Welcome to part 2 of our exclusive interview with Entrepreneur Academy Alumnus Chi Opara, founder of Dinky Mix.
In this instalment (click), We talk with Chi about the research she is doing for some great ways she is diversifying her business, as well as her personal approach to customer service...
One of the ways Chi is diversifying what Dinky Mix has to offer is by creating activity packs that teach children about Black history in all its richness and colour. There is a history and a heritage that stretches centuries and millennia before the Atlantic slave trade - a history of empires and civilisations that invented and created and built and achieved great things. This is what she is currently researching and preparing for.
“I think it’s good for everyone to know everyone’s history. At the moment, our knowledge of history is very Eurocentric”, Chi explained. “I think Europeans miss out on seeing what happened in other continents and countries. When you put it together as a whole, yeah, of course there are horrible things that happened in the past, and also beautiful things, and it helps to shape children and shape people to really be inspired by different cultures and their history, and hopefully, if you pay attention to it, not to make the same mistakes that were made in the past.
Chi’s background is Igbo Nigerian, from the Igbo people. Story telling is a big part of Nigerian culture, and also is the lifeblood of most cultures across the continent of Africa. She has drawn much wisdom and morals from having stories passed down to her from her parents. “It helped me know who I am, and cemented positive self-identity within me”, she explains. “It means a lot to see the parallels between culture and history, and how I am raised now. This is where I come from, this is me, this is where I belong - it’s important”.
Chi channels this deep value she has for her cultural identity into the work she does, and what she creates. Her aim in this next upcoming phase of her business is to instill this knowledge and value into educational tools, arts and crafts. Another project she is working on is in collaboration with a friend of hers from Malawi. This lady is trying to teach her children her language, Chichewa. They are looking to collaborate to create a children’s picture book, which Chi is creating the illustrations for.
The arrival of Chi’s new baby son converged with the surge in demand for her products. Thankfully, by then, she had already outsourced a lot of the heavy lifting. “I tend to be someone who gets on with things. Life has been busy for a long time anyway, so I was like, ok, one more in the mix, let’s do this!” I already had things set up for when he arrived, so I ad parents and sisters around to support me - the help was there. They looked after the other kids, and let me just rest and deal with the baby. It had been exhausting, but I have the kind of personality that just gets on with it”.
Day to day, Chi’s routine looks like research and development for the business, dealing with orders, and general customer enquiries. She loves to create a personal connection with her customers, getting to know them as individuals.
“They like to come back to me on Instagram and other social platforms to have a chat with me! I get so many messages in my inbox asking how I am and how things are going. This gives such a lovely personal touch. I can now actually answer them and speak to them now, which is great”. This is all thanks to the time that has been freed up since she outsourced her extra work.
At the moment, she is researching what current resources are offering in the area of African history - she is looking at what is already out there, and what the gaps are in the market. She is looking for effective ways to approach that subject with small children from toddler stage to 5-6 years - how to put the information across in a way that is fun and engaging, as well as keeping the essence of the message behind it. “I am journalling, getting ideas down in the sketchbook. This is the bit I enjoy most!”
Chi’s kids love art, but her five year old son has a talent! The first thing he does when he gets in from school is to pick up his sketchpad and start drawing. He is really inspired by the Tinga Tinga art from Uganda, and tries to do his own Tinga Tinga.
Chi and her family have been very fortunate in that lockdown and the pandemic has brought them closer together. They were able to homeschool the kids, and they could spend loads of time out in their big garden when the weather was good. “We took the opportunity to enjoy eachother;s company, and to really teach the kids. It was a challenge, but when they got back to school, teachers said that they had improved over lockdown!”
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Business owner and mum of five uses art to celebrate diversity and empower kids to dream big.
Last year, we interviewed the amazing Chi Opara, owner and founder of Dinky Mix, which champions representation, diversity and ambition through art prints designed especially for children of all ages.
Chi is now a mum of five, and her business is thriving throughout the pandemic.
We caught up with her recently, to chat about the latest developments for Dinky Mix, and the benefits it has been to the self-esteem of children, and empowering them to celebrate their racial and cultural identity. Chi has so many of these stories, but there are a few that definitely stand out…
“A woman ordered a picture of a ballerina for her daughter aged about seven. Her daughter has dark skin, and she has not been able to find any toys, books, or anything with characters that look like her. Within the black community, colorise can be a problem, whereby people with darker skin are stigmatised. It meant so much to this little girl to see a ballerina who looks like her. She cried when she saw it, and kept saying ‘that’s me, that looks like me!’ That almost broke me when I saw that review, because this kind of thing is still happening, and is affecting children to the extent that when she saw that picture, she cried because it looked like her. This really stood out to me, and took me back to my own experiences as a child, and the feeling of being an outsider, because of something I have no control over, but really, doesn’t matter!
