The journey so far: Deepa Dosaja, CEO, Deepa Dosaja

Deepa Dosaja

Deepa Dosaja is the founder and CEO of the eponymous Deepa Dosaja label, a Kenya-based fashion house that has dressed global stars, including actress Lupita Nyong’o. The Deepa Dosaja label espouses an environmentally-friendly ethos when producing its bespoke collections.

1. Tell us about one of the toughest situations you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.

There have been many…

The one that comes to mind immediately occurred during the recent general election period in Kenya. Many businesses were severely impacted by this, including mine.

We experienced a terrible downward spiral in sales from August to December 2017, with this came many challenges.

I am proud we managed to retain all our staff – both sales and production – and maintained our headcount.

While the lack of domestic sales hugely affected our bottom line, [we] were supported by our foreign-based clientele. Obviously the uncertainty during this period reiterated to me the importance of continually forging strong bonds with clients and the challenge of converting clients into long-term relationships once they have left Kenya.

2. Which business achievement are you most proud of?

Recently I was invited by Eco Age Ltd to participate in the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange. The invitation to Buckingham Palace to showcase my gown to fashion royalty, such as Anna Wintour and The Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton, was a supreme validation of my 27 years of work in the African fashion industry.

The opportunity to meet with so many environmentally-conscious individuals, including Livia Firth, has allowed me to further explore my passion of achieving and maintaining a sustainable and transparent business. I have always strived to run my company in a holistic and ethical manner – this opportunity opened my eyes to the fact that, today, luxury equals transparency.

[This is] seeing that a lot of major players in the fashion industry share my vision to create slow, ethical fashion was heartening.

3. Describe your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur.

Looking back at the outset of my company when we were a much smaller team, one of my greatest weaknesses as a fashion business owner was my inability to identify expert staff – due to various factors – and not to act on staff who were not able to produce my designs with the quality and finishing required by global standards.

This was a huge challenge for me as I believed everybody deserved a chance. As my business grew and the dynamics changed, I began to better understand that in order for my clients to stay on board and my business to thrive, I could not compromise the quality of my product. This is when I introduced specialised, in-house training for all staff, along with continuous coaching and assessment.

As a result, we established a strong QRFT – quality right first time – mentality throughout the business. This has led us to attract and employ only the most skilled artisans.

4. Which popular entrepreneurial advice do you disagree with?

I disagree with the conventional business advice that when hiring one should look at the education level of the candidate. Instead, I feel one should look at the candidate’s enthusiasm, attitude and willingness to learn.

I believe on-the-job training is more powerful than certificates on paper. I feel in Africa we have a lack of educational institutes that can train designers in an adequate manner; through apprenticeships and internships, people tend to learn more significant skills.

The conventional business idea that one must hire people with numerous degrees and higher-level education is one that I feel is outdated.

5. Is there anything you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before you got started?

I wish at the beginning of my entrepreneurship career I had a mentor. It has taken me 25 years to realise the importance of having somebody who is not necessarily in my field but who can advise and champion me.

I also didn’t know that entrepreneurship is a 365, 24/7 job that requires complete dedication and focus, and that an entrepreneur must treat their business like a child.

6. Name a business opportunity you would still like to pursue.

In my industry it would be wonderful if a qualified designer would start an up-cycling and recycling brand. The designer would encourage clients to bring in old garments – for example, [an] old, favourite dress – and recut it and style it into a new garment. This would be profitable; as I believe if someone has sentimental value for a garment they would only want a qualified designer to restyle it.

This would be profitable in that the designer would have no outlay in buying fabric and they would be able to charge a sufficient amount for their skill and design.

A good example of this is the dress I wore to Buckingham Palace recently. It was made from my grandmother’s 65-year-old sari, which, of course, was worn and torn in certain places. However, we managed to turn it into a beautiful dress with great sentimental as well as historical value.

In another unrelated industry, I believe if one were to collect all the old clothes and garbage around the world and import them to Africa, and set up an industry whereby these objects would be burned at high heat in order to produce usable gasses — these useless items can be used to create energy.

This is possible because in Sweden they have successfully managed to take this up as a business opportunity; not only could this be profitable, but it could also reduce the environmental load on our universe.

I believe the energy used to burn these at high heat, outweighs the benefits of creating this renewable source of energy.