“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” – Dr. Seuss
In the last 18 months of our quest to find young and inspirational African voices, none can be compared, or comes close to Adiat Disu’s journey towards contributing passionately to the greatness of the African continent while using a platform that will never go extinct for generations to come.
In this interview with Adiat Disu, one of Forbes Most Powerful Women in Africa, we learn about her life and works with the Adiree brand and the future of the African continent with regards to showcasing the best of Africa through fashion.
Outside of the journals and press write-ups, can you tell Whoot Africa a little bit about Adiat Disu, the individual, the entrepreneur; Founder and Communications Director at Adiree, and Director of Africa Fashion Week?
Individual: Born in Nigeria. (Nigerian & Ghanaian) Most people do not know that I’m also Ghanaian. Frankly, it is something I recently discovered 4 years ago. However, I’m excited to confirm that I’m 100% African which reinforces my drive to promote brands from Africa or develop Africa as a whole.
What truly identifies me is my faith. Faith has the audacity to go beyond people’s thoughts, opinions, vision, and expectations- an audacity that I’ve come to respect, love and simply allow to “do its thing.” In addition to this, I’ve realized that taking and applying all of my experiences is great. But more importantly is the act of not allowing my lack of experience or resources in any area of my life, to stop me from achieving my purpose.
Also, I have an incredibly competitive spirit (I think it comes from being an athlete). However, I don’t believe I have to ensure that my light is “brighter” than others. I believe a light simply does what it does naturally (illuminates). I don’t believe that light concerns itself with incapability. Its main concern is to provide a resource, to its surrounding area.
As an entrepreneur: I’m focused on establishing pan-African entities that I love. Two major traits that all of these entities have in common are the following:
- Helping other entrepreneurs achieve their goals and vision
- Shifting “Rebranding People’s Perceptions” about Africa and developing Africa through public relations, communications and media
I’m the Director of Adiree, pronounced [aww] [dee-ray]: a luxury group, headquartered in New York and a branch in Lagos, Nigeria that develops brands and provides marketing and communication solutions.
We are architects in multi-cultural content (digital and print) and events, targeting diversity, women, youth, and emerging markets (i.e. Africa).We especially take pride in developing and marketing premium ethical and social enterprising brands which we consider “the new face of luxury.”
We also currently manage the brand Africa Fashion Week (www.AfricaFashionWeek)
You were recently honored as Forbes’ 20 under 30 youngest most powerful African Woman, and have been recognized by CNN International, LA Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Black Enterprise Magazine and New York City’s Mayor, Michael Bloomberg; do you feel pressured with the spotlight? How has this recognition helped with pushing both brands?
The pressure I feel or acknowledge are the expectations I have established for myself; a deep burden and a desire to marry purpose, passion and profit. Loving what I do, while improving lives (including mine) is the end goal, it’s the most authentic and genuine way to live. I am driven by purpose. My purpose is to build profitable entities that will improve the lives of people around me; my family, the youth, and the continent.
I believe the media aids and play a large role in building brands, thus me being in the field of communications and PR. However, I believe that such honors and media coverage has aided our client’s brands and our vision alike.
I believe you received an Award in Nigeria last year. How did it feel to be recognized by your country?
Yes, at Luxury retail store Temple Muse, on Friday 2nd May 2014, WIE Africa Conference in Lagos hosted a welcome cocktail party for visitors and guests from all around the globe. The evening served as a perfect opportunity for a meet and greet for all those involved and attending the 2nd WIE African Symposium which featured talks from a host of inspirational visionaries, media personalities and industry leaders promoting the empowerment of women in enterprise.
Founder/President of the Wellbeing Foundation Africa Toyin Saraki, Temple Muse CEO Avinash Wadhwani, WIE Founder Dee Poku and Event Chair Bola Balogun of Glam Networks, opened proceedings with welcome and thank you speeches followed by an introduction of The Wellbeing Foundation.
WIE Next Generation Leader Awards were presented to recipients from various industries including fashion, media and more. Recipients include Uche Pedro of BellaNaija.com, Ola Orekunrin of Flying Doctors, Zara Okpara of Jewel by Lisa, Adiat Disu of Adiree, Yemi Adamolekun of EnoughisEnough and Bola Balogun of Glam Networks.
Something people don’t know about you?
