How A Nigerian Entrepreneur Is Building An Online Fashion Business In Africa

By Ann Brown AFKI Original Published: December 7, 2016, 9:00 am
Nigerian-American entrepreneurOlatorera Oniru. Photo provided

At 29, Olatorera Oniru has worked for more mega corporations than most of us see on a resume in a lifetime, and now she has started one of her own.

Oniru started her first fashion company as a teen, then another while she was in college. Today she is the founder of one of Nigeria’s top fashion businesses, e-commerce company Dress Me Outlet.

Growing up partly in Nigeria and the U.S., Oniru attended primary and middle school in Lagos and high school at Leesville Road High School in North Carolina.

Lagos-based Dress Me Outlet has been described as the fashion Amazon of Africa by Forbes.

More than 60 percent of products sold on the site are made in Africa, including fashion, beauty products and home goods. More than 1,000 products come from globally sourced designers. Dress Me Outlet ships worldwide and has customers in Nigeria, Uganda and the U.S.

Oniru has a master’s degree in business administration from Atlanta’s Emory University, an executive management certificate from Stockholm School of Economics, and another from International Institute for Management Development, Switzerland. She worked for two Fortune Top 5 companies — Bank of America Merrill Lynch and General Electric — and for telecommunications giant, Lars Magnus Ericsson as a global consultant and head of sales governance.

Olatorera Oniru told AFKInsider about her growing fashion empire.

AFKInsider: What prompted you to launch Dressmeoutlet.com?

Olatorera Oniru: I love Africa. I love fashion and beauty. I love making a difference. I love buying creative things at affordable prices. I love engineering innovation. I love pleasing people. At the end of each day, what makes us smile at Dressmeoutlet.com are the happy customers with raving testimonials.

AFKInsider:  Where are you based?

Olatorera Oniru:  I am based in Lagos, Nigeria but travel occasionally, especially within Nigeria and Africa. (I’m) scheduled for an event in Tanzania next week and looking to source for fashion designers there and learn about natural resources useful in the fashion and beauty industries. I’m also scheduled to receive an award in Dubai next week and will use that opportunity to source for any potential partnerships in scaling up Dressmeoutlet.com.

AFKInsider: Were you in fashion prior to this?

Olatorera Oniru: I had delved into fashion part time over the years. While in college, I worked for Payless Shoes and Kohl’s clothing store – two notable names in affordable fashion in America. I also once saved up $500 and started Tap Collections – a jewelry making company. I must have been about 17 at the time. I sold the jewelry to classmates and later sold the business to a friend. I also once started a retail dress company part time while I was working for the Central Bank of Nigeria full time.

I do believe the part-time experiences led to my decision to go into fashion full time and not any other technology or consulting business that I very well could’ve delved into. I also started a part-time business e-consulting company while I was at Ericsson full time. Today, I’m fully dedicated career wise to the growth of Dressmeoutlet.com and all the possibilities we can engineer in magnifying the Made-in-Africa movement.

AFKInsider: How did you fund the startup?

Olatorera Oniru:  Dressmeoutlet.com was developed through savings. We started generating revenue from the first month of launch and this has continued to help with the growth and scalability of the company. We will start planning to raise capital in 2017.

AFKInsider: What were some startup challenges?

Olatorera Oniru: The market is fairly young and that itself poses some minor challenges. We are also constantly working on encouraging players in the industry to work together more and compete less. People have a very backwards outlook on competition in an industry that is still so very young. We at Dressmeoutlet.com are more focused on ensuring all players grow and succeed. Even with companies competing in the fashion e-commerce space, there’s lots of room for new entrants. Mass production is also a challenge as many manufacturers haven’t yet acquired the financial resources they need to scale up as needed. It’s a movement nonetheless and we look forward to seeing many more Made-in-Africa brands springing up and growing.

AFKInsider: Why was there a need for Dressmeoutlet.com?

Olatorera Oniru: We all love to look good and feel good. A significant percentage of the middle and upper class of Nigerians travel abroad to shop. The other percentage that cannot afford to travel shop online and incur high costs with shipping and customs charges. (Those who) can’t travel or shop online buy substandard low quality goods that do not give them a fair value for their money.

Over 90 percent of fashion and beauty products in Nigeria are imported yet we have a ton of natural resources applicable to both industries. Africans are some of the most creative manufacturers I know. I’ve come across excellently designed leather handbags in the northern part of Nigeria, gorgeously designed caftans in Morocco, the most amazing runway necklaces in Ghana and so much more. Many of these artisans and businesses need the know-how or support or financing to scale up.

We are in the process of launching a Creative Entrepreneurs Program at Dressmeoutlet.com where we provide mentorship and funding (via third parties) to businesses who have strong potential in the fashion and beauty space yet have not met the quality criteria to retail with Dressmeoutlet.com. This was brought about by the vast amount of designers and manufacturers with strong potential that continue to reach out to us but are unable to meet the minimum quality standard.

AFKInsider: What are some challenges of doing business in Nigeria?

Olatorera Oniru: Three main ones would be infrastructural challenges, unstable electrical power supply and decreasing standards in the educational system. Many graduates do not graduate with the full skills required to succeed and excel in the business world. At Dressmeoutlet.com, we started a Graduates Rotational Program to hone skills prior to graduating from domestic universities developing into a full-time role with us.

AFKInsider: Is the country supportive of new small business?

Olatorera Oniru: Nigeria is somewhat supportive of new small businesses. This year we have focused on partnerships and the results have been amazing. We have signed over 200 contracts to date. Next year, we will start focusing on raising capital investments to scale up bigger and faster. The potential in the market (is) truly massive and we hope the support from investors will be even greater than the support from partners. We already have a small pool of interested shareholders.

AFKInsider:  How many employees do you have?

Olatorera Oniru:  We have close to 30 employees. Sourcing, warehousing, dispatching, information technology, sales and marketing take up the bulk of (jobs) at Dressmeoutlet.com and we are growing thus we are constantly hiring.

AFKInsider:  Please tell me a little about yourself.

Olatorera Oniru: I’m blessed with the most amazing husband, superb daughter and revered son. I also love meeting new people and going out dancing.

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