NseobongOkon-Ekong and Vanessa Obioha encounter one of Nigeria’s promising young entrepreneurs, Olatorera Oniru, who founded an e-commerce startup that retails fashion products across the globe
No one would have thought that at the end of the day, THISDAY Glitterati Team and Olatorera Oniru would smile and shake hands. The working relationship was headed for the rocks before it could barely crawl. Somehow, it got off on a wrong foot. An ill-perceived telephone conversation the previous night infuriated the Ogun State indigene who is now married to a Lagos blue blood and she wasted no time in expressing her irritation.
The journalists arrived to a not-too-warm reception and at some point it looked like we would have to pack our recording devices and camera and leave without conducting the interview. As the reporters and their subject circled themselves like wrestlers about to lock themselves into a brawl, it was clear that there had to be an ice-breaker.
Out of courtesy, rather than culpability, the reporters apologised to her, but it took a while before Oniru relaxed. She thought nothing of exposing her somewhat dark side, saying, it is difficult for her to forgive.
Devoid of any sinister motive, her reaction could only suggest one thing: The young entrepreneur is an easy-to-read person who does not mask her feelings. The feeling of security is exuded in many ways. It is seen in the confident way she wears her natural hair in a lovely style. She’s been grooming it for five years.
By the way, it was compliment paid to her hair that softened her, brought a smile to her face and enabled the interview to proceed unhindered. Her sense of style clearly indicated her love for the arts. However, the trait was not limited to her personality. It was evident in her work space.
Her office could easily be taken for the workshop of a visual artist. The playful use of colours and drawing on the walls easily portray the mind of an art-inclined person.
To be sure, Oniru didn’t study the arts in the university. Her first degree was in Business Administration and Management. For her Masters degree, she studied Business Administration, Finance Leadership and Management. Again, she doesn’t have any experience in an art-related field. Her proclivity towards the arts is stimulated from an innate love for Africa and everything made in and out of the continent.
There is a particular reason she has deployed generous and copious use of visual art images in her work space.
“I want to motivate employees, even myself. We need to be motivated to grow better than what we are today, there’s no stopping point. Nobody can get comfortable. Not in Nigeria or Africa where businesses are still in the infancy stages.
Fashion is art. It is creativity put in a sketchbook and transformed to designs that people wear. The office is artistic because it makes us think globally, think creatively, think excitedly. It is colourful and artistic. It is innovation.”
As a young teen leaving her home for the United States of America after her secondary school education at Queens College, Lagos, Oniru was homesick most times. When her parents would not listen to her cries and pleas to return home, she decided to seek her own kind in her new environment. She recalled with glee how she started the first African cultural dance troupe in her university.
“I started the Association of African Students in the university. I was the president for two years. We would wear African clothes and dance. We started the first ever African cultural night in Greensboro, North Carolina, and had an audience of over 250 people who came to watch us dance, act drama and showcase the richness of African culture.
“It has always been in me, this love for Africa,” she continued. “When I was working for Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, New York, I started the network of African professionals from different fields. We would all come out every Friday night, during the happy hour, drink, socialise, get to know ourselves better. I have always loved meeting Nigerians and Africans. I don’t know what it is. I just love them. They are my people.”
Perhaps, it was this love that spurred Oniru to embark on an entrepreneurial journey. With several stints in paid employment at the Central Bank of Nigeria and Ericsson, Oniru came back home to start her own business. Enthusiastic about the huge potentials of the online community, she started an online retail store.
Tucked in the serene ambiance of Crown Estate in Oniru, Victoria Island, Lagos, Dressmeoutlet, an online fashion retail market caters to a motley group of customers across the globe.
With chains of suppliers, a reliable research team and direct deal with manufacturers, the online retail store takes pride in its affordable pricing and services.
For instance, deliveries within Lagos are done same day, while it takes three days to deliver outside Lagos and outside the country less than 10 days.
Employing different marketing tools online, Oniru ensures that the consumer is easily convinced to buy products from her site. For example, she sits with her team to create unique designs that will capture any visitor’s attention. With the use of a software package, TSV, she is able to transform a physical product to a digital product with all the necessary aesthetics. She also created a chat room where customers can inquire about products from her personnel. This way, she gives the customer optimal service.
Unfazed by numerous online retailers, Oniru is confident in her own niche. Her plan is simple: create awareness for African fashion products in the international market. From dresses to cream, the brand sells anything and everything African.
“Most people that visits our site search for Nigerian dresses. We have people from different parts of the world searching for products made in Africa. And that’s our focus. True, there are many players in the e-commerce industry in Nigeria, which is good. Because the more players we have, the more visibility we get globally. But not everyone can survive it. We have a bigger dream. We plan to have more than one billion customers in five years. We are still in the infancy stage of e-commerce in Nigeria and most people are not focused on competition but rather in being Number One. And in this digital era, anyone can succeed. It’s just a matter of being focused, disciplined and committed to your goals.”
Her decision to veer into fashion was borne out of months of research in the industry. Her findings revealed the volume of potential in that industry. “Lagos alone has over 20 million residents and 35 per cent live above the poverty line. People always want to dress to look good. There are weddings, birthdays, parties, corporate events taking place almost every day. So there is a huge market in fashion.”
However, Oniru would not be persuaded to veer into other fields.
“Dressmeoutlet is fashion focused and for the retail industry. We retail the very best goods we can source globally in fashion and beauty. This is a one-(wo)man business, I can’t say I can do all things: real estate, electronics, etc. I will tear myself Into two. I want to be the best in the industry. I want to be number one in everything I set out to do. I have to be focused.
“We narrowed our focus to the fashion industry. The industry has a lot of top talents and creativity. A lot of people are doing a lot of things in that space but they do not have the global visibility that they need to grow and excel. Nigeria can very easily become the next China. We have tailoring shops everywhere, people sowing aso-ebi every single day but we haven’t been able to mass-produce. There’s a lot of potential for growth, and one man cannot do everything. Let someone focus on fashion, another on electronics and so forth. But Dressmeoutlet is fashion focused.”
Selling African products indirectly requires more travelling for the entrepreneur. Not minding that she spent a good number of years in the United States, she has now dedicated substantial time to travel in Nigeria to source authentic African pieces. The tour exposed her to some of the creative skills and resources in Nigeria. She recalled how she found very beautifully-made kaftans and leather during a recent visit to the northern part of the country. She was heartbroken that the tailors could only make a few due to lack of support from the government to grow their businesses. She would like to see the government provide financial support to the craftsmen so that they exceed their current production.
She also discovered the Yoruba aso-oke fabric made with coral beads in Oyo state. She plans to visit Abia state, Adamawa, Taraba, Benin, Calabar and Kaduna to source for more unique natural resources that can be converted to fashion goods and manufacturers.
For now, Oniru has no plan to rest on her oars. “I want us to continue growing. Many industries in Nigeria get to a level where they become complacent. Once they start making money, they get comfortable and sit back. But when I look at my international counterparts and see where they are going, I get inspired to do more. And the funny thing is that we have some of these resources here.
I was in Kano the other day and we have leather there. But just seeing what Louis Vuitton has done with leather amazes me. Theirs boast of more durability than ours. What’s the difference? They’ve innovated on their skills over the centuries but we are still complacent. We need to scale through that.”