Olori Boye-Ajayi is the founder of the Katie Wang Company, a growing global export fashion trading company with operations in four continents. One of her major objectives over the years is to make Africa indigenous products renowned by connecting and creating opportunities for local designers in the global market. Beyond breaking frontiers in the fashion industry, Boye-Ajayi is passionate about sustainable development in Africa. To this end, the Co-founder and Chief Operations Officer of The Ark Coaching Company, a global company focused on human potential and enablement across Africa, on July 4 co-hosted a life-changing webinar, the “Fix-It Conference”, aimed at helping people take their lives, businesses and careers to a whole new level. In this interview with MARY NNAH, she talks about how she has been positioning Africans for the emerging world
Tell us a bit about growing up
Like many in Nigeria, I have a humble beginning. Though I was born and bred in the United Kingdom, I found myself in Nigeria living with my dearest late grandmother at a very tender age. At the time, she lived in one of the poverty-stricken areas in Lagos – Mushin to be precise. It is one of the experiences that marked my mind because it presented to me the life I didn’t want for myself or children. I eventually went back to London for college and my university degree. I started working in the corporate world at the age of 16 and that was when I got exposed to environment of value exchange, specialists in various sectors, capitalism and many more things. At the age of 18, I encountered my first mentor, Jackson Ogunyemi at a point when I had zero drive and thought life was limited work, sleeping and eating. Jackson decided to coach me out of that immature pattern of thinking and that was when I started my journey to discovery and becoming. And here I am today. My career started as a fashion retailer eight years ago. I built and drove the first Fashion Truck in West Africa. Fast forward a few years later, I got into export and manufacturing and that’s when I started the fashion network of garment manufacturers in 2017 and started a structured free-to-attend training called ‘Business Side of Fashion’. It was one of the most rewarding seasons in my career, a major highlight. Today, there are almost 350 fashion entrepreneurs in that network. The business quickly evolved into export trading and sourcing and today we thrive and derive so much fulfilment in linking international buyers to local producers in Africa.
What were your childhood dreams?
As I said, I grew up with my grandmother when I was much younger and what I was exposed to showed me I cannot live this way – I knew there had to be more. That exploratory spirit pushed me into breaking out of the mould that I was in. When I was younger, I wanted to be everyone but myself because I saw it as a form of escape from the mould I was living in. My first coach at the young age 18 helped me to navigate through that cobweb and blurry vision and I started to dream about being a woman who impacts the borough of Islington at that age. I wasn’t thinking world domination but I certainly liked the idea of it. I was exposed to greatness early through those who thought anything was possible – my childhood dream was to meet them.
Let’s talk more about your company Katie Wang Company. When and how did you start?
The Katie Wang Company (TKWC) started as Olori’s Place in 2012. We evolved into TKWC because our offering expanded and we want to rebrand. I stumbled into fashion retail actually and it was called ‘Olori’s Place’ because that’s what it was, just a place in my apartment in Magodo. I moved back to Nigeria after my MSc in 2010 and everything fashion was so expensive (almost triple the price) I was used to. I had the opportunity to go back to London for a few days in November of 2011. Upon arrival, my childhood friend gave me a belated birthday gift of about 100GBP and the next day a friend of mine asked me to escort her to Roman road market. I did. I was in shock, everything was so stylish and super affordable – I used my 100GBP to buy everything possible, took pictures and sent to my friend who worked in an office, I added enough profit and all the items sold out before I left London – JACKPOT. That’s how I stumbled into fashion and I have never looked back since.
Were there particular challenges you faced while starting off?
The cost of renting a store was and still is something that can deter anyone wanting to come into the industry. That is what led to the building of the fashion truck, it was definitely less expensive and it was mobile so it meant I had the advantage of stationing the fashion truck in different areas across Lagos mainland or the island. Also, at the time, there was very little assistance in the form of business support on how to build an online store.
How has the Katie Wang Company fared in the global world?
We still have a lot of possibilities ahead of us. When we launched out to other countries a few years ago we learnt the hard way but we wouldn’t change that story because it has given us the edge we need for experience. We’ve had operations in Australia, the United States and a one-off consignment to Europe, recently Canada has been a place of interest. We’re looking forward to getting more ‘made in Nigeria’ quality products into the global marketplace.`
What are the opportunities for Nigerians in the global fashion industry?
