Interview with Daphne Kasambala: Ethical Fashion Business Owner

“Preparation leads to confidence and self-confidence is gold if you’re a woman in a male-dominated industry.”

Daphne Kasambala is founder and CEO of Sapelle, an ethical fashion company and multi-brand retailer of contemporary, fashion-forward, style conscious women of all backgrounds. Daphne is also co-founder of 3Thirtyseven, a non-profit company that provides platforms to African women to participate in fundraising expeditions in support of charities and development initiatives. In 2011, she successfully climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and used the funds she raised to establish a revolving microfinance fund for African women entrepreneurs.

From banking to fashion! Quite the switch. What inspired the move, how was the transition and what’s been the most fulfilling and most challenging?

The move was inspired after I’d practiced banking for close to 20 years, most of those in London. I started asking myself what I was going to do with all the valuable exposure and experience I’d had, how I could bring that back to the Africa. My initial thought was to enter a related industry where my skills could be better utilized, so I started exploring micro-finance. Deciding to work in fashion came out of the blue. I was taught to sew as a child by my mother, and as a teenager I enjoyed designing and making. As I got older, living outside Africa, I started making clothes using African prints but with Western silhouettes. People loved them. And that was how the seed was planted.

Business often needs money to get off the ground and grow. As a former director in a reputable bank, what advice did you give yourself about resourcing your business idea and having been in there for a bit what would be your advice to anyone looking for funding their business?

I’d first of all advise someone to have ample capital available before embarking on this journey. Too often, great businesses, big and small, fail because of lack of funds. I’d particularly stress the importance of managing cashflows so that adequate funds are there when bills fall due. I also have to remind myself constantly to spend frugally and budget conservatively. I would advise on seeking investment only when you’re more confident of the value of your business, and only borrowing when you’re certain that the business will be able to generate enough cashflow to repay the loan.  If you can run your business in the initial stages using your own resources, whether that means having a part-time job, or using saved up funds, until you understand what it takes to keep it flowing. That’s much better than committing to loans and investment early on.

Sapelle is an ethical fashion company; how does that ‘ethical’ manifest day to day in your operations and how do you ensure you are consistent in living up to that commitment?

The word ‘ethical’ has so many different meanings, but for us it’s about being fair across our entire supply chain and in our everyday activities. Starting from our suppliers, we source our products from Africans, with the objective of facilitating the export of beautiful goods not only around Africa but abroad also. Our aim is to get the African fashion industry going, and see the preservation of heritage and traditional craftsmanship, design and textiles by promoting these. We work with several partners who are involved in up-skilling people from deprived areas, and creating sustainable employment for them. We also care about the environment and support innovative and responsible sourcing of materials such as recycled fabrics, metals and natural materials.

The UK fashion market is crowded and very competitive, and there’s a predominance of cheaper Far East-sourced products, which obviously affects price expectations from our customers. It’s far, far easier and cheaper to source products from those well-established markets than from Africa where manufacturing and logistical issues hit our suppliers constantly. But one of the unique things that attract our customers is the fact that we’re going off the beaten track and sourcing hand-crafted products in an ethical way, priced in a fair way.

You’ve had some high profile speaking engagements- at JP Morgan, Africa Rising Conference etc. What are your thought processes when these invitations come and what’s for you the most important thing to achieve with such opportunities?

I’m always humbled when asked to speak or participate at such occasions. However, it is hugely validating to be recognized, and a massive boost for me on those days when the motivation’s running low. I always make sure to maximize these opportunities, share my story and promote each and every partner we work with and share my ambitions for Sapelle. The most important thing is to win the audience over with our story so that they may become champions of the brand, sharing our story with their friends and network.

What pressures come with owning a fashion company in terms of people’s expectations of your own fashion sense? What personal lessons have you learnt about style and fashion?

Having spent so long in the London banking sector where ‘power dressing’ was the norm, I really have had to re-train my fashion palette away from the sensible court shoes, dark suits and crisp shirts! I’ve actually learned a lot from our customers and realized that they expect to see me in our products. So it’s been a huge learning experience to style myself daily – using style rules like dressing for your shape, accentuating your best features and colour coordinating. On the other hand, I’ve learned that women who shop most from us have a strong sense of their own personal style, often defining it through unique pieces that complement their wardrobe staples. I would describe my personal style as relaxed (maybe a rebellion against all those years of formal dressing), so you will often find me in loose-fit print tops and shift dresses and slacks or jeans with some brogues on my feet.

Right in the middle of starting a new business, you made time to go climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Why was that an important undertaking?

I know. It was mad. The thing is that I signed up for Kilimanjaro in January 2011 and the idea to establish Sapelle was born later on that year. But they both came from the same desire to give back to Africa after having had the blessing of the experiences and exposure I’d had. The donations I collected from my Kilimanjaro endeavor went towards setting up a revolving loan pot for micro-financing women-run businesses around Africa. So even up to now that money has been used and re-used to help entrepreneurs like myself. That came from my wish to see the funds used and recycled to help as many people as possible.

What has your journey so far (ie moving to and working in the UK banking sector, leaving banking at a senior level and starting a fashion company in a country that has no shortage of fashion labels) taught you about yourself?

My mother always said I was stubborn when I was young. I think as I’ve grown older and also through my journey with Sapelle, that ‘stubbornness’ has been converted to determination and resilience. I wouldn’t have got to this point without it. I also believe that my individuality and refusal to conform to stereotypes helped me pursue a career in an industry filled with White middle-class men, and also establish a business in a difficult industry like fashion. Once I’m convinced that something is worth pursuing, I’m like a dog with a bone.

How would you say your leadership is evolving from your time at executive level in banking which I would imagine was more internal to a more public role running Sapelle which is fast gaining international profile/recognition?

A very good friend who’s a successful businessperson gave me a nugget of advice when I had just launched Sapelle, which was that I should find every opportunity to talk about Sapelle and the story behind it. You never know what connections the person you’re telling might have. I really embraced that and feel very proud to talk about Sapelle every chance I get. Coming from a low-profile behind-the-scenes banking role, it did take some adjusting, but because the story is one I enjoy telling, it didn’t take long to get into that mode.

What personal values have you come to be known for and how do you live them consistently?

Customer feedback constantly points to the high quality standards Sapelle conveys: from the standard of the e-commerce site, the look of the store, the quality of the products to the customer services. This comes from my personal values and also what I myself would expect to see as a customer, from the brands I am loyal to.

What would you say is the process that has brought you such personal success in your career and what have you had to intentionally master?

I’ve had to defy stereotypes and ignore convention, going for goals that I feel I can achieve rather than listening to what everybody else thinks. Also, the times that I have been most successful, it was because I invested the time and effort to know my stuff, do the homework and focus on delivering the highest quality output I possibly could. That preparation leads to confidence – and self-confidence is gold if you’re a woman in a male-dominated industry. I also realized that being different gave me a unique perspective that I could bring to the table. I think these same attributes have already helped me with Sapelle. I continue to learn, seeking ways to succeed, and also bringing my banking experience to the company.

For more information on Vera Ng’oma’s work and resources in leadership, personal and career development and excellence building, click here.

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