How time flies! Debbie Akindele-Ojo’s Everywoman is now 18 years – and there’s still no stopping the fabulous lady nor her flourishing business. Starting out in 1996, Everywoman currently has eight branches strategically positioned in the country. The front woman, a mother of two and a columnist with the Vanguard Newspapers (Moment to Moment, every Sunday), on Thursday, April 5, 2015, at her Opebi, Ikeja, Lagos outlet, had an eye-opening interview session with YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE. The duo looked at the past, the present and the future of the fashion business, her life and more – and the result is what you have here. Enjoy…
You’ve been into this business now for 18 years, how would you describe the journey so far?
Em…interesting! There are challenges, but when I started, I didn’t give myself long term goals. I knew I would like it to be successful, but I didn’t have like long term goals. I live my life in the moment; so if you survive this moment, then the next moment and the next moment. I don’t do the kind of projections that would cause me to be overwhelmed or cause me to also feel like a failure.
What do you like best about being into business?
When I was younger, I was resentful of needing people to support the choices I made financially. I’m not very good as a dependant. I wanted to provide for myself, I wanted to not struggle so hard within a budget that somebody else will still cancel. So, what I wanted was a reasonably comfortable life. I wanted the decision for the things that happen in my life to basically be mine. That’s what I enjoy about business. If I put in my best, if I do the best that I can do, then I’m cool.
What don’t you like about being into business?
Well, like every employer of labour, you can relate to this – when it’s time to pay salaries (Laughing). You pay everybody and sometimes you can’t pay yours. That’s not funny. There are responsibilities, there’s infrastructure to maintain, to pay for.
What would you say is the costliest mistake that any business person can make?
Imagining that business, metaphorically, is like a building, and you want to build a 24-storey building and you decide to build from the pent house. You know the Bible says you should not despise the days of small beginings; people don’t understand the value of small beginings. The Bible actually says that it’s a tool of wisdom so that you learn important lessons along the way without it costing you too much. The best thing anybody can do in any business is to start small and then build. The worst mistake you can make is to start big, because the only way from up is down, but the only way from down is up.
What didn’t you know about business that you only found out when you were already in?
Thinking that I was my own customer. You know, when I first started Everywoman; I have peculiar tastes. I don’t necessarily like the things that everybody likes, so I looked at sourcing from that angle and the first year was good, the second year was good, but the third year was the first I was going to declare a complete loss. It was a sobering experience. You know, things that maybe the landing cost was about N7000 and you sell it for N1000, just to get rid of it. That’s because in those days, I worked out like God knows what or as straight as anything. I like things that are tailored. It turns out not everybody likes things that are tailored. At least, my customers didn’t (Smiling). I now developed a model that worked for me; it worked for my business. I knew the people I wanted. I’ve always had a clear vision of the clientele I wanted – I only wanted corporate women, I wanted working women. Now, a working woman that I mean is possibly somebody who has a job, who has a career or who has a business. The things have to have value. Yeah! I didn’t know how to generalize. When your business wants to grow, if you want to specialize, you have to have access to that special market. Special markets are very exclusive and they are non-inclusive. Now, what if you have access, but they are not willing to spend? You know lots of people do businesses. You think because Bevista has a store, Bevista is doing well. You can open a store next to Bevista and nobody will buy from you; they will buy from Bevista because he has access. Two, his clientele. He’s also included in what they spend. If you don’t have access, they won’t touch what you have. If they touch what you have and they just don’t like or they think you don’t deserve them for some reason, maybe because you don’t look like you belong, that is the end. It’s like someone that lives in Ogba that decides that the only club for him to join is Ikoyi Club. It doesn’t make any sense. You may even be lucky they might admit you, but you will never truly belong because they all know each other. So, in business, initially, I bought things that I thought were nice. That worked for my friends; it worked for people that thought like me. Now, people that thought like me tend to travel a lot. They don’t need to come to Ikeja to buy anything, so they did not come. I now went back and looked at my business – who do I really want? I wanted the working woman, I wanted the banker, I wanted the insurance lady, I wanted somebody in the oil industry, I wanted the teacher. What do they have in common? They need value for money and I tailored my business to meet the needs that they had. But if you noticed, I didn’t specialize. It was a general need that I met.
Most people attain success in what they are doing, but they are not usually able to sustain it. Where do you think that they normally get it wrong?
