Darting among hawkers, vendors, hoarders and careening motorcyclists, part of the over 16 million inhabitants of Nigeria's largest city, Lagos, Morin O. (Maureen Obaweya) squeezes her car into the Lekki market. According to a Babson College study, she is among the over 126 million women entrepreneurs running businesses in over 70 countries worldwide. The National Women's Business Council estimates there are over 8 million women-owned businesses in the United States. Despite a hectic schedule of operating three small businesses in Africa's fastest growing economy, Maureen (known as Morin in Nigeria ) expects to join their ranks. The open air craft markets of Senegal, Ghana, Cote' D'Ivoire and India which she visits at every opportunity, bring an excitement and flair to her new line of exotic leather goods.
"Morin O Handbags (www.morin-o.com) makes a stunning addition to our new women's line of products." states Sakina Iskender, fashion director at Washington D.C's Take 5 Boutique, offering upscale Washington clientele a unique mix of exclusive European and global designs. (Take5Boutique.com). "We have sold quite a few from her collection."
Master carver, Zacchaeus is not exactly a household name in Nigeria or the U.S. For over 50 years, his small primitive traditional thorn wood figures depicting Nigerian village life, populate many diplomats' homes around the world. Shade Bembatoum-Young founder/co-ordinator of ASSEED, (African Sustainable Small Enterprise Export Development), Artisans Business Network credits Maureen for helping revive his career. "His works along with other artists were included in exhibitions, she organized which attracted the country's elite and re-introduced his works to African art collectors." An astute business woman Maureen is passionate about what she does. "She has an eye for great work and uses the marketing and financial resources of her companies to promote artistic projects she believes in."
For years, Femi, her husband pushed her to put her promotional and creative skills into her own line of accessories. In October 2010, with Shade's support, Maureen attended The Vital Voices Women Artisan Entrepreneurs Program in Ghana. Introduced in 2007 by Mary Daley Yerrick, co-founder and Chairman Emeritus of Vital Voices Global Partnership (www.vitalvoices.org), it offered thousands of women leaders in the arts and crafts sector the knowledge, tools and ongoing support to build a small business into a profitable enterprise. Maureen and 20 other women entrepreneurs, selected from all over Africa, undertook an inten-sive business management program with a strong emphasis on accessing new markets and lead-ership training. "The selection process was very arduous ... but the workshop gave me the confidence to start my own line of leather goods," Maureen said in a recent interview.
Zanna Roberts Rassi, Senior Fashion Editor of Marie Claire Magazine, states "The quality and design of her creations are exceptional." Nigerian Nollywood celebrities Ufuoma McDermott, Monalisa Chinda, Joke Silva and many others, sport her brand."She brings a developing world contemporary artistic sensibility to the great hand crafts and designs that come from native market places", states Neslihan Danisman, of the Angora Group and consultant to Marc Jacobs. Next year Maureen plans to introduce men's leather accessories and goods from her latest collection to the North American market. Entrepreneurs like Morin demonstrate success to their local communities. Celena Green, Morin's workshop leader and Vital Voices Director of Africa sees her business growth not just creating jobs locally, but offering a new role model and a better quality of life.
Wen Zhou, 41, the CEO/Co-Founder built the Philip Lim line (31Phillip.com) into a multi-million dollar global brand in less than 10 years. "It's not easy building a market for your clothing products catering to the global citizen of all ages," she said in a recent interview at her 5,800 ft Great Jones store, located in the NoHo area of lower Manhattan.
Born in the small town of Ningbo, China, Wen came to the United States at the age of 12 not speaking a word of English. She spent her later childhood living in Manhattan's Lower East-side Water Street projects. "For years, my parents, grandparents, sister and I worked in garment sweatshops at 54 Canal St., to put food on the table and support the family," she said. "I grew up on the noises of a sewing machines... the sound became comforting."
After working full-time selling fabrics, then building her own business from scratch along with taking night classes at The Fashion Institute of Technology (F.I.T), Wen met Philip Lim in Paris in 2004. Wen began a lasting friendship and partnership which today has led to the creation of 16 stores in 5 countries and millions in sales. But she cautions designers that breaking into the U.S market is an extremely tough challenge. "You must have an exciting business partner, product manager, PR person and CFO," she said.
Proverbs Creations is a small boutique selling hand crafted women accessories including necklaces and jewelry in Lagos city center. Adebukola Adenuga mother of a teenage daughter credits Maureen for starting her own business 15 years ago. "We met at the Redeemed Christian Church of God while I was employed as a hat maker at John 3v3 Hats," she said.
Adebukola assembled a team of artisans to produce exciting new designs, starting at flea markets, church fairs, and day long exhibitions in four-star hotels in downtown Lagos. "Maureen opened a lot of doors for us," she said, "She made me believe in myself." With two new stores in the planning stage for other major cities in Nigeria, she hopes to emulate her friend and mentor. "This is just another example of Morin sharing knowledge through her own networks," states Celena of Vital Voices. "Women 'PAY IT FORWARD' and create opportunities for others."
Maureen spends a lot of time in prayer and meditation. "It guides me in making the tough decisions of straddling both the entrepreneurial and artistic worlds." Growing up in Northern Nigeria, the first of seven children, she studied pharmacy at Ahmadu Bello University but was always passionate about the arts from a very early age.
While heading to Lekki Market, mystic artists daily flood their metal stalls with wooden and ivory carvings. But, it's the multi colored wooden and coral handmade jewelry that capture Maureen's eye. "Everyday my visits are touched by the divine creativity of these talented people," she continued. "My job is to bring their artistic touch to my leather accessories to be enjoyed by everyone including the American market place.
Paul Wisenthal (www.theprofessionalwriter.com) is a Pulitzer Prize nominee and award winning writer based in New York City. With over one hundred articles on alternative education programs, he leads the nation in publishing stories of youth overcoming addictions, social and economic challenges. Published by The Huffington Post, The New York Times, Newsday, USA Today, and The Daily News, Parade, Scholastic and National Geographic, many syndicated around the country. He lectures at Ivy League Colleges and major universities about the Power of Story Development for traditional and digital social media. Having written and produced segments for CBS Saturday Morning, Sesame Street, The Electric Company and Big Blue Marble Series, he also developed stories for 60 Minutes, Nightline, 20/20, and Frontline.
Additional reporting Marianne Wisenthal, Brian Garrido
Photography Ricardo Andres Kuettel (www.ricardokuettel.com), Theophilus O. Emmanuel, Matt Licari, Brian Garrido
Art Direction Ricardo Andres Kuettel