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When I asked Renè how her day went, she replied simply “busy”. By the end of this conversation, I understood why.
Tell us a little bit about yourself?
I hate that question because I don’t even know where to start. My name is Renè Aderonke Ahmed. I am 37 years old. I am a businesswoman and humanitarian. I think that’s it. That’s Renè.
That is an interesting summary…
Well, I work and I care about people. So, while I’m working to make money because I’ve got to survive, I’m also working to help people around me. I love to make people happy, I love to change people’s lives when I can. So that’s basically who I am.
As a child, did you see yourself becoming these things?
Like everybody else, of course, my parents tried to put me in a box as well. My mum made me study law which I hated with all my heart, but I studied it anyway.
I studied law, finished and I moved back to Nigeria and I asked myself do you wanna do law in such a crazy country? I don’t understand people who practice law in such an unlawful country.
Seriously! A round of applause for them, because they are trying! So, I asked myself if I wanna practice law in Nigeria and I said no I don’t wanna do that. So, I decided, you know what, I’m just gonna wing it and see where this takes me. I then went back to school to study business admin and I finished it, the reason why I did that was that I wanted more options. I didn’t wanna be stuck with a law degree and not find a proper job, so I thought business admin would help me to find a good job. And it did find me a good job, I started working for Eko Atlantic City under this wonderful woman.
Anyway, so I was doing that, then again, I started asking myself is this what you wanna do? But you know, being a businesswoman is out of necessity in Nigeria, to be honest. I worked in several companies and I realized that it wasn’t for me. I can’t do the “9-5” thing. And I said to myself just start something! You have to do something! So, I started the fabric business with my mum because she had been doing it for over 35 years. So I thought, I might as well go into the store with her, see what she’s doing, see how that is working. So that’s how the business started for me. It wasn’t because I had always seen myself as this massive businesswoman or anything. I never really had any kind of plan when it came to my career. I think the only thing that I knew was that I wanted to be successful. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, I just knew that I was smart enough and I would get to the point where I figured it out.
But what is most important to me though is making people happy and I realized that when I moved back to Nigeria. At first, I thought it was because I wanted to be a hero, but then I realized that it’s a part of me. I have always been like that. I have always been a very empathic person. When I was a child, my mum said that I would sometimes go to school and come back with no shoes because one of my friends in school didn’t have shoes so I gave them to them.
I have always been like that. What drew out the empathy in me was being in Nigeria and seeing how people live and what people go through. I realized how privileged I was and how I could use my privilege to help people. Imagine living in the UK for over 17 years and coming back to Nigeria to see a completely different world. I couldn’t believe that people were living like that and I just said you know what, no matter how little, no matter how small it may seem, you need to do something.
What I would love to do, if I had all the money in the world, would be to help people. I love impacting people’s lives, I love doing it. And you know being in Nigeria, you see the real impact, it is crazy. You are in the hospital, someone can’t pay their bill, they need to pay for surgery right now. You pay it, they do the surgery, you see them, they come out feeling better! Wow! It’s amazing!
So in summary, I’ve never had real plans. Though I had always wanted to go into business and to do something that would bring money because for me ultimately, it’s just about being able to have money to do. I love the finest things in life. I love enjoying myself. But ultimately, everything that I do always goes back to giving back. So even when I have money, I do take care of myself, I have more than enough. Even when I don’t have enough of it, I still share. That’s who I am and that’s who I’ve always been. I hope I’ve answered your question.
You talked about making a transition from a regular 9 to 5 job to being self-employed. Was there a defining moment in this transition?
Uhh…honestly, there was nothing, no defining moment. I think it happened gradually. So first of all, I can’t be waking up at 7 am because I want to get to work by 9. I’m used to getting on the tube and getting to my destination in 20 minutes or 15 minutes. In Nigeria, I can’t do it, it is ridiculous. You have to wake up on time. Even if you live in VI and you’re going to work inside Lekki phase 1. Come on! You don’t even know the kind of traffic you will see, but there is always traffic. So for me, I was just like, yeah I can’t do that 9- 5 thing.
