Suzie Wokabi is one of Kenya’s most exceptional female entrepreneurs. Eight years ago, she founded Suziebeauty, Kenya’s leading indigenous cosmetics brand after a successful career as a television make-up artist in Los Angeles, California. SuzieBeauty now manufactures everything from lip-gloss and lipstick to eye shadow, mascara and concealers. Suziebeauty is now a remarkably successful brand, and a household name in many Kenyan homes where her products are the more preferred among the urban, upwardly mobile Kenyan woman.
Last year, Wokabi, 39, sold her company to the Flame Tree Group, a Nairobi Stock Exchange-listed manufacturing group. She still works in the company as SuzieBeauty’s Chief Creative Officer.
She recently spoke to me from London where she recounted her journey in the cosmetics business.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your background before SuzieBeauty
I studied International Relations in college, and thereafter went to pursue a career in the fashion and beauty industries in New York. That’s where I discovered my love for beauty. I worked for Clinique as well as MAC, trained well by both. I also attended a make-up school in LA to study media make-up. I was away in the US for almost 10 years and moved back home to Nairobi in 2007 to work as a make-up artist. I found a gap in the retail cosmetics space (all products imported and overpriced) so decided to try and fill it, with SuzieBeauty.
What was the premise of SuzieBeauty when you started? What were you thinking
The premise was to create a make-up brand to fill the gap in the market and build the local beauty industry. I found it very difficult to get product to work with, let alone for my personal use. I knew that I was not the only one suffering and in a naïve way decided to create my own line. I also came to find out that nobody had ever done it locally, making SuzieBeauty Kenya’s first make-up brand – for the Kenyan/ African woman.
How did you get involved in the cosmetics business?
Quite by mistake – my sister Lisa worked in the fashion industry in New York so that was some inspiration. I went to pursue the same, and came to find out that the fashion industry is many things – apparel, accessories, eyewear, cosmetics… I dabbled in each and started my career in make-up artistry.
When did you decide to launch your own line of cosmetics and how did you go about financing your business initially?
My husband and I founded the company in 2009, launched the product into the market in 2012. Initially my husband was working full time and managed to fund the business for the first 2 years as I developed the product. We thereafter got 2 investment groups to pitch in for an equity stake in the company, and also got a bank loan.
How did you grow to where you are at the point? How many employees do you have at the group?
We have grown the brand quite intrinsically, slowly but surely. Being a pioneer brand there was not much to benchmark on, so a lot was guess work but because of my knowledge of beauty and the industry, the product is right for our target audience. We have about 15 employees now within SuzieBeauty brand
You recently sold off SuzieBeauty. Are you still involved in the business? How’s that playing out for you?
The brand was acquired by The Flame Tree Group a bit more than a year ago. Myself and most of my team went on board to keep running and growing the brand as it’s quite a particular way that we work. It was well understood that SuzieBeauty cannot exist without Suzie, which is great. I’m the Chief Creative Officer, Brand Ambassador and all round brand custodian. I do a lot of PR as well, as I have always done. So far, so good!
Tell me about your bestselling products.
In each of the 11 categories we have certain SKU’s or colors that sell much better than others, but even the slower sellers are an important part of the line. The top selling categories though are foundations, powders and lipsticks. Our brushes do very well also.
What is your business strategy?
To maintain the brand that we started as much as is possible, while growing and getting it to the next level with the initial brand integrity. We plan to distribute out of Kenya this year.
How would you characterize your management style?
I’m mostly “good cop”. I mentor as much as possible and keep drama to the minimum level. I do not micromanage unless extremely necessary.
What advice would you give someone who is considering embarking on a career in the cosmetics business?
Be sure that they LOVE everything about it. It is not easy to break into or be successful, and the success stories out there all revolve around extreme passion. Patience and perseverance are super important too as the knock downs come often
WRITTEN BY: Mfonobong Nsehe