Cloudflare TV

Afroflare Journeys: Lawyer turned Celebrated Fashion Designer

Presented by Busayo Olupona, Delia Midamba
Originally aired on 

Join Afroflare's Delia Midamba as she discusses with Founder and Creative Director, Busayo on her pathway to her dream as a Fashion Designer.


Transcript (Beta)

Hello, everybody. Thank you for joining us today. My name is Delia Midamba, and I lead our corporate safety and security program here at Cloudflare.

And joining me today is Busayo Olupona, who is a fashion designer, previously a lawyer, and she's going to talk with us about her journey.

Thank you for joining us today, Busayo. Thank you so much for having me.

It is such a pleasure to be here and have this conversation with you.

I'm so excited. I'm excited. All right, so let's jump into it. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Where are you from? How did you get into designing clothes?

So I am originally from Nigeria. I was actually born in the States, but raised in Nigeria.

And I was actually in law school. I think my first inclination that I wanted to have an artistic path, I'd already committed to law school.

I'd already committed to kind of that path as a lawyer. So I'm practicing law in New York, early, you know, aughts, and I'm looking for clothes that kind of capture who I am, in terms of how I show up in the office, right?

So I really do think of my identities as both American and Nigerian.

And I wanted to wear clothing that really lived at those intersections, right?

And so in the marketplace, I just didn't see that.

I often travel to Nigeria with my family, like to go visit, just visit family.

And so I started making pieces for myself, you know, and oftentimes I think with entrepreneurship, we often solve a problem for ourselves.

And then that problem is a problem that other people have as well. So basically, I started making pieces for myself.

And that process was, you know, I would just wear it out and people started asking me questions about it.

And that's really, that's where my first customers came from.

And then I just thought, oh, there's a business here.

And that's how it began. I love it. I love it. How did you go about the journey of turning that dream into reality?

It was a very long journey. So in terms of fits and starts, I think Busai always, when people ask me, how, when did you start it?

It's always like the date often changes because I started, I stopped.

I know that at the inception, I was filled with so much fear about how to do this, right?

Like I have this very, this very specific path that had been laid out.

You go to college, you go to law school, then you start practicing. And so now I'm working at a law firm, I'm not very happy.

And I would talk to my colleagues, other Black colleagues, who were also kind of figuring out this space with me at the same time and just say like, this is what I want to do, but I have this other dream, right?

And I remember two people were really significant.

One friend, Ricardo said to me, how did you become a lawyer? And I was like, well, I went to law school, I read books.

And he goes, well, why don't you just do that here too?

And for some reason, like my brain, like when it came to like my artistic dream, my brain stopped that the same tools that allowed you to get to be a lawyer as actually the same tools that you should apply in the scenario.

That was the first question. And another friend, another colleague, Helen, I would say, oh, I want to do a pop-up.

I have some clothes I've made, I want to sell them, but I don't know where to sell them.

I've never done it before. So just excuses, right?

And she looked at me and she goes, I have a friend that has a space that you can do a pop-up at.

And she like went down my list of excuses of why I couldn't do it.

And then she was like, now what? And then once she found me a space, I had to take that first step.

And honestly, it was, that's, you know, when I think back for anybody that has any kind of crazy big dream, it's literally one step at a time.

Now my timing took a very long time. And I think oftentimes now dreams, people expect to be successful in two or three years.

And I honestly think that so many dreams are just like deferred and abandoned way too early because it takes time to gestate something from nothing, you know, it takes a lot of time.

And I think people don't give their dreams enough time.

Yeah. Did you already know like how to sew and you were already doing your own thing or when, at what point did you learn that?

Oh, I don't know. I don't know how to sew. You're just like, no, I just design it.

I just design it. No, no. I don't know how to sew. I think about myself primarily as a textile designer.

So I know that I love textiles. And I knew that in Nigeria, we have a tradition called which is hand-dyed textiles.

So I, whenever I would go home to Nigeria, I would like work with, I was doing an apprenticeship to learn to dye fabrics.

Okay. I wasn't very good, but I was really obsessed with the technical tech, the technologies that underlie this textile tradition and how you would create, like this top I'm wearing started off white.