What Dinky Mix does for children in this way is powerful, because it encourages children to believe that they are beautiful, and that they can be exactly who they want to be. This makes the work Chi does feel highly meaningful, and it is a huge motivating factor in what she does. She has had parents send her many more videos of their children opening up her products, and jumping up and down, dancing around the room. This is beautiful to see, and reaffirms to her again and again that her art is needed.
With the profits of Dinky Mix, Chi sponsors two children, one in Burundi and another in Rwanda. She hopes to move further towards turning her business into more of a social enterprise than a business. Money is not the only outcome she is working towards.
“So many people are told you have to be ruthless in business - it’s almost like you can’t have a heart if you are an entrepreneur. That is not me, and I refuse to operate that way. I give away a lot of free stuff, and many people say that this is not the way to go. I find that the more I give, more comes back to me”.
Chi gave an example of a lady who really wanted some of the drawings for herself, but she became ill, and could no longer work, so could not afford to buy any. Chi sent them to her for free! This lady was delighted, and immediately started telling her friends and people she was connected to, and this resulted in sales. “If I had taken the ruthless approach of ‘oh well, if you can’t afford it you can’t have it’, I would have missed those other sales”. Chi believes that what you give comes back around to you. She loves to make other people happy. There is a purpose behind what she does that greatly outweighs any monetary value. The reward from seeing the self-esteem of that little girl built up, who cried after seeing the ballerina who looked like her does more for her than getting money in the bank. Money can be spent, and it doesn’t last forever, but that little girl’s confidence will last a lifetime.
“It won’t stop with her,” Chi says. “She will pass down that self-love to the next generation, and it is something that I hope will be perpetuated for generations to come”.
Around the start of lockdown, business had been slow for Dinky Mix, but in the aftermath of the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Brionna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, which highlighted systemic racism across the world, and the collective and individual struggles of black communities, the need for positive affirmation and rebuilding was brought to the forefront. As a result, almost overnight, orders started to skyrocket. Clearly, Chi was in the right place at the right time…
Before this surge of demand came through, Chi was pregnant with her fifth son. She knew that once the baby arrived, looking after all aspects of the business as she had been doing was not going to be practical, and efficiency would not be as high with the demands of looking after a newborn. She decided to outsource the fulfilment side of the business to another company, so by the time all the orders came in, this infrastructure was put in place, meaning that everything ran smoothly. This company looks after all the printing, packing, posting and shipping.
With the logistical side of things taken care of, Chi has more time and space to focus on her growth strategy, and the research and development that goes with it. She has also hired a social media manager, and someone to manage and keep the website up to date. When you are just one person doing everything, something has to fall by the wayside. For Chi, that tended to be social media and marketing that would get left for weeks at a time. The person she has hired to do this is excellent at what she does, and this has taken a weight off of Chi.
As well as all this, she has been getting busy making new art…
“I have a few new ranges coming out, including the dinosaur range, which has been really popular. I will be extending the ballet range, and in 2021, promoting the ‘I Can Be’ range, which is not quite finished yet. This range is all about drawing kids in different occupations, and doing different activities - I am going with the mantra ‘if you can see it, you can be it’. If they see themselves as the doctor or the marine biologist, rock climber or whatever, their imagination takes over the rest and they start to think that maybe they can, and if it turns out to be a passion, they are likely to follow it.
“I am starting to look at making educational packs and art and craft packs looking at black history - African history particularly - in a bid to educate kids as to where they have come from. History education in the UK tends to start from the Atlantic slave trade, and makes it seem like this was our starting point. But it’s not! There are decades, centuries and millennia of history that goes back long before this. Knowing where I came from really cemented my sense of who I am, and I want to do that for others. I want to empower kids to see all the great things their ancestors were capable of, and achieved. There was so much greatness before slavery”.
In part 2 of this interview series, Chi will tell us more about the reasons behind her plans for education packs on black history, and her personal and community-focused way of doing customer service.
After getting the building, most of Donna’s vocal coaching students are still online. However, the fact that Legacy has a building means that they have extra confidence in the business, because they can see it is growing. Initially, there was some apprehensiveness about transitioning to technical methods, but when they realised that it didn’t affect their learning. During lockdown, If it was not for the internet, Donna would have had to close down the business.
