Kemi Lewis is in my opinion a pioneer in the natural hair styling scene. When I first became natural and was desperately looking for a natural hair salon to help tame my mane, her salon always came up in my searches and I saw her hair creations everywhere on social media. Prior to this interview, I didn’t know anything about the woman behind the brand, so I really enjoyed reading this one. Her fierce determination and stoic faith in her vision is worthy of emulation. I know you will be inspired by this Lawyer who left her job to pursue her business.
1. Tell us what you do for a living and how long you’ve been working at your own business?
I am a Natural Hair Stylist and Beautypreneur. I own and am the Creative Director of KL’s Natural Beauty which opened it’s doors to customers in August 2013 and has grown to having 2 locations (Dolphin and Lekki phase1).
2. How did you get into natural hair care and why did you decide to go into that line of work?
It was actually a play of personal circumstances that saw me going into the natural hair industry. While I’ve always known how to make hair (I was one of those students who made my friend’s hair in secondary school) it was not something I considered as a business until early 2013. As a young girl I wanted to dance and entertain even though I was painfully shy (like that would have happened then loll) I ended up studying Law at the University of Lagos and spent a number of years practicing. A few years ago, a childhood friend of mine helped me put the pieces together in my head and that’s how I started this business!I was one of those students who made my friend’s hair in secondary school- Kemi Lewis Click To Tweet
3. At what point did you make the decision to start your business/ open a salon; what convinced you? How did you generate initial capital (if applicable)?
So I kept having this leading in my spirit to start a business but I truly wasn’t sure what exactly I wanted to do. My initial thoughts were a healthy food and natural hair products business but after sitting with a friend to get clarity, she reminded me of how I’d always known how to style hair and how since I was obviously good at taking care of my natural hair, it would only make sense to start a natural hair salon.
What further convinced me apart from the initial leap in my heart when she said this, was after much research I realised there were not many people who knew how to handle natural hair at that time (I’d had a few disappointing experiences) and seeing as a number of people were embracing their natural hair, it was a new market waiting to be explored. In terms of capital, I had some savings that I was able to use and I also cashed in my life insurance at this point!
I had some savings that I was able to use and I also cashed in my life insurance at this point! Click To Tweet
4. How was the response from your SO/parents/family/friends? Especially if you decided to leave a paid job/not do what you studied in school.
A lot of people ( my mum included) thought I had lost my mind. I was a qualified lawyer with an LLM in International Business Transactions and also a Chartered Secretary. I had worked a cushy job as a Company Secretary and Legal Adviser so they couldn’t fathom why I wanted to be a ‘hairdresser’!
5. How did you build a customer base and market yourself effectively?
I decided early on to be a walking advertisement for what I was doing. So I would make sure my hair was pretty and go stroll round supermarkets and The Palms armed with flyers or just on the look out for naturalistas I could approach and market myself to.
6. What challenges did you face at the beginning? And how did you cope? What challenges do you still face currently?
Initial challenges were getting staff to buy into the vision – I had a male stylist who would laugh and shake his head at me anytime I refused his advice to not focus on just natural hair. Needless to say he didn’t last beyond 1 month. Then of course business was a little slow as it was a new concept and I would sit by the window watching cars drive past – wondering if they were coming to us! I coped by being stoic in my belief in what I was doing and continuing to expect the best.
I also at this time was still doing a bit of private legal practise on the side to supplement my income. I also was very hands on (still am) to ensure everything was being done right so it was easy for people to spread the word and for us to begin to grow organically.
Challenges today would probably centre around the human capital – finding the right people and working with their negative mindsets (self development, time keeping, lackadaisical attitudes).
7. What do you love most about doing your job? How have things changed since you first opened your salon? (workload, customers, employees (do you still do all the work?), income, lifestyle etc).
I love the fact that I get to create and in the process, make women even more beautiful! I also love the fact that the possibilities are endless! As opposed to a 9-5 where you’re pretty much limited in your role and tasks; with this, I can add on different arms to the business, explore new terrain and engage my mind in new things as the opportunities arise.
How have things changed? Well now we are more organised and have dedicated managers in both locations so I don’t have to do everything myself. We have systems and processes in place to ensure efficiency. In terms of workload, I get to organise my workload better now since the stylists are trained, I don’t have fears of not being in the salon and a customer not being able to get styled. There are more customers now and definitely more employees ( we started with 2 and now have 15), I get paid a salary now (nothing compared to what I earned as a company secretary loll) and I can go on holidays without feeling guilty or panicked.I love the fact that I get to create and in the process, make women even more beautiful! Click To Tweet
8. Natural hair salons are becoming quite popular in recent times. It feels like a lot of people want to become entrepreneurs in this field. How do you deal with competition? Is that something you struggle with?
There are definitely a lot more natural salons now than we had back in 2013 and that has impacted our customer base in some way. However I ensure that we keep remaining relevant by constant training, strategic use of Social Media and being focused on our vision. Competition is good – it keeps everyone on their toes :).Competition is good - it keeps everyone on their toes 🙂 Click To Tweet
9. What’s the biggest lesson starting a business taught you?
You need to give ALL of yourself. Focus, dedication, being deliberate and intentional with your actions will make a huge difference. I have learnt that I have more capacity than I always thought I did. I have also learnt not to take things too personal if I want to remain sane.