Hmmm! Sustainability, to be fair, has a lot to do with grace. It has a lot to do with God’s grace, because I won’t tell you that I haven’t made mistakes. I’ve made many mistakes, but one of the things that has cushioned those mistakes is first and foremost, I’ve never seen myself not doing this. I approach this the way I approach the idea of marriage – there’s no way out. If two people want to get married and they decide that they have locked us inside this cage, the key is at the bottom of the sea, you need to be nice to the person next to you and whoever joins, so that it will work. That’s the way I looked at this business. It’s not something I ever want to do. I tell my children all the time – Everywoman is a dream that I had. I don’t expect it to be your dream. If it is, you can have it. But I’m not one of those people that want to do from generation to generation… You shouldn’t lumber anybody with whatever. If I’m able to do it in such a way that it transcends generations, more power to them. I won’t be here, so I don’t care. But the issue for me always has been if you fail, it’s a different way; it’s life teaching you how not to do something, and then you get up and you find a way to do it better.
Now that you’ve brought the issue of marriage into this, why did you marry quietly? Most of your close friends didn’t even know you were getting married to Pastor Akindele Ojo of Redeemed. Why did you decide to toe that path?
(Laughing) – Firstly, it’s a gist that I must gist you. But off camera, off tape. I’ve never discussed my life with anybody and you know that I will not start now.
So, you are not going to discuss that?
But you know, Azuh. I’ve never discussed my life with anyone…
So, how are you enjoying married life?
It’s still gist (Laughing); it’s our family gist. It’s still our family gist.
Okay, let’s go back to business. What distinguishes Everywoman from the other people who also do the kind of thing that you do? What stands you out in your sector, fashion?
It’s not a question that I can answer without sounding conceited. I can say for Everywoman, the vision has always been to serve, because I wanted to dress like the women I sell things to and I didn’t find anyone that met my need at a price that was reasonable. So, that was why I did Everywoman. I like to dress smart, I like to dress nice, but I don’t want to spend a fortune for it. Even now, I still don’t want to spend a fortune for it. I can’t say what any other person has in mind or why they do it, and because I like to keep things simple, I’ve stayed in this lane. It works for me. I like doing the clothes, I’ve always loved other women, I like their company, I like our gist, so it’s seamless for me.
The name, Everywoman is so apt for what you do. How exactly did you come about it?
I was in my friend’s office actually and quite a number of us were trying to decide what was the name when I was trying to come up with it and as I was just driving by Sheraton, that was it…You remember Chaka Khan? I’m Every Woman (Singing) and I thought yeah, that’s it. Free jingle! I’m telling you, that was how it came up. It wasn’t some brilliant thing. It was just some song that came up on radio.
Alright! When can a woman be said to be well dressed?
If you are able to marry comfort and beauty, then you are well dressed. But these days, let’s add a bit of decency to it.
How about colours? Are there colours that a lady must not wear?
There are no boundaries on colours. It depends on what you feel good in. Some people say there’s colour therapy – you feel sexy in red; you can also feel miserable in red. It depends on what is going on in your life. I think that it’s your body shape that will determine what you can wear. Like, there’s a collection we have now, that just came in. It’s called The Beautiful You Collection. We are doing them the whole of this year. They are clothes that are cut along vertical lines. Vertical lines mean that they slim you. If you come in wearing a size 12 and you wear one of those particular suits, you are going to look two sizes smaller, because they are vertical lines. Vertical lines will slim you and then another thing that most people should not do – I find big girls that wear leggings and they will not wear a top that will cover their bottom or you wear red. African women, the rule of thumb is this – wherever you are the biggest, whatever part of your body or wherever part of your body has the greatest amount of cellulite, wear dark colours there. If you have a big bottom, your bottom should only play host to black, navy blue, ash. Those will slim it. Because the brighter a colour, the bigger you look in it. So, if you are a fat person in white, it’s not going to look nice. A fat person in orange does not work also, especially if it’s tight.
So, what colours are in vogue now?
Lately, the only thing that has been in vogue, for the past 2-3 years, monochromes, black and white, the marriage of black and white. About 2 years ago, a lot of podka-dots were in. But what I’ve always stuck to; personally, I’ve always just stuck to things that are classic. I tend to stick to classic things.
Who is your best dressed Nigerian woman?
Why did you settle for Folake Majin?
You know when something is…It’s not understated elegance. It’s elegance that is gracious. You know Folake Majin? (Yes) Have you seen the way she dresses? Have you ever noticed anything out of place? And she’s not loud about it! For me, I don’t think there’s a better dressed woman than Folake Majin (a fashion designer).
Who is your best dressed Nigerian man?
