Posted on December 23, 2014
I draw a lot of inspiration from listening to other people share their own life stories. And the first time I heard about Suzie Wokabi was when she did an interview with Jeff Koinange on Capital Talk a while back. I remember being totally blown away when she spoke on end on how she started Kenya’s first cosmetic line, Suzie Beauty Ltd. I was immensely impressed when she talked about how she sat down with chemists to develop her products…how she literally went through blood, sweat and tears to establish her own brand which is now a household name. I kept thinking to myself-what kind of brilliance, creativity and business acumen must one possess to be like her? To step out and do what she is doing? Truth be told, even her father thought her idea of owning a beauty brand was over ambitious! But now we are talking of SB Ltd having a net worth of close to 100 million shillings in just 5 years of its existence-and looking to expand in all directions. And so to even think that I’d one day get to work with her on three of my blog projects (much less meeting her in person) was indeed a dream! But hey, dreams do come true, ay? Well, the very same way she’s graced your screens and radios to share her life story, I’m really honored to have Suzie be here to share a thing or two about her experiences as an entrepreneur. Using SB Ltd as a case study, our discussion was focused on business start ups and we delved a little on her personal life. Its at this point I’ll stop my blabbering and let you read what she had to say…so Ladies and gentlemen…I present you…the CEO who’s smile will literally make you go blind (faster than illegal liquor)…the one and only…madam Suzie Wokabi! *Insert claps and sparkling confetti here*
*So Suzie, I’ll begin by asking you to tell me something about yourself that you think many people don’t know about.
Hmmm… A LOT!
– I’m a silent animal activist (esp cats) and one day I hope to be a non-silent one?
– I’m not huge on fashion, as in clothing. I have pretty simple tastes, my jeans or maxi dresses and skirts work perfectly for me.
– I LOVE my own company. When I’m around people I fantasize about being alone.
– I think most people are insane. In my mind, every new person I meet is insane until proven sane.
– It is very easy for me to eject unnecessary people from my life. Maybe too easy.
– I have an anxiety disorder. In that light, I expect the worst from everyone and all situations. It could be so that when it’s not the worst, the positive is even more highlighted.
-I’m obsessed with Beyonce and Prince, Dr Dre 2001 is my favourite album of all time; Eminem makes some of the best music I’ve ever heard!!
*Also, tell me something about your father and mother that you admire the most. And did your Father’s military background influence how you were brought up?
My parents are all I could ask for and more in parents… they’ve always been there a million percent, even in my wayward teenage years haha. My mum is all I want to be as a mother. Super supportive, super protective, yet giving me the space I need to learn and grow. She’s pretty much one of my BFF’s. My dad…on my wedding day I danced with him to Beyonce’s “Daddy”. Some of the lyrics are “I want my unborn son, to be like my daddy.. I want my husband to be like my daddy.” I meant it then and mean it now. He’s such a gentle giant that I care for entirely (so quite “unmilitary”). They’re both very much about us kids, grandkids, and family, getting us where we need to get. He never understood what I do for a living but just supported me, sent me to make-up school etc. All they want to know everyday is that I’m fine and happy, and they adore my babies and help us in all ways that they can.
*I’m also very curious to know…how do you juggle being a mother of two energetic boys, a wife, a CEO…and still maintain sanity…in this day and age?
Sanity?? What is that?? Hahaha… I literally don’t know! Eric and I are very deliberate about being present parents, as well as being present for SB. So it’s a constant whirlwind 150% of the time. I take my time out doing zumba or working out with my trainer, meditating, shopping, or cooking. Otherwise, it’s full on from all directions. ALL the time. I literally think that this decade was for this, building business and family. My 40’s (in a few years) will be the beginning of enjoying the fruits of labour! It’s also about priorities. These boys (all 3) are my #1 priority and everyone around me knows that. It’s important that they do. I will leave any meeting if my kids need me. They come first.
*Let’s now turn to career matters. You did spend a sizeable amount of time abroad and worked in corporate America. How was that for you? And what really prompted you to come back to Kenya and eventually establish your own brand? A lot of people in your position would have chosen to stay you know!
