MONALISA AZEH: FROM LAW PRACTICE TO SHOEMAKING

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Totally transformed into her new vocation of shoe making, Monalisa Azeh does not look like one called to the Nigerian Bar in 1985 or who practiced law for almost two decades. Nseobong Okon-Ekong and Vanessa Obioha write that she is one of the most sought after Nigerian shoemaker

Monalisa Azeh does not wear the look of a conventional CEO. There is no power suit adorning her tall, big frame. Not that she does not like to wear suits. Going by her original profession as a lawyer, she should appear in formal outfits daily. But she dropped her wig and gown, the day she earned it. Rather, you find simplicity and elegance stylishly oozing out from a dress. Her shoes are her major statement. Colourful and vibrant, she walked long and far in search of footwears, often, she returned frustrated. Her feet were just too big for the shoes!

Keeping a consistent appearance, there’s certainly no airs around her. She exudes a cool demeanour. It is possible to find her seating on her table in the luxury showroom of her shoe brand, Mona Matthews, in the exquisite Eleganza Building along Ikorodu Road, Lagos, tapping and clicking on her laptop while keeping an eye on the happenings around her. Her attention is snapped once a first-time shopper/customer walks in. With one glance, Monalisa can tell her customer’s need. For a first-time buyer, this can be done in a matter of minutes. She welcomes you with a smile while mentally assessing your personality. She’s listening to your needs, while simultaneously taking in details of your appearance-the bag, the shoes, the dress, and more importantly, she is listening to every word you say. Her keen eyes hardly miss a thing. This uncanny ability helps her offer solutions to customer.

In her 15 years of running her luxury fashion brand, Mona Mathews, she has inculcated the habit of seeing her customers like human beings more than a naira or dollar sign. On many occasions, she has given free advice to customers which may lead to no purchase. It could be a referral to another retailer who has the customer’s specific need or simply advising the customer to stick to what he or she has. Rather than view it as a counter productive business mannerism, she believes it does not hurt her in any way. Instead, she is proud of her empathy trait, something that was instilled in her right from her home, but was properly groomed at the Business School of FATE Foundation.

The seeming simple acts of care have, however, anchored her on good relationships. For instance, The Glitterati team witnessed her dialogue with one of her customers, a middle-aged woman. It was friendly and relaxed. The woman had come to mend her shoes, while seeking advice on the best heels for her age.

“I relate to my customers as human beings. Your first instinct should be to help them. Do not see them as a Naira or Dollar sign but as human beings who need your professional help. It’s become a way of life for me. So when people come, they don’t feel like they are coming to spend money, rather they feel they are coming to see a friend. One of my customers came in the other day to pick up her shoes and bag. She looked at my leather bag collection. What she actually needed was a pouch. I looked in my drawer and found one and gave it to her. She was very grateful. Because people will remember you for those acts of kindness and good services. People will even trust you more because they will find out that you are not after every penny of theirs, it’s more about relationship. They will bring their friends, family members and colleagues to you. They may end up being your ambassadors. There is really nothing like integrity. Once people know you are honest, that is it. They stick with you for life.”

Paying attention to the lifestyle of her customers is one of her trump cards in business.
“One of the things we do is to produce shoes to suit our customers’ lifestyle and it is very deliberate because we want to retain the customer. When I design, I’m designing with the particular need of that customer. So at the end of the day, I have something that is functional but at the same time aesthetically attractive and suits my customer’s lifestyle. We want you to think about us when you need any shoe, not one specific type of shoe. I imagine the average customer thinking of what to wear on Sunday to church, on Monday to work, on weekends, as well, maybe on holidays. For instance, an average customer could be a parent in their forties. We try to make school shoes for their children. When they come, they can get shoes for their children, and because we are quality conscious, we give you durable shoes that can last for more than one year. What we envisage is all your footwear needs in one place. So you are not stressed from the effort put into looking around.”
She relayed this example of two satisfied customers. “It was Dobrina’s first time in Mona Matthews and she had such fun trying on the shoes and picking her preferred types. She was like a little girl in a candy store. Judith is an old customer but even though she kept trying to control herself and not buy too much; I am not sure she succeeded. We even had to design a sandal named after Dobrina.”

Monalisa obtained her Bachelor of Law degree from the University of Lagos in 1984 and was called to the Nigerian Bar in August, 1985. She worked for the (then) Nigerian Industrial Development Bank (Now Bank of Industry) as well as the firm of Adebo –Kiencke& Co. for the mandatory NYSC year. Thereafter she continued with Adebo-Kiencke& Co. until she set up her own firm, Mona. A. Eperokun& Co.
In 1993, she joined the firm of Norma Jackson-Steele & Co and worked in chambers as the only other lawyer in the firm apart from the principal.

In 2002 as she began her shoe designing Company, MonalisaAbimbolaAzeh attended Fate Foundation where she obtained Entrepreneurial Training when she took part in the Aspiring Entrepreneurs Program (AEP) She also attended the Lagos Business School (EDC) in 2009 as a Goldman Sachs Scholar where she obtained a Certificate in Entrepreneurial Management and she brings the skills she acquired from her formal and informal education to bear on her current business, Mona Matthews.
The Mona Matthews brand provides jobs for several shoemakers and bag makers as well as other service providers along the value chain. It also conserves foreign exchange because people who have discovered the brand no longer have to depend on foreign shoes. MonalisaAbimbolaAzeh hails from Ekiti State and is happily married to Mr. Charles Azeh from Delta State.

