Suzie Wokabi

Pioneering a home-grown make-up line to meet the needs of the African woman has earned businesswoman Suzie Wokabi a permanent place in Kenya’s beauty Hall of Fame. When Suzie Wokabi was declared 2014 winner in the Wholesale and Retail Category of Africa’s Most Influential Women in Business and Government, it was a bold statement that she had arrived. As founder of Kenya’s first cosmetics brand, SuzieBeauty, she has been in the beauty industry for just over 10 years. Known for affordable, yet high quality products, the brand today competes with cosmetics giants who have been in the game for several decades. Wokabi didn’t have anything to benchmark against when she took the bold step of becoming a pioneer in the manufacture of make-up products for the Kenyan woman, and she faced numerous odds on her road to success.

Ironically, beauty was never on the entrepreneur’s ‘when-I-grow-up’ list. Inspired by a pet cat she pampered for 17 years, she was convinced she would end up as a veterinarian. Those were the dreams of a child who thought being a vet meant playing with a cat all day. Then she finished high school, and an internship at an aunt’s veterinary clinic brought her face to face with the reality of a vet’s daily routine. She learned there was much more to it – like administering injections to animals and helping cows give birth. “I was kind of upset and decided to find a new path,” she confesses.

Born in Nakuru and raised in different parts of Nairobi, Wokabi has fond memories of her childhood, most of which was spent with her two older sisters and a brother in Lower Kabete. She attended Consolata School, Westlands, before joining Kianda School, both in Nairobi. She later took a secretarial course for which she thanks her mother. “I type like a million words a minute,” she boasts. Pretty good with languages in high school, Wokabi later studied French and German in Nairobi at Alliance Française and Goethe-Institut respectively, before joining the United States International University (USIU). Unsure of what area of study she wanted to pursue, Wokabi tried out five majors before settling for International Relations. “I thought I would join the United Nations and do some translations for them,” she says. Her mother, a World Bank employee, was transferred to Washington DC, offering an opportunity for Wokabi to complete her studies in the United States. She finished her undergraduate course at the San Diego campus of USIU.

However, she still did not quite know what she wanted to do after graduating. Having a sister in the fashion industry in New York, she decided to follow in her footsteps and get a feel of the glamorous life. “I realised it wasn’t that glamorous or fancy,” she says. “The fashion industry is very many things. It’s clothing, accessories, eyewear, cosmetics…” She dabbled in all of them
before she discovered her love for cosmetics. Embracing her new passion, Wokabi underwent intense training with the Award Studio Make-up School in Los Angeles, California, and also with MAC Cosmetics. She ended up working for Clinique and MAC – beauty giants in the US – alongside other jobs in the fashion industry. After spending nine years abroad she returned to Kenya in 2007 carrying a suitcase loaded with make-up, determined to build the cosmetics industry at home.

“When I left Kenya, the industry had not picked up. There were fashion shows, but there was no one to do your make-up,” she recalls. She started off by working as a make-up artist with several
local magazines and for M-Net TV shows like Idols and The Patricia Show. However, when the time came to replenish her make-up stock, Wokabi hit a brick wall. The quality products she was
used to, if they were even available in Kenya, were unaffordable. An item that cost $20 in the US, for instance, fetched an equivalent of $90 in Kenya, so she was forced to rely on friends to bring them in from the US. She could see a niche in the market for good quality, affordable products, and decided to carve it out for herself. Having worked with different brands, she knew what was missing, and needed to factor in what worked for the African woman. In January 2009, she naïvely told her husband: “I’ll just make my own make-up.”

What happened next was, in her words, “a journey and a half.” She had a list of the ingredients needed to make the products. She approached a local professor of chemistry, seeking his assistance to source the ingredients. He crossed out every single item on the list, saying they did not exist in Kenya. She was going to have to import every single raw material, every machine, and even the expertise. Unfazed, she informed the professor that she was going to be the first to embark on this journey.

Wokabi was soon to realise that the true challenge, even apart from the intrinsic rigours of what she does best (product development), lay elsewhere. “Creating a product from scratch that I’ve
always had in my head, bringing it to life and seeing it in stores… that’s huge!” she says. The real challenges were on the business side of things, since entrepreneurship was never in her DNA.
Granted, she understood it would be part of the equation. As it turned out, she had to deal with this monster every day as she interacted with investors, employees, accountants and lawyers – “…crazy stuff that I’m not necessarily comfortable with,” she says. “I want to concentrate on products and PR and marketing; those are my strengths, and I have a good team for everything else,” she states. “I used to do everything, but I’ve started delegating.” Fundraising was Wokabi’s worst nightmare during the fledgling stage of her company when nobody was ready to touch it.