Being in the UK felt like I was in a rat race. It was repetitive. You do the same thing every day, it is depressing. You wake up, you go to work, you come down. You go on the tube and come back on the same tube. You walk home the same way. You go to the store, get biscuits, water or whatever, you go round the corner, you buy fish and chips, it’s the same thing! So for me, I just felt naa can’t do this again.
Another thing that helped me was when I started going to the shop with my mum. I would go on weekends and I would see how much this woman was making every day. Inside Lagos island, those women are making money o! At first, I was like “ah ahn! How can I, a London girl, come and be following you to Lagos island, that dirty place?” Omo! When I started going there, I was even posting it on my Instagram to show everybody that see! I’m a Lagos island babe because there is money to be made there. So yeah, there was no defining moment. There were moments that I had, you know, instances that pushed me to that point that just helped me make that decision.
What exactly has been this “journey” of helping people?
I still haven’t found a balance. What I would say is that I’m much better than before though and what helped me was the Quran. There is a part in the Quran, I can’t tell you where; it says that you should help people but never be reduced to penury. And what that means is that God frowns at people who give their last. You shouldn’t give to the point where even you don’t have. You should have enough, you know. It doesn’t have to be plenty. So, for example, if you had a thousand naira, give two hundred naira so that you can have eight hundred naira to take care of yourself. Not that you give the whole one thousand naira and that’s what I used to do.
Honestly, I say this a lot to people that I don’t worry about myself because besides working, um, whatever business I do, there is always grace. People are always buying it. Wherever I go there are always people who help me, strangers who help me for no reason, so that is partly what pushes me to help others as well because I just feel like God isn’t helping me for no reason. God keeps helping me because he wants me to do the same for others.
Sometimes I get carried away thinking that when I have and have sorted out all my bills and things are okay, the next thing to do is to share with people, but then I started to realize that it was taking a toll on me. Though my bills were sorted, we all need savings. We need money for the rainy day or times when you wanna treat yourself, or you wanna do something for your friends or your family, you need to have the extra.
I started to find a balance to it, and what I do now is when I feel the urge to do something for people, I close my eyes and I’m like nope nope. Okay, you know what, I’m just gonna do this once or twice a month and leave it at that. So, what I’ve been doing lately – I fast every Monday and Thursday – so, on Mondays and Thursdays, I try to give people on those days, and on any other day, I say no. I find myself saying God forgive me God forgive me but I’m like It’s not a sin that you are not giving! it’s not a sin that you don’t give on these days. God doesn’t want you to suffer! God wants you to enjoy as well!. I have to keep reminding myself. I think I’m doing much better than before. But the journey has been really hard because I’m coming from a place where I would give to a point where I would have nothing and I’d keep telling myself I know something else (money) will come up, but that meant that I couldn’t amass wealth. I was okay, doing well but I couldn’t amass wealth. But it’s much better now.
That is an interesting journey. And asides from personally giving out money, you run a charity organization yeah?
Yes! I’ve seen you talk about your inspiration for starting this organization and I think It’s an amazing thing you are doing!
So, when exactly did you become an entrepreneur fully?
It’s about 7 years so, 2014. That’s when I started going to the store with my mum. I branched off from her and brought my store to Lekki. I had this little store somewhere in Lekki phase 1, and that’s where I started my own personal thing from. In the beginning, we had a partition at my mum’s shop. She had the left-hand side, I had the right-hand side. We were selling the same thing but you know our monies were invested in our own sections. So, it wasn’t like we couldn’t get a shop but the shops are so scarce. They are hard to find because everyone wants a shop in Lagos Island, so a lot of times when you are trying to get it, you have to go through like back agents and then that costs like so much. So, my mum just said what’s the point. Let’s share the store together. So, yeah I started in 2014 and then I moved and got my own store in Lekki phase 1 in 2019, that was 3 years ago.
And would you describe your career as successful?
Yes, I would. The thing is, that business of selling fabrics, I no longer do it fully and that is because of Covid. So, before Covid, I had a lot of customers who would order Asoebi, but now with COVID, it’s harder because people aren’t going to weddings as much. They’re not doing a lot of Asoebi these days, everyone is trying to do less than 200 people at their weddings. So, that business really has gone downhill. But I’m still trying my best, I’m still pushing it. Then I started another business which I think suits me better because I love fashion. I started making women’s clothes. I’m my own model. A lot of times when people see clothes on me they’re like “omg I really love what you’re wearing” so I said okay! I think I need to start this thing because people really like when I make clothes for myself and I started that 3 months ago and it’s going really well. So, that’s what I’m doing now. But in that business, the fabrics business, I would say that I was successful in it until covid just messed it up
3 months in the fashion industry and already thriving! That’s Impressive!