Right. So what's the process that you would go from taking a pure white fabric and be able to create something like what I'm wearing, right?

I was obsessed with that.

I was, and so from a design standpoint, we always start with the textile and the fabric, and that continues to be my, like just what it drives and promotes the brand, because that is what I love to do.

And in Nigeria, we have people who sew and who make clothes.

So for me, it was about, do I design, so I design, you know, I design our textiles.

I work with people who are makers who then make the clothing, you know?

Yeah. I love that. Did you face any resistance when you were like, okay, this is it.

I'm taking the leap. I'm leaving law school behind.

I'm leaving my lawyer career behind, and I am going to do fashion.

Was anybody like, you're crazy? So I practiced for six years, right, as an attorney before I left, before I left the first time, right?

So it ends up being a very long journey, but I practiced for six years downtown Manhattan, a very, very kind of intense lawyer life, the associate life.

And of course, there was internal resistance, first of all, right?

Because you're making a lot of money. You have a corporate car.

You have a corporate credit card. You have all of the trappings of success, right?

And all of a sudden, this other thing is pulling and saying like, you want to do this.

You want to start a brand. You want to go in this completely different direction.

And frankly, in retrospect, it was a really stupid idea to leave completely and just work on the brand full time for three years.

Because to actually, fashion is a very, very tough industry to scale in.

And I just needed way more resources and a lot more knowledge to have been actually as successful as I thought I was going to be at that time.

So it was internal resistance and just internal fear, right?

And then certainly my parents were like, what?

But at the end, once I decided that I was doing it, they were actually really supportive, I think, with the lead up to it.

And then I think they were just afraid for me, afraid about what it might mean.

Because you have great health insurance, you have a great job, you have that security.

And all of a sudden, that was going away.

So I think they had a lot of fear about that. Yeah. But they came around.

Oh, yeah. I mean, yes, they do. You had to believe in yourself first, and then they believed in you.

Yeah. But I think that's the most important thing with anything.

It's like, if we give ourselves that respect, that love, if we give our dream that belief that it needs, and we move forward confidently in that direction, right, to quote Thoreau, it is very, very hard for people to stay.

I mean, people will tell you, like, we don't think this is...

I mean, the number of people that over the years would say, like, how's your brand going?

And there was, like, this look of pity and sympathy.

Right? A combination of, like, sympathy and pity and fear.

Like, you know, there was a lot of that. And I think my parents certainly had that.

Where it's like, how's the brand? And I'm like, it's okay, you know.

But to be honest with you, it was like something that possessed me to do this.

Like, I was always very... I didn't know how it was going to be a success. And it wasn't like, oh, I'm going to be at Sox.

And I didn't really get that. But I just knew that it was something I had to do.

And I had to be doing it. That was very, very clear to me over all the years and all the up and down.

Yeah. Okay. So your brand, Busayo NYC, it's visually stunning, which you touched on this a little bit about your passion for, you know, the textiles and the dyeing of the fabric.

You have absolutely gorgeous clothing and homeware. Where do you get your inspiration?

To create? Oh, wow. I get it from so many places. Right now, I'm a big student of color.

So I'm also a big nerd. So I do a lot of research. I do a lot of color research.

Where do I begin?

I mean, I'm obsessed with books that talk about the history of colors, right?

So there's a fantastic book I love. It's like The Secret History of Colors.

Color dictionaries I love. I watercolor quite a bit. So just literally getting out a paintbrush and looking at how colors relate to each other.

Because so much of my work is grounded in like color theory and also kind of ending our understanding about how we think about color.

And then also the chemistry of color, right?

Because we're layering colors on top of each other. So there's always like something happens in the interactions.

That's also really interesting.

So I always start from what's the color story I want to tell? And then how can I subvert our traditional ways of thinking about colors that go well together or don't go well together?

So color is like a main source of inspiration.

And then honestly, I get inspiration from everything. Like I could be walking down the street and see a pattern.

Sometimes it could be a pattern someone's wearing.

It could be a pattern on an ad. It could be a pattern on someone's car.

