I’m starting a new interview series, whereby, I’ll have candid conversations with Black creatives, entrepreneurs and change-agents.
My first guest is someone I admire, respect and has been a true friend for over 14 years. She is my daughters’ Godmother, and happens to be one of the most sincere and sweetest people I know.
I am delighted to welcome, the founder of the award-winning Greeting Card company, Afrotouch Design – Georgina Fihosy to the Founder’s Corner.
I have the distinct pleasure of being one of the first media platforms to publicly declare that you have made history, as the first black owned company, to be stocked by a major bookshop chain, and we are speaking specifically about Waterstones.
UE. How are you doing my dear?
GF: ‘I’m fine, it’s been a dream, I can’t believe this is really happening. I’m fine thank you”
UE. Do you recall how we first met?
GF: “I remember, I was living in Enfield and we met at the church, and we would attend the evening Bible Study’ classes, and talk about faith and scripture, and I remember really resonating with you, and once we got talking, we realised we had so many similarities and things in common – we both have twin brothers, are Nigerian, Igbo and over time, our friendship grew. It’s been quite a journey, and I was so humbled and over the moon, when you asked me to be your daughter’s Godmother.”
UE. Having started in 2015, as Special Touch Design, rebranding in 2019, what does this moment feel like?
GF: “It feels really surreal, but something I had always wanted. It was one of the goals I had set myself very early on. I always wanted to create a platform, that would provide a buying opportunity for the Black community, to purchase products that were representative of themselves. And that was always the driving force, and so I worked towards that goal. The re-brand was really important, as ‘Special Touch Designs’ didn’t really define what I wanted to serve. I had a re-brand plan, and executed it in 6 months, was really transparent about why I wanted to do it, having consulted and engaged the community, it was so seamless, and the best decision for the brand – Because it says what it does on the tin – every product I produce has that Afrotouch to it. It was one of the best business decisions I have ever made.”
UE. You won the Divas of Colour Rising Star Award in 2017. Could you share with us, your journey to date, why you started the business, and what were the motivational drivers?
GF: “I remember I was on maternity leave with my second child, baby on breast on one side, laptop on the other, and I was searching for a new baby card for a friend that truly represented African culture. I didn’t find anything, so I went to my local High Street and there was nothing suitable there either. Out of frustration, I decided to get some African fabric, a piece of card and put something together myself. My friend loved it. At my Son’s 1st birthday party I set a small table at the back of the hall and sold Valentine’s day cards to our friends and family – they were a huge hit and I just kept going from there from that moment I was driven to fill that gap in the market.”
UE. In the 5 years you’ve been operational, what has been the most challenging elements, in terms of being a full-time Pharmacist and a married mother of 3?
GF: “Trying to get retailers to ‘see my designs’ has been a huge challenge, I was more often than not met with comments like ‘you cards are beautiful but they are not the right fit for the rest of the cards we offer’ or ‘your cards are too ethnic’ and even ‘ your cards aren’t diverse enough’. Trying to convince the industry that there is a market for more diverse cards has been hard and tiring. As I continue to work full-time, I have to ensure I allow enough time for each element of my life, so I run Afrotouch design in 3-4 hours a day. I have to honour the season that I’m in and so when I have more time I ensure I give more time and try to prioritise. It’s difficult to have a balanced life when you are juggling so many balls so what I try to do is harmonise my life to the best of my ability.”
UE. The UK has a race problem, undeniably, and you see its effects at a structural and systemic level. When it comes to retailers, the lack of representative products is clear to see. What do you think is the major stumbling block, is it consumer apathy or institutional?
GF: “I definitely don’t think its consumer apathy, my customers have always expressed how happy they are to know that AfroTouch Design has created a buying option for them. I think it is institutional, historically the UK greeting card industry like many others, has not been diverse in terms of offering more culturally representative cards and have not recognised the buying power of the Black community.”
UE. Waterstones is a household name. It was established in 1982, by Tim Waterstone, when he launched the chain with £6,000 of redundancy money from WH Smith, opening his first shop in London’s Old Brompton Road. As we know, access to finance is one of the barriers black people, and particularly black women face when starting a business. black women are less likely to be approved for a bank loan; are less likely to have the networks and social capital that affords them access and understanding of procurement rules; and are less likely to secure investment from a VC. What has been your experience of securing funding or investment – or have you self-financed the company thus far?
GF: “I have self-funded from the very beginning, what’s great about a greetings card company is that it’s relatively low cost to start, all you really need is a laptop, free software and a printer and you are good to go. However, as the business starts to grow, and brand awareness increase there is often the need to seek funding. It’s so hard to know what is available especially if you are not considered a start-up and you are above the age group often targeted for grants and loans. I honestly wouldn’t know where to start outside the traditional loan. More education targeted to Black women in business is very much needed and I think it would be welcomed”.
UE. In the context of the Black Lives Matter Movement, brands and major corporations are trying to usher in a new workplace culture. For me, its disingenuous and a form of ‘virtue signalling’. Firms now want to be more diverse in terms of talent, more inclusive in terms of canvasing the views of its `black employees, and I guess more tolerant and open to change.
What do you think about corporate ally ship and unconscious bias training making headlines again? Is it tokenistic, hollow and symbolic or an opportunity to right some wrongs?