I ALWAYS planned to come back home. Of course when I first got there I was mesmerized by America and it’s excesses. I couldn’t judge when I would come back home but I knew I would, one day. After a few years, you realize how much of a foreigner you are and how much you will never belong. And home is waiting for you with open arms to build this amazing country and continent. My experiences in the US were priceless to my life now, I wouldn’t take that away for anything. But coming home was a must, and even though it was really hard settling back in, I actually wish I did it even sooner! THIS is THE frontier!
*Now, many people would really love to step out and pursue what they would consider their heart’s passion, just like you did yourself and established SB Ltd. However, they feel trapped because they have this job and fear not having money at the end of the month. So, how would someone determine that they are ready to leave their workplace and start their own business? Which are some of the practical things they need to do before handing in that resignation letter?
I’m the worst person to ask that to… I think I always knew I would one day not work for somebody else. That was really hard for me all those years, answering to people I didn’t think I should be/ deserved to be answered to. I always knew there was more to life. I can’t even say I was financially prepared but I came home to freelance as a makeup artist in the best way it could be done and planned to excel in it. And I think I did. I truly believe in destiny. Working for all the companies in beauty and fashion that I did formed the foundation of SB. Working with certain people, amazing and not so much, all work for me to date. I guess the decent answer to give would be don’t compromise everything you have unless you are COMPLETELY in love with whichever business you are venturing into. You have to be able to eat, live and breathe your business, all day and night. If you have that, you will likely succeed. And whatever you choose to do has to come from a very clean, honest place. No shade allowed! I haven’t slept in YEARS because I work all the time. Even when I’m in bed, at 3am, I could be working by returning emails or coming up with new ideas, etc. Eat, live and breathe.
*With reference to your own experience in establishing SB Ltd, what would you say are the myths of starting and owning a business that people get trapped by?
1 – That everyone will immediately support your super brilliant idea, and most will have very strong opinions on how you must change your vision!
2 – That if you need funding, you just need to put forward your awesome business plan with projections and they will get it – NOT!!!!
3 – That the people who support you in the beginning will be supporting you on your way up or when you’re up.
4 – That it’s not THAT difficult to run a business. IT IS.
*Let’s get to another pressing issue about start ups which is Capital. What did you learn about the hard and tedious process of obtaining capital to start off Suzie Beauty which I must believe needed a good amount of money to start? Which other avenues are overlooked in terms of financing a start up that people would consider?
None. This market is most unsupportive to start ups and SME’s. It has a LONG way to go. Apart from the fact that you have to figure it out and get it done if you love it, I have no advice, please give me any if you have it!
*And which part of establishing Suzie Beauty Ltd was the hardest and how did you overcome it? And what would you tell someone who is at the moment going through an equally painful season of establishing their own business?
Financing is always the biggest issue in any new business that is started out of passion. Fundraising and maintaining a healthy cash flow are both equally difficult and painful. There are ups and downs, things get better sometimes, so the message is to hang in there!! No giving up!
*What are your principles/business ethics which you uphold and believe every business must adhere to in order to achieve lasting and sustainable growth?
Integrity is one of our major core values. We say what we mean and mean what we say. That simple. Everything else falls into place.
*Which are some of your strengths as a person that you would greatly credit towards the success of SB Ltd? And how do you deal with your weaknesses as a person?
Strengths: I am hard working if I love what I’m doing. I will try to succeed in whatever I put my mind to. I’m also pretty easy going and easy to get along with, so that helps with building the right team around me. And like anyone who knows me says, I am very clear about what I want and certain things in life and very decisive, so the lack of gray areas helps a lot in the business. My main weakness is procrastination, and also my struggle with dealing with people whose values I do not agree with (or just people I do not like) but I have to try to accommodate for the bigger picture. The strengths above somehow get me through these weaknesses.
z*Let’s talk about the vision you are casting for SB Ltd. What is in your heart to accomplish with your company and where do you as a team see yourself in the coming few years ahead?
I completely visualize/ literally see us Africa-wide and global. I started this out of a need and extreme passion for my love of beauty and Africa. I hope that my entire team carries that with them and we take this brand to all the heights it is destined to climb. Encouraging events have a way of coming to us. Examples: In January, we’ve been invited to India for an African Fashion and Music Festival, to do make-up, sell product and market SB there; In February, we’ll be going to speak on a panel at Harvard Business School (I KNOOOWWW!!!!) – Africa Business Conference with the conference theme A More Inclusive Africa: The Pursuit of Progress for All; In March, we’ll be going to Paris to possibly receive an award for African women building the continent. How can I not keep positive??
