Ayotomi has always had a smile that lights up the room. Twenty years after meeting her in Unilag, and even with all of her success, she remains the same delightful lady, always ready with a smile and kind word. Her humility belies the fact that hers is one of the most prominent and respected names in the Nigerian fashion industry. We were lucky to pin her down for an interview, and she shared how she is able to juggle life as a business mogul with motherhood and home life. And just as she has done for all the years I’ve known her, she dropped some wonderful nuggets of wisdom for. All the more reason why we love Ayotomi Rotimi!
You are, without a doubt, one of the pioneers of new-age fashion in Nigeria. How did it all begin?
It all started while I was in school. I really just wanted a way to augment by pocket money. Rather than squeeze my folks for a little more, I decided to do something for myself and that was how it started. I started making the shirts while in school, and after I left school, I just continued, even while I was working. As there was still demand from campus, so I continued the hobby. So it basically started from me wanting to augment my pocket money, while I was in school. The rest is history really!
After school, I worked as a banker for some years before I resigned to do this full time. I worked in the then Fountain Trust Bank.
You have been able to grow one of the biggest brands in the country. What words of advice do you have for women starting their own business?
Well, I always say start small. I’m big on starting small and taking baby steps. Sometimes, some people have these big dreams of doing the biggest this in Africa, the biggest this in Nigeria…wanting to be the pioneer in a particular industry and those big dreams can be daunting at times, that you don’t know where to start from and you are not humble enough to start at the bottom.
My advice is always be ready to start small but do your very best where you are; if you are making 5 shirts in a month, make them the very best you can make. If you are only baking 10 cakes in a year, make them the very best cakes out there. Whatever it is you can do, just do it very well. And as you start, it will grow gradually. Don’t be afraid to start small, you will be more likely to accommodate the challenges than when you start big.
What has been the high point of your career so far?
We have had several moments. I think for me, opening my Victoria Island store was a big one for me. Opening the Maryland Mall store was also a huge one for us. Really, every time we have a very satisfied customer, it’s a high point. Every time we see someone raving about our designs or excited about something, that gets us excited. I can never get tired of that. But really, every time we open a store, is a high point…even more than any award. Just seeing the clothes in the way I had imagined, seeing the business flourish for me is a big deal.
Running a successful business and being a mom aren’t exactly easy tasks. How have you been able to juggle it all?
Hmm, that’s always a tough one. For me, I started having my kids around the same time I started doing the business full time. I was pregnant with my first child when I went to England for my course in Fashion Technology. So, from the very beginning, it was all about finding balance.
The thing is just to prioritise. Some days you will do it well and balance things properly, while some days you won’t. Don’t beat yourself up, you are learning. There is no one way, it all depends on your circumstance.
Until recently, I did not have a help at home. I didn’t have a nanny. So in spite of what my status might be, I still had to wash plates, cook, and care for my family, but that was what it took. I still do my school run, attend to my kids, and help them with their homework. When you are a mom, you are a mom, there is no glamour attached to it. If you are a wife, that is who you are and you have to do what you need to do. So I think it is a matter of prioritising and balancing as much as you can.
And if you are ready to build your business gradually, then you need to pace yourself. You may not need to open so many shops at once, because of the responsibility you have to your family. You take it easy, you can’t attend all events, you can’t be at all fashion shows. Take it one step at a time, gradually you will be able to hire experienced hands that can allow you delegate effectively. I think that is what I can say about that.
Try and delegate. I am blessed to have a good team, which allows me to delegate without feeling overwhelmed.
Tell us about your journey to motherhood?
My first child is 13 and my second child is 11. I had my kids pretty early in life. Motherhood for me is my most important job. Being a mom is my most important title. It is inspiring to see little children grown right under your nose, imbibing the morals and values that you hold dear, and also experiencing the love of your kids. With children, the love is very pure. You don’t have to earn it, they just love you for who you are. I hold my role as a mother as important as any other thing; I’m very hands on with my kids. I take my kids out on play dates, know all of their friends, cook for them, I do everything for my kids.
Even though my son is taller than me now, he is still my son. I’m quite big on being a present mother, being their friend, being an influence in everything going on in their lives.
For me, motherhood has been a beautiful experience. Although there are challenges we all face while trying to balance it with our other roles, we must never take it for granted.
What lessons did you learn, growing up, that have helped you in your motherhood journey so far?
Growing up, one of the things my parents instilled in us was respect for everyone, irrespective of status, qualifications and such. Everyone you come across, you have to show respect for them. Everyone must be made to feel like they are someone special.
I’m very big on that in my own household now. My children are being brought up to respect everyone around them and to be leaders, to encourage and support people.
My son is very tall and I have been saying to him since he was young that, “Your height is for inspiration and protection. It is not to intimidate or bully”, and he has imbibed that.
Even up until yesterday, with his sister, who is quite petite, I asked him, “What is this height for?” he said to inspire and to protect. He is growing up and learning that when people are around you, they should feel special, well treated and respected. For me, that’s the biggest thing I can teach my children and it is the biggest lesson my folks passed on to me.