Perhaps it’s the fighter spirit in me, but I love MMA fighting and kickboxing. I try my best to train three times a week, with my MMA Trainer. If not, I commit to small yet impactful workouts at home (berpees, kettle bell swings, 12 flights of stairs (twice if I’m feeling disciplined) ) I believe that as a woman, I absolutely have to be strong in every department of my life. Finding a balance is key, but I can do all things and am strengthened.
You are the CEO and Communications Director of Adiree, and the creator and founder of the Africa Fashion Week (www.AfricaFashionWeek.com) –an international (Pan-African) showcase. What was the inspiration behind creating the African Fashion Weeks? How would you describe the journey with the African fashion weeks so far?
Our first and primary platform: Africa Fashion Week in New York was inspired by a lack of our representation in mainstream media and the desire to foster a relationship between US and African business owners. About 44% of the population in New York is part of the African Diaspora yet there are very few African brands who are given the opportunity to showcase or be a part of New York Fashion Week festivities.
Now, Africa is the inspiration being clothing and brands, and it has become the range and widely adopted by many. We simply wanted to inform the international scene and the world of the potential of Africa.
Our main tag line is “Where Fashion Began” which is rich in meaning, mainly because New York is known as one of the fashion capitals and is where much of the action occurs. Then there is Africa -where things began―art, culture, fashion.
The focus of Adiree is to bring the best of African brands to the spotlight and patronage of the International market, how much support and corporation have you been able to garner from African brands especially with quality and affordable products?
Fashion from Africa has a history of trade and creativity. African Fashion and style has transitioned from decade to decade. The traditional African style has decided to make its presence known to the fashion market, and at the hands of new creators. The various countries in Africa each have a definable fashion piece that highlights its culture.
In Egypt where some may argue that “Fashion Began” had Pharaohs and their Queens, adorned with jewels, wearing the finest linens and silks, artifacts and stone sculptures depict lavish hairstyles and clothing. In Ghana you can find the beautiful and colorful woven pieces of Kente cloth with each pattern expressing a different meaning.
In Nigeria the traditional and prestigious pieces of Agbada lace and Ipele cloths are mainly combined with the distinctive Gele (head gear) worn by its powerful women. In the eastern regions of Africa, countries, for example Ethiopia take pride in their cultural fashion in which women can traditionally be found dressed up in a light gauz like cloth called Natella that is trimmed by a colorful border. African fashion designs, colors, and culture, are a refreshing aesthetic to the fashion world. Established designers such as Marc Jacobs, Diane Von Furstenberg, as well as up and coming designers are taking traditional fashion passed down from generations, yet adding a modernized and contemporary twist. You’ll notice Adire, Iborun cloths, Shemma fabrics, and Kente cloths skillfully designed and transformed into creative avant-garde and luxury fashion.
Africa Fashion Week and Adiree has grown in a considerable short time and remarkably too, what are some of those things that are critical success factor to pushing Adiree and The Africa Fashion Week to where it is right now?
You’re seeing that the promotion of Africa Fashion outside of Africa begin to heighten the interest and intrigue individuals concerning Africa and it’s propensity to produce quality brands and for potential business partnerships.
From an interactive marketing standpoint, Adiree has experienced that events bringing together fashion designers, African textiles, apparel and footwear exhibitors, and leading buyers from across Africa, Europe, and the United states to facilitate sourcing relationships and networking opportunities will continue to develop the African Fashion Industry
On and off the continent, It is essential to have various promotional efforts (both traditional and digital), initiatives (both strategic and mutually beneficial ones), supply chains and distribution networks, that connect, and inspire creativity and innovation between all afore mentioned parties on the Continent and Globally for Africa.
Contributors in the development within Africa and off the continent – with the initiative of bringing Africa to the world of fashion capitals are the major players on the continent such as Adiat Disu of Africa Fashion Week(s) in Fashion Capitals, Precious Motsepe, of Africa Fashion International (South Africa) , Omoyemi Akerele of Style House Files in (West Africa) and off the USAID (East,]/Central, West, South) trade hubs.
Looking at the African Fashion industry, what are some of those things you have observed that needs to change for Africa to really experience a boom in the fashion industry like it does in Italy, United Kingdom, Tokyo and the US?