“Imagine me going to a bank and saying, ‘I’ve got sample products’ (and they’ve not even been branded). ‘I want to sell these, so give me a few million shillings’.” The banks asked how many sales she had made and where her products were. With no sales and no product line, her only response was that she needed money to mass-produce. “They laughed me out of the door.” She had to identify individual investors or investment groups and got a lot of offers, because everybody knew the beauty industry was growing. Even so, they wanted too much of a stake, yet the brand had not even been launched. She kept rejecting people’s proposals until she finally found the right investor, followed by Chase Bank Kenya, who provided the bulk of the financing.

She mass-produced the products and launched SuzieBeauty in December 2011. SuzieBeauty formulates products for the face, lips and eyes, and also makes application brushes. They retailed the products and ran out of stock – “…a good problem,” quips Wokabi. In addition to selling in Kenya, the beauty line has distributorships in Uganda and Côte d’Ivoire. Wokabi also has her eye on capturing the Nigerian market, and reveals that there has been a lot of interest from Ethiopia, South Africa and Ghana. The United States and the United Kingdom have also shown interest in SuzieBeauty products. “I always knew that if I got the product right, everything else would happen. So the product is right, that’s one down. The rest is building the brand further,” she says.

“My husband has been a partner where he can,” she explains. As for product development, “that’s all me; I’m very particular about that. Everything goes from my head to the factory. I don’t involve anyone else in that; it’s all secret for now,” says Wokabi, who has become wary of partnerships after some of the ones she started out with did not work out. “I’ve heard horror stories about entrepreneurs and investors trying to part ways. We parted ways with one of our investors, but very decently. I’m grateful for that.” Being in a space where she is competing against beauty giants like Clinique and MAC Cosmetics which she once worked for – has been mind-boggling for the reluctant entrepreneur. “Even more amazing is that my competitors, all international brands consider me competition.” The brand is a first in Kenya, and stirs up patriotism among its customers.

Wokabi received a finalist’s award for the Most Influential Women in Business & Government in Africa and won the second runner-up prize in the Trade category of the 2013 Africa Small,
Medium and Micro Enterprises Award. It was her first year in business and she was nowhere near where she felt she should be. The cosmetics trailblazer considers her husband, two children and parents as her greatest inspiration. Professionally, Bobbi Brown is the person she looks up to and aims to emulate.

Although Estée Lauder, another cosmetics empire, bought Bobbi Brown Cosmetics in 1995, Brown retains creative control of the brand. “Bobbi started a make-up line in New York in the 1990s. She’s the one I compare myself to,” says Wokabi. “She was a makeup artist, started this cosmetic line and was very successful. It has been decades, yet she’s still a huge brand.” The Kenyan beauty industry has grown phenomenally from the days when models did their own make-up. “Today, there’s Naivasha Fashion Weekend, Fashion High Tea, Nairobi Fashion Market, Kenya Fashion Week… every month we’re booked for a major event. It’s a huge industry, and we have a lot more access to everything,” Wokabi discloses. “The Internet is priceless. There are kids I meet who learned make-up artistry on YouTube, which is great. If you’re learning well and you’re doing the right thing, fine. The biggest problem is access to products.”

Wokabi wants her product to be Kenya and Africa’s brand. She set up a strong mentorship programme in 2013 when she decided to “look for somebody who is hungry and passionate and wants to learn real make-up artistry from a professional; in essence, myself 10 years ago.”

Words of Wisdom

 “Don’t do something because someone else is doing it; create it, do it and take it to the next level.”
 “Do it well and for the right reason.”
 “Be the next big thing.”

The mother of two young sons, Wokabi’s formula for balancing work and family life is clear-cut: “Everybody around me – from my investors to my employees – knows that my family is my priority. I plan my time accordingly. I rarely do anything after 6pm, so the challenge becomes myself, because when do I have time for me? That’s what I’m trying to work on; to give myself some time and space.” In 2016, Wokabi sold SuzieBeauty to the Flame Tree Group which is listed on the Nairobi Securities Exchange. She cited the need to team up with a stronger partner with the expertise and resources to take the brand to another level. The Flame Tree Group retained her as chief creative officer and Brand Ambassador of SuzieBeauty. In February 2017, SuzieBeauty’s first retail store in Nairobi’s central business district opened in Yala Towers.

The cosmetics line also has retail outlets in two malls in Nairobi and also sells through other vendors and shops.

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