start expanding across West Africa in time. A big challenge facing this is the fact that, unlike China or India, African countries do not specialise in mass manufacturing, and people are not used to making things consistently, and to a template, meaning that Adeola and Jane have had to work hard to build up the consistent high quality of their products over a long time.
“For us to have the level of quality we want for our brand, we have to make our product to a premium standard, so we can pay into our long term visions and goals for the business to be able to achieve this kind of change in local communities. We need to deliver an excellent product to our customers. The last year and a half has mostly been about raising the quality of the products and the whole Cultureville experience. I feel like now, we are satisfied with what we are producing, and now, the focus is mostly on getting it out there now, and working on marketing in a big way”.
At the moment, regarding their bigger vision to change communities, things are happening very slowly, with people being impacted on more of an individual basis. But this is a fantastic start, that will build momentum with time. The girls told me about one lady in Lagos, whose life has changed a lot. Before working for Cultureville, her only income was from selling eggs on the street. This was the only way she had to feed her family. On top of this, she had a lot of personal challenges since her husband had left.
Adeola explains that this lady worked for their mum some time ago when they lived in Nigeria. Adeola asked her mum about this lady, what her talents were, and what she could do. She wanted to speak to her directly, to see if she could work for Cultureville. After she interviewed her, she realised that this lady was a perfect fit for the company! She had already been working on her sewing skills in her free time.
The girls were able to employ her and give her a consistent salary, so that she did not have to worry about feeding her children, could send them to school, and start planning for the future. “This has changed her so much”, said Adeola, “She seems so much more relaxed now she can provide for her kids. As we continue to scale up the business, we can expand the number of tailors that work for us, and this will enable us to have more of an impact on wider communities”.
The UK and the US are Cultureville’s biggest market for the clothing they produce. Over the coming year, the sisters are planning to expand their reach into the US, as there is a very high demand over there, due to there being a significant awakening to African culture. This is also happening in the UK. For example, Afrobeats music is experiencing an upsurge in demand, as well as there being an increase of people of African ethnicity and heritage wanting to know more about their heritage, and where they are from originally, learning more about it, and wanting to celebrate this more. The designs Cultureville create are merging African culture with western culture - one of their recent designs is a hoodie that has African print across the pockets and the sleeves - it is something that most people would wear every day, but with a little splash of culture to it.
“We notice that people are looking to us almost like curators of African culture, through what we produce. At one of our recent events, we were part of the Manchester Day parade, and were asked to provide for the African float. We got to help design it, and as part of that, people were asking us loads of questions about African culture. This caused us to research and learn about the things we had not known before. Our mum and dad and other relatives have so many stories - we can learn so much from our family, about how fabrics played a part in their lives when they were younger, growing up in Nigeria. We intentionally immerse ourselves in our culture so we can provide an even better service to our clients”.
Jane explains that since starting the business, she has personally enjoyed travelling to and experiencing parts of Nigeria she has never been to before. “I hadn’t been to the markets before, so didn’t really know what it was like. I only saw one way of life, which was just the really nice parts of Nigeria, and the luxury lifestyle. But seeing how much talent goes into making the things we sell, and being a part of that is great. Also, I love seeing the development of the people who work with us - for example, seeing a tailor learning from making a lot of mistakes in the beginning, to being able to make high quality items is truly amazing”.
The release of the Black Panther movie was a defining moment for the African community in the UK. Since then, in the last five years, Afrobeats music has become hugely popular. The world is seeing how much Africa has to offer, and truly embracing it. The girls told me that the other day, when walking through the Arndale Centre, they heard music by a Nigerian artist being played loud and proud from a shop entrance. They went into the shop and started dancing to the music!
African print is for EVERYONE!
The girls have noticed that a lot of people from diverse cultural backgrounds really love African print, but are afraid of cultural appropriation. They made it crystal clear that African print is for EVERYONE. “We want to send out the message that African culture is beautiful, and if you own it, it is beautiful. If, as a caucasian person, you want to wear African print, we would love you to wear it! The difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is that with appreciation, you give credit back to the culture you got it from. On the other hand, cultural appropriation is when you take something that belongs to another culture and say that you invented it”.
On their Instagram page, Jane and Adeola use models from a variety of races and backgrounds, so that when people view their page, they can see someone that looks like them wearing African print, and think “Hey, I could wear this!” Even the sizes are diverse, as the girls want people of all shapes and sizes to be able to feel amazing in their designs.
A lot of the models are from the girls’ existing social network, including personal friends, as well as from the local community, rather than using professional models. A great thing about this is that it gives ordinary people a chance to shine, and to grow their confidence, and come out of their shell, and have loads of fun doing it. Some people who have worked as models for Cultureville have gone on to be professionals, as modelling agencies recognise Cultureville as great experience on a CV. This says a lot about how well their reputation is doing. An example they gave was that a boy from a youth club they worked with started out doing the modelling for fun, as well as rapping and dancing. He has recently been signed by a modelling agency!
