Pioneer winner of the Sisi Oge pageant and presently Chief Executive Officer of Milolar Store, Damilola Otubanjo, recently unveiled a new outlet in Opebi, Lagos. In this interview with MARY NNAH at the grand opening of the store and official unveiling of her Milolar Glow skincare products, she opened up on the inspiration behind the establishment of her company, her journey from runway queen to a successful businesswoman and philanthropist
How has the journey from runway queen to a successful fashion entrepreneur been?
It’s been many years ago now. It was in 2007 that the maiden edition of Sisi Oge pageant held, that’s like 12 years now. It was a phenomenal experience for me because it did a lot for me in terms of exposure and in terms of coming to awareness of who I am and inspiring my inner strength that I didn’t even know I had. So it was a very good trip and educating experience for me. I just saw the advert when I was travelling, it was cultural, and it wasn’t about being slim or skinny like most beauty pageants were. It was something I could identify with. It was African; it was about promoting the African culture and value in women. So, I was encouraged to pick the form. It was something I was looking forward to.
Was that your first pageant show?
Yes it was my very first pageant and also my last.
Why did you stop?
I just thought that I have done it and I have experienced it. So, I was content. I didn’t see the need to run for another crown so I decided to do other things and pursue another course. I registered a non-governmental organisation named DING DOLL. It was about women and young people, helping them to develop themselves. It was also about giving a voice to the people and training young people to identify with NGOs. We have done a lot of trainings for children in secondary schools, universities and graduates. I love what I did and would want to do it again. My NGO is not active at the moment but it is something I intend to kick off very soon. It’s about touching lives, about extending the purpose of your life, being able to be a voice for the people; identifying with people who have issues and challenges knowing that if you are given a privileged to be at advantage, you don’t consider yourself the best but rather you are given that mantle of authority and responsibility to be able to be a channel of blessing to people and to be able to support others. For me, it is a ministry because it is not about running an NGO but it is about really touching lives. Why did I win the Sisi Oge beauty contest? Why didn’t another person win? It was not as if I was the most beautiful girl in the contest. Something must have stood me out. I believe in national responsibility and that gave me an edge to win the crown and also gave me the opportunity to help people.
At what point did you get into fashion?
I was crowned in 2007, I reigned through 2008. I ran my NGO till 2010, when I decided to travel to Boston to do my master degrees in Renewable Energy Engineering and when I got back, I took up a job with the Lagos State government as a Renewable Energy Engineer. I worked with the state government for five years. I had an agenda and a long term goal, which informed my short term activities. I wanted something that would give me a feel to understand the mind-set of the civil servants and that was what I did. So, when it was time for me to leave, I didn’t just want to exit government, I wanted to transit.
I started by fashion business out of the need to meet a gap. I am very fashion conscious. I care about my looks and pay attention to details. I know how many times I gave my garments to tailors and they didn’t do justice to them. So, I felt that if I could meet this need, which was primarily to meet my personal clothing needs, I knew that knowing what I knew and being crazy about paying attention to details, some people will definitely identify with what I do and that was how the fashion design project started. I produce my cloth myself. I have a team of 13 staff that work with me. I source my material both locally and internationally. I do the cuttings of some of the designs. I have a cutter, I have the ones that sew, I have the ones that do the finishing and I have another set of people that do quality control. So I have a structure for the business, it is not something that we buy and sell. It is a conventional boutique where we produce ready to wear garments, everyday apparel and we also produce occasional attire.
How has it been doing this?
It has not been easy but it has been worth it. It has been fun. It’s been challenging and tasking. It has stretched my limits and pushed my boundaries. When you have to do business with people you do not know. I am not able to put this together all by myself, people trusted me with their funds, they gave me blind trust through online purchase and I had to make sure I delivered. That is how I have been able to sustain my brand and grew organically without having to take any loan from a bank.
How has your engineering background helped in your fashion business?
My engineering background has helped me significantly in designs. I am not able to create any design without first of all conceptualising it and because of this; I am able to create some designs mentally.
What is fashion to you?
For me, fashion is versatile. Fashion is who you are. There is a part of me that comes to bear in my designs. What I would not do outside of fashion, I won’t do it inside of fashion – my morals, my ethnic beliefs, I will not violate because I am in the fashion business. So for me, it is really about who I am. I will not do anything that is illicit, immoral and unethical just because I want to run a business. It is better I do it the legitimate way and build because people are following the track records and can see what you are doing. I am building a legacy; I want to have a dynasty and this is not something that is just about survival for me. It is more about living beyond me. I want to leave a name in the minds of people. I want to extend the purpose of my life through my work. So those kinds of things for me are not just fashion, it is purpose.
I know that in a couple of years to come, I will become a voice to reckon with. And it is not because I am pushing an agenda to be a voice; it is just because there is something in the inside of me that pushes me to do more. And I do not violate the law of exchange. When I take your cloth; I want to be sure that I deliver something worth every penny you have put in it.
Do you have young women you are mentoring?
I do actually. My staff are my first point of mentorship. I do not just have staff, I have staff that I mentor and also challenge to do more than just work. I tell them that you just can’t come to my business and work for salary, there has to be a purpose for your life. So, I do have a handful of people – any young person that is willing and teachable. A lot of young people are not teachable. I have encountered quite a lot. They like the easy way out. You see them looking nice and good, they do not know the real cost of what goes beyond that. They see you looking cool on the surface but below the water, you are paddling like crazy. They see the nice outward appearance but they do not know how many hours you put into that. If you are a young teachable, coachable, be it a man or woman, I can take you up. I do that a lot.
How would you assess the fashion industry in Nigeria?
It is amazing, it is huge and I am impressed with what we have in the fashion space right now. It gives me a staggering effect. Most of the outfits you see in Nigeria are made in Nigeria. A lot of people don’t do foreign any more. They produce locally and they are growing. There is no limit to growth. It can only get better. And one thing about Nigeria is that there are a lot of competitions, it is healthy competition. And this is really remarkable.
The textile industry is crucial to what you do. What is your view about the industry?
Well, it is not perfect and it is not so bad. What you see influences the outcome you get. Yet, I don’t see problems, I see challenges that can be fixed, and so, I know it is work in progress. This country is not doing as good as it should in a lot of areas but somehow you see a lot of young people thriving. When you look around you see that despite everything, people are thriving. Given time, the young generation of leaders coming are going to do phenomenal work. We are coming up to that space. It is an ecological succession, naturally, the older people would phase out and I know with time, we would do things better, provided we are equipped for it. So whatever we see in the textile industry that is not good, some of us are happy to make it better and once we are given the chance, we have to prove ourselves to be able to earn that. You don’t just demand it; you earn it and when you earn it, people can try you out.
What is your vison for your business?
I have a long term goal and for now I take it bit by bit. I started with the clothing line and now I have added the skincare line. I have only just started the skincare and in the next one year, I want every woman that comes around to have a flawless skin. You don’t have to be fair, you just need to be well toned and have a perfect skin. So, part of what I want to do is have my skincare line being among the most sought after brand and also to have my clothing line to be one that people can reckon with anywhere in the world. Another thing I want to do is to add more line of products and as time goes on I will unveil them as the needs arises.
What has been the greatest influence on your life?
The greatest influence to me is the desire to do well. I came from a humble background and I felt I didn’t choose my life and I felt I should be the best that I can be. So for me, it was about doing a lot for myself and shaping my life to what I would want it to be and not what I found out it was based on my upbringing, background and place of birth. So what I have realised is that as I manifest, it increased my belief to demand for more in life. The moment my vision expands, which can be in the next one year, my dream will change.