It could be a pattern on the floor. There's so many things that I get inspired by.

One of our most popular prints is inspired by paintball. I saw a picture of people who had just finished a paintball fight.

And I was like, oh, this is cool.

Like what happens if you just keep the white splashes and you remove all the other crazy colors, right?

And then that's like a through line in all of our designs.

And it really came from literally seeing somebody who had just finished a paintball fight just covered with all those like incredibly unique different shapes.

Like none of those two shapes are alike. So what if you created a dress that's just those splashes?

And that's literally probably, I think that's the print we're most known for.

And you see that in all of our work. I love that. I love that.

We are in a time where Black entrepreneurship is rising rapidly. Simultaneously, there's also a wider push in society to be more socially conscious and impact aware.

What has your experience been with integrating those elements of your business between Nigeria and America?

Wow, that's a great question. I mean, I think that, you know, a huge part of our success was really that push.

I think the fashion industry kind of in 2020 had a reckoning and said, oh, my God, we are not giving particular brands the same opportunity.

I mean, fashion is really challenging business.

You can knock on doors for a very long time and just have them slam shut.

And I think for many designers, they don't even know how to knock on the door.

Right. Like that's a huge part of the problem. So I think 2020, there was sort of this like larger embrace.

But you certainly had to be ready.

You had to be prepared for that to happen. You know, and I think I was somebody who had been working on this for a very long time.

So it was it was literally, you know, when they say what is luck?

Luck is opportunity meets preparation.

And I really do think that that's like kind of the story of Busayo. And then I think in terms of the social conscious piece, I mean, a huge part of why I do what I do.

I love color. I love clothing. I also the second job I had as a lawyer was actually in economic development, but in economic development in New York, which is very was interesting how my two kind of careers began to converge.

Right. So so much of the work we do in economic development, either in New York, in Nigeria, wherever it's like, do you do you engage in a model that's top down or bottom up?

Right. And so oftentimes meaning, like, you know, do you give money to large corporations through tax benefits and then hope it trickles down to everybody?

Or do you have small businesses and hope that they can help their employees and then more people have more abundance, et cetera, et cetera.

So in my legal career in New York, because I was an economic development lawyer, I was always kind of like wrestling with those tensions of like what model makes more sense even in New York City.

Right. And there's a lot of huge battles around that in terms of how do we use government resources to support private industry, to generate more economic growth.

Right. So what has been really cool about my work in Brussail is that, you know, looking at our work, it's like, well, this is actually what small scale economic development looks like.

Right. Which is me taking my my own little work on my hands and being able to create an ecosystem in Nigeria that generates jobs.

We didn't start it for that purpose. I really the kind of African charity model is something I really wrestle with because I don't think that it gives us on the continent enough credit for what we offer.

So this is not like forget everything your brain is even going in.

It's your brain is going in that direction.

Like, forget it. It's really about how do we generate business so that the entrepreneurs that help us create work with the artisans who themselves are entrepreneurs and the makers who are also entrepreneurs can also develop their own businesses and generate more economic growth and it can expand that way.

So I think from that model, it's been really interesting to think about how in this little ecosystem that we've created, we've been able to test out some of my own ideas about what works best in terms of economic development and what is most effective and also scalable.

You know, if you found anything interesting or surprising as you're testing out these different models of which one works best?

I mean, I think it's interesting because I think what I, you know, certainly when I was in, because remember, when I was in economic development in New York, I had my little brand that was trying to, I was trying to grow.

So I was always looking for opportunities and, you know, New York City funds, we fund so many different private industry and I was always like, you know, why aren't they doing more for the little fashion designers, you know?

You know, and I think part of what ended up happening with, you know, 2020 is that I do think private industry stepped in, you know, quite a bit to support brands.

You know, a lot, I think grants became much more, they were just much more available post-2020.

I think, you know, the amount of grants to support not just Black businesses, women entrepreneurs, you know, just, I think entrepreneurs, period, really exploded.

So certainly, you know, I'm completely of the belief that this kind of bottom-up grassroots, giving small, you know, micro capital to small companies, small entrepreneurs is certainly the way to go.

