“Upscale and Up-skill”
Yoanna ‘pepper’ Chikezie is no stranger to Bridge, having completed The Leap back in 2018 to develop her project as a Yunus & Youth Fellow she’s now back to mentor with her organization under their virtual incubator with fashion and fashion-tech entrepreneurs in Nigeria in partnership with the British Council. community
Yoanna has a passion for combining creativity and entrepreneurship paired with a desire to help creatives harness their skills to build successful businesses. Her startup, The Assembly, combines both of these. It’s a blended community and platform with a mission to upscale and up-skill creative entrepreneurs to create socially and economically viable enterprises by removing barriers to creative and professional development.
“It was always about trying to find a way of bridging the gaps” community
“Working in the fashion and media industries in West Africa and the UK I was constantly interacting with entrepreneurs, designers and creatives. I used to work in production, interviewing and showcasing the stories of creatives and business owners on the continent. These entrepreneurs were doing a lot of amazing things, you know, whether it was using indigenous textiles or trying to basically tell the story of African culture through fashion.
I was really intrigued at how they were able to form a business, and especially in Africa where it’s more difficult to run a sustainable business because there are just so many challenges and bottlenecks. I noticed a lot of these things were reoccurring themes like the lack of funding or not having somebody to call or to speak to as a mentor. Those kinds of things that I know for one I’ve taken for granted coming from the UK. Especially when it comes to fashion education, there’s a number of platforms and resources, things that help you get from step A to B. When I looked at these brands and designers, I just felt inspired to do something more in addition to showcasing creativity.
I had quite a wide network and I started connecting people. I found myself doing a lot of mentoring and introducing people and I felt like it would be good to build a platform for this. What if there was a space where you could come to find everything that you need to grow your business. But beyond that, get connected to other creatives who are going through similar challenges. It was always about trying to find a way of bridging those gaps in the industry and creating a community that people could be a part of so they’re not alone in this journey.
I’ve also kind of gone down the entrepreneurial route a couple of times. It was a very lonely experience, because I either didn’t have access to the right people or I was too shy to ask for help or I didn’t have resources at the time. I was 18 or 19 and I wanted to start a clothing line, it was very challenging and I ended up doing a lot of things just on a whim. So I know what it’s like to start something and then stop because you know you just don’t have the business acumen or you don’t have that network. For me it was about creating a platform that at any point in your particular journey, you should be able to get some support and guidance to build a better business, a business with a purpose.”
“We’re known as a creative hub, so people actually started gravitating to us when it came to trying to find talent” community
The Assembly takes a holistic, community approach to supporting entrepreneurs…
“So there’s four aspects to The Assembly . The first is providing a variety of training workshops events. It could be longer training like an incubation programme an accelerator, or it could be shorter one day workshops to train entrepreneurs on different types of business skills that cuts across marketing, finance, legal, all of the things that a business owner should know. Sometimes when there’s a lot of focus on the creativity side of things, business knowledge is almost neglected.
The second is we provide consultancy and advisory. An entrepreneur might be trying to gain access to that market, maybe they want to start exporting to the UK, or to Australia or the Caribbean, and we provide advisory support or link them to other organizations who can also like help them with that particular aspect of their business.
We also have a recruitment side. What we found is that a lot of people started approaching us looking for talent and hiring support. We’re known as a creative hub so people actually started gravitating to us when it came to trying to find talent, whether it’s social media, design related or it’s business related.
In turn, as the designers we work with start growing, they start needing certain types of resources. So, naturally, they’re already part of the community and will come to us looking for a sales assistant or content creator for example.
Most recently we also expanded into manufacturing as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and now what we’re doing is producing PPE. Obviously this is more related to the health sector but what we found was that we were able to channel resources to designers in our network to help them produce during these times.
Overall, we provide support in a really holistic in the way. It could be building connections with a mentor or facilitating funding and working with other organisations to do that. It’s all intertwined and we’ve created a platform that helps with the tools entrepreneurs need at every point of their journey.”
“I knew that if we did not exist, then a lot of people would be left behind” community
Yoanna shares how her values and purpose have driven the ‘why’ behind The Assembly Hub…
“I came to Nigeria for the first time when I was already an adult, I was born and bred in the UK and spent all my life there. Even though I was aware of where I was from and the culture, it was still completely different, and it was a big culture shock. Nigeria is nowhere near to what other entrepreneurs contend with in other markets, especially in western markets. I think this is the same with most emerging markets. It’s really difficult, but you need that grit to get through the critical challenges and keep going.
For the first two years of running The Assembly, we had no funding at all. So everything was based on like my personal savings, my will and my passion for trying to do something for the industry. And I knew that if we did not exist, then a lot of people would be left behind.
Empathy is also really important. What you find in fashion here is people are from different backgrounds. For example; you meet people who used tailoring as a way of coming out of poverty because they can learn the skill quite easily and master it quite quickly. But you also have for example, someone who went to France to study fashion and then they came back to build their business locally.
So, you have a very wide range of different people, different backgrounds, and you need to be able to relate and provide solutions because if not you’re going to be very disconnected from reality. I see fashion as a really strong tool for alleviating poverty. One designer will have the need to eventually employ more people and connect even more to the value chain which means in a sense a fashion brand creates its own ecosystem.”
“My biggest challenge has been finding a team that really connect with the vision”
I think generally it’s a challenge for entrepreneurs to find a team that really connects with their vision and wants to be a part of the journey as well. At the time you’re starting, you don’t necessarily have the funds to pay the kind of salaries you’d like and so you’re really just hoping that you can make it happen as a team by bootstrapping.
In the earlier days, I also had the challenge of explaining our IRL/URL model. people would ask what I was trying to do, I’d say I’m building a hub, and then the next question was always “Where is your hub?” Now I have found it best to describe The Assembly as a platform because that’s really what it is.