Sadly, I don’t know many…Ah! (Exclaims) KB (Kunle Bakare, CEO, Encomium Weekly). Yes! KB, KB,KB,KB…I haven’t seen KB in many years, but I’m sure KB hasn’t changed. It has to be KB.
Everywoman has done a lot for you, what has it not done for you?
Hmmm! Everywoman has done exactly what God has purposed it for me to do and I don’t say this to sound religious. I think that it is supreme arrogance for you and I being of the Christian persuasion to think that you are where you are because of anything. It’s by grace. Don’t take grace out of it. Because that will be to say all the glory for anything you have achieved or all the failure for everything you have not achieved is down to man. So, for me, I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, because that is the script that the Almighty has written.
As a person, the Almighty God has been nice to you, what more do you want from Him?
If God didn’t do anything else, I’m okay. I listened to a minister from The Redeemed Mission and it occurred to me that the grace lottery has been more generous to me than some. He showed us priests, Catholic priests beheaded; the amount of atrocities that is being committed, not only in Nigeria, but worldwide has reached a stage that if God didn’t do anything else, I can say thank you. He’s tried.
Away from work, what keeps you engaged, what keeps you busy?
I’m like a sponge when it comes to knowledge and I like listening to other people’s opinions. Not necessarily opinions that agree with mine; some of them I strongly disagree with. I like to listen. Right now, I’m in a phase where…in my bathroom, there’s an audio book playing. John Kabetzin is playing, Wherever You Are, There You Are. I’m listening to Maryam Williamson, A Call To Love, on my ipod when I jog in the morning and what am I listening to here? (Her office). I’m listening to the Four Agreements. Oh my God! It is knowledge personified. Right now I’m listening to the Four Agreements. I’m going to an audio phase, where I’m listening to books…
You are married to a pastor, but what drew you closer to God? Was it the vicissitudes of life or just a personal decision?
It’s a question that you are able to answer because you know I’ve always been close to God (Laughing). It’s a question you are best able to answer. I always have been close to God, always have been.
So, how does it feel to be married to a pastor?
I married a human being first. He’s a human being first, then a husband. I married a decent human being.
One thing that most people used to identify you with was your low cut, but now you are spotting some luscious and luxurious hair. What happened?
I miss my low cut, I miss my low cut…Unfortunately, I didn’t marry myself. My husband is not a fan of low cut and my children are also not fans of short hair. But to be honest, when I see women with short hair, I miss it. I miss the freedom. Do you know if I was stressed out, I will go and pick up my clipper and I will shave my head and stand under the shower and it felt as if…Just that taking it off, I took off all my burdens. I’ve tried the argument many times, but my beloveth is not buying it.
Another good thing you’ve been able to do over the years is to retain your shape, how do you do it? Any special regimen?
It’s the same habit…I just try to be healthy. It’s the same habit I’ve always had. I’m blessed in the sense that I’m not a sweet tooth. Chocolate is there; I don’t like chocolates, I don’t like sweets, I don’t eat wheat anymore. I used to eat wheat, but I noticed that I started being bloated any time I eat wheat so I don’t eat wheat. I don’t eat meat either. For some reasons, I tend to gravitate towards good things. I’ve done yoga for 11 years now. You know Mike in Vanguard? Mike is my yoga coach. I have this lovely blender, put about four, five vegetables in it, then blend it and it will give you the water to drink. It actually is amazing. And my idea of vegetable is bitter leaf, scent leaf, different vegetables. But these are the same habits I’ve always had, and I exercise.
Who has made the greatest impact in your life and how did the person do it?
Greatest impact in my life? (Thinks) Ah! My father and my Lord Jesus Christ. I’m a Christian and my attitude to life is how best can I serve God? How does my work serve God? How does my day to day interaction with people serve God and I can’t point to a human being that I will say is the one. I don’t believe in those. If you believe in role models, you are putting the person in shackles because the person then doesn’t have the opportunity to be free. Because you are looking up to them, you just give them unnecessary headache. Same thing, I don’t let people go and put me on some pedestal and say I’m what I’m not. We are all flawed individuals. If you were to say someone that I was struck by; I did my youth service in 1991 at the Stock Exchange and there’s one person I always remember fondly and you will be surprised – it was Mr. Bonnie, the messenger. He showed up to work, whether or not they were paid, had a happy attitude, was always happy. Mr. Bonnie looks happier than Apostle Alile who was the boss then…
(Interruption) – Can you remember Mr. Bonnie’s surname?