You know, to me, it's a much more efficient use of resources.

And I think you see the return right away, you know, I think, you know, we've been able to just, like, through grant funding, raise almost about 80,000 through grants, you know, and I can tell you that that has completely transformed my business, you know.

But again, I feel like private industry is the one that really stepped into that gap in a way that government, I think, is still really resistant.

I think it's a lot easier to, you know, give a tax benefit or something like that.

So I certainly, I've become such a big believer in a kind of bottom-ups approach in terms of economic development.

And I just wish that more municipalities would be open to doing that rather than just private industry.

I love how your two worlds collided. I know, right?

I know, it's a little, I'm kind of in the weeds, but I'm hoping that everyone's following what I'm saying.

Indeed. Okay, so when you hear about Black women in entrepreneurship, it tends to be alongside reports of disproportionate challenges that we also have to face.

You know, you discussed limited access to capital, limited access to opportunities.

What are some of the challenges that you had to face along your journey?

And what tools did you use to help yourself overcome those challenges?

Oh, I love this question. You know, I think tenacity, perseverance is just two things that are just qualities that you just have to like, that has to be like your center, right?

And also patience. You know, I really, you know, I think now I'm so grateful that when I started my business, social media was not as popular as it is now, because I think if it had been, I'm not sure that I would have had the courage to continue because if everybody is able to comment, especially when it's still nascent and a baby, it can be so discouraging.

You know, I go back and look at my first collection and I'm like, oh my God, and if I had posted that on Instagram and I got two likes, maybe I never would have continued, you know?

So I bring that up and I think that there are things that we need to inculcate in ourselves as entrepreneurs, like tenacity, like patience, like persistence.

But that being said, I think that the challenges you've identified, limited resources, just doors that, you know, fashion, for example, you need to be able to reach buyers.

There are particular people that you need to be able to have access to.

If you don't know how to begin to have that access, like good luck, right?

But in terms of the things that have really helped me, number one was mentorship.

I was, listen, I love mentorship. Mentorship, mentorship, mentorship.

I talk to my mentor now every week still. My first mentor, a woman named Mercedes Gonzalez, was just an amazing, she just kicked our butts.

She was like, I expect you to do this, this, and this, and this.

And she had those expectations and she was very generous with her knowledge and information about how the industry worked.

And so I continued to seek knowledge and guidance from her. I continue to do that now with my other, my mentor, Hilary.

It's not new, I've been working with her for three years.

And so I think that's really important, to constantly be teachable, to constantly be going to seek guidance and advice from other people.

Because no matter how successful you become, there's, the level of challenges just change.

They're not going to go away. And I think that for me, it's never, there's not going to be a day where I'm like, I've arrived.

I feel like if I ever say that, then I'm like, I'm on my way out, you know?

So constantly being teachable, I think is very, very important.

I'm a big reader. I research, I research, I research, I'm constantly, I mean, the podcast, I read the podcast, I read the books.

There's something I don't know. There's something I don't know. I constantly look for that information.

And I think that's extremely important. So, but again, I feel like there are more resources now available than there's ever have been.

So I feel very encouraged. And I think most entrepreneurs should feel extremely encouraged that there is no better time to start a business than now.

I have, in terms of access to capital, access to resources, I think more increased opportunity.

I think this is the best time, but there's still going to be challenges.

Yeah. You talk about mentorship. How do you go about finding a mentor and selecting a mentor that's right for you in any industry?

Yeah. I think for corporate folks, you know, it's very challenging.

I definitely think that it's been a lot easier to find a mentor in fashion.

I would actually say than it was, even as I was a lawyer, I would say.

I feel like in the law firm, especially I think as a Black woman, we were all mentored kind of by the same two or three people, which isn't really fair to them.

And I'm not saying that you should always have mentors that look like you.

I don't actually believe that. And that's not been true for me, especially in fashion.

It's not been true for me. But I think in a corporate environment, it's a lot more difficult.

I do think that one major thing I think I learned more once I was looking for mentorship in fashion than when I did when I was in law was like the idea of the mentorship being a mutually beneficial relationship.

