I Moved From the U.S. to Nigeria and Launched a Fashion Brand

Leilani Lawani was born in New York, lived in Cameroon for several years before returning to the U.S. for college.  She eventually moved to Lagos, Nigeria, and founded her fashion brand, Koélé.

Leilani Lawani

What inspired you to start your business?

I have a multicultural background in that I have lived in different countries throughout my childhood and adult life.

I have therefore been exposed to a number of ways of expressing ones self through fashion – personal style that combines different textures, patterns and colors.

These factors inspire us to design the bags and sandals that we create. I have always enjoyed fashion and felt that many of the designers were always being safe with their designs and color scheme.

There are times I would walk in a store and say to myself “If only we could change the strap, or use a different color combination, or make it a little larger.” One day I decided to try my hands at designing the bags and it took off from there.

How has living in multiple countries influenced you as a person and as a business owner?

Living in multiple countries has molded me into the person that I am today. I am very open minded and easily relate to people from different backgrounds and cultures.

I believe this helps me create styles that may cater to more than one group of people – i.e., people from different countries, interests, and across age groups.

Living in American for many years has helped me as a business owner because I learned about customer service being the one important tool to having a successful business.

I have a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. The customer is always right and I will bend over backwards until the client is satisfied.

 When you moved to Nigeria, what was the biggest adjustment you had to make?

There are many. But the one that stands out the most is the traffic! I have no patience for it and have now learned to run most of my errands in the mornings before 2pm.

How do you balance being a wife, mother and entrepreneur?

There is never a balance. You just try and prioritize the best you can. I am never going to be the perfect wife, best mother or the most successful entrepreneur.

I wake up in the morning and just pray that I can get through the day without any major challenges. So far so good. I feel blessed to be the mother of my two gorgeous kids and a wife to a very supportive husband.

What are your thoughts on the importance of Nigerians supporting Nigerian brands?

I think it is extremely important to for us to support Nigerian brands. There are many talented people in Nigeria who have businesses that are of good quality but unfortunately we prefer to buy the big designer brands from abroad.

The economy is suffering and it can be improved if we keep the money within Nigeria and support each other. Its incomprehensible that such a country with so much wealth and talent is where it is today.

Slowly though it seems that more and more Africans are realizing that we need to invest in our countries and a major part of the problem is that we would rather take our money and spend it in the western world.

What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Never give up! If you have a dream, do not let anyone tell you that it will not be successful.

You never know until you try. Being an entrepreneur in Nigeria is probably more challenging than most other places in the world. You need patience, determination, perseverance and lots of faith.

If you have all those you are half way there. It’s very rewarding to own your business and see it grow, no matter how small it currently is. You get out what you put in.


-Tony Oluwatoyin Lawson

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