Career Talk is a series where ATPB interviews women who have started their own businesses. The series will also explore how professional women have positioned themselves at the top of their industries. Our first feature is of Reni Folawiyo.
Reni Folawiyo is a trailblazing entrepreneur, making waves across Africa’s vast continent and worldwide. After studying and practicing law through her father’s law firm, she spent a few years cultivating a factory turned studio, which she turned into an interior design service producing custom furniture. In 2014, she opened Alara, an African concept store and event space in the heart of Lagos designed by internationally acclaimed British-Ghanian architect David Adjaye. Later, she added a restaurant, NOK and NOK Garden by Alara, to celebrate African cuisine.
She has made an impact in priming Nigeria to become the biggest fashion hub in Africa through her global retail and luxury lifestyle founded upon a blend of traditional and contemporary African art, design, and fashion. A sustainable culture and business model keeps her vision growing without compromising history or heritage. Her gaze is fixed on changing the pan-African narrative, empowering young designers and artists, and encouraging growth through fashion funds and schools.
“We haven’t patronized our own craft enough,” says Reni Folawiyo. “If you put African craft into a contemporary context, people will covet it. But it must be presented spectacularly. That way we can love it again.”
Tamu McPherson met with her in Lagos to chat.
Tamu McPherson: As a leader in the luxury fashion arena, you’re writing a story and helping the industry move forward. What is your mission?
Rena Folawiyo: I have this grand idea of the rebranding of Africa. The way that the world sees us, and the way we see ourselves is not representative of what we’ve become. It’s taken the world a bit long to get that into their heads. I think that if I can, first of all get us to understand that we need to be together to be strong. We have to get together and have this common goal to change the way people see us as Africans. We live in urban cities, we have urban lives, we do things that everybody else does in the world. We have this fantastic culture that people can never get enough of. We’re a big force to be reckoned with and we need to show the world that.
People of my generation were made to feel less, made to feel like we needed to do what everybody else in the West was doing to be accepted. So now, younger people want to show the world that as Africans we can do anything.
TMP: You’re also mentoring and holding this competition, Emerge, to incubate designers. What was your first competition like?
RF: When we started with Emerge Alara, we found that the [six] finalists were strong, but one thing that we realized was that the designers we got were either self-taught, or they were trained abroad. Self taught means that you don’t know the business side, you’re just a creative. We can mentor, but we don’t have enough technical space. Now we realize that we can’t just take young people and say, ‘come on to Emerge’ we literally have to see what the schools are doing and what we can do with them, because that’s where it all starts.
TMP: You know, you saw that on the runway at the Emerge show too. You saw pieces that you know if there was mentoring and technical instruction they would have executed it better. But what you saw was promising.
RF: That’s exactly what I’m saying. It’s promising that people get to that level with very little technical expertise and even if you look at people who are actually producing it for them, they don’t have the technical expertise either. Everybody’s winging it. We have all these Lagos fashion [designers] and I’m thinking to myself, how do we sustain this? How do we take this to the next level?
TMP: But I love that. I love that you’re doing this. This is how you learn.
RF: It was lovely to see the young kids in the space. They want to be better. They want the opportunity. And they want the support. If only we could find that.
A lot of them spoke about funding. So, we decided to have some people from banking and business, just to connect them to people and for them to understand the real challenges, because they are just either business people or investing in things that are very direct and not that meaningful. Banks don’t want to give funds to people that can’t pay 25% interest in Nigeria. And so I’m thinking, put them all together and say, “Look at these challenges, we have to find a way that all of us can support, I’m not asking you to give away stuff free, there’s business opportunities here.” The country is going to be determined by this really creative hub that is forming now, and people have to know that.
TMP: I love working with people younger than myself as well. It’s a different type of energy, they’re scrappy, they’re very inventive. You need that. Were you always an entrepreneur? Did you always have that spirit?
RF: I studied law and practiced law for 10 years. But I’ve always been creative. When I was younger, my mom used to be a teacher at the College of Technology. She would take us to where she was teaching, and we would have to hang around until she was ready to go home. There was a fashion department, art department, and design department, so I kind of grew up with all these people. When I was a lawyer my weekend life was different, I used to have them come into my space every weekend and come up with [and make] all sorts of things. I was like, these people are so talented, but what are they going to do for a living? The future didn’t seem that bright. Nobody was much into the arts. So I’m like, okay, let’s do something that could be a commercial venture, but was seriously art-led. I don’t know why I did it, but we just did it and it became this collective.
After a while, my husband was like, “So, what are you going to do with all this stuff?”
And I said “Maybe we’ll sell it.” He said why don’t you just have an exhibition to show people and see whether they’re interested. So, we did. Then people wanted more and more and I thought, why don’t we find a studio? So we found a studio.
TMP: How did you transition out of law and start to become profitable in your business?
RF: After a while I just decided that it was enough. I couldn’t do it anymore. Then I said to myself, “You have all these artists, you have the studio. How much money do you think this is going to make anyone?” I needed to invest in some more tools and it meant that I needed to be making money. So I realized that we were doing a lot of woodworking. I said, Let’s do joinery and furniture, so we can make doors, and stuff like that.
TMP: You’re an ultimate businesswoman. I love that process and how you came to it through common sense, and now you have a full-fledged and successful business. We often don’t look at the big picture.
RF: I think it’s a big issue. Even talking to designers, I’m like, you cannot do this facade. It is not fun. If you’re gonna try and make a living out of it, you have to do it with intention all the time. If you look at my shop, everybody said, “This is a crazy woman. What is she doing? She’s indulgent, she’s this, she’s that.” When you’re doing fashion people think you’re not serious. People think she has money to throw away at the shop. It’s not like that. If the numbers didn’t work, I wouldn’t do it. We have so many revenue streams. We produce objects, furniture, and we design people’s homes. So that if one revenue stream is not working, the other would support it.
TMP: The one thing I see though, is everybody’s happy. I see all of the women that I met are very happy and very awesome.
RF: We try to empower people and bring out their strengths. I realized that people don’t have the confidence, especially if they don’t have the means. I don’t know if it’s cultural, but there’s something that makes them feel really inferior. Take the restaurant for instance. They meet a lot of people who are very well-traveled and know everything. Customers can be bullies. I realized they feel very inferior and they can’t afford to, because number one: they can’t sell the vision if they don’t believe that they are strong and have promise and number two: they would be miserable. You don’t want miserable people around you. So we decided to take an approach where we made them feel very empowered. It’s about deciding that you’re worth it.
TMP: You’re changing their lives, because that’s what we’re missing.
RF: That’s what we’re missing. We sit down every month and have leadership discussions [about] how you have to own it and how for us as a service, [with] people coming into the space. Culturally, we defer to age and we defer to means. So if you’re older and you’re rich, you can’t talk to me, meaning you can’t talk to the staff. We have to instruct the staff to see themselves as hosts. They own the vision and know everything about the space. They have to stand tall.
TMP: You’re nurturing. But if people could just be like that, I mean, that’s genius.
RF: In Alara nobody can say nobody cares about them because honestly, I can’t get what I want if I don’t care. People need to be strong and empowered to deal with me. You need to be strong, and empowered, and happy.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Reni Folawiyo portraits by Lakin Ogunbanwo.