By the time triplets Tola, Tayo and Tunde Alakija completed their degrees in occupational therapy, radio therapy, and childhood and adolescent studies respectively, they knew their destinies were not apart, but together.
They were three bodies with one mind. The result – a common passion for fashion, and a business named Talakija.
The trio had flirted with the idea of doing something in the clothing business when they were younger but as Tola puts it, “we knew we would never go into fashion as a profession, especially coming from an African background – that is something that just does not go down well.”
For their parents, as with most African parents, the only respectable career paths for their daughters were law, medicine or banking.
“Initially I wasn’t sure of what I wanted to study. Before I went to university, I knew I wanted to help people so I looked for different subjects and occupational therapy came up. After researching it, I immediately knew it was what I wanted to do and so I went to Coventry University [in the UK] to study it,” says Tola.
Always playing the role of designated baby-sitter for her nephews and nieces from a young age, Tunde opted for childhood and adolescent studies at Bedfordshire University while Tayo decided to help people cope with cancer through radio therapy at London South Bank University.
“I chose radio therapy because I enjoy the practicality of it and helping people to get better from cancer is very rewarding. There is also a lot of problem solving that takes place in the practice,” says Tayo.
Now at 24, the girls have decided to return to their first love, initially inspired by their older sisters.
“We all grew up in south London in a council flat with six siblings. Our love for fashion started from our big sisters. They used to be into fashion so we would borrow their clothes and we thought they looked so cool. Now we have taken over to show them the real meaning of fashion,” laughs Tunde.
The inspiration for this new focus however was no laughing matter. In 2016, just as the girls were finishing their university degrees, disaster struck.
“Our dad passed away suddenly in September 2016. It came as a shock. The same day he was supposed to come back to the UK to get treatment, he passed away in Nigeria. We all flew to Nigeria the following day. He had been unwell before but always recovered, so this one was a big shock. It brought the family closer and we decided to create this brand and build it stronger in memory of our dad. So we called the brand Talakija,” says Tayo.
Their unique sense of fashion was honed at London’s West End, home to the city’s many tourist attractions, trendy cafes, shops and theaters.
“I can literally go around West End with my eyes closed. We would walk for hours looking at all the different styles from the high street. We used to dress up to church and started being creative with it. Every week we would wear new outfits and people used to compliment us and would say ‘why don’t you guys start a blog’? So we started a little blog called 23 Fashion just for fun to see how it would go. The blog was about clothes we liked, where we bought them from and how to match them,” offers Tayo.
The demand for African-inspired clothing has created a huge market for some of the continent’s designers and brands. The patronage of African prints by international personalities like Michelle Obama, Thandie Newton and Beyoncé has led to an increase in its popularity with designers vying for a piece of the exploding market.
This has led to the proliferation of e-commerce fashion platforms that not only widens access to international markets for African designers but also caters to homegrown demand.
“Nigeria’s e-commerce market is currently worth $13 billion and it is expected to rise to about $50 billion in the next decade and with the increase in internet penetration and mobile technology, there are massive opportunities for fashion brands online,” says Dotun Bello, a financial analyst at the Nigerian Stock Exchange.
Talakija is looking to cash in on this trend. Launched in August 2017 as an online store, the triplets have managed to create a buzz, both in Nigeria and London, where their ready-to-wear blazers and suits intricately detailed with African print are selling at $95 to $120 a piece.
“We were invited to showcase our pieces at the one Africa fashion show which was a huge event and then following that we styled one of Nigeria’s biggest artists, Flavour N’abania, in two of our pieces for his music video and that is how all the attention started,” says Tayo.
The online shop also sells African-inspired bags, crop tops, waistcoats and trousers.
“I love the originality of the brand. Not a lot of people can make blazers with African print and make it look like a bespoke piece and that is the one thing that Talakija does really well,” says Bimbola Ahmed, a social media influencer.
Each of the three Talakija entrepreneurs plays a different role in the business.
Tayo is the creative one in the group, usually with the final say when it comes to sketching and the look of the pieces. Tola handles finance and Tunde manages PR and social media.
Building the brand has brought the girls closer and helped them cope with the difficult time in their personal lives.
Together, they have made it work.
What Will It Take To Close The Funding Gap For Black Female Founders?
If you’ve heard the statistics once, you’ve probably heard them a thousand times: Of the nearly $100 billion in venture funding that goes to entrepreneurs in America, less than 3% goes to female founders and just 0.2% goes to black female founders.
