These days it’s hard to miss. One of Africa’s most popular symbols — the “dashiki” — is blowing up on the internet because of a fashion movement started by three New Jersey-based sisters. Twins Mirian Chinyere Ugokwe (21) and Lilian Chioma Ugokwe (21) and little sister MarySonia Chizoba Ugokwe (20) are the founders behind DashikiPride, an e-commerce fashion business that sells vibrantly colored dashiki shirts and clothing with a modern twist. After moving from Nigeria to the U.S. in 2007, the sisters decided to follow in their parent’s entrepreneurial footsteps to start their own textile business. In 2014, they launched DashikiPride, which has not only gained popularity among celebrities, but has also helped the sisters raise proceeds for several African-related charities. In this interview with BAUCE, the Ugokwe sisters discuss how they started their business, share their key marketing tip for scaling their brand, and explain the one important thing they want you to understand before rocking a dashiki.
All three of you ladies are the brains behind this growing brand, but who had the initial idea to start DashikiPride?
Lillian: It was my idea. It was something that I came up with because I was more of the “fashionista” in the family. Fashion was kind of my “thing”. I really fell in love with African patterns and could deeply associate with them because the patterns were a representation of my culture. I remember going to a store and the colors catching my eye. I picked out some fabrics and went back to my sisters and that’s how DashikiPride was created. I was 20 when we came up with the idea and my little sister was 18.
You all started your business while you were enrolled in college. What was it like building a business and trying to focus on balancing your academics in school?
MarySonia: It’s been extremely difficult managing school and the business. It’s very demanding. If you have a customer that calls you and they want their product tomorrow – they don’t care if you have a paper due or if you have to study for an exam. You have to get the product to them. We’ve learned that we have to be able to manage our time well and that we can’t postpone things. We can’t be like regular college students that relax and push off their work to the night before it’s due. We don’t have that luxury. You have to be on your academics. You have to manage your time well in order to see the rewards of your labor.
Lillian: But we are happy that we’ve been able to handle it. Mirian just graduated and MarySonia graduates next year. I am still enrolled in fashion school.
Do you plan to continue working on your business and expanding your brand once you all graduate from school?
MarySonia: Yes, we are definitely still working on DashikiPride. We just had our DashikiPride Day Festival this summer. It was a huge festival where Remy Ma performed and people came out and wore dashikis and partied and had fun. We want to move the company in various directions beyond fashion and build a lifestyle brand. There are lots of things that we are currently working on that we will reveal soon!
Part of building a business is putting in the work for it to grow. What is the one key marketing tool that you used to promote your fashion brand, especially in what appears to be an oversaturated market of online boutiques?
MarySonia: Instagram and our friends. When we first started we would just post our clothing on our individual accounts and ask our friends to share DashkiPride on their accounts. Well, all our friends told all their friends and it just grew [exponentially] like that. The second key thing was we started using social influencers. When the word first started getting out on Instagram, people kept commenting that they loved our designs and the clothes. We started getting social influencers emailing us and DM’g us saying, “Hey, can I get a dashiki? I really like this shirt, can I get this one? ” So we’d give them a shirt and they would wear it, post a picture on Instagram, and tell their followers that they were loving their DashikiPride shirt.
We just built off of that. Basically people would just come to us and be like “Wow — how can I get a shirt?” and that really helped us get a huge following online. Right now it’s not just about the money — our current goal is to build awareness around our brand and build up from there.
Your clothing has been worn by the likes of Remy Ma, Monica Brown, and even Rob Kardashian’s fiancé Blac Chyna. What would you say has been the biggest challenge of maintaining DashikiPride’s success?
Mirian: We believe that with everything you do there are always bridges that you have to overcome that teach you valuable lessons. I would say one of our biggest bridges has been making sure that we have all of our merchandise available for our customers and also making sure our shipping [process] is excellent. Through our experiences we’ve learned what to do and what not to do, especially how to better communicate with customers. Having DashikiPride has been a big learning experience for us.
A lot of people wear the dashiki shirt but may not understand the history behind it. What does this iconic fashion piece symbolize?
Lillian: The dashiki symbolizes unity. It symbolizes peace. Africa has a huge heritage behind the design of the dashiki that stems back to West Africa, specifically the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria. Overall it’s a symbol of appreciation to our motherland and it’s a symbol of togetherness.
Also, generally the colors are so vibrant, it’s not something that any normal piece of clothing would have. So it also symbolizes a “freedom from the norm” because a lot of fashion nowadays appears very “normalized”. The dashiki is just so out there — it’s different and significant and it’s the one thing that I know that if I wear it, it is unique and my culture will be valued in the eyes of others.
What is one thing you want people to know before rocking a dashiki?
Lillian: Part of our mission and business objectives is to use our clothes as a vehicle to help people come together and unify. We want to give people a platform to see peace. So many terrible things are going on in this world and we want to just give people a platform where everyone can sit down for one minute and be like “Oh my gosh – look at this shirt! This shirt is so dope!” and it doesn’t matter if that shirt is being worn by a white person, a black person, a straight person, or a gay person. That’s what we want. We want to create a platform for love and unity and to change the current global view of Africa. We want people to know it is not just a starving third-world continent. We want them to know that when they they think about Africa, they think about beautiful people. They think about beautiful colors. They think about beautiful culture. We don’t want people to just think about Africa in the way that one specific race may perceive us. The dashiki is a movement — and we want people to be unified in understanding and appreciating our culture.
What would be your advice for other young women that see what you do and want to start their own e-commerce business?
MarySonia: I would personally say don’t be afraid to do what the norm is not doing or what everyone else (your age mates, your classmates, your friends) are not doing yet. Don’t be afraid to just take that one step and go do something different or to go do something that other people might think is impossible or “too big” for someone young to do.
Mirian: Be the change you want to see in the world. Do not think that anything is too big or too small for you to start. If you like cooking, don’t feel like because one person doesn’t appreciate your style of food that someone else won’t appreciate it. You are not too young or too old to start up anything. Be positive and just keep pushing it. If you have a passion for something, focus on that. There are things out there that are greater for you; that passion can be turned into profit.
Lillian: I have three main points for people who want to start a business: think about it, pray about it and then execute it. Try to see what you’re good at. Don’t try to do things you might think everyone else is doing because it’s working for them — that does not mean it will work for you! Figure out what makes you special. Build upon your talent and watch it grow. But make sure you execute your ideas. Some people think about starting something but they never execute on anything. If you want to be successful, you have to think, pray, and execute.