Mariatu Turay is London based fashion designer and owner of Gitas Portal, a brand that allows women to stand out and be bold in every aspect of their lives.
What inspired you to start a business?
I’ve always loved African print – I grew up with prints all around me as many of my Sierra Leonean aunts were sellers of cloth. I would visit their market stalls and shops and get cloth to tailor styles. So when my mum gave me a hand propelled singer sewing machine at the age of 11 or 12, of course little did I know then that my talent would make way for me in the form of Gitas Portal. So GP is a celebration of my rich and diverse Sierra Leonean and Barbadian culture but also my gift to create.
Secondly, I want women to stand out. I went through a phase in my early career where I was afraid to stand out because I believed that I had to blend in with everybody else to be accepted. This was the false belief that the less African and Caribbean I was, the better it would be in the corporate game. So I did the usual corporate dress – muted coloured dress, hair a certain way etc.
And it then dawned that I could only ever be me, not somebody else – and my style, culture is part of who I am and what makes me interesting and unique. So for the women out there (and there are quite a few) – BE BOLD, WIN every time by being you.
Finally the ‘big picture’ issue was to challenge the persistent generalisations and perceptions of poor quality associated with ‘brand Africa’. The propaganda that anything African led by an African is more likely to be inferior; that we can’t compete globally (even though in all fairness the Asia, Europe and Americas) have had a good head start. So Gitas Portal is defying all the bashers.
What is the greatest challenge and the greatest reward in being your own boss?
I’m a wife, mother to five children and a business women. The biggest challenge is – balancing family life and business. As a woman I want to be the best mother I can be to my children because you cannot rewind time if you get it wrong with kids. However, my reality is that many times I’m juggling so many balls on this journey that occasionally the stresses start to show and a few balls get dropped. I’ve learnt (as I’m sure have other women), to take this as a sign to stop, stock-take, recharge and reprioritise.
Being my own boss means choice; that I have the flexibility to balance out my life in the best way that works for me and the family; and that I work in and on my talent. The good thing is that as times passes, children grow older, the business will grow stronger and I get a little wiser.
What motivational tips can you give to our members about goal setting and managing both successes and failures?
You know your business better than anyone else. Set goals that are realistic and achievable for the vision you have for your business. Always define your success and don’t allow yourself to fall into the trap of using someone else’s success criteria and goals to define what yours should look like. This is a sure fire way to set yourself up for failure.
Ride the wave of your successes, use these as reminders that you can triumph when you are faced with challenges and failures. See challenges and failures as opportunities to learn about yourself and grow.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced as a business owner?
Knowing when to transition from full time employment to being a full time entrepreneur. There comes a time when you realise you need to devote more of your time to your business but the nagging question is whether you can afford to do so without putting undue pressure on your business and yourself.
There are many things that can go wrong if you miscalculate the timing. Bear in mind there is no formula for this – well I haven’t found one.
It was part intuition and part evidence from the performance of the business over a 4.5 year period.
I always knew I wanted to be my own boss and was deliberate in taking my time to grow my business – so growth was slow but steady and solid to enable me to resign from my career as a civil servant; have transitionary funds and a strong growth plan to ensure I could start living off the business after the first year of being a full time entrepreneur.
How have you benefited from mentoring or coaching?
I’ve benefited from a varied circle of women who are my cheerleaders, sources of experience and expertise, and collaborators. Some are way ahead in their field and act as excellent sources of inspiration and some are on the way up and for whom I am a source of inspiration. This gives me perspective at both ends.
What advice can you give about the benefits of networking?
Network. You can’t do it all on your own. Learn from other women and men in business, look for opportunities to collaborate, give and you will receive.
What are your tips for scaling a business and how do you plan for and manage growth?
There must be continued demand for your business offer if you are thinking of scaling. Research the opportunities in your market and see which ones are right for your business to enable you to scale. If you are wearing multiple hats in your business during the initial stages of starting out, it is likely that as the business grows you become a higher risk to your business and you need to start bringing in the relevant expertise to take your business to the next level.
If you need to bring in staff/contractors that have more experience and expertise than you (even if it’s your area of expertise) then do so. The business will be better for it and you can learn from them. So start building your team with a view to transitioning to working on the business and not in it.
Start building your public profile around your unique brand. People want to know you – Tell your story.
Be honest. I call this ‘the human face to the business’. Look for the right people to collaborate with – “If you want to run fast, run alone. If you want to run far, run together” – African proverb.
Of course, it then all boils down to ‘how you’re going to finance scaling up’? Only you know what would work for your business – self-funding, borrowing or selling a stake in the business.
Having a plan and a strategy for delivery will help you focus but give yourself room to be flexible as there are always variables we can’t control and you just have to work round them.
Growing too fast, too soon without structures in place could mean you undo all your hard walk. Don’t put the cart before the horse. Remember, it is quicker to bulldoze a building and reduce it to crumbles than it is to build a new one. So plan and implement your strategy to scale your business wisely.
What does the future hold for you?
From a business perspective, wider market reach and international expansion of my current business in the short to medium term; and branching out into other business opportunities as I continue to diversify income streams and inspire women of all ages.