There’s a growing consensus that venture capital’s race problem needs to be fixed.What’s less clear is precisely how to start closing the massive gulf. And at the inaugural Black Women Raise conference in Manhattan on Friday, a gathering of some 80 black female founders, a series of candid conversations laid bare the frustrations around the lack of an obvious path forward. In several raw moments of interchange, however, some answers started to emerge.
Investors “could ask different questions,” Charles Hudson, founder and managing partner of Precursor Ventures, said during a panel conversation with BBG’s Susan Lyne, First Round Capital’s Hayley Barna, and Female Founder’s Fund Sutian Dong. “There are all these questions—‘Well, do you think she can recruit? Do you think she can hire?’—I know what’s behind that question.
It’s ‘Do you think she can get people to work for her because she’s a black woman?’ And people ask these, what on the surface sound like innocent enough legitimate questions about investments, but they’re not innocent. They’re loaded. And you learn a lot by the questions people ask.”
Despite the existence (and, arguably, preponderance) of these loaded questions, Hudson and the others cautioned the entrepreneurs in the room against becoming disillusioned with the traditional venture capital community. Instead, they said, minority founders should prioritize investors who have a track record of investing in entrepreneurs who look like them.
“Vet investors up front. Don’t let them waste your time only to give you a half-ass answer after you spend an hour with them or even two weeks later,” said Barna, who started her venture capital career after successfully cofounding e-commerce darling Birch Box. “Just ask, ‘Is this in your sweet spot?’”
Dong noted that investors should be self-monitoring for where they’re over- and under-indexing, too. “We’ve said we don’t like the ratio of founders in our portfolio. About half are nonwhite, but only two are African-American. So we asked our network who we should be talking to,” she said.
It can be hard, in an open and on-the-record forum, to ask the hard questions about investing in underrepresented founders—much less to receive forthright answers to those questions—but to the credit of the Black Women Raise attendees, no one shied away from speaking about the reality of her experience as a founder of color.
“Everyone talks about the ‘friends and family round.’ I raised $63,000; I am the friends and family round,” quipped Star Cunningham, founder and CEO of health management platform 4D Healthware. But underpinning her self-funding, Cunningham continued, was a lack of capital access. “I have debt, because I had to get it, because no one wanted to give me any money. So what are you, as investors, going to do to look at our companies differently?”
Barna’s reply: Don’t be afraid to talk about your distance traveled. “The same stories about people getting straight A’s from Ivy League schools isn’t what gets us fired up; it’s instead hearing about how someone put themselves through med school from driving an ambulance,” she said. “You might think that you’re not supposed to talk about your life story, but I think it’s an important data point in helping [investors] make the right decision.”
This isn’t to say that a little bit of information and clever storytelling will fix the funding gap for founders of color. Viola Llewellyn, cofounder of African fintech platform Ovamba, pointed out as much, saying that many of the investors she’s come across don’t seem interested in asking the questions that lead to the sorts of decisions Barna is referencing.
“Here’s the problem: No one gets punished intellectually, emotionally, or financially for saying no to black women or to Africans. You will instead be congratulated if you don’t make the ‘foolish mistake’ of investing in something that doesn’t fit into the preconceived ideas of what success is,” Llewellyn said to Hudson, Lyne, Barna and Dong.
“At what point do we find a way to tell the story of the fool that said no?” she continued, to applause from the room.
Hudson waited a beat, and responded with empathy.
“There’s a million reasons [for investors] to say no, but until we have more success stories, I think there’s always an easy out for people to say, ‘No one has proven to me that investing in this way and this type of person works out.’ It’s intellectually lazy and it’s wrong,” he said. “You have every right to be angry.”
Angry, yes, but also motivated. Among the clearest takeaways from the conversation is that one of the best ways to change the system is to start from within. In Silicon Valley and Arlan Hamilton parlance, fight pattern-matching with pattern-matching.
“More black women need to control capital, in whatever form that may be,” Dong said. “More black women need to be controlling capital to put that into companies run by black female founders.”
Masai Ujiri’s dream of harnessing untapped African talent
The President of Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri, on his adoration for Africa as a continent filled with unlimited potential and talent.
The tall man in sport, Masai Ujiri, is a name in professional basketball far beyond the borders of Africa and his native Nigeria.
Born in England but having grown up in Zaria in Africa’s most populous country, Ujiri’s adoration for Africa sees him on the continent often, inspiring the youth.
“Africa is no more afraid. We are not afraid of anybody anymore. The continent is bold. The people are bold,” says Ujiri, when FORBES AFRICA meets him in Johannesburg in November at the Africa Investment Forum in which he participated.
The continent has a special place in his heart.