So there are ways in which, you know, you always have things to offer, right?

Like always. It doesn't have to be about that work. Like there's areas of information that you have that a more senior person doesn't necessarily have, especially young people.

Like right now, you know, like let's take something like TikTok.

I don't understand it. I was talking to this younger woman the other day and I was, and she was like, oh no, you know, Busayo needs a TikTok.

And I'm like, you know, she, you know, she, this, this was to me, it was like, oh, this is a perfect example for me to be mentored by someone younger than me.

And then it'd be a symbiotic relationship because certainly I would have things to offer her.

Right. So I definitely think thinking outside the box, finding people that you connect with, not necessarily just because we both work at the same place, but maybe what are the things that you have in common outside of that place and racially agnostic.

I'm not talking about race here.

I actually think our mentors could be in any shade, but also always thinking about what can I also bring to this relationship with this person?

Other ways I've found mentors, you know, Mercedes was someone I heard speak and she was amazing.

And again, it was organic. I didn't walk up to her and be like, who's my mentor.

Right. Yeah. Like I think that does, that does not work. Do not do that.

I heard her speak at an event. She was amazing. She was like, oh, you know, if you want to do a one-time consult, I was also very lucky with her.

You could do a one-time consultation with her.

And it was for a very small fee, like super affordable.

I paid that fee. And then literally like that continued for the next like five years.

I didn't pay anything. You know, it was just like, she just adopted me from that first conversation.

And I know it's not always that easy, but I think also, you know, you can also begin to, you know, exchange ideas with that person.

You know, you meet that, you hear someone speak, you love what they said.

Oh my God, I read this book. I thought of you, you might like this and begin to the same way that you would develop a relationship with anybody, you know, a new friend.

And then you can then begin to kind of seek advice and guidance.

But, you know, I'm right now mentoring my brother as a photographer. And he just, I just, he just agreed to let me mentor him in his photography career.

You know, I have like two or three other fashion brands that I mentor.

So I also believe I'm a big believer in passing on the knowledge that you have, like each one teach one.

It sounds very cliche, but it's really true. And so because of that, because Busaya would not be where she is and the business would not be where it is without mentorship and teachers.

I'm doing that with other brands and, you know, with other people in my life.

I love that. Giving back in the same way that you received.

Yeah, absolutely. And I still receive, I still Friday standing appointment.

I talk to Hillary every week. I think it's extremely important. Yeah. Busaya celebrates 12 years this year.

Congratulations with some pretty noteworthy accomplishments being achieved along the way to include your collection being at Saks Fifth.

What would you say has been some of the keys to your success and other monumental moments of success for you?

Wow. I think the first, those first pop-ups were huge.

Now that I think about it, now I have the hindsight to get up in the morning, take a bunch of clothing racks, go set it up in a space you've advertised for maybe two, three weeks beforehand and have faith that people are going to show up.

Right. And some days they show up in abundance. Some days they don't show, they don't show up as much.

Oh, always. We have people. I was very lucky about that.

Well, I've never had a pop-up where I sat there and like nobody showed up.

That would have been devastating, but I've always, I was always lucky people came, but just that faith that that requires that muscle to like get up and create something out of nothing, seemingly nothing.

Right. So I always think back to those early days as like huge sources of accomplishment and also my own like resilience.

I mean, I lived on a fourth floor walk-up, so we would like carry the boxes up the fourth floor, bring them down.

I mean, it was, it was really, really hard.

I think other major accomplishments, honestly, the celebrity dressing there's, you know, Madonna wearing Busayo was a huge accomplishment because when we moved to America, I used to listen to Bedtime Stories all the time, which was her album.

I was in high school. I was like a bullied nerdy kid. I had a really tough time.

Okay. And Bedtime Stories was one of the like sources of joy in my life.

Yeah. And if somebody had told that little girl that one day this woman was going to wear something she made, like, yeah, it would have just, it would have, you know, sometimes you think back to like the pain that you go through when you're younger and you're like, if only you knew, if only you know what you were going to like, what this flower was going to become, you know?

