The continent of Africa has in the past decade seen a new crop of millennial entrepreneurs leveraging different creative means in pushing the greatness in Africa. Maty Ndongo and Bruno Kimsey Ouédraogo are Senegalese Co-Founders of the brand “Miss Shabazz,” a company that specialises in the production of beautiful Afro dolls clothed in African prints. In this interview with Aderinsola Adeniran of Leading Ladies Africa, they share on their passion to help young girls see themselves positively represented and embrace their kind of “beautiful.”
How did your interest in fashion and entrepreneurship begin?
MATY: I love fashion, the aesthetics, self-expression and social influence. I studied fashion marketing when I was in the University because I am passionate about the industry. With the recent globalisation, I want the Western world, especially the black/afro Diaspora to be more aware of the African culture. I want to push the limits and challenge the norms of “Eurocentric’s” standards.
When it comes to entrepreneurship, it’s obvious to me that to be able to live my dreams and reach my ambitions, the freedom of action is an essential.
Bruno: I am reading biographies of successful entrepreneurs all the time. They all have one thing in common- the passion for their brand. Once, I found the idea of a black doll company and the right partner who would create the image, I think investing my time came naturally because I love the product.
What is the motivation behind Miss Shabazz
Maty: We want to create a positive impact on people who are melanin by offering a doll with similar features. It’s important for our Queens to be familiar and proud of the rich heritage Africa has to offer at a young age. We want the label “Made in Africa” to be a symbol of quality and reinforce the community with multiple collaborations in form of artists, designers, entrepreneurs etc. Put our little brick on the wall of black excellence.
The name of your innovation sounds peculiar. How did you come about the name “Miss Shabazz”?
Bruno: Our clothes are hand-made in Africa and our product is sold a lot to the black/Afro Diaspora (Afro-Europeans and Americans), I chose a name that bridges both cultures. The tribe of Shabazz is part of the Afrocentric folklore and certain black leaders even changed their last name to “Shabazz” after finding out who they are, where they came from and getting knowledge of their roots.
You wanted to make Africa a marketable export to the world and also redefine beauty for young girls. Why did you use the vehicle of a doll to fuel that mission?
Maty: Miss Shabazz has two main goals, which is representing and valuing the black community of the youngest age and sharing the treasures of Africa in an economic dynamic. Dolls are perfect for fulfilling this mission. Miss Shabazz Inc head office is in Montréal, Canada.
My first goal was to create a small “Atelier” in Dakar, where my father comes from. We did it! The second phase would be to move the head office in Africa as well to see the master tailors daily and enjoy the motherland.
Bruno: In the era of screens and digital entertainment, I think a doll is a classic toy. Of course, an Afro doll is important for black girls, it could even be crucial in some cases.
We also sell to some smart white parents who understand that the black doll is the inanimate equivalent of their daughter’s classmate, teammate, best friend, future employees and employers. Plus, Maty’s designs, high quality cloth selection, image and our master tailors’ works are amazing. People don’t feel like it’s a donation for a cause because they see the quality of the product and they love it.
What challenges have you faced since the inception of the business?
Maty: We are, as I mentioned, based in Montréal, Canada. It’s a huge challenge designing prototypes. Also, communicating its essence to the team at times can be tasking. It’s a long work of communication but we have made it happen so far because we have a wonderful team of creatives who are generous with their time. Another challenge in the near future will be the distribution to the different parts in the African continent.
Are there peculiar challenges you have faced co-running a business as opposed to running it single-handedly?
Maty: Miss Shabazz works with the synergy of our partnership. Bruno is a creative eccentric person. He designs and manages external stakeholders and partners, promotions, finances, business development and community relationships. I on the other hand, deal with the production process. I oversee the design, production, branding and image ensuring that it is excellent and in line with the vision of the brand.We both understand our individual contributions and collective contribution to the development of the brand. That understanding and that synergy have made co-running the business seamless.
What are the highlights of this innovation?
Maty: Launching new models of our products in every season of the industry’s calendar year has been a major highlight. We started with “Wax” and “Rich Basin” which has been a success so far. Going forward, we intend to launch more models and use 100 per cent African fabrics.
What are your future projections for Miss Shabazz? Do you intend to collaborate with any brand soon?
Maty: We intend to promote our brand to make our dolls accessible to everyone. We also want to develop partnerships with Afro-fashion creators. Miss Shabazz is more than a doll or a product. Hence, our goal is to grow the brand and business to become economic players in the continent.
Bruno: On collaboration, we have done quite a few since we launched out. We did collaboration with a boutique in Paris and a Web show in Montreal. We also intend to collaborate with other industry players in New York and London.
What was your greatest fear launching this innovation and how have you been able to manage it?
Bruno: Logistics has been our greatest fear. We’ve had to deal with thoughts like: How do we get the dolls distributed? Our target audience are in different cities in three different continents of the world, how do we get the products to them?
What if these dolls get lost in transit?
So, basically, it has been logistics. Thankfully, we have found creative ways to bypass this and distribution is coming along well.
In your experience, what is the greatest challenge faced by African women?
Maty: African women carry the most scars of modern society. We used to be queens, family leaders and even warriors. I believe we need to redeem our self-esteem and worth.
Bruno: I am not a woman but in the pyramid of power worldwide, black woman are the least respected. It is crazy how modern mankind design the mothers of all human nations in such low level of consideration. But like weather or fashion trends, they will be back where they belong; it’s a matter of time
Do you think social media promotes unreasonable beauty standards? How so?
Maty: I think social media reflects our world. It is us, who define these norms and not the opposite. The creation of networks and social media should be a considerable asset to assert the standards of beauty desired by the black community. I believe African women should represent digitally, our geographic and heritage advantage such that it is able to shake things up.
Bruno: Social media promotes everything. From stamp collectors to white supremacists, from reality stars to Inuit art fanatics. The number of followers per gender reflects the society. When it comes to Miss Shabazz line, we understand that lots of girls love to play the princess role and love to look beautiful hence, we added fashion to it.
We also believe a princess should read, play and have fun. It is important to open all spectrums to them. I also believe a boy should learn how to cook certain meals and clean, not depend on someone else when he leaves the house. Social media can be used as a tool to communicate this balance.
What would you like to be remembered for?
Maty: If people remember the brand Miss Shabazz dolls, my mission is accomplished.
What is your advice for women/men looking to tow this career path?
. Be the first fan of what you create. It determines success. Offer a product or idea that has a positive impact on the community. Go into your project with a partner who compliments you. Also, a strong team is an essential asset to go where you want to go.