Before lockdown, Donna already had a number of online students who were located abroad - one in Los Angeles, USA, Romania, Kuwait, and Singapore. One student has been able to continue lessons through two moves across the country thanks to online learning.
“I was able to retain all my students, apart from one who contracted COVID, and is still currently ill, and cannot continue due to continuing respiratory problems.
“One of my students is seventy, and he has not been able to go anywhere. During lockdown, his mother sadly passed away, but every week, he attends his lessons without fail. He has had problems with his voice and speech, but his voice improves at the end of each lesson because of the technical exercises I do with him. He says he feels better on a physical and mental level after lessons. Sometimes if he feels low he doesn’t want to do it, but he does it anyway. Singing releases endorphins - happy chemicals - in the brain, and stimulates the vagus nerve, which in turn stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, calming you down if you are stressed - this is because of the vibrations and the breathing techniques that come with singing.
In part two of our exclusive interview with Donna Kirk, vocal coach and founder of Legacy Vocal Coaching, we chat about how her students are benefitting from coaching during lockdown, her plans for community engagement, and what it is that really motivates her to keep going…
Donna had a choice to make with the onset of the pandemic - take the easy route and go back to her high paying sales job with tons of commission and a BMW thrown in - or give up the predictability of this ‘normal’ life, and put everything back into building her business…
“Giving it all up would have been easy because I could have had all that money, but it would be hard, because I would have to give up everything I have invested in. I haven’t paid myself in three years, because everything has gone back into growing the business”, Donna explained.
It’s clear to see that the return Donna is getting from her business is more than just finances.
“Looking ahead, I know that I want to make an impact on the community. Once I am more established and can afford to, I want to open it up to kids, and people who can’t really afford coaching. Benefitting other people is what drives me. I know if I were to go back into sales I would be burnt out within another few years. Either this doesn’t work and I know I have tried, and can make my peace with it, or it does work, and I get to impact peoples lives for the better. And we are already doing just that! We are giving people self confidence, and making them feel great in ways they never thought possible.
Right now, for Donna, giving back to the community in practice looks like giving huge discounts. She markets her price far lower than what she could be charging for the standard of coaching she provides and is qualified for. This is because she is passionate about making her services accessible to more people. She knows how much it can mean to someone just to have something to look forward to during the week. During a pandemic with no end in sight, this means the world to many of her students. “If you are struggling on a low income or maybe your home life is not great, but you have that one thing that gives you hope, that you can look forward to every week - that makes you excited and happy, and gets your brain working - that makes you start liking yourself more - if I can give that to someone then I have done my job”. Donna’s eyes dance on my computer screen as she tells me this.
“I could only afford lessons because I did a really good job for a bit. A lot can’t, and that’s why I want to do more charity events, raising money for specific things. I could do a charity auction for my services, or I could hire a hall and get all my students to sing to raise money for some great causes, and make a difference. When I was working in sales, I never felt like I was making a difference. I don’t want to get to the end of my life and be like “look at all this stuff I can’t take with me”. I want to see all the lives I have impacted and see how those made an impact on other lives. This is what drives me to keep going”.
The transition from running a home-based studio to running a commercial building was not particularly daunting for Donna, as she used to work as an office manager, a large part of which involved running an office building. From the word ‘go’, Donna was ahead of the game, arranging PAT testing, checking of the fire extinguishers, and all the fiddly parts of setting up a building for public use. As well as this, Donna has been a landlady before, which was a great help.
“ I knew I needed to get first aid equipment, appoint a fire warden, and buy insurance plans for everything. My business management NVQ, which I did back in the ‘90s at school taught me the basics of how to run a business, what departments are needed - over the years, I have gained customer service experience, sales, HR, training and development, and PA duties. I am an administrator deep down. I love admin, I am weird like that! I do all my own invoicing and accounting, which comes easy to me as I also worked in credit control for a while”.
The new teacher is great with social media, marketing and SEO, which is where Donna’s skills gap is. He is surprised that Donna enjoys invoicing so much! Donna is skilled at creating systems for things, and staying organised.
“I always make loads of lists. If you’re not organised, it will bury you. You have to compartmentalise and separate everything, otherwise you will forget, and wonder what you haven’t done. I couldn’t sleep at night if I wasn’t organised. There was so much to do - ordering mirrors, getting the piano moved, sorting out contents insurance…I was very lucky with furniture - everything I needed, someone happened to be giving that thing away. Everything on my list was available to me - a microwave, a fridge, 2 desks, 2 chairs, and 2 bookcases, and in the colours I wanted as well!