And I think that just how insane that would have been to my young mind that this woman who was an icon to me and a rescuer to me through her music would one day wear my clothing.

That would have, that, that, that was a huge accomplishment.

I mean, we've had Lupita's worn, Gwyneth was great, like Kelly Clarkson wore something last month, Martin Luther King Day.

Those were all great, but Madonna was just, not just because she's Madonna, but because of what her music had meant to me over the years.

I think certainly some of the smaller stores that we're into in actually, you know, we're open some really iconic, a store called Hamden in South Carolina that is, you know, she's a major tastemaker.

So being in that store is, is huge. So there's a lot of that.

And then sometimes some of the women that I get to dress who are just regular, regular folk who wear the clothes and you can just see what light and joy it brings to their step.

That absolutely delights me and makes me so happy. And it's why I do what I do.

I love that. I love that. We're almost at time, but what advice do you have for any young entrepreneur, not even young, anybody who's looking to transition in their career and pursue their dream?

Yeah. You mean advice I would have for them? Yep.

Oh, wow. Okay. So the first thing I would say is, is age has nothing to do with it.

You know, one of my favorite thought leaders passed away a few years ago.

Wayne Dyer always said, you know, people would be like, I'm this age and I want to do something.

And he's like, how old are you going to be in two, three years?

And they would say like 45. And he's like, well, you can either be 45 with that thing that you want to do, or you can be 45 without it.

So either way, assuming you're still here, the time is going to keep going.

So you can either add the thing that you want to your life, or you can continue to lament the fact that you're too old and you can't have it, but you're still going to be that same age.

So one of my core beliefs, and just the thing that I have come to know is true, is that if there's something that is tiny, just something small that you're curious about, you find interesting, you think might be something you want to try, you absolutely owe it to your life force, your life energy, I'm going to sound very new agey here.

You are alive for a reason, and you owe it to your life force to give that a try.

Now the thing that's terrifying about it, because I went through it, I can speak about this with such confidence, is that you may, you're not, most likely you don't even know how to do that thing, right?

And in fact, those things that you don't know how to do that are so terrifying, those are precisely the things that you need to do.

So what advice would I give to you if you are in that space, or if you're in a corporate, it could be you're in a corporate environment, and you just find something interesting that you want to take a, I don't know, pottery class, and you've been putting it off.

You know, I really do believe that adding those things that excite us, that scare us to our life, just makes our lives richer.

So it doesn't necessarily have to be entrepreneurship.

But if it is, if you are actually want to create a business out of this, then I would say become a best, the best student in that thing.

So there's the actual physical product that you want to make, of course, understand that.

But more than that, what is the business of that thing look like?

And then learn, I feel like my biggest blessing, my biggest kind of gift was the fact that I had mentors that really forced me to learn the fashion business, right?

So I understood how the business worked. So when the opportunity came, I was ready to take advantage of it.

So the dress is one thing, right? And so whatever your product is, whatever your entrepreneurship desire is, if you want to, you know, my brother wants to be a photographer, you know?

So yes, so of course, you've got to take great pictures, you've got to understand that.

But then you've got to understand how people in photography make money.

Do they all have agents?

What does it mean to be a wedding photographer? Do you want to, which one, you know, you've got to become so clear and knowledgeable about that thing.

And what is so great about the Internet is that, and libraries, is that all that information is available.

So I would say become obsessed with not only the product and the thing you want to offer, but the business of that space.

And then be patient and take good care of yourself and love upon yourself and really work.

If you're someone that struggles with an internal critic, like I do, like most people do, really work on separating the voice of the internal critic from the voice of what I say, God, the universe, divine, whatever it is, that other voice that's inside all of us, really separate the two of them as much as you can.

I mean, I'm so excited to share this.

If people want to text me, have questions, like feel free to, if you want to continue it, because this was a lot, but I'm happy to talk more about it.

It's just something that is really important to me because I feel like I spend a lot of time in self -doubt and fear.

And if this can help one person like pursue their dream or just move closer to bringing forth that thing that they want to do, that would make me so happy.

I love that. I love that. Thank you for joining us today, Busayo.

I think you had some great advice and a wonderful story to share.

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