The industry is a consortium of African designers worldwide (those on the continent and outside of the continent), creative professionals (www.Adiree.com), NGO’s, small to medium sized businesses, chambers of commerce, and those interested in benefiting both in the US and Africa through successful promotion and establishment of the African Fashion Industry. You may see easier access and promotion of African designers based in Europe and North America, but I don’t believe it is limited to designers based in these areas. As you know, African designers can be well known and successful on the continent, however those that are competitive and garnering more support are those who are able to travel globally (specifically, in Fashion Capitals like New York). What buyers, press and fashion enthusiast need is a bridge to discovering these African designers, time to discover and increase trade and investment opportunities. This can only occur if Adiree has the support and companionship of organizations and programs that reinforce African reform efforts, provide funding and training for fashion designers, establish good governance, transparency, sustainable democracy and human rights in Africa.
UNDERSTANDING OUR POWER AS JOB PROVIDERS AND CONSUMERS
South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria and Algeria, these African countries are among the fastest growing economic regions in the world, attracting foreign direct investment from businesses small to large from around the globe. The largest investments made were in Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa – all based on Foreign Investment numbers in Africa
But with the recent launch of the Stock Exchange in Angola, this also laid a foundation for Angola to be a major player in the African market.
With 900 million potential consumers on the continent, 10% of which is concentrated in Nigeria; why wouldn’t the world be interested in tapping into such a market? Despite economic crises in many other parts of the world, Africa had one of the 10 top performing economies, during recent recessions also intrigued many business analysts – in turn investors- who saw the growth rate increase 5% in 2010 and reached approximately 5.2% in 2011. If Africa continues to grow at such a rate, consumers will buy $1.4 trillion worth of goods and services in 2020.
Overall, it’s about breaking old barriers and opening new markets for many organizations. All of this leads to the economic development of the foreign investors and Africa. The possibility of increasing trade and economic ties (which foreign investors could benefit from) is appealing.
We can also look at it from a point of job creation. Let’s be honest, apart from the glitz’s and glamour that the runway’s have brought to African Fashion, EMPLOYMENT is the main focus for any foreign interest or investment initiative in Africa.
BETTERING OUR GLOBAL RANKING (global ranking of Africa’s fashion industry is the following) Africa, as a fashion capital – ( South Africa) we rank 41 (Jo burgh) and 46 (Cape Town)
INCREASE EXPORTS OF FINISHED GOODS
Today, exports from Africa continue to heavily compromise of raw materials and semi-finished products. Lesotho, Kenya, Mauritius and Swaziland (in that order) are the torch bearers in terms of textiles/garment exports under AGOA.
Africa as a whole as it is, is a developing industry with export volume still low. More organizations must work with African Countries respective law centres and organizations like the African Cotton and Textile Industries Federation (ACTIF) to build more institutional capacity in the region to identify key trade policy issues that limit exports of textiles and apparel, and to advocate for policy reforms that liberalize trade within the region, and with the US. Understanding and Investing in policy efforts in the sector are focused on the Rules of Origin (RoO) and eligibility for a third country fabric waiver under AGOA (African Growth & Opportunity Act (AGOA), an act with a special focus on textiles/garments).
A total of 41 Sub-Saharan Africa countries (including South Sudan) are AGOA-eligible. AGOA accords duty-free-quota-free (DFQF) treatment for eligible apparel articles made in qualifying sub-Saharan African countries through 2015.
To be eligible for apparel benefits, a country should have in place an effective visa system to prevent illegal transshipment and use of counterfeit documentation, as well as effective enforcement and verification procedures. Of the 39 AGOA eligible countries, 26 have been declared eligible for the apparel provision, and 13 are not eligible.* AGOA describes “transshipment” as claiming a textile or apparel article for preferential treatment that is false with respect to country of origin, manufacture, processing or assembly of the article or any of its parts. If transshipment is found, the U.S. will deny all benefits for future textile or apparel shipments from the transshipping sub-Saharan African exporter for five years.
Qualifying articles include: apparel made of U.S. yarns and fabrics; apparel made of sub-Saharan African (regional) yarns and fabrics until 2015, subject to a cap; apparel made in a designated lesser-developed country of third-country yarns and fabrics until September 30, 2015, subject to a cap; apparel made of yarns and fabrics not produced in commercial quantities in the United States; textile or textile articles originating entirely in one or more lesser-developed beneficiary sub-Saharan African countries; certain cashmere and merino wool sweaters; and eligible hand loomed, handmade, or folklore articles, and ethnic printed fabrics. (Source: OTEXA)
How would you describe your leadership style and where do you see Adiree and the African Fashion Weeks in 10years from now?