Monalisa did not set out to be a shoe-maker. By profession, she is a lawyer. Nowadays, most people know her by her business name Mona Matthews which she coined from her first name and her father’s first name. It all started with her passion for shoes and the inability to find her shoe size in the market. She described the first shoe she made for herself as very ugly, but she wasn’t discouraged. Someone else introduced her to another shoe maker who did a better job. From one trial to the other, she suddenly found herself making shoes for others. She described her transition into the shoe business as a smooth one.

“When the idea came, I was advised to do a business course. That, to a very large extent, helped the transition because I acquired knowledge I didn’t have until that time. It opened my eyes to the world of entrepreneurship. It made me learn certain things. Of course, I learnt on the job which is what you do as an entrepreneur.”
Her shoes have a wide variety of colours and styles, made from exotic raw materials like raw silk, satin, Swarovski crystals and different types of leather. She also makes bags for different occasions for women.

Getting credible shoemakers posed a threat back then but she was determined to stand out in an industry that paid more attention to the male practitioners. “One of the things that I set out to do when I delved into shoe business was to make the best good-looking shoes. I was already 15 years in practice as a lawyer so there was no way I could make run-of-the-mill kind of shoes for my colleagues, who were my first set of customers. Quality has always been part of me and to achieve that we needed consistency, so we hired people who are very good in their craft and we needed to pay them well. I settled with the idea that I couldn’t serve everybody but I wanted to serve those I could serve very well. Most of my colleagues became my clients. My mum is my oldest and most favourite client.”

She considers herself a front office person, not a back-office personnel. She hired excellent shoemakers to turn her creative designs to finished products. When it comes to sourcing raw materials from local markets, she does not make compromises. Most of her embellishments are bought abroad. The market has considerably changed since Monalisa forayed into the business. A foresight by one of her lecturers in the business school prepared her for the change.

“I remember back then in Business School, one of the facilitators said that a time will come when people will have internet on their phones. It sounded Greek to us because back then. We didn’t have internet in our homes. We had to go to cyber cafes to access the internet. I also remember back then that to keep up with trends, we had to buy Vogue and similar magazines. Now, you don’t have to leave the comfort of your bedroom to run your business. You can transfer money to your suppliers, receive money from your customers, stay in your virtual showroom and market online. We’ve been able to keep up and embrace those changes.”

Today, Mona Matthews has a huge client base that spreads across the pond. There are plans in the pipeline to expand and meet the different needs of her clients. The thought of partnering with other international luxury brand has never crossed Monalisa’s mind. She explained why.

“I never really thought of it because the way we wear shoes and clothes is first of all determined by our culture and then I believe that we have our own taste, aesthetics. But there is a possibility. It might look interesting to say we want to partner with them. But one of the things I’m doing is to fill in the gap between what they are doing and what the mass markets provide. The services I’m rendering deals with what people can’t find out there.”

That she is a creative person is not in doubt. Keeping her distance from the law profession, she now describes herself as a shoe designer and industrial consumer of processed hides and skin. Note that the second phrase in her description, ‘industrial consumer of processed hides and skin’- that, to her, is as important as wearing her name tag right. The instincts of a conservationist, rights activist and artist in her would not allow for flimsy starters.

Unknown to many, Monalisa has another passion which she is craving to give as much attention as shoe making; and that is promotion of live jazz music. She enjoys live theatre, as well; but it is the live jazz music mixed with sultry vocals, dim lights, laughter and drinks that sparks something in her. It goes back to when she cultivated the habit of going to a Piano Bar along Allen Avenue called Pintos. To fulfil this passion, she has promoted a couple of exclusive live jazz shows, usually for an exclusive gathering of friends and colleagues, much like in the fashion of Pintos, that was used to. However, she dreams of the day, she would find the finance to promote a major jazz festival in Nigeria. For her, music; jazz music to be precise has a sentimental attraction. Interestingly, it was the same love for music that sometimes kept her out all night that God used in His infinite wisdom to cement her bond with Him.

To many a social media denizen, Monalisa habitually causes difficulties for others, especially as a matter of humour (although some like to think it is out of malice). Every now and then, she plugs into the social barometer and rides on the wings of the current discourse to up tantrums that attract love and hate to her in equal measure. For instance, her comment on the Ikoyi-Lagos secondary school mass rape saga will suffice. Not a few persons came for her with a baton when she questioned the veracity of the story thus, “My question about the rape story is this; are we sure it’s true?”

Not all her comments are as bitter. Sometimes she can be downright witty; like this one in which she took a jab at the propriety of the English spoken by the younger generation. “The word was ‘wow’. It became ‘waoh’. Now it’s ‘wawu’. I just tire for una. We found more amusing yarns in her humour bag. “A doctor told me that according to research, mosquitoes bite the fairest and most attractive.” We were still laughing when she spurn another one, all the time managing to keep her face straight; only managing to communicate her consternation through facial expressions. “What if the money found in Ikoyi was MMM money that they changed to foreign exchange but couldn’t take out of the country?” Some friends who find her very funny are currently persuading her to record a couple of comedy skits and broadcast it on YouTube to test the waters. They are convinced she can find profitable space on the Nigerian comedy stage.

Her caricature of the finals of the recent Big Brother Naija reality television absolutely hilarious but thought provoking, as well. “I drove home during the finals. Everywhere was deserted and NEPA(?) was playing ball. You could have danced ‘kokoma’ on my street, hardly any cars in sight. No pedestrians either. Big Brother fans, how will you recover from withdrawal syndromes?” Before we moved on to other matters, she threw in a clincher. “Honest whistle blowers should blow the whistle but forgo the prize.”