Even when we get their school report card, I’m more interested in how well they relate with other children than their academic performance, and that is what we reward. For me, that is really important.
I learnt it from my folks, especially my dad who is quite big on the issue of respect.
What is your parenting style like?
My husband is more of the disciplinarian between us. I’m big on being friends with my kids; I know people always say you are not their friend and such, but that’s not how I operate. Again, from my own parent’s style, particularly my mother, she was very open with us. She was our friend. So, because of that, her opinion meant so much to us. Her opinion meant a lot to me, even if I don’t admit it.
That influenced a lot of the decisions I made, even down to the choice of a spouse. My mother wasn’t one to impose her choice but she would give her opinion. If her opinion doesn’t sit well with what you thought was right, you won’t be able to shake it off and that was because he had made herself available for us.
That’s my own style with my kids. I’m strict, they know I wouldn’t take rubbish, especially regarding the way they treat people. They know that if they treat someone badly, they will get it from me. I’m strict to the extent that I make it clear what I expect and demand from them. I can go from zero to hundred in ten seconds, and in the next moment, I’m telling them about the things I bought for them. So they know that it is not personal, that it will not affect the way I feel about them, but they also know that the principles we uphold up in our home, you can’t joke with it. You tell a lie; you get punished for it, even more than if you got an F.
But they also know that if they want to buy something special, they want to go on a play date, whatever, I’m the one they come to, the one they can manipulate. That’s my style; to be acceptable, to be friends with them, but at the same time, to keep imbibing my Christian values in them and to be strict about those values.
How has having children changed your life?
Aha, I have had kids for so long now! I can’t even remember what and how my life would have been before them. But if I compare my life now with some of my contemporaries who don’t kids within my industry, for sure, it has really affected my priorities. You are responsible for another life and that is a huge responsibility.
Constantly having these people’s interest over mine has made me very sacrificial, relatively selfless. Obviously if you are low on funds and your kids need some things and you do too, you know yours would suffer. You have to do theirs first.
I think it has made me more selfless, more giving and more loving. I don’t think I was as loving as I am now; you have a lot more love to give as a mother. Even with all your busy-ness, you just have to slow down. During the holidays is really when you can do anything for yourself. When they are in school, it’s all about them.
How do you deal with the mom guilt?
I don’t deal with it, I just feel it. As I was speaking to you, I just remembered I’m supposed to pay some money in my son’s class, which I have totally forgotten about, amidst other things.
As for the guilt, I don’t know how you can just wish it away, because if it is not one thing, it is the other. You don’t dwell on it so much, just move o.
What tips can you share for staying connected as a family? With your spouse? And with your kids?
For us, we try to pray together, we go out for lunch, breakfast. We do long weekends. Sometimes, we go to a local resort or hotel. We just create time to be together. We could just be relaxing, watching a movie, teasing each other; I’m usually the butt of the teasing, everybody is always teasing me when we are together, “Oh, mommy is trying to be cool. Mommy is trying to be this, she doesn’t want to do that. So we laugh together a lot.
It’s one of the reasons I still do the school run, to be able to ask how their days went. Once the children know they can always count on you, that they mean the world to you, 80 percent of the battle is won.
When you children know within themselves that in this house, I am priority, it makes things easy. I let a nanny go because she wasn’t getting along with my daughter. I don’t care how petty that might me, “You are one that has to adjust.” Once they know, there is security in the home, that really helps with the bonding.
What’s a typical day for you like?
I don’t even know how to begin that one. I wake up in the morning, I go for a run, get the children ready and off to school. Once I drop them off at school, I go to my factory. Finish at the factory, I go to my store and there are supply meetings, staff meetings and then school run, pick the kids and my phone is glued to my ears for the rest of the day.
If I have time, I would do my blog post. However, no one day is the same; between school run, factory and showroom, those are the only constants. It is just a lot, my mind is constantly working, and the cycle continues the next day. Sometimes, I sleep late and wake up hours later to get some me-time, get the kids ready, do the school run, so it is not a glamorous life, not at all but I love it.
If you had one extra hour in each day, and you didn’t have to work or be with your family, how would you spend that hour?
I will just sit down and watch TV, or sleep. I will just rest. I don’t get enough rest, so if I can get an hour of rest, uninterrupted, watching TV, eating ice cream, nothing glamorous again, I’m fine. I just want to sleep. That’s all.
In recent weeks, you have lost a lot of weight. Could you tell us about your weight loss journey so far, and offer us some tips on how to achieve this?
Yes, I started making some a lifestyle changes; watching what I eat and all that. The results are just showing now. Like every other woman, I have been doing it but on and off for like forever, but this particular season started since January.
It was challenging at first, but when you get used to the lifestyle, it gets easier. So far, so good.
My goal when I started was to lose 15 kilograms and I have lost close to eleven now, so I have four kilograms to go.
The way to go is first of all to avoid processed foods, I rarely do processed food nowadays and make sure to work some exercise into your daily routine. And then watch your portions, even when you eat your regular foods.
