Nike Ogunlesi is the Founder and Creative Director of one the most successful Nigerian fashion brands; Ruff ‘N’ Tumble. Ruff ‘N’ Tumble specializes in kids clothing and she was one of the pioneers of affordable quality clothing in Nigeria. I remember growing up and seeing these huge Ruff ‘N’ Tumble billboards with two gorgeous little girls modelling super cute clothes and just wishing I could be them- I found out years later that they were her daughters. Everything from the birth of the company to the marketing was built organically around her lifestyle. Sitting across from her in her glass office whilst conducting this interview, I was so captivated by her beauty and the way in which she really just went out and established her dream career path, right down to the glass office. That’s like the pinnacle of ‘hashtag goals’, isn’t it? What tugged on my heartstrings the most though, was her honesty and humanity. She’s so deeply honest, so deeply truthful and so effortlessly inspiring. She is that woman. Equally kind and compassionate as she is fierce and resilient. Knowing that she set out on her own at such a young age and dropped out of a Law degree to pursue her dream of establishing this company in a society that was anything but easy to navigate, especially for a woman, I was curious to find out how she managed to be such a fighter and what mindset enabled her to come out on top.
I couldn’t find anywhere to buy affordable pyjamas for my kids. So, I started making them and my sister-in-law asked me to make seven pieces. I made them and thought to myself that she couldn’t be the only one who would want to buy them. I did my research and went down the commercial streets in Lagos which at that time were mainly Allen Avenue, Opebi Road and Awolowo Road. I looked at what was available on the market and what the gaps were. I started out selling the pyjamas out of the boot of my car- I took them with me everywhere I went. Coincidentally, my neighbour at the time, Gbemi Shashore, said to me that she was having a teddy bear fair and needed clothes made for the kids. She said she wanted clothes that they could rough around in. I said I would make them and Gbemi said that the flyer would have an image of a drum with children tumbling out.
It immediately came to me. Bingo! Ruff ‘N’ Tumble! That would be the name of the brand.
We went to the fair and I took 100,000 naira worth of pyjamas and sold out 98,000 naira. It was an absolute winner. I then started selling the pyjamas in stores like Park ‘N’ Shop. I didn’t want my own store yet because I wanted to spend more time with my kids. However, that didn’t work out because they never paid on time and always found excuses even after they had sold out of my stuff.
Someone came up to me and said that he was opening stores near my children’s school- Grange school. I realised that that would create a ready pool of children to market to. At the same time, I had bought a fantastic book called Guerrilla Marketing. Guerrilla Marketing showed me very simple techniques on how I could engage people and get people interested in what I did.
So we opened the shop and it was tiny. But in that one day, we sold more than Park n Shop had sold in 3 months. We were continuously selling out. People loved that some of the stuff were made in Nigeria and we were doing really well.
I then decided that I wanted to study a course at Lagos Business School. My husband was studying there and I found his marketing courses interesting. I asked him to ask them whether I could enroll on a course there even though I didn’t have an undergraduate degree. Of course, they initially turned their noses up at me but they finally granted me an interview. My education is not defined only by my technical abilities. It is broad and not only confined to the classroom. I am articulate, I can read, and most importantly, I can learn. So, they were in for a surprise. I don’t know what they were expecting.
One of my lecturers asked me one day- Is Ruff ‘N’ Tumble going to be that store that remains the same for years on end? Will you still be at the same place in 30 years time? That question got me thinking. I was on my way back home from LBS when I saw a vacant property. I got down to make inquiries about it and found out that they wanted 5 years rent upfront, which I paid. I was very good at saving in those days and my hands were shaking as I wrote the cheque because I had never spent so much money. I found it hugely difficult to get funding from banks to do the place up, but pulled through eventually.
That’s a very poor skill I have and something I’m actually working on right now. Because, I don’t always see how far I’ve come. I’m learning to stop and appreciate what I’ve done and contributed because it’s also not good for the people who work with you when you’re unable to appreciate all the hardwork. Appreciate yourself. Appreciate what you’ve done, and appreciate the people that are with you on the journey.