In my opinion, I believe Africa’s rising fashion industry is ripe for greater penetration into global retail chains not just as souvenir fashion or niche market, we’re ready for fast fashion. In recent years, a lot of our young designers, models and even our music have received global attention. With further development in our infrastructure and upskilling, Nigerians can compete and play in the global fashion industry. The creative industries in Africa as a whole offers massive potential for continent-wide job and GDP growth, in recent years no other sector has done this after the agriculture sector. In some African countries, the private sector has shown avid interest by investing heavily via banks and other trust funds to offer fundings to the SME’s operating in that space.
From your experience in the fashion industry, would you say Nigerians have been able to maximise the opportunities in the industry?
Well, that question is an easy answer. There are so many stakeholders in the industry that haven’t taken ownership of their contribution to the development of the industry. The few that have, like Omoyemi Akerele have done so with the support that can only do so much for a pool of hundreds of thousands or millions across the continent. I hear more and more people use the word collaboration but I think it’s high time to move in that direction.
You are said to be on a global mission to revolutionise Africa. How do you intend to achieve that?
Very simple – At the Ark, we have the conviction that the movement of the African continent into an era of peace and prosperity will be accelerated when Africans renew their mindset, upgrade and transform the way they do commerce and upgrade their knowledge on the principles for success. We kickstart this process with the FIX IT Pan-African Virtual Conference happening Saturday, July 4th, 2020. Then we take a sizeable amount of business owners through a multi-level program with our business leaders and Personal Transformational Coaches who hand-hold them on the journey to changing their communities and economies.
What informed your interest in the Ark Coaching Company and how does it aid in fulfilling your objectives above?
The Ark was born out of the state of emergency in our inability as African businesses to push past the barrier or ceiling where business influence and wealth acquisition is concerned. In Asia, they have thousands of young millionaires in their tech space but in Africa, it seems the same people are celebrated across a whole continent that is the anomaly The Ark seeks to correct.
Our core focus at The Ark Coaching Company is on human potential and capacity enhancement that allows participants in our programmes to rise above their present occasion and change the narrative about themselves, their environment, and the world at large. We often like to say, “Once you step into the Ark, you can’t leave the same.”
Our Mission is to enable people, especially those of African descent, to unleash their inner potential and contribute their quota to Africa’s development.
What was the propelling force behind your recently held programme tagged, “The Fix-it Conference” and why at this particular point in time?
We have the conviction that the movement of the African continent into an era of peace and prosperity will be accelerated when African themselves have their mindset changed, the way they do business transformed and they learn the true principle of money and generating wealth. Africans can no longer sit and wait for aid, grants, funding – we must elevate ourselves to be globally competitive.
How would the outcome of this conference help the country’s economy return to normal especially in the post COVID-19 era?
Our goal for the conference is
We expect our participants to leave with a blueprint of global opportunities. There is a lot of information flying around about repositioning after covid19 but sometimes information overload can lead to paralysis. We want to get people who attend to jot down with the heading – WHAT NEXT?
It was a virtual conference, do you think this will adequately get to your target audience?
With advent of new technologies, we believe the virtual conference will be able to reach the target audience; everyone is online more in the advent of current situations. Last time I checked our registration list, we had people with African names from as far as Oman and Australia, only technology can help achieve this.
Why did you pick the title, “Fix –it Conference”?
The journey to fixing Africa starts with the individuals, one community at a time. The fixing will take time and a lot of excavation from what we’ve been conditioned into believing. We looked at the three main areas we’ve seen past members of our coaching programs needed guidance on the most and it was on their money, mindset and business and so we decided to widen our reach to help more Africans and African businesses – FIX IT during the conference.
What impact has the Ark Coaching Company had on the Nigeria youth?
Since operations, we’ve helped not just Nigerians but Africans in diaspora and Africans at home. Our efforts have helped over 100 businesses with an increase in revenue, building structures for B2B and B2G (government), converting to tech-based operations, incorporating lean operations. In elevating their mindset, we address critical thinking and understanding their personal contributions in Africa’s development. The youth need attention and hand-holding in the process of transforming their minds, The Ark Coaching Company is here to do that.