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Creating Jobs and Impact in Liberia | A Conversation with Afropolitan

African textiles.

Embodying one’s culture in dress and personal style may not come top-of-mind in regards to social impact. But for some social entrepreneurs, linking their passion for their culture comes hand-in-hand with making a difference. After speaking with Tianna Sherman-Kessely, CEO of Afropolitan, a Liberian boutique she opened in response to demand for contemporary African fashion, I learned that one’s values and ethics can be weaved into the cloth we wear on our backs! Read on for the details from our conversation:

What inspired you to start this fashion brand?

"The dramatic movements of African dance are inspiring; they evoke the spirit of tradition and stories shared for generations untold. Similarly, the patterns and colors of African textile speak of ancient kingdoms where one was respected and judged by the voluminous splendor of their cloth." - Afropolitan client, Dawn Barnes Photo credit: Shaana Cachelle

I have always been into wearing African print, as it was a way for me to express my Liberian culture. Looking back through old family photos, I’ve often noted my cousins would be wearing what would be considered Western style clothing at family functions, while I would have on a head tie, or a Lappa suit (traditional Liberian outfit). As my sense of fashion grew over the years, instead of wearing my mom’s clothes or traditional wear, I started to create my own looks, which tended to reflect styles seen in US pop culture, but with African fabric. 

With time, I came to believe that others would appreciate African fashion and prints if they were presented in more contemporary designs. After moving to Liberia, I found there were quite a few talented tailors who- with some guidance- could make styles similar to what I had been wearing. So, I would say that I was inspired to start my fashion brand because I saw an opportunity to share a part of my culture with a broader audience all while helping a segment of the population improve their craft. 

A lot of times when someone says “no”, a lot of people will stop at that “no”. Don’t stop at “no”.

That’s impressive! Tell us a little about that- would you say it’s an important role that your business plays in the local community in Liberia?

I would say yes, we play an important role in our community. Through the store, we help groom and showcase local talent. It not only gives them an opportunity to generate revenue for their families, but also helps them gain confidence in themselves and their own talents. They get excited when they see the garments on popular local personalities.

Beyond the tailors, we also provide an outlet for a range of local designers and artisans, such as jewelry makers, painters, and slipper makers, who don’t have a space to showcase their work. Their talent counts and matters.

What contributions has Afropolitan made to your community?

We help create jobs and ensure that heads of households feed their children and help them go to school. Within Afropolitan we have 10 employees, and all have children. Four are single moms, who use this as an opportunity to provide for their kids. Outside of that, we have about 20 tailors within the community, who we work with on a contractual basis. Whenever we have an opportunity to scale-up production, we call them to work with us. While it’s not a permanent job, we’re providing work opportunities.

I enjoy shopping for the fabrics that we use, and we tend to source our fabric locally from market-women, weavers of our local “country-cloth,” and tie-dye makers. Buying locally is another way that we help contribute to our local community.

Buying locally is another way that we help contribute to our local community.

What is your inspiration when creating new designs?

My inspiration ranges from the girls on the streets of Monrovia - there is such a beauty and elegance to them - to global pop stars like Beyonce. I try to stay cognizant of what’s going on in fashion – what’s trending and in style. I find inspiration in the strangest places; I’ve even been inspired by my husband’s socks – he likes those bright socks with fun color combinations.

Many times when I create something, I ask my staff, “What do you think?” We are a team.

You say that good ethics, quality and genuine handicraft are the base of Afropolitan´s designs- what are some measures you use that indicate these three things in your business practices?

Within the team, I reinforce these things all the time. It’s important to be ethical, that the tailors feel good about what they are doing. They need to get paid well, and paid on time. We let them know that it’s important to maintain your schedule. If you tell a customer something will be available at a particular time, you have to ensure it’s ready and available.