My leadership style is service oriented. Without the spirit of serving, you cannot and SHOULD not lead. My main goal when developing and managing a team or working with people is providing them with what they need to make projects successful or clients happy. It isn’t easy, but if it was, then everyone would be noted as a leader or acknowledged as powerful….
I believe Africa Fashion Week concept will continue to transform and grow, mirroring that of the continents and international consumers needs. The platform www.AfricaFashionWeek.com is currently being developed as a trade and development platform to aid in fostering growth and development in and around the continent. We’re excited about the launch.
What do you think are the most important personal skills someone must have to be successful in business?
- Be motivated by pure thoughts: This is the foundation of your empire. If you build anything in life with selfish desires, anger, jealousy or anything contrary to what is good
- Read. Read
- Learn and Invest in Education (outside of traditional education–the classroom). For starters invest in researching online resources or classes. Learn to code, graphically design, and manage finances- develop passive income.
Your educational background & history?
I studied at Philips Exeter Academy and the University of Santa Barbara (UC Santa Barbara) graduated from Bentley University where I majored in Informational Technology with a double minor in Marketing as well as Information Design and Corporate Communications.
What was growing up like in Lagos?
Growing up for me was very family-oriented; I was very young in Lagos so, I didn’t realize all the luxuries that I had at the time, with my father’s ripe career, I was constantly traveling and continuously surrounded by family and close friends. My parents were very protective and strict; my movements were limited but I would say that my childhood memories were mainly filled with family, loved ones and travel.
Leaving Nigeria for the United States at the age of 15, what was running through your mind at that time?
I had no expectations and no true understanding of what was happening. Coming to the United States, I immediately saw differences in lifestyle. The extensive family members that I had in Nigeria, were no longer here and going from that to just my immediate family, was a major shift. My friends became quite diverse, I was suddenly surrounded by Rodriquez’s and Yang’s, versus Adeyemi’s or Okechukwu’s
Your Father Tajudeen Disu, Nigeria’s ex-international footballer was highly successful during his career; will you say his success story was a major boost for your early rise?
Anyone who is African can understand the need to want to make your parents who work so hard to provide a future for you, proud. There’s a drive that is instilled in you early on to succeed beyond what they have done. I believe everyone can relate to simply desiring to push yourself, using those who came before you as leverage.
What was your experience like at Bentley University and what were your most memorable moments at the university?
My experience at Bentley was quite interesting. I used my experience at Bentley, as a battleground for life. I was very proactive on campus, never wanting to settle for just a degree, nor exiting without making some sort of impact (whatever that meant). Although I never held Presidential roles– because I was interested in finding untapped needs and starting organizations that filled those needs– I made sure to diversify each experience I had.
From being a campus tour guide, a Residential Assistant (RA), to hanging out with the international students (and eventually being inspired to producing a documentary called “The War Inside” featuring a Sudanese student on campus, whom I met sitting alone at lunch time. I found out that he had experienced the Darfur War and was moved to tell history)
Also, Bentley being a male dominate, pre dominantly Caucasian school at the time, I always made an effort to infuse culture in everything I did. I’m not quite sure why. I Just felt a burden, perhaps innate responsibility to add color to a canvas. The canvas, I called life….?
I also believe by starting the Bentley ‘Fashion Consultants,” an organization dedicated to developing business professionals in fashion, it triggered Bentley to recognize and meet new demands of the changing marketplace. I believe they started to create curriculum’s and majors to prepare students in the fields that have been under-represented in business focused higher education.
You started Bentley Fashion Consult at the university what was the inspiration behind this?
Bentley Fashion Consultants! The inspiration came from wanting to merge business with fashion. We partnered with TJX, (parent company of TJMaxx, Marshalls, Home Goods,etc.) to create opportunities for students interested in the fashion industry. My main goal was to make people understand that the fashion industry wasn’t just left for the creative minds but, also open to the business minded. Those interested in marketing, information technology and finance could play their part in enhancing an ever-expanding multi-billion dollar industry. We also implemented a Do it yourself (for the creative’s) and trading fashion stock (for the business/finance driven) events.