I can’t remember. We used to just call him Mr. Bonnie or Oga Bonnie and this was more than 20 years ago…
Other than the Bible, which other book have you read that has impacted your life so much? You say you read a lot now…
It depends on when you are asking me. Like right now, I am loving The Four Agreements and then I like A Call To Love. Do you remember this quote that people attribute to Nelson Mandela – you give other people the freedom to shine? That’s the lady that wrote A Call To Love, Maryam Williamson. Right now, where I am, at this stage o; it can change next week. But for now, I’m loving The Four Agreements.
So, where would you say God is taking Everywoman to?
I have no idea! The issue is when you become a person a faith, you don’t start asking God where and when. I have no clue. You know that His ways are not our ways? You learn it the hard way…
So, where would you want God to place Everywoman in the next 10 years?
Those are not the kind of questions I ask. I ask questions like what would it take for me to spend my eternity in heaven? What will it take for my life to count? Now, if my life counting means that God wants to take Everywoman from me, that’s fine! Absolutely fine!
What is the most critical thing that is needed for business success?
What kind of support?
You first need to believe in yourself. So, you need to support yourself, you need to be the cheer leader of your own fan club. That’s one! It helps when you are a person of faith, because what business needs the most is hope from the business owner, because if you give up, that’s the end. I’m sure there are many times you’ve had a challenge that you were thinking why am I even doing this sef? And it is only faith that I know that gives you that support. Another thing is support either from family members or friends. These days family is not defined by blood. Cain killed Abel, so what is it actually about blood? For me, people who are your family know that when you are on the floor, they are not standing up, pointing down at you, but they are sitting down on the floor, finding ways to get you up.
One of the new things you took up is writing for Vanguard Newspapers, how did that begin? What made you develop that interest in writing?
I’ve always written, but it wasn’t just a public thing. Then, I had an Everywoman magazine. Remember that magazine I had that time (Yeah). You gave me an article one time, abi? (Yes) And interviewed me about something. They took the magazine and Uncle Sam (the publisher of Vanguard) saw the magazine and saw an article I had written, Princess Diary and then he sent for me and he said to me that I wrote really well; that would I like to write in his paper? So, it’s Uncle Sam, Uncle Sam (Laughing).
So, which of your articles will you describe as the most interesting so far?
I can’t say! I’m writing a series of articles now called…It’s actually supposed to be called The Hare And The Tortoise. I think I’m gonna write it for like a whole year. Now, what I write about is life and my experiences. The Hare And The Tortoise, the way I look at it; this is the premise for me. Most of us want to be the hare. Know why? Because the hare is that person, that persona that goes very fast in life. They are the stars, everybody sees them. They run through everything; everything seems easy for them. But the honest truth is that by the time you get to your mid 40s and your middle age, you realize that you are the tortoise. All of us. None of us is the hare. Well, I don’t know; maybe some people are the hare, but I think most of us are tortoise. Know why? We make progress, we have times that we are very fast like the hare, we have times when we are stars, but it’s not always all the time. In some lives, it looks very nice. But then it’s got a shell that is cracked, like the tortoise’s. All human beings are cracked, needing God to fix it. For me, I’ve made my peace. I told my husband; he said you are toddling these days. I said yes, because I made my peace in the fact that I’m a tortoise; I’m toddling along…The hare, these days, could be the young, successful business magnate who has five private jets and Maybachs all over the place. But guess what? He doesn’t know what his son is thinking. His wife may be having an affair, because she doesn’t see him. He has high blood pressure; guaranteed! They always do. He doesn’t have a meaningful relationship that he has shared with another human being, because his world is so insulated like a Daddy G.O. They’ve been blocked from human beings. If you get Daddy G.O, he’s actually quite nice, but the amount of people that have decided to be stumbling blocks is so much…
(Interruption) – That’s some deep philosophy.
Yeah! I like the idea of, I know my children’s friends, I know their expressions, I know when they are hurt. I think the problem with humanity is that we spend most of our lives wanting to be the hare and the hare actually lost; not even because it slept, but because in the end, he got nothing. A lot of us are going to get to heaven, and I believe that they may ask us what we did and we won’t remember, because all the wealth we’ve acquired, they are very fleeting. I think the richest person I ever met was Oga Bonnie. I’ve concluded, because this man, all his children, he trained them as a messenger. They had good values. He didn’t train one armed robber, he didn’t train a rude child and he came and showed up at work every day satisfied. He had dignity. As he was a messenger, none of us dared to disrespect him. Everybody spoke to that man with respect and in dignity…
NB: First published September 2015