Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am the Founder and Chief Creative of Suzie Beauty, which is Kenya’s very first make up brand. I am also a wife and a mother to two crazy little boys who give me life.
What’s a typical day in the life of Suzie Wokabi?
A typical day will involve me dropping my sons off at school. I might go for a walk at Jaffrey before I start my day, then I’ll go home, shower. I don’t normally make appointments before 11.00 a.m., although my work day never starts or stops. I could be sending e-mails during my morning walk or listening to something motivational just to get my day going. Once in a while I’ll go into the office – I don’t do more than once or twice a week – just to catch up with directors, find out what’s going on with the brand, how the week is looking, the activations we might be doing, the products we might be looking to launch, that sort of thing. I also deal with any issues that have come up.
On a scale of 1-20 how crazy is your typical day?
25. But some of it is my own making. I insist on doing mornings and evenings with my kids, taking care of them – the rest of the time I’m working. It can be a bit of a roller coaster. Work-life balance is a bit difficult to achieve. I’m always flailing trying to keep everything managed, but I have priorities. Family comes first. I would leave another country and come back if my sons needed me. Suzie Beauty is my baby, so it is high on my list of priorities as well.
Was your schedule worse before Suzie Beauty was acquired by Flame Tree?
I wouldn’t say worse. It was more demanding because my husband and I had to take care of everything; everything was our problem. Now, with Flame Group, many of the problems are still there, but some of them are not mine. So we are in a neater space, I can work in a much more peaceful way. I’m not trying to put out fires all day and night. That makes everything easier.
It was a process, the two companies and their cultures had to merge, and it took some time, but we had to get that done. Right now we are at a good space, where we have all understood each other and we are working well together, so it is a lot easier on me, for sure. Most entrepreneurs understand how difficult acquisitions can be, and everyone asks “How did you get that done?” and “Wow, when will that happen to me?” and I tell them, it wasn’t by orchestration or by choice, things just fell into place.
You have said before that you were inspired to start Suzie Beauty by a lack of products for black women in Kenya. Between then and now, do you think things have improved, generally?
The gap in the market was more than that. After being away in the U.S. for ten years and then coming home, trying to work as a make-up artist, replenishing my kit and all that, I saw that everything was imported and overpriced and even then, they did not fit us. It was a manifold problem that I was trying to solve when I started Suzie Beauty. Suzie Beauty ended up being the first Kenyan make-up brand and because of that, I catered it to the African woman. Our main promise is “international quality from a local product with affordability.”
Looking back at your journey – from being a make-up artist in New York to owning a successful empire line, the first of its kind – would you have done anything differently?
No. I had to do everything in the order that it was done for me to become successful, even the mistakes. I don’t believe in regrets because even if I have faltered and fallen flat on my face a million times, I learn from it, so I’m not going to do that again, I’ve learnt from it, and the next step is the next step; bigger and better.
What’s the one thing that we have now that would have made it easier for you when you were starting out?
In terms of government regulations, financing and all that stuff, I do not think much has changed since 2009 when I was starting out. I’ve spoken with many entrepreneurs and they are facing pretty much the same challenges I went through.
Your product was conceptualized and is sold locally but it is manufactured in China. Doesn’t this mean we are failing somewhere as a country?
Yes. I realised very early on that I could not manufacture locally. We were the first Kenyan make-up line. If I had wanted to do everything in Kenya, I would have had to import all the raw materials – they don’t exist locally. Also, because no one else had done it, I would have had to import all the machinery, create a factory – that makes it a different ball game altogether. My ultimate goal (you think I’ve achieved my goals – no I haven’t) is to have my products saying “Made in Kenya”
I can’t have that right now. We have had to find contract manufacturers. Fortunately, because they understand my situation and process, they know that they are not creating product for me. I create the product, they mass produce it. I visited many suppliers and they said “Oh, look at our shelves, we have so many things, we can just put your logo on it.” And I said no. That is what a lot of brands do, but I just refuse to that and I will continue to refuse because it’s my name and it is very important to me to fulfil the promise I have made to my clientele. If I’m not doing it the right way then I shouldn’t be doing it at all. I do think manufacturing has to get easier. Please, Government, help us. It’s too expensive. I wouldn’t be able to make a profit.
With the President’s Big Four Agenda, which has manufacturing as one of its pillars, do you think we will have the capacity to manufacture our own products affordably any time soon?
Well, we can only hope for the best, that what the President is saying will actually materialise.
Onto your products, what about Suzie Beauty would you say is truly innovative?
I have had the fortunate experience of working with many different beauty brands in the U.S. as a make-up artist and user, and I know they just do not work for us. I have also done my research, and I think research is very important (it’s my middle name). Through it, I found what works, what doesn’t work, why it doesn’t work – I dissected it and ultimately ended up with a great product. There are brands that are amazing. There are also those that are super expensive for no reason. People are spending way more than they should. So what are those ingredients? And what makes things better for us, in our climate, our humidity levels, our skin tones – I thought about all that as a professional and an African woman, and it has all gone into making our products. Therefore, when you buy our products, you are sure it was designed for you and that you look good. That is my purpose in life.
Speaking of other brands, your industry is very cut-throat, and you are competing with international brands like Mac, L’Oreal, etc. and they have lots of money and a global reach. How do you compete?
Yes, I do compete with international brands, but I don’t necessarily view it as a threat. We have very different promises, price points, and abilities. I have quite a few advantages, which is what has kept me in the market. I’ve met people who have worked in the industry, successful women who ask me, “Are you crazy to still be doing this? Your resilience level is ridiculous!” and I disagree, I think this is what I was meant to do, it’s what I know, and I know it very well.
I love competition. It makes me stand out, because they have their different promises also, which work for some people. You’ve mentioned Mac, I worked for Mac when I was in the U.S. and so everyone was nervous for me when they launched in Kenya, but I wasn’t worried because our products, price points, even the target audiences are completely different, so we can exist in the same industry. There is so much space for everyone. Also, consider that a lot of international brands have come and fallen flat on their faces because like Michael Joseph said, we are a peculiar people. It’s not easy to break into the beauty industry and the beauty retail industry, and I haven’t conquered either. People think that this is it, I’m successful already, but I’m still on my journey, trying to understand and conquer; trying to leave a legacy more than anything else. So I see it as a blessing that I started a pioneer brand and I’m only competing with international players, who are all people I would look up to. It’s a very interesting space to sleep in.
So how do you fight the perception that international is better simply because it is not Kenyan?
Guess what, this is our time. Africa is no longer the next frontier, it is the frontier. We have initiatives such as Buy Kenya, Build Kenya; Buy Africa, Build Africa. So I started at just the right time when we were all trying to build each other. We can definitely compete at an international level and I think Kenyans are starting to understand that. Another question I used to get a lot before I launched was “Aren’t you scared people will refuse to buy it because it’s Kenyan?” but I told them people would say, “Because it’s Kenyan, I will try it,” and that is exactly what happened.
What is next for Suzie Wokabi, are there any new and exciting things you would like to do?
Yes, there is a lot coming up. I cannot talk about much of it yet, but I have big plans for the future. It’s a very exciting time for Suzie Beauty. We have introduced 9 new products in the past two months. We are growing and there is so much more to bring to the market, which is where innovation comes in.
What is the best advice you were ever given?
I don’t know. All those clichés are true, you know, work hard, never give up, you will get there eventually. But one line that I do love is ‘Everything works out in the end. If it hasn’t worked out it’s not the end.”