It is a good idea not to tell yourself, “I need to lose 2kg in one month”. When I started this journey, I did not hurry myself, I gave myself the deadline of December. I wasn’t rushed as I gave myself the target of losing 15kg by December. It was slow and gradual, even some time, you would think you are gaining weight but if you focus on the fact that this is going to be my life henceforth, you will see the rewards in time.
Remember, you did not gain the weight in a day, so you have to be patient. And if you lose the weight quickly, without the lifestyle habits to back it up, you will gain it back.
Things like not drinking soda is normal for me now. I don’t drink soda, I don’t eat white rice, not eating too much meat, those are lifestyle changes, eating lots of vegetables and other healthy options. It is over time that you will begin to see the results. The most important thing is to keep the weight off. Anybody can lose weight fast, they can actually do it with a lot of these fad diets, but keeping the weight off is the real work and that can only be done if you have the lifestyle habits.
For a lot of women (TTC women, new mothers, etc.), it is very easy to let one’s self go. What tips can you give women looking to remain trendy despite hectic lifestyles?
You have to really love yourself and make yourself a priority. Determine what you enjoy and then try to have that thing involved in your life. If it is only one thing, give that to yourself. If there is anything that upsets you or annoys you, try and avoid them as much as you can. The happier you are with yourself, the more you will find that you are doing things for yourself at your discretion, so you look better, you feel better.
It is a tough one; it is not as easy as I’m saying it. We all face that challenge. But at least, you try and find something you really enjoy doing and you try and do it. It goes a long way to boost your confidence.
What do you wish you’d known when you were 20?
Hmmm, I don’t even know about that question. I think being patient with yourself is one. Everything kinda works out in the end. Don’t be too hard on yourself. We are always in a hurry when we are young, in a hurry to achieve, to do this, do that. It’s really to accept that, with time, things figure themselves out. Things work out.
What do you hope to know by time you’re 60?
Well, that would be that I have touched lives. Affecting lives positively would be my biggest achievement. You look back and your children are well rounded, doing good in their relationship with people and God. That they are well settled in their adult life. That is a big deal.
What are you reading right now?
I’m not reading any book right now. I’m hooked on podcasts now. I’m listening to quite a number of podcasts and trying to apply for an online course. I’m big on the whole online thing.
One of the podcast channels name is What I would do if I were, where they advise on different business. They are PR and advert gurus and that has really helped me with some new age methods of business.
There is another lady I listen to, who talks about women in business and the challenge people face behind the scenes.
I listen to quite a few other podcasts too.
What are your biggest vices?
They are so many. I have a bit of a temper if I’m not well rested, so I need to get my rest in. I’m a bit of a perfectionist in some areas; I have a bit of very high standards for the people who work with me. I’m a bit of a terror sometimes with them. Most of these things come out when I’m not well rested; I become a bit short- fused. It is important that I get my rest, otherwise, everybody will get a bit of it.
And I could be a bit disorganised as well, not put together. Most creative people out there have a bit of disorganisation in them. I expect that some things be done in a certain way and I don’t understand why they aren’t being done that way.
So, no fashion fetish?
Funny enough, I don’t have ant. I’m not the “I must buy that shoe, I must buy that bag” kinda person. I know considering I’m in fashion, it is expected but it is weird that I don’t have any. When I was much younger, I used to be very big on quite a number of things. But maybe it’s because I’m in the business, after some time, it doesn’t matter anymore. My passion is my business; it is what I would invest anything on. I want to get this, I want to have things looking in a certain way, I’m big on that. Making things and making them look good.
And my kids as well, I can spend on them but for myself, I really don’t have any fashion guilty pleasures anymore, sadly. I will buy it if I need it, but nothing like a do-or-die affair. Nothing glamorous again.
But I enjoy making other women feel glamorous. Maybe once in a while, I can go big on something, like the time it was just shoes and shoes, and then I moved on to ear rings. I still have a thing for ear rings.
I like to travel too, so I can spend all my money to have a good travel experience but I don’t know the designer bag that will make me go all out…maybe, when I’m a bit more settled. Right now, it is all about building the right foundation and putting in the work.
Complete the following sentences:
- I think I…am easy going, hardworking, family-oriented, interesting, spiritual, a happy-go-lucky person. I’m a happy person.
- I wish I…were a bit more patient. I need to be more patient.
- My children are… everything. I love them. They are wonderful.
Do you have a personal motto or favorite saying?
I’m big on baby steps. I say that quite a lot. When people ask me about business advice, which happens quite a lot (there is hardly any day that goes by without someone asking me for business advice, whether they are just starting a business, in the middle of a particular project), one thing I find is that people are in a lot of hurry, they have big expectations and are in a bit of a hurry to see those expectations come to life.
Once they ask me, I say baby steps. Take one step at a time, just keep moving. I say baby steps all the time, which ever area of life you are looking at; raising children, marriage, business…take baby steps.
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- Ayotomi Rotimi