Suzie still believes there is so much for her to do like expand Suzie Beauty beyond Kenya, preferably Africa
Suzie Wokabi was shooting a video for CNN when we finally sat down to do this interview. To say she was busy, would be an understatement! Not a surprise when you interview a woman who holds the titles of founder and Chief Creative Officer of Suzie Beauty. Amid all the fuss, Suzie had the grace and patience to talk to KBC about Suzie Beauty’s acquisition, her new role as Chief Creative Officer at the Flame Tree Group and leadership.
I came back (from the US) with a wonderful portfolio and a suitcase full of make-up ready to work in media. Then I found that gap in the retail space so I ventured into this business very naively.
Most leadership articles highlight the differences between how men and women lead, what are your thoughts on this?
Leadership is an individual thing. Both men and women go through the same processes and challenges as entrepreneurs.
Do you, however, feel that there are some unique challenges that each gender may face? Let’s call them ‘gender-related roadblocks’.
Yes, depending on the industry. As a business person, I do get this question a lot but it is hard for me to process that because I work in the beauty industry which is not a male-driven industry. Therefore, in my case, ‘gender-related roadblocks’ do not apply.
Since selling your company to the Flame Tree Group, do you feel like you sold out? Traded in your entrepreneurial coat for a corporate one?
I did not sell my company; the brand was acquired by a bigger group, a bigger umbrella company that was destined to make my life easier. I am still am running Suzie Beauty! Thankfully, they understood that Suzie Beauty could not exist without Suzie. So it’s just me running the brand the same way I was doing before with a lot less pressure under a stronger brand.
How has being acquired made things easier?
It has been easier for me because I never planned to be an entrepreneur or even to run a business. When I moved back home, after living in the US for ten years, I just wanted to do make-up artistry. I had studied it the profession and worked for big companies. I came back with a wonderful portfolio and a suitcase full of make-up ready to work in media. Then I found that gap in the retail space so I ventured into this business very naively. (Smiles)
Having a strong team is important as they are your support system.
Do you find you have more time to yourself now?
Definitely, I choose my schedule. My directors allowed me to create my job description and we do catch up meetings once or twice a week.
Would you advise any creative entrepreneur to do what you did? Would it work across the board for all industries?
That depends. Personally, getting the brand acquired was not planned but thankfully, it worked out. It could have gone either way. It might not go so well for somebody else. Other founders might just never want to let go of their baby. When the time comes, you just have to put on your big girl or boy pants and make the decision.
What have you learnt about entrepreneurship and leadership from building your own brand and now as the Chief Creative Officer of Suzie Beauty?
I am the type of leader that plays the good cop until I am pushed to the limit and then I become the bad cop. But it takes a lot for this to happen. I have a great team behind me that handles some of the bad cop stuff. Having a strong team is important as they are your support system.
Whatever you want to get into, whatever business you want to start, you have to be completely obsessed with it and incredibly passionate about it or you are going to give up
If you were to mentor a group of women who wanted to go into entrepreneurship what would you tell them?
Whatever you want to get into, whatever business you want to start, you have to be completely obsessed with it and incredibly passionate about it or you are going to give up. There is a reason why 90% of start-ups shut down in the first year. It could be because you didn’t love it and ‘love’ is what keeps you going every day. It keeps you wanting to do it.
What about those that do not have enough capital or any at all?
Yeah, many startups have this problem, it is not a rarity. Fortunately, my husband was working at the time and could facilitate the brand building, product development and research at the time. We still had to fundraise and that was the most painful process. My advice is; be strong and be sure you know what you are doing because you will be ripped to shreds by investors, banks and everyone else, so be really sure.
What were some of the memorable things that banks or investors told you while you were raising the money?
One of the investors came to me after we were done presenting and told me to never tell an investor that I don’t know numbers ever in my life again. We did get an offer though!
Be strong and be sure you know what you are doing because you will be ripped to shreds by investors, banks and everyone else, so be really sure
How did you initially go about marketing and branding Suzie Beauty?
I actually refused to do any paid marketing. I did what I am still doing now. A lot of PR and just putting myself out there and never saying no to anything. For instance, you called me for this interview and I accepted. I usually get people asking me; who does your PR and how much do you pay them and all that stuff. I have never paid anyone for that. Luckily, I also had a lot of good contacts in the industry and met, even more, people in the media. By the time I was creating this brand everyone was waiting for it. I took advantage of my network and they took advantage of me. They needed content I gave them content. The first article about Suzie Beauty was published in September 2009 and I didn’t even have samples to show. The story was, Suzie Wokabi is creating a product and that was it, from then it has been a domino effect.
Is your advice then to basically take the free PR given and never say no?
Yes as much as you can. Run with it if it is given to you.
I have seen your personal Instagram is not that active but Suzie Beauty’s is, how do you go about social media marketing?
I do not understand most of social media. We have someone younger and hippier who takes care of it. They understand what people want to know. I provide content when I can and they translate it into what will be shown out there.
What do you think is the biggest challenge to the generation of women who follow you?
I would say their mentality is very different from my generation’s because we are willing to hustle and do whatever it takes to get things done. There are very few, it’s not all of them, that are. This is going to be an uphill battle for everyone. They need to lose the entitlement mentality.
Do you think it’s something that can change?
I hope so, and with our help.
I still feel like I’ve got such a long way to go, so much I need to do…I smell the roses once in a while but there’s still a long way to go.
Are you making bigger sales now?
Yes, definitely. When we joined the Flame Tree Group we came along with three outlets. We have since shut down the one at Valley Arcade, intentionally, because the rent was too high. We came with the Junction, TRM and Valley Arcade branches and now we have Yaya, Sarit Centre, Two Rivers and a shop in town, our first stand-alone shop and Carrefour. We still do business with Good Life pharmacies. They were our first outlet location when we launched and we have managed to maintain a relationship all these years.
Do you think you will expand beyond Kenya?
That is the plan, my priority is Africa. We have had talks of expanding but we need to be prepared to manage capacity and make sure we are not disappointing anyone. It has to be very strategic and unrushed.
As the Chief Creative Officer, do you get involved with the chemical mixing?
Yeah, I have to because my background is makeup artistry and product development and I still have to deal with a chemist.
Do you feel you have succeeded?
No, I do not know any entrepreneur who will say yes to that. I still feel like I’ve got such a long way to go, so much I need to do. So the answer is no, but I do not feel like I have done nothing. I smell the roses once in a while but still a long way to go.
You watch the 5 Minutes interview we did with Suzie below