GF: “All of the above! But I feel that conversations are being had in away that we have never really experienced before, and I do believe that voices are starting to be heard and listened too. I do think there is a lot of bandwagon jumping, and lots of watching and waiting to see what other industries or organisations are doing. Words are great, but without action they don’t really mean much. These industries and organisations need to actively seek to make the necessary changes that leads to a more inclusive society.”
UE. Personally, I’m exhausted, and genuinely suffering from ‘Racial Fatigue’. The burden placed on black people to educate others is wearisome. Some conversations are so awkward, other times, the responses to my questions, are knee-jerk, and under-scored by guilt and fragility. How have you found being vulnerable about your experience in the workplace?
GF: “It’s been really difficult but necessary, I recently spoke at a large corporate gathering about my early experience of racism and how the death of George Floyd had impacted my family and I, and although my message was loud and clear around everyone needing to recognise their unconscious bias, I did fear that for some this is just a moment in time and we will eventually ‘get over it’. It’s exhausting trying to teach and explain how people should treat members of the Black community, at the same time it’s important to speak up because if we stay silent then nothing changes.”
UE. Did you take part in the Protests?
GF: “I didn’t, not because I didn’t want to but because I was home schooling my three children. I think people got to the highest point of frustration and it didn’t matter that we were in the midst of a Pandemic, it was more important for many that they stood together to make a change and to be seen. I can appreciate that!.”
UE. I’m curious to know your thoughts of this, especially as someone in the medical field. It’s been equally mind-blowing, but also perturbing to see, that during a pandemic, when Black people have been disproportionally impacted by Covid-19, owing to entrenched health disparities, it didn’t deter people from engaging in acts of civil disobedience. The global resistance, solidarity and collective demands, i.e. calling for swift murder charges, the removal of colonial statues, icons, flags and monuments, to the calls to defund/dis-invest in policing, re-directing resources to vulnerable and marginalised communities.What’s your take on the aftermath of the protests?
GF: “I’m from Bristol and I know how long the black community have been protesting about Colston and his involvement in the Slave trade. Again, pulling the statute down was another demonstration of frustration for some. I don’t agree with vandalism, but again I can understand the frustration that cause that situation to happen.”
UE. Some say it is a ‘moment’, others a ‘movement’. However we characterise it, do you think the marches and rallies were hijacked, and infiltrated by Far Right groups and Fascists, as a way to distract and dilute its significance?
GF: “I think there is always going to be a group of individuals that want to change the narrative around peaceful protests and create an opportunity to disrupt and disparage the cause. It’s a shame but it happens so often.”
UE. So, let’s get back to business and the practice of group economics. How was Black Pound Day for you?
GF: “Black Pound Day was a great success for Afrotouch Design, it was a great sales day and I experienced a growth in my email subscription list and social media following. I think that it was a great way for people to become aware of black owned brands, services and projects. If every day was like Black Pound Day I don’t think anyone would have any problems at all in terms of cashflow and business growth. For many businesses like Afrotouch Design, we’ve been here for a while, and I do think that as a black community we need to go beyond a day per month to support black businesses, It’s not enough to sustain a business, regular daily support from our community is needed.”
UE. I’m so thrilled to hear you had a massive spike in sales, because I know how hard you work to hand-finish every card. Have you always felt supported by our community? Do you believe we continue to show a lack of solidarity and mis-placed trust when patronising our own businesses?
GF: “For the most part yes, but I do think we often do devalue the hard work that black businesses have put into providing their products and services. Lots of people still expect my cards to be £1 and ask for discounts on relatively low unit cost items. In one breath we can ask for a discount on a £4 card but then we can are happy to spend the full price on a Mobile device or designer bag.”
UE. I understand that the Buyers at Waterstones, selected 9 of your best-selling designs, which will be stocked at the book seller’s flagship store in Piccadilly, as well as 11 other shops, including Foyles on Charing Cross Road and at Waterstones branches in Sutton, Kingston Bentalls, Kensington, Clapham, Greenwich, Victoria, Crouch End, Ealing Broadway, Wandsworth and Ilford. Why now? Do you think there has been a seismic shift in terms of what customers are looking for, or the industry believes the current climate is a factor?
GF: “I think that organisation are trying to look at the products and services that they offer and I do commend Waterstone for acknowledge that their product were not providing fully inclusive product ranges. Customers are looking for something different, but I do think that the events of the last few weeks has caused many to think differently.”
UE. So, what are your future plans? To expand into other stores, scale-up and possibly outsource production, create jobs, and employ a small team?
GF: “All of the above, I’d love to be stocked in Selfridges, but I also want to develop more products and continue to build my brand. I’d love to have my own design studio and bring in some great designers. I’m putting it out there and I know that with time and faith it will come to fruition.”
So in closing, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our conversation, and just want to thank you for your time, transparency, humour and insight. Thank you for inspiring other Black female entrepreneurs in this space.
Congratulations once again on your well-deserved collaboration with Waterstones, we recognise this milestone and salute your excellence. It’s been a pleasure talking to you on the Founder’s Corner, and having you as our first guest, upwards and onwards!
Peace, love and blessings,