10. There’s always a bit of a money vs passion debate; What do you think should be the motivation for starting a creative business? What was/is your motivation?
A creative business means you constantly need to engage yourself mentally – if you can’t be bothered about that, it may not be something you want to start. On the other hand money is also important – there is no sense in starting a business that will not be profitable because there are bills to be paid! If money is the motivation without the passion to be excellent at it; then it will lack what I call ‘heart’ – you could always counter this by partnering with someone who has the passion. So both are important in my view. My motivation is my desire to see myself excel and be a leader in the industry – leaving a trans-generational legacy behind.there is no sense in starting a business that will not be profitable because there are bills to be paid Click To Tweet
11. What would you say has been the worst time/experience so far in your journey as an entrepreneur?
Hmm, I can’t pick one event to be the worst – I’ve had a few horrible situations and they usually centre around a customer and the service they’ve received which fell below expectation. I try and trace my steps and resolve issues as best as I can but sometimes you end up losing that customer unfortunately.
12. If you had to choose three qualities anyone starting a business needs to develop/have what would they be?
Resilience, patience, discipline.
13. How do you work through times when things are at a low? How do you get back up? How do you deal with criticism and bad feedback?
I re affirm to myself, my vision and hope. I also remind myself that everything in life is cyclical – there are ups and downs and highs and lows; and no season is static. In terms of criticism I was the chief of beating myself up so badly and taking it to heart anytime something wrong happened but I have since learned to take a few steps back mentally and view it dispassionately so I can address the issues effectively without being defensive.
All feedback is welcome for me. I filter it, and act on that which is appropriate and in line with our vision, mission and values. It’s through feedback we have made some really great changes and built ourself to where we are today.everything in life is cyclical - there are ups and downs and highs and lows- Kemi Lewis Click To Tweet
14. What sacrifices have you had to make to grow your business, if any?
Aha! Probably personal relationships in the beginning. I lived and breathed my business and it came first before anything or anyone else. Also in the beginning every single penny I had or made went into the business. Now I am able to delineate properly and have a financial plan for myself and the business as separate entities.
15. What has been your proudest business achievement so far (the little things matter too, doesn’t have to be huge) & what future goals (that you can share) do you have for your business?
I am proud of the fact that in a short time, I was able to transition from being a lawyer to a full time Natural hair stylist with 2 salons now and more to come 🙂 Styling Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for UK Vogue was also a great moment. I remember seeing my name in Vogue and screaming round my living room like a banshee loll.
16. What do you wish you knew about starting and running a business in Nigeria before you started; what would you do differently? Do you think there’s enough support for small business owners in Nigeria? What is one thing you think would be helpful?
I don’t think I’d do anything different. I started afraid and unsure but determined to succeed. No, there is not enough support for small business owners in Nigeria – at least that is easily accessible or visible enough for people to even know they exist. If there was a dedicated portal of sorts that everyone knew exists – which had a list of all the agencies that support small businesses and in what capacity this support is given.
17. What are your top three tips & products for natural hair care?
A. Do not compare your hair to anyone else’s. We all have different growth rates, density, and textures. B. Learn to love your own hair and understand it. C experiment with different styles! Products: Water, oil, leave in.Learn to love your own hair and understand it. Click To Tweet
18. What is the biggest misconception people have about entrepreneurship?
That it’s super glamorous and you make so much money in such a short time.
19. What are three things that are part of your morning ritual? Are you a morning person?
I’m definitely a morning person. Pray, Workout, Hot tea.
20. What three people in your field or not inspire you the most?
21. What trait do you love most about yourself as a business owner i.e any personal qualities you feel have helped you excel? What advice would you give to anyone currently struggling to stay afloat/ just starting their business/contemplating starting a business in Nigeria?
My focus and determination to succeed regardless of what the circumstances or situation are. For anyone struggling to stay afloat, talk to someone you trust who may be able to open your eyes to something you can’t see because you’re IN it. Sometimes a slight tweak in processes and approach can make a huge difference. Also have an honest conversation with yourself. For those just starting, be disciplined and determined. Light, water and generator issues are not issues in Nigeria – they are part of being Nigerian so don’t let them ever be excuses.For those just starting, be disciplined and determined. - Kemi Lewis Click To Tweet
Kemi Lewis – Lawyer and Chartered Secretary turned Natural Hair stylist is the Creative Director of Nigeria’s pioneer Natural Hair salon – KLS Natural Beauty Bar. Starting in August 2013 with 2 chairs and 2 stylists, she has grown the business to 2 locations, a current staff strength of 16, a Natural product line, a beard line and Natural hair training services.
Mainly self taught, she holds a diploma in Hair Dressing from the Opral Benson Beauty Training Institute and has attended several hair courses both here and abroad. A firm believer in continuous education and training, she is currently undergoing a Hair Stylist Course at the L’Oreal Hair Training Institute.
Her love for and passion for healthy natural hair, has seen her speaking at various events and on radio shows, showcasing the beauty of natural hair. She has also at various times contributed to several publications including TW Online and The Guardian on Sunday.
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