When someone thinks of a shopping experience, they think of malls, and Nordstroms or Express. You walk in and access things very easily. But for a lot of my staff, they haven’t been exposed to these things. Liberia is one of the least developed countries. Their version of shopping is to go to the market and see things in a wheelbarrow. I get them to see the value in quality- I show them pictures (of quality standards). We have a process in place to make sure that when a piece comes from the tailor, my employees ensure that it zips properly and functions well.

What do your tailors and other employees like best about working at Afropolitan?

They like knowing that they are producing items that are liked and loved by a lot of different people. We have a lot of return customers.

When I did our logo for the first time, it said “Style ~ Pride ~ Liberia;” and I think they feel proud of what they are producing; it is something that they can stand by. I think that’s one of the things they like about working with the company. We’re not the only store in Liberia, but we’re different. I think they take pride in that, in being different. My manager has been with me since I opened the store. It’s been really cool to see her develop and grow over the years. Let’s ask her what she likes about working here! 

Tianna called her store manager, Bernice, to ask her what she likes about working at Afropolitan. Bernice responded:

Working with Afropolitan over the years has made me learn good customer service skills and working relationships. It’s made me creative and broadened my ideas on fashion and the little details that make you stand out. Afropolitan has molded me into a better person...and I think with what I’ve learned here I can face the world at large.

So your work experience was different before venturing into fashion entrepreneurship. What prompted your career transitions?

I went to school for International Relations and got my Masters in International Public Health. Once I finished that degree, I did some work in that arena. I was at an international health organization for five years. I felt like I was still missing something.

I felt there was so much need in Liberia that if I was doing development work I wanted it to have impact here. All my choices were based around Liberia; that’s been my central motivating factor. Even as an undergrad, I did African Studies and there was an opportunity to participate in an exchange program and I was like, “oh, Tufts is starting a program in Ghana and that’s what I want to do”. At the time, I knew there was a civil war in Liberia and I wasn’t likely to go there at that time, so I decided to go to Ghana.

Eventually, an opportunity came about to work for the Government of Liberia in 2007, and my transition began.

You were pretty active on campus when you were in high school. I understand you established Black History Month celebrations and co-founded the African Students Association. How would you say those experiences shaped your career?

One of the things these experiences did was to let me know it’s okay to start something that doesn’t exist. If you can visualize it and you think it can work, you should go for it. Both of those experiences began just like that. In high school, Black History Month was informative, educational, and had a positive impact in my space.

"Society has quietly defined the way we dress for work or social gatherings. I am brave enough to be different. That's why I rock African Print. My choice of African prints allows me to keep it professional, while adding a unique twitst to my appearance." Afropolitan client, Elvin Birch Photo credit: Shaana Cachelle

I didn’t start the African Students Association (then called the African Political, Social and Cultural Organization) alone; there was a group of us. I was a Co-President, and we all came together and sat down and hashed it out. I think it’s important to reach out to individuals you think will be helpful to the organization, to build up momentum. For instance, if you are doing it at a school, it’s important to incorporate underclassmen, because the group doesn’t end with you – it’s important to consider succession planning.

Just recently, I looked up the African Students Association online and saw that it’s still active (at Tufts University). From 1999 to 2016, to know that it’s still going forward, is pretty cool.

You were still working a “day job” when you started Afropolitan. What was it like to start a business while already working a job?

Oh my goodness. It was a complete juggling act. I had moved back to Liberia in 2008, and there I was a year later toying with the idea of opening up a business, wondering where to do it; how to do it.

Juggling being a new mom, and new business owner, and having the dream- it was a bit tough but if you are focused enough and make time for it, it can be done.

There were a lot of burnt out buildings (in Liberia), destroyed by the war or deserted by their owners. One of the first things was to figure out a good location. The place selected was a gutted-out structure with no electric wires, plumbing, tiles, or paint. During the construction process, I was working at the Ministry of State, and then I got pregnant. Juggling all those things was intense, but worth it. Seeing the structure change and the business grow and develop over the years has been rewarding. Juggling being a new mom, and new business owner, and having the dream- it was a bit tough but if you are focused enough and make time for it, it can be done. 