Two weeks?! It was all of two weeks and probably the most boring two weeks of my life. The pages kept going blank. I would open a page to read something and it would all become a blur. I didn’t even discuss it with anybody. I just packed my bags and left. I thought ‘Hell no, I’m not staying here!’ I’ve always been a strong-willed child and I decided to deal with whatever I would face when I got home. So, no, it did not. Which is why I always say that I’ve learnt from the university of life and I think it’s one of the best places to learn.
I have committed myself to life-long learning. You have to commit to lifelong learning. If you don’t, you’ll have no fresh ideas. You won’t be able to innovate, and you’ll become obsolete. So for me, learning wasn’t something that I had to do in school. My whole life is learning. It’s learning to be the best that I can be, to understand people, to achieve results through people and to make an impact on my society. I have learnt to respect values, opinions, and perspectives that are different from mine. This is necessary if you want to become a well-rounded human being. It is also about keeping your brain alive the older you get and being challenged to do things differently.
Oh wow. Where do I start? My 21 year old self was very strong willed and didn’t listen. It’s a bit emotional. I would tell her that everything would be alright. I would tell her to have faith and believe, and I would tell her to continue to stay focused. I would continue to encourage her in the path that she took which was to live her life exactly how she chose and on her own terms.
But I would also encourage her to enjoy the ride and not be so serious. I think I was too serious. My parents separated and that affected me a lot. I felt very responsible at a very young age, which was okay, but I could have done it with some more fun.
I would also tell her to stick to her values, and always live by them. And define herself. Which I think she did anyway. But, enjoy the ride most importantly. Enjoy the ride. It is when you don’t enjoy the moments, that you think you haven’t done anything. To be able to put up this building, help all these people earn a living, be a mother, have a good marriage, have children who are doing well. It was never an easy task. But, I need to enjoy the moments and smell the roses instead of just walking past them.
I have learnt that you must have a very good level of self-awareness, you must know what your strengths and weaknesses are, and you must develop social skills that help you to achieve results through other people. I came to some of that quite late.
I was on a journey of discovery but it was too focused on finding myself. When I look back now, I think that my social skills were not as good as they could have been. But I had to learn how to negotiate. You’ve got to be bold to negotiate with banks and stakeholders. You can’t be afraid. You’ve got to believe in yourself. You really have got to develop social skills and you have to stay motivated.
You need to make a connection between what’s in your Head, where your Heart is, and your Hands will then do the work. It’s called the Three H Principle and I love it. It also applies when you’re trying to achieve results through people. You’ve got to connect to people in their hearts and in their heads, and they will work with you. What you really want is people who will work with you, as opposed to for you so that their levels of commitment will be higher.
There was a time when my landlady sold the property without telling me and the new landlady gave me three months to vacate the premises. It really was a valley, it was a very low point in my life. When I look back now, I realise that I really did react to it as a victim until I said to myself ‘wait a minute, a paradigm shift is required here. You’re not a victim. This landlady has done you a great service. God is trying to tell you that this is not what he wants you to achieve, there’s so much more he wants you to do’. Once I made that paradigm shift and made that connection, everything I needed, I found. Which is why it is very important to have a vision and be clear about it.
It is important to articulate what you want to achieve. Because what really happens is that providence will open the doors that you need. You will just find that everything you require begins to align itself with your dream. And this is a strong message that I want to send to young people. A lot of the time you keep what you want to do in your head. You can’t. I had a little book, and in that book, I wrote ‘I dare to dream’. Everything I needed, I outlined in the book. I wrote how many air conditioners I needed, how many machines, how many members of staff. Every single thing. The landlady was just telling me without realising it that there were better and greater plans for me. In 2003, I bought this plot of land that we are currently on. I always wanted to build, and I had a vision of myself sitting in a glass office and with an army of people reporting to me. That’s another thing that I believe in- the power of visualization and having a vision board. Put what you want to achieve on a board and you will find that everything you do will take you closer to those goals, as opposed to it all being abstract. You will be more focused and direct and your dreams will become your reality. I eventually got plans and funding together and we built this. Now we have over 200 staff, 13 stores, and dedicated teams. Structure and process are very important in a business.