Listen, I’m not even joking, I can’t actually believe how successful it’s been in 3 months. I am actually in shock. First of all, I realize that women buy clothes! OMG! Women buy clothes! I buy clothes but I never knew that other women bought clothes as much as I do, I thought I had issues. There was a time when I was single, every time I was going on a date, I would buy a new dress. I didn’t know that women were like that, I thought I was abnormal. Women buy clothes! Do you know how many times someone would call me like “Hi Rene, do you have a dress I can wear? I’m going somewhere and I don’t really like what I’m wearing” blah blah and I’m like you’re going somewhere, you are already wearing a dress, you want to buy another dress? Ah! Please come o! They will come, they will buy something, they will wear that cloth that they just bought from me. Sometimes, they will forget the one they brought with them in my store. Women buy, it’s crazy!
But then, to be honest, I think that my popularity also really helped me push the brand because my name is my brand. That’s what I used for my fashion brand, and that also helped me. But besides that, I also think that we have good designs and people love them. But it’s been really great, I’m so grateful to God. Like I can’t complain so yeah, let’s see what happens in the next 6-12 months. Then we can really say if it has been really successful or not. Fingers crossed!
A lot of people would prefer to not be associated so intimately with their brand. But with you, the art is not separate from the artist. Obviously, this has its positives seeing as you are quite popular, but I’m curious; are there any negatives?
Of course! At first, I really didn’t want people to know that it was me. But then I also thought about the fact that I have a huge following and that could work to my advantage. The truth is there are always gonna be people who don’t like you anyway and that’s normal for someone like me because I’m quite controversial so I was willing to take that risk. I just said you know what, I’m either going to use my already popular brand, which is Renè to push this brand, or be anonymous and push out lovely designs and see what happens. Then I thought about the cost implications and for a new business, I wasn’t ready to fork out that kind of money. If I was to be anonymous and had models and social media whatever as well as marketing, I know how much I would have spent, and I couldn’t afford to do that. I put a lot of money into this business, it is capital intensive, people have no idea. So, it was a risk that I was willing to take.
I know now that there are people who will never buy from me because they know that it is me. Do you know what happened recently? Someone used their burner account to try to buy something from me. So, this person had asked for our account number and just when I was about to give the account number, I looked at the account and I saw that it was only one person following. Then, I asked that person whom I knew
“As long as the benefits outweigh the bad! Well done! Have you ever failed at a business venture though?
No, never. I never give up, I keep pushing. I push and push and push. And I don’t think it’s because I’m doing something right. Well, yes I’m doing something right, but it is not just that it is also because I have a great support system. So, when I have issues, there are people that I can go to for advice and sometimes for help. You know a loan here and there and then I can pay it back. You know a lot of people don’t have that. and that’s what is unfair about life. Yes, there are times when I’ve gotten in trouble, but I have always been able to get myself out of it either by pushing hard and sticking to what I’m doing or by asking for help.
Good for you, really. Have you considered any other career path? Is there something else you would like to try your hands on?
I want to be a full-time humanitarian. I want to run my NGO and just change lives. I want the WHO to recognize my organization at some point. I want to be up to par with them. This is my dream, and I know that it is going to happen. Right now, I’m still trying to survive like everybody else in this godforsaken country. So I can’t give too much of my time and energy to it because I need to survive. So the time that I do put in,I put myself in it fully. That is my dream. I want to concentrate on my NGO and transform lives.
If you could give any general advice to young women right now, using this platform, what would you tell our readers?
Be yourself, stop worrying so much about what people and society want you to be. Your life starts now, stop waiting for something or a man or society to tell you to start living your life. Time doesn’t wait for anybody, so focus on you, baby girl; that’s what’s important.
Thank you so much for that advice and for agreeing to chat with me. This was a really lovely conversation!