This week, we catch up with Yvonne Telford — the woman behind fashion brand Kemi Telford — famous for its beautiful, bold African print and empowering slogans. In this interview, Yvonne talks us through her background in Nigeria, how and why she started her business and the importance in trusting your gut instinct as a founder.
Newnham: Can you tell us about your background? What were you like as a child and how would your friends and family have described you?
Telford: I was born in Kano, Nigeria over 40 years ago to Eniola and Bunmi Ogunbe. My parents had their own businesses; in Kano, my mother was a distributor for a brewery and my father sold industrial equipment. They had six children. I am the third child and I am the outspoken, sensitive and stubborn child. My friends and family will describe me as caring, daring and generous.
Newnham: Can you tell us more about your family history? I often interview immigrants who share a sense of hard work and striving. How has your background shaped you?
Telford: After my parents got married, they moved from their little village in the South of Nigeria to the North of Nigeria. Back then, this kind of move was unusual and hardly done. My parents knew no one in Kano (and had no money) but they had hope and faith that everything would be okay. They moved from the south because they wanted a better life for themselves and they created this life. From a young age, a great work ethic was instilled in me however, when I was younger, I rejected these work ethics and only knew the value of what my parents gave me when I moved to England on my own.
Newnham: Can you tell us how KemiKids blog and Kemi Telford clothes came to be? What were you hoping to achieve when you first started?
Telford: Kemikids Blog was born by when I learnt to follow my instinct. Before KemiKids, I had another blog called Real Yvonne Blog and this was the blog that gave birth to my journey right now. Real Yvonne Blog (which by the way does not exist anymore) saved me. By writing daily on the blog, I knew what my issues were. I knew what was holding me back from fulfilling my life’s purpose. Real Yvonne Blog was my therapist.
About the clothes - from a young age, I wanted to have a shop that sold clothes to women but I abandoned my dream to fulfill other people’s dreams and studied law. To answer your question, I had no goals when I started any of these.
Newnham: Your brand has grown so much and the KemiTelford brand is now well-known and well-loved. How do you think you achieved this?
Telford: Everything I have done to fulfill my dreams of owning this brand is by trusting my instinct. I don’t follow business rules. Rejection was also fuel for really going for my dreams. Knowing that the universe is on my side and it is okay to fail. Behind the scenes, I work really hard. I also try telling my story to my audience to lift them up. I believe we all have the same stories but just wrapped and experienced differently. Everything about the Kemi Telford brand is to uplift women. The brand tries to encourage women to see the enormous amount of power they have in their hands. I want women to walk the earth as though they have every right to be here because they do.
Newnham: What advice do you have for other women with entrepreneurial ideas?
Telford: This quote by Paulo Coelho is my advice to other women:
“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
And get yourself a great accountant!
Newnham: What obstacles did you face early-on in your career and how did you overcome them?
Telford: I had a lot of rejections. I chose some suppliers who did not share my vision with me. Some designs were pretty bad and there were quality issues. I just kept learning and plowing through the problems.
Newnham: What are you hoping to achieve with Kemi Telford? What’s your mission?
Telford: I honestly don’t know. I have no mission statement. I am just encouraging women to wear their crowns.
Newnham: We love your quotes — what’s your favourite quote and why?
Telford: The lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said he would praise himself if no one else did — Nigerian Proverb
This proverb empowers me to give myself permission to live my life. And to recognise how far I have come in my life’s journey. It also encourages me to know my worth without waiting for others to place a price on it for me.
Newnham: How has social media impacted your business/life and do you have any tips for how brands should use it to grow their business?
Telford: Social media takes a lot of my time. This part of the business, unfortunately, can’t be outsourced. They are some functions that I don’t use efficiently because of the amount of time it will take. An example is stories on Instagram. Social media is where I interact with my audience; it is where I show them off, wearing what they have bought. It is where I thank them for supporting me. It is where my work is showcased. My tip for a brand is to be themselves on social media and, to see it as their brand’s TV station.
Newnham: If you could go back in time, what advice would you offer a younger Yvonne?
Telford: I’d tell a younger Yvonne that all that she is going through is for a reason and a purpose. One day, it will all come together.