My favourite company to watch and research at the time was NASDAQ: TRLG (True Religion). When they released their IPO and 4 years later, the former penny stock exploded increasing by 400% I mourned for myself. I regrettably was too timid to move forward with buying stocks. As a college student at the time, I just couldn’t do it. But from that, I learned to stop doubting myself, and also investing in my ideas (more importantly, finding others to invest in your ideas).
What were the challenges like when you started Adiree at the age of 21?
I had already begun creating Adiree while employed at IBM; I had mentors and advisors to support me through my process. My family also played a major role in motivating me to continue on with Adiree.
Why Africa Fashion Week New York and how old were you at that time?
I founded the Africa Fashion Week (in fashion capitals: New York, London, Paris, Milan, Berlin, Tokyo and LA) concept in 2009 ( at Age 21) with the drive and passion to promote and create a demand for African brands globally, mainly in fashion capitals. I had no idea that it would perpetuate others, let alone catch on as a trend. With Africa rising as a result of macro and micro economic developments, political development, you have more individuals on the continent inspired to move products and more people from the US, looking to enter Africa’s markets (such as Nigeria with 900 million potential consumers), such need for an African-focused, pr and media agency is necessary, thus Adiree.
Our first endeavor; developing the retail industry and contributing to the Africa’s Fashion Industry were again, a burden on my heart, which I had to answer to. And also, New York is probably one of the largest cultural hubs in the world. Every nation can be found in New York City. By joining in on the Fashion Week activities in September, we can use our platform to promote up and coming African brands.
How is the reception of African designers in New York and globally?
The reception was very welcoming. Just having an influx of fashion inspired by culture telling a story much larger than the designers themselves was major, people are more inspired by the stories the brands tell and thus excited about supporting black-owned brands. I believe there is an audience (mainly due to the natural hair movement – I believe-) interested in affordable and quality brands from the continent. Accessibility would be key in responding to the growing interest.
Have you been able to achieve what you hoped with AFWNY?
There is much more to be done. As an entrepreneur, a business owner, I don’t believe you are truly satisfied with any ‘accomplishments’ or ‘successes’. We’re currently moving forward in a major restructuring, pivoting, with a now better understanding of designer’s needs as well as partners. Our re-launch will be surrounding the brand new www.AfricaFashionWeek.com
Any event plans for your country Nigeria in the nearest future?
We launched the Adiree PR in Nigeria, during WIE (Women Inspiration Enterprise), hosted during the World Economic Forum in May 2014. We created and moderated a panel called : “With Style and Strategy: Positioning Africa Globally through Public Relations and Communications” which served to inspire the next generation of African female leaders and brands to take greater part in the development of the continent and to bring together a diverse collection of leaders to dialogue and exchange ideas about Africa’s need for quality Public Relations and Communications.
During the Public Relations and Communications panel, a more balanced look on how Public Relations and Communications can influence the ongoing economic development on the continent, across various industries (Entertainment, Banking, Government). While gains in Nigeria’s GDP have been applauded, these gains can reach a greater mass, through effective and strategic communications. With the mission of promoting equitable economic growth through further development of the PR and Communications industry, the panelists will also discuss the growing need and business opportunities for women in the fields of public relations and communications.
Our future plans are more geared toward empowering and developing more entrepreneurs through media and public relations. I’d like to see more global partnerships and sales opportunities connected to the continent’s brands.
Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
I want everyone, African, Asian, Latino, etc. to identify with me on a personal level. My fiveYear professional goal is to become a household name that people can relate to all over the world. Whether I’m working on AFW, working on PR and Tech or even sitting on your couch eating amala, I just want to be relatable and able to reach people with full understanding of where I’m coming from.
What is your greatest inspiration?
My greatest inspiration is God. I mean, you can’t get any more inspiring than God. The creator of all creators.
Word of advice to old and young entrepreneurs?
I’ll leave you with two layers of advice:
- Failure attacks your confidence but your ability to produce confidence after failure yields power.
- Overall growth isn’t derived from what we avoid but what we overcome.
Lastly, in the world, what is the one thing you’d like to be remembered for when the name Adiat Disu, is mentioned around the world?
How I made them feel. – Powerfully and wonderfully made
Click here to read more CEO interviews on Whoot Africa