Two African entrepreneurs in the United Kingdom. One tale of grit and gumption in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.
IN 2019, WHEN BERNICIA BOATENG OPENED HER namesake makeup studio, Bernicia Boateng Studios, in London’s high street, it made her the first Ghanaian to do so. Her makeup business had grown considerably over the years, as she cultivated some big names as her clientele including, as she says, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and models Leomie Anderson and Jourdan Dunn.
She was beginning to be recognized for her work with features in publications such as Vogue and collaborations with beauty and fashion houses such as Estée Lauder and Yves Saint Laurent. When the BBC and Evening Standard were looking for a voice representing excellence in the makeup industry, Boateng was the go-to name. But then came the pandemic, the lockdowns, the second wave, and a twist in the fairy tale.
“When I realized that face-to-face contact wasn’t something we can rely on anymore, I kind of moved the brand towards education,” says Boateng, on her decision to strategize to survive. But how did she end up in the beauty business in the United Kingdom (UK)?
“I have always wanted to be a makeup artist because my mum loved makeup and it was something I always found desirable. I wanted to be just like my mum who was a very glamorous woman. I remember she would take us to Selfridges (high-end department store) on the weekends after drama school and she would make us sit down and watch as she got her makeup done and that is where I got interested,” says Boateng.
Those were the days before YouTube and social media makeup tutorials when the only way one could hone the craft was by rolling up the sleeves and learning on the job or from a professional on the shop floor. And that is exactly what Boateng did.
After graduating with a business management degree from the University of Leicester in the UK, Boateng got her first job with Mac Cosmetics as a makeup artist, before branching out to become her own professional.
“2011 and 2012 [were the years] makeup took over and it was all over social media with videos on how to recreate makeup and I just realized that there was a gap in the market in terms of doing a luxury makeup look for dark-skinned girls and I wanted to fill that void,” she says of the early years.
But now, in order to fill the void created by the pandemic, she has had to give her business an even bigger digital persona.
“When it first hit, the first thing I thought of was taking my work online. A lot of people still want to look good at home and we don’t have a lot of control about where we can go or where we can eat but one thing we do have control over is how we look, how we make ourselves feel, and how we make other people feel. So, it was imperative to show people how to look and feel good,” says Boateng.
We don’t have a lot of control about where we can go or where we can eat but one thing we do have control over is how we look. – Bernicia Boateng
She began with online tutorials that did so well that they were covered by the BBC. She also began creating more content establishing a more personal rapport with her 115,000-strong Instagram audience, taking them on a journey to enhancing their self-esteem. The result of these initiatives means Boateng has now found a new revenue stream to stay afloat.
But who knows for how long until the pandemic ebbs away? With the UK experiencing harsh restrictions, startups have all either had to fold up, pivot or start all over.
Take for example, Brimms Bottles Limited, founded by P.Y. Adjei, which had to adapt almost immediately to the new economic climate. After graduating from the University of Greenwich, Adjei worked in the banking sector for about five years before listening to his inner entrepreneurial voice.
He began by creating content for a number of magazines before launching his own publication, which he ran for a few years. With Brexit gaining momentum, Adjei had his eureka moment during a chance encounter with a friend that led him all the way to China in search of greener pastures.
“My time there influenced what I am doing today because I got a chance to meet a number of manufacturers and from there, I came across what I thought was a brilliant product,” says Adjei.
That product was a stainless-steel bottle that kept a drink warm for 12 hours or cold for a whole day.
“It looked beautiful to me and the only thing missing was the product packaging. It was mainly boring colors and that is where my creative direction kicked in. I wanted the bottles to have a better design and style and from there I started working on the idea and trying to see what I could do, design-wise, to improve it and build the product and here I am today.”
I remember going to see my manufacturer in Germany and they were holding a conference in Frankfurt and we got there and realized that the place was completely empty and that is where I saw how serious [Covid-19] was and how it would impact business. – P.Y. Adjei
But nobody could have foreseen the body blows of Covid-19.
“Brimms Bottles kicked off right at the beginning of the pandemic and I remember going to see my manufacturer in Germany and they were holding a conference in Frankfurt and we got there and realized that the place was completely empty and that is where I saw how serious this was and how it would impact business,” says Adjei.
His problems were just about to begin. He experienced undue delays for the samples he had ordered of Brimms Bottles due to lockdowns implemented all over the world.
“But we managed to work through that during the sample stage but finally when we got the final order in, that got delayed as well, taking about three to four months from China because of the pandemic,” says Adjei.
Initially, the idea was to have his products at a few outlets such as cafes and were also meant for outdoor activities and travels, all of which were unduly affected by the pandemic. Now, he is leaning more towards the e-commerce aspect of the business.
“I used my unique skills in terms of content creation and web design to make sure that my website works perfectly and to make sure I am working to get my products out there. “I am also branching into co-branding which allows a company or individual to create their bottles and co-brand along with mine so I am diversifying to give the bottles other avenues to survive,” says Adjei.
Going digital is the only way forward for Adjei, Boateng, and many other startup entrepreneurs in the diaspora who had just begun on their journey in business, and have had to script their own rulebooks of survival. Their story is no different from their counterparts across the world. It’s one of grit, gumption and the fortitude to stay the course, no matter what.