The President of the Toronto Raptors in the National Basketball Association (NBA), also founded Giants of Africa (GOA) in 2003, as a way of harnessing budding, untapped talent.
“As long as I am in a position where I am able to, we have to give the youth a chance. We have to pave a path for them and there is nothing I can’t do. I have to do everything, it is an obligation, I have to be an example for them by creating that pathway,” he says.
Ujiri, who started playing basketball at the age of 13, travels to Africa every August to visit the GOA camps across seven countries on the continent, training young boys and girls to be leaders in both sport and everyday life.
He says he draws inspiration from each and every country in Africa, and the feeling is inexplicable.
The history and culture are a constant reminder of his years growing up in Africa.
Whether it is in Kenya, where his mother was born, or the lasting friendships in Rwanda, Senegal or Nigeria, each country holds special memories.
Apart from the numerous trips in and out of the continent, 2018 granted Ujiri a rare once-in-a-lifetime moment.
This was in July when Barack Obama, the former president of the United States, visited Kenya, and with him, Ujiri opened a basketball court in the country.
Ujiri’s outreach program GOA launched it at the Sauti Kuu Foundation Sports, Resources and Vocational Centre in Alego; familiar ground for both leaders.
Managed by Auma Obama, Sauti Kuu, much like GOA, is focused on youth development.
“To spend that time with somebody that Africa means so much to, meant so much to me and so much to Auma. We are trying to inspire youth, we built a court that is going to impact the youth and that was special,” says Ujiri.
Being able to scout African talent is what is imperative for Ujiri, and it all comes down to building facilities to help the youth play basketball.
Ultimately, his dream for Africa is not only to see material wealth but for talent to go beyond what he has achieved.
“My dream is to have one of the youth become bigger than me, and bigger than everybody. People think I always dream of building this and doing that but I want one of these kids to take everything that they learn and do better in each and everything.
“I love the continent; I love the culture of different places. I am almost like Anthony Bourdain [the late American celebrity chef], that is how it really is with basketball, with the culture, the people and the food,” says Ujiri.
Staying true to his African roots, when we meet him, Ujiri speaks about his favorite yam and stew dish that he says reminds him of his childhood.
It’s such memories that see him taking the long-haul flight out of Toronto to Africa each year.
Brewing Success: Lessons From A Beer Baron
Canadian John Sleeman shares his entrepreneurial lessons with Africa.
cis not your typical textbook entrepreneur. His belief in what it takes to be an entrepreneur is so controversial that his advice is no longer welcome in MBA classes. The white-haired charismatic brewer, who re-established his family’s brewing business in 1988 as one of the most successful in Canada, offers sage advice to African entrepreneurs, although he has no plans to expand in Africa – yet.
Nonchalantly, in his automated beer manufacturing plant in Guelph, Canada, surrounded by people enjoying his craft beer, Sleeman says he believes entrepreneurs are born, not made. He argues that unless you are prepared to go bankrupt, work over 80 hours a week, lose your friends, face the prospect of divorce, put your house on mortgage and miss meeting friends for drinks on Fridays, then entrepreneurship is not for you.
He should know. This is the toll he took to restart his family business. It had lost its licence and was banned from the market for 50 years in 1933. This was for smuggling beer during the roaring 1920s by brokering deals with bootleggers and gangsters like Al Capone when prohibition set in in Canada.
Passionately, the beer baron, who plans to open a micro-distillery later this year, and is considering expanding his business in either the eastern or western parts of Canada, tells FORBES AFRICA: “If you want to be an entrepreneur, be very focused on what you want to achieve and don’t let people talk you out of it. If it is a dream, pursue it until you are successful.”
He attributes his success to surrounding himself with the right people. They will make or break your business, says Sleeman. You should be ready to change your business model if the current one isn’t working, he adds.
In his own case, he did this after his colleague advised him that rather than opening up new breweries across Canada, he should buy existing ones that share Sleeman Breweries’ crazy passion for beer and authenticity.
Sleeman reckons you shouldn’t grow so big that you lose your entrepreneurial flair, first-mover advantage and risk-appetite, but you also shouldn’t remain so small that you get knocked out of business or get bought out by someone who does not see your vision and wants to dismantle you, as it almost happened to his business in 2006. If you do sell, reminisces Sleeman, sell to someone who sees your vision, like Sleeman Breweries did, when Japanese company Sapporo saved the Guelph-based firm from a hostile takeover.
But that’s history. Since then, Sapporo has helped fund research and development and training for the business, whose humble, down-to-earth founder is now taking it on its next spirited journey.
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