A client of Curricula and Co’s Entrepreneur Academy. Last year, we produced a three-part series of blog posts containing an in-depth interview with Donna about her decision to start her business, and her journey towards her dream.
We caught up with her again at the start of the new lockdown, and she shared the latest developments of Legacy, how she continues to provide an escape for her clients during the pandemic, and finding a building house the business. This, and more, will be revealed in this three-part series. Here is the first instalment…
By the time lockdown had started, Donna had reached her target number of clients. At this time, she was still using her house as teaching location for her vocal coaching studio. She knew she wanted to diversify her services to include masterclasses, and she needed a space to do that in. Once lockdown was brought about in March, she decided to play it by ear, to see if she should end Legacy once and for all, or keep going…
“I was really frustrated with everything that was happening, and I did not meet the criteria for government support”, Donna said. “I didn’t qualify, partly because my husband Richard was still working, and we had some savings. Even though I wasn’t making as much income as I really needed to realistically keep going and to grow further, I was not losing money. I only lost five customers, but I took on another three who live abroad. I still had overheads to pay and was making only a small amount of profit. I had to choose between carrying on with the business as it was, or to cut my losses, and go back into sales, where I would make far bigger profits.
I remembered how I have build my business from the ground up, and invested a lot in my training and education, and given up a lot to get to where I am, so I decided to dig my heels in and not give up on all that I have gained so far. When three different people tell you to take a leap of faith and keep going, you kind of listen to them, especially when one of them is your accountant…”
Donna’s conversation with her accountant have her some clarity on how to proceed. He said she could pootle along as she was for as long as she liked, but if growth was what she wanted, she would have to expand, which would not really be possible from her house. What she really needed was a premises.
“I had been looking for a long time. Nothing was affordable or exactly right, but the accountant gave me a few ideas as to what to look for. I did another search, just on the off chance, and I happened to find the perfect building. It was cheaper because of the pandemic, and it was far enough away from neighbours for noise not to be an issue. What I needed was very specific. The location was perfect, and so was the price, and I just had enough money coming in to cover the cost of it, with a little investment from my savings. It was a no brainer”.
Donna took a risk by opening the building at a time when growth was not completely guaranteed because of COVID, but she decided to do it anyway and take the risk. While she was in this process, a long-time student of hers was in a good position to become the extra teacher she had been looking for. He seemed suited for the role, and was keen to get on board. He has been working with Donna as a singing teacher since September, working on a semi-freelance basis, bringing in students of his own. Donna takes a small percentage of his earnings. He is a kind of business partner, so this is something he is invested in part time. She has given him the freedom to pull out if and when he needs to, so there is no reason for him to feel tied down. His involvement has brought significant growth to the business since opening the building, as there has been a steady stream of new students. This is a significant stepping stone towards his career goals, as his dream is to open his own studio one day.
Donna and her business partner have big plans, to create courses, and bring numbers of people into the space. The building has everything she needs - a big room that can hold twenty people, a reception area, a kitchen, and a lounge space for people to hang out while their kids are having lessons. There is a breakout room as well. There are spaces that can be used for performance and recording workshops.
“I wanted it to feel premium and professional, like people were coming to a business, rather than someone’s house”, Donna explains. “Now that I have the building, my mindset has changed. Not only is it forcing me to commit more to the business, get my head down and focus on growth, rather than being a bit blasé about it, it’s given me extra security knowing that I am not using my personal space as a public area. This means that when I am at work, I feel like I’m at work. When people come to me, I can now legitimately advertise this professional space for them to come to. I can’t believe how close I came to saying, ‘oh well, I gave it a go, it didn’t work, lets just apply for a sales job - especially when someone contacted me about a sales job - like, here’s a job, 50K and a BMW, when can you start? I was tempted there for a moment…
We hope you enjoyed our exclusive interview with Anita Frost! She shared some brilliant practical wisdom on navigating these crazy times.
If you missed it, you can catch up on our three part article series by heading over to the blog page of our website.
We have loads more interviews and stories coming your way over the next couple of months - we will be catching up with Donna from Legacy Vocal Coaching and Chi Opara from Dinky Mix about the latest developments in their entrepreneurial journey throughout lockdown, plus Rebekah, our content writer and blogger will be talking all things employment, postgraduate study, communications, and more..