Award Winning Business
When doing a bit of research on Cultureville before I met the girls, I noticed on their Instagram bio that they had been featured on the BBC! They explained to me that they had been featured on the One Show. What led to this was their success with the Manchester Youth Market, where they were given a platform outside Selfridges in Exchange Square in Manchester on Manchester Day. The company paid for everything, and all the girls needed to do was bring their stock. Manchester Youth Market were hosting a competition, where they judged young entrepreneurs on their business set up, presentation and general customer experience. Cultureville won that competition for Greater Manchester, and were filmed on the One Show as a result!
The girls said that so far, 2019 has been an awesome year, full of breakthroughs. Taking the leap of faith to leave their full time jobs is when things really started to get amazing for them, and when the opportunities started coming in.
At this moment in time, Jane and Adeola are excited about their plans for the future of their brand and business, and their plans to expand into the US. But most of all, the impact on Africa is the thing that drives them more than anything else - to see real and lasting change in the lives of individuals, families, and ultimately communities.
The girls started being mentored by Anita Frost as part of the Entrepreneur Academy last November. They met her first at a church meeting for business people. Following on from this, they met her for coffee, to get some advice from her. From then on, they joined the Academy. Every so often, they would meet with Anita to check in about their goals and overall vision. She taught them the practicalities of what they needed to do to become a premium brand.
“We used to be in the habit of doing things last minute”, Adeola explains, “but Anita told us that you have to plan things many months in advance. This year, we are so much further ahead with everything. We did our Christmas photo shoot in September, and the pictures are already out for our Christmas marketing. It is great to have someone in your life with that level of business experience who can tell you what mistakes you are making, and to keep us accountable. She does for us what we do for our team”
Jane says, “we always try to remember that we are sisters first and business partners second, and that we were sisters before we were business partners. We want to have the closeness of our sisterhood as the foundation that keeps us upright before we have any debates and discussions relating to the business. Every thing we do, we do with love at the centre of it, but that does not mean that we don’t have disagreements - sometimes even major ones.
For example, we could be at a pop-up event, and something little can just escalate under that kind of pressure, to the point where we are arguing like sisters and not business partners. But in spite of that, and even within that, we are still happy to have each other, and that goes beyond everything. Above all, it is a family business, and even our managers, and the people we work with in Nigeria, we treat them all like family, because we want that ‘family business’ ethos to permeate the entire business”.
Respecting each other, and what the other person thinks is important to the girls as business leaders. Adeola acknowledges the fact that Jane’s experience in social media, marketing and web development gives her an authority in that area, so she respects her expertise, and her voice on these matters. Similarly, Jane would respect Adeola’s opinion and input on contracts and legal matters. They also work together on the things that they both are unsure of, and are fully aware of the fact that they may not know everything. Adeola is adamant about the importance of communication in how they conduct their business and family relationships. They are intentional about not letting irritations fester and build up without bringing things out into the open quickly. “Sometimes, when something is going wrong at a pop up, we are not able to hash it out there and then, and we can’t really get into a fight when we are facing customers, so we have to put it aside until the right moment where we can go for a walk, and talk honestly and openly about our issues”.
Working things out AFTER the heat of the moment really is very helpful, because it gives both parties a chance to reflect rationally about what happened, and to digest and process things, so that their thoughts are more fully formed when the time comes to talk about it. This fosters a better environment for more mature and productive dialogues where issues can get resolved quickly, and solutions can be found. The girls are all about helping themselves and each other to grow as people, by being honest about their mistakes, and finding proactive ways to do things better going forward.
Jane says “we did this thing where we went for a run together, and we were so out of breath that as we were telling each other what we didn’t like, we couldn’t really argue, and the running helped us to get the frustration physically out of our systems. This really helped our relationship, as well as making sure it doesn’t happen again. And if it ever does come up again, we will try to come up with a better solution, like maybe working separately on certain days. Proactive coping techniques are so important”.
A business that feels like a family
It’s great to see the ways the girls promote family values among themselves, but promoting those same values takes it to a whole new level. I was curious to find out how they practically go about filtering down that culture through the whole business, to the people that work for them.
Adeola told me how they involve everyone in the decision making process. They have a Whatsapp group where everyone comes together to share opinions, and give their input about what is happening at any given time. This also gives them a forum to celebrate victories, such as reaching 1000 followers, for example. When building up a new collection, like the one they are now getting ready to launch, they have a long process to go through, which involves sending pictures, swapping ideas, sharing thoughts, selecting fabrics, naming items on the website...everybody is involved, even down to the smallest decisions. This makes people feel like they are a valued and important part of the business.
As well as this, the girls are committed to developing the tailors that work for them. Some people have even started their own brands, as a result of the work they are doing for Cultureville. Jane and Adeola champion people to go off and grow their own businesses, and celebrate them as they do so. They promote these brands on their main company website, to make sure they get the recognition they deserve. The girl in Manchester who works for Cultureville gets her products and brand showcased in the pop ups that Cultureville run, and they share with her the things that they have learned the hard way so that she does not have to face some of the things they faced.
Adeola sums this up really well - your wins are our wins!