I don’t want to be sitting here for the rest of my life, at some point I want to exit and I want that to be sooner rather than later. But I would like to hand over a business that has been properly structured and will continue to fly. I have a great team working with me on the journey to greatness. It is sometimes very trying but it also is most of the time, very exciting. You have to commit and consistently align for sustainable results in the long term so that you don’t lose your focus. That’s what is important.
Well, I have a personal twitter account. Sometimes, I get a brain wave and send stuff out, but I’m not consistent. The downside of social media is that you could end up putting too much out there and it could consume you. You’ve got to be very disciplined or else you will find yourself constantly on it. From the business side of things, I think it’s great. There are quite a lot of young people at Ruff ‘N’ Tumble and they understand social media. I also like working with young people because they are not stale and they like to try new things. I’m not opposed to social media at all. But from a personal point of view, I think there could be too much about your person out there and I think you could still inspire people without so much intimate information on the internet.
It is important that at a very young age, you define your values. Your values are what make you self-aware. Knowing who you are and what your strengths and limitations are. It’s like, because you know that these are your values, you can then self-regulate and know that you will not find yourself in compromising situations. And you will be able to improve on your weaknesses because you are aware that you have them. Your values are important, your ability to self-regulate is important. Defining what motivates you is important. Because success for you might not be success for the other person. I realised after a long time that I wasn’t actually motivated by money. I was motivated by proving that it was possible to achieve something good in Nigeria. That’s a powerful motivation but I should have thought about making more money. Lol.
You see, integrity is what will help you achieve your ultimate goals. Without your values, without your principles, without being clear on what motivates you, you might have a lot of money and still not be fulfilled.
No, because the business does not define my success. That’s what I’ve come to realise. There was a point in time in my life when the business defined my success. But that was when I was young and driven by establishing a successful business. But now, what defines success for me is that all the lives that are here are made better by virtue of coming in contact with me, one way or the other. And that for me at this point in my life, is the most important thing.
It is knowing my strengths and how they impact on the lives of people who look up to me. Because, I didn’t know. I didn’t realise the impact of harsh words on staff who look up to you- your words can really dissolve them. When they look at me and they say- she changed my life for the better. That for me, would mean that I have made it.
I have a different approach- maybe because I understood failure from a very young age. Failure for me is an opportunity to learn. Fear is false evidence appearing real. What I fear is not impacting on the lives of the people that are with me the way I would like to. The business isn’t going to fail now, I think it’s gone past that point. We might try things that don’t work but we will get back on track and find a solution. I’m a great believer in solutions. There’s always a solution.
My favourite country in the entire world is Italy. I could travel round Italy for a whole year. Italy has some of the best views in the world. I love the food, the vibe, and the energy of the people. The first time I ever saw really blue water was in Italy. I also find it an easy country to travel through- trains, coaches, it’s really easy.
My hobby is gardening. At home in my garden, I’ve got orchids, peace lilies, and I love huge trees. I couldn’t live in a concrete jungle. I appreciate gardening.
I love traveling and discovering new places and I love the theatre. My favourite thing I’ve seen this year is Kinky Boots. The only reason I like London is the theatre- you need to see Kinky Boots! It was awesome!
Before I die, I would like to see my grand children. I would love to be a part of their lives the way my mother was a part of my children’s. I’d love to meet them and know them. I dream of my kids having beautiful lives and finding great partners. I fully appreciate now that my mother is gone, the time she spent with my kids. I’d love a place where my grandchildren can come and have so much fun with me.
I would also love to see the rest of the world.
Fighting back tears, she goes ‘I’m a very emotional person, Fisayo’, To which I replied ‘Yes aunty, I figured, so am I’. This was such a beautiful interview- I love this woman. She really is divine.