Oke Maduewesi: Turning Lemon into Lemonade for Widows

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While most companies engaged in special giveaways and treats for their customers on St Valentine’s Day, the CEO of Zaron Cosmetics, Oke Maduewesi, showered widows with tender love and care. Vanessa Obioha reports

Oke Maduewesi was just 30 years old when she lost her husband in the 2005 Sosoliso plane crash. At the time, she was working in the banking industry and pregnant with her second child.

But like the popular saying ‘When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,’ Maduewesi turned her grief into passion by pursuing a dream in the beauty industry. She knew that she needed more than the banking job to keep her body and spirit alive. An entrepreneurial fire was ignited in her and she followed it with all her might and passion. She left the bank and went abroad to have her Masters in Business Administration from the University of Leeds. Her key goal was to create a recognised brand in Africa that will impact lives. At the time, she had no idea what that would be. She just knew she had to find a product and a channel to distribute it.

The end-product of that research is Zaron Group of Companies. Formed from the combination of her daughters’ names, Zara and Ona, Zaron has become the leading cosmetic brand in Nigeria and beyond.

Although she shies away from the spotlight, Maduewesi is a source of inspiration to many young women and widows.

Understanding the emotional needs of widows, Maduewesi has for many years through her Valentine’s Day outreach to widows, impacted on the lives of women who suffer same fate of losing their beloved. This initiative of hers has helped bring succour to aching souls through acts of sisterhood.

“Widows don’t have romance. They don’t have anybody wishing them happy Valentine’s. You know that feelings that couples get, they don’t have that,” said Maduewesi, explaining her choice to celebrate widows on this particular day.

This year’s edition like previous ones focuses on reaching out to, and helping deprived widows lessen the burden that is tied to being a single mother. She does this through a series of activities that are projected to pamper, celebrate, and empower them. For its seventh edition, selection process started in last December. Even with little or no fanfare, the turnout was impressive. This shows the increased awareness of the brand’s corporate social responsibility through the years. Sieving from that pool of entries, 30 widows were selected.

Assembled at about 10am last Thursday, each entrant was treated to a makeover session. Head, Business Development and Communication for the brand, Ebony Nzimiro stated the significance of the makeover treat.

“Zaron is known for being the brand that redefines the essence of beauty, so while makeup can do a lot on the outside, true beauty starts from within. When you are happy, even your skin shows it. With or without makeup, you radiate. So, even as a makeup brand, with a lot of these women… because they have been through so much hurt and pain, and hardship, they tend to look or seem a bit dried up from the inside out. Even after just spending a couple of hours with us, you just see them start glowing, and that’s the beauty from within.”

Maduewesi’s arrival was preceded by praise and worship session from the widows who were received at the top floor of the one storey building that serves as headquarter for Zaron cosmetics. For this occasion, she donned a minimalist blue flower patterned, free flowing jumpsuit which defied any expectations –held by most – of meeting a flamboyantly dressed fashion executive. Her fashion effort for the event was a stripped down choice that didn’t overshadow the essence of the day – to appreciate the less fortunate in the circle of widows. Commanding respect with a touch of humility, she graciously introduced herself and answered a few questions from the members of the press before heading upstairs to be with her invited guests.

She was met upstairs with cheers from a group of women from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. A score and half, Maduewesi united them under her roof to share her life’s journey following the loss of her husband to the fatal Sosoliso plane crash that claimed lives in 2005.

In what turned into a heart-to-heart session, each widow took turns indulging the listening audience to their tales of woe, and how they have managed to keep head above water.

Their experiences ranged from being forced to leave their husbands homes, relatives showing sexual interest in them, to excommunication from the families they were married into. These inhumane acts not only left them financially incapacitated, it left them with emotional and mental scars. Amid uncontrollable tears from an overwhelming sense of loss, Maduewesi was more than eager to lend a physical shoulder to support them as they succumbed to emotions.

“I’m a widow,” Maduewesi said beaming. “It’s funny I’m smiling and saying it, I’m a widow, so I know the challenges that widows go through, and I know that God has really, really been very faithful to me. I mean, I can’t completely solve their problems but I’m trying to just send love , and help them because I know it is tough being a single mom, it is tough having to lose that person you love. So, we are just trying to spread love and make sure that we minimise their pain. We can’t completely take it out, but we reduce their pain.”

On the contrary, not all were teary-eyed. A handful rose proudly on their feet to support and encourage the rest, telling them that the widow status is a new chapter in their lives they must learn to embrace in order to surmount the pressures often tethered to it, in order to raise their children, and build better communities.

Perhaps out of personal experience, Maduewesi believes in giving back to help less fortunate ones establish themselves with whatever venture they choose for livelihood. To wrap the event, she handed seed money to each to help them start up a trade, or reinforce the current one they are invested in. As each widow received their cheques, they knelt in awe, but Maduewesi was quick to get on her knee to embrace each one. For each time she repeats this, she rose with a newly empowered widow who not only got a beauty makeover, but one who gets a fresh start at life.