*Havard? Impressive! please receive my weighty and hearty congratulations on that! Now, you made it a known fact that you are grooming your boys, Maceo and Nate, to someday be part of running SB Ltd. So what are those practical lessons you are instilling in them now?
I’ll start this answer with saying that I am audacious enough to consider SB as an African conglomerate in the next decade, up there with the likes of Estee Lauder and Bobbi Brown. The Lauder sons ran/ run the business. I hope one day that my boys would like to be a part of this family business (eventually conglomerate!!). They call me SuzieBeauty. They know what we do for a living. That’s all I can do for now.
*Who would you say greatly inspires you to be the best in what you do?
My love and passion for beauty and Africa. And my family. And the fear of mediocrity.
*As we come to a close, a Suzie-life-philosophy that you would love to share that you religiously adhere to?
Always do whatever you are doing for the right reason, make sure it is coming from the right place in your heart. Otherwise, you will not succeed, guaranteed. Also, for SB, the sky is not the limit, it is only the beginning.
*My first question in this section is always the relationship question. So, what is it about Eric that stole your heart and made you ingia his box?
He’s such an innately GOOD person, someone I knew for sure I want to spend my life with and create a family and future with. I feel so safe with him, always have. AND he is unbelievably handsome!
*Is there a misconception you think people have for a CEO like yourself?
Yes, that I’m unapproachable and fancy. I’m more down to earth than most people would ever know. Ask my BFF’s!
*Any good reads you have enjoyed you would love to recommend?
I’m reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. I need the inspiration! Otherwise, I’m all about trashy books and TV – The Kardashians, Shopaholic series, etc.
*Dogs or cats?
*Your dream holiday destination?
Many!!! The Maldives, South of France, Barcelona, Mauritius…. The list goes on!
*What’s your most embarrassing moment?
I can’t answer this. There’s a few, and they stay deep inside my head. Sorry boo…
That’s the much we could dig into Suzie for now. I hope you have loved the read as much as I have. Kindly feel free to walk away with some of the wisdom nuggets she has offered…and its my earnest prayer that whatever it is you are dreaming to do..just go ahead and do it. I love what Suzie said “And whatever you choose to do has to come from a very clean, honest place. No shade allowed!” So in your quest to chasing your own dreams, take a deep look on the inside and bring forth to the world what is truly you. Ever heard of that phrase that says: You were born an original, don’t die a cheap copy? Yeah! Do yourself justice and pursue what you love. And all the best in your pursuits especially now that we are about to cross over to the new year. Cheers!
For Suzie’s photo-shoot, I had the pleasure of once again engaging the gorgeous and talented Thandiwe Muriu, after she did extraordinarily well with Pinky Ghelani early this year. Thandiwe is signed under Prokraft Africa, a talent representative agency primarily set out to represent budding African artists and the shoot was conducted at Prokraft Africa Studios. As always, Thandiwe did exceptionally well with this shoot and I have nothing but love for her and the rest of the team at Prokraft. Check out Thandiwe’s work here, www.thandiwemuriu.com and also check out the other super photographers signed under Prokraft Africa here: www.prokraft.co.ke
This is the only time I didn’t have to worry about who will do the make up. As founder of the Kenya’s first cosmetic line, Suzie was well able to do her own make-up using products she created. How cool is that? (I know!) And quoting her own words, she considers Suzie Beauty as an African conglomerate in the next decade, up there with the likes of Estee Lauder and Bobbi Brown. I have no choice but fall in love with such ambition…and with the strides SB has already made, then this dream is not far fetched! For more on Suzie Beauty Products, head to their website and find out more here: www.suziebeauty.com
And with that, I have nothing else but to wish you a merry Christmas and a prosperous 2015! And in that same spirit, I thought I’d leave this this lovely rendition of ‘Oh Holy Night’ done by Just a Band, Karun and Harry Kimani. Happy holidays folks! Cheers!