How did your previous experiences prepare you?

The experiences that were the most useful for me were from the time spent working with the Government in Liberia. It gave me the proper context for engaging my staff, and helped me measure my expectations. It also taught me that even with limited resources, where there’s a will, there’s a way. If you have a vision for something, “no” is not an answer. There’s always a solution, a better way, another way. A lot of times when someone says “no”, a lot of people will stop at that “no”. Don’t stop at “no”. Things won’t always be simple or easy but you have to keep pushing forward because there’s a need.

Which of your skills have you used, regardless of the job you held? In other words, which skills have provided the “through-line” or a “common theme” in your work history?

Being organized. If you’re trying to balance several things, like starting a business while still working full-time, you have to be organized, thorough, and focused.

I’ve used my communication skills as well. I think that has been one of my most cross-cutting skills whether doing international health work at a USAID-funded entity or working on international promotion work at the Liberian National Investment Commission.

With my current line of business, being a good communicator is key because it helps you relate to other people – not just clients, but also staff. I’ve had to engage a range of folks, ranging from market women to investors or ambassadors. Being able to make everyone feel comfortable regardless of his or her background is an important skill.

In addition to your international work experience and starting a business, you’ve been involved in a lot of philanthropic efforts! Of all the ones you’ve been involved in, which have been your favorites and why?

It’s not necessarily a “favorite”, but the one I think has had the most impact is what I did with a core group of friends in the fight against Ebola. We worked together as Liberians Against Ebola, Inc. to collect, ship, and distribute approximately 10,000 pounds of medical supplies to help stop the spread of the Ebola virus in Liberia. We also played a role in raising awareness about the virus and sharing critical updates during the outbreak at the community level.

Another organization I participated in was IDOA (I Dream of Africa) Entertainment. We hosted a week of events called Passport to Africa in Washington, DC during the week leading up to Memorial Day weekend. It was fun promoting the positive and diverse cultures of Africa – we hosted South African wine tastings, Ethiopian Restaurant night, Fashion Trunk Shows and more.

What advice would you give to someone who was interested in starting a sustainable, ethical fashion business or brand?

First and foremost, do your research. Put together a solid business plan. Have your vision and concept down pat- what it is that will drive your entity but also what will be driving you. Figure that out as much and as clearly as possible. Don’t be afraid to change if you feel something has to evolve. If you realize something isn’t working, it’s okay to evolve and change, especially if you are changing based on what your target audience wants.

I’ve been reading Good to Great by Jim Collins, and one of the things he stresses is the importance of having disciplined people on your team. I’ve learned that along the way. I’ve worked with some super talented tailors, but not all of them were the most disciplined. She’s been with me for the past three years and it has been awesome to see her grow. Why? She was disciplined, willing to learn, open to suggestions and super reliable. That’s really important, to have the right team members who are loyal and disciplined.

I had one seamstress make some children’s pieces, and they were not up to par. However, a year later, I reconnected with her and said “these are the challenges, let’s work on it.” Since then, she’s been with me for the past three years and it has been awesome to see her grow. Why? She was disciplined, willing to learn, open to suggestions and super reliable. That’s really important, to have the right team members who are loyal and disciplined.

As you know, the Idealist community is interested in international careers. What advice would you give to someone who wants to work in Liberia? What do they need to know to understand the culture and the “world of work” in the country?

Hmmm. I would say that Liberia has a very laid back culture. If you’re intense and used to things moving super fast, you will need to adjust your level of expectations.

At the same time, we are a “Least Developed Country” so there are definitely capacity gaps here. Liberia provides an interesting opportunity for Idealists to make a difference and positively impact the lives of men, women and children in the sector of their choice, whether it is in healthcare, education, or commerce.

If someone is interested in working in Liberia or some other part of the world, I encourage them to step outside of their bubble and do work that is impactful and meaningful. I think that’s what life is about. Touching lives, having a positive impact on each other and not sitting in isolation and just being content.

By Victoria Crispo

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