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End-user experience is the most important part of our designs – Elekula

Gbemi Elekula is the founder and creative director of DreamHome, a full-service interior design and styling company, as well as HUMANx—a fashion brand that is committed to tackling period poverty. In addition to a Bachelor of Technology (B.Tech.) in Quantity Surveying and an MBA in Strategic and Project Management from the Paris Graduate School of Management, she has a Professional Diploma in Interior Design from the British College of Interior Design, Oxford, UK. In this interview with IFEOMA OKEKE, Elekula shares her success trajectory. Excerpts:

Could you tell us about your creative journey and how it all began?

From early childhood, I had a strong fascination for colours and a deep love for design of all forms. I started out creating greeting cards when—on birthdays and special occasions—our nanny would give us coloured pencils and ask us to make something for the celebrant. To give mine a special effect, I would rub candle wax all over the paper, which also helped to preserve it.

Then I progressed to painting with markers, and I would frame my works using broken louvres. I also made pillows, some of which my dad has till date. Interestingly, Dad (who is a dentist) was also a creative. He came first at the All African Painting Contest in Tanzania in 1962, and second in fabric design at the Lagos State Festival of Arts in 1966. So, you can say that it is in the genes.

Though my earlier aspiration was to become a doctor like my father, I found myself tending more and more towards the arts. I studied Fine and Creative Arts for six years in secondary school, and I was the president of the Fine Arts club. But for the times, when most Nigerian parents didn’t consider creatives as serious professionals, I would have gone on to study creative art at the university.

Nonetheless, my interest in the arts never waned and my creative side always shone no matter the endeavor. I believe, too, that the different job roles I took on helped prepare me for my creative vocation. At Gimba & Partners, I worked on several construction projects and built proficiency in project design and management. And my banking experience helped hone my networking and communication skills.

Indeed, for those who knew me well, it came as no surprise when I made the decision to quit my banking job to pursue my passion for design and creative services. Leveraging natural-born artistic talent, strategic vision, business acumen and an extensive network, I have advised many clients on interior styling for residential and commercial spaces, and created myriad designs of décor and fashion items.

There are many interior design firms out there. What makes DreamHome unique?

I started DreamHome in 2011 as a medium for sharing my creative gift with the world. It isn’t just a commercial venture; it is a passionate endeavor. Love for what we do…that is our major motivation!

Today, DreamHome has become reputed for delivering the most exciting yet practical designs in soft furnishings and décor accessories, including but not limited to sofas and chairs, ottomans and poufs, throws and pillows, table covers, dispenser bottle covers, front door mats, as well as kitchen mats.

Read also: Firm unveils home grown ready-to-wear African fashion brand

Comparable to the best anywhere in the world, DreamHome fragrances are produced from the finest materials and intimately mixed to create the most pleasurable scent experience. At present, we have eight (8) varieties of fragrances—in reed diffusers, scented sachets and, very soon, room sprays and car AC vent clips.

The DreamHome gallery houses unique and affordable art pieces for living and working spaces. These include drawings, paintings, sculpture, and a variety of handcrafted art. We also offer interior styling consultancy—including building appraisal and selection, detailed occupancy and post-occupancy planning, and post-occupancy evaluation.

Indeed, the most important element in our designs is the people who use them in the end. And the ability to bring their deeply-rooted desires and ideas to life is what sets us apart. At DreamHome, we work very closely with clients to find the most efficient, functional, and elegant solutions, while adhering to practical measures such as budget, accessibility, and timeline.

I consider myself an artistic visionary who is not afraid to push the boundaries of creative expression. Leveraging the expertise of my team members and an external network of skilled artisans, top quality suppliers, and the most innovative sub-contractors, DreamHome is able to consistently deliver superior finishing on every creative piece or styling project, ensuring full value for our clients’ investments.

HUMANx is a socially-conscious fashion brand. What is the motivation behind it?

HUMANx was founded in 2020 to tackle a very present problem, period poverty.

The motivation is simple: I wanted to create beautiful and expressive fashion products (tees, bottoms, dresses etc.) that would attract patronage, thereby providing the funding to tackle this monstrous challenge. So, you can look at it as yet another medium for expressing my art. But I am solving a problem at the same time, as each sale unlocks access to better sanitary products for females in rural Nigeria.

The connection with the rural women we impact has helped me understand the importance of menstruation education for all (both males and females) in a society that considers menstruation as a taboo that should be spoken about in hush tones—a problem I battle with and see play out in the lives of women globally, from the villages in rural Nigeria to the boardrooms in urban cities around the world.

Indeed, my journey as a female entrepreneur, with all the opportunities and challenges, is allowing me to develop into the woman I have always wanted to be—bold, fierce, resilient, and full of empathy. With HUMANx, our vision is “A world where period poverty is over. Period!” And we will achieve this through Perioducation (a word coined from Period Education); Provision of Period Products; and Collaboration with Stakeholders. There’s no stopping now!

Given that your work hinges on creativity, where do you draw inspiration?

It isn’t just one thing; it is many different things. I find inspiration in personal reflection on my experiences. I find inspiration in observing people, places and things (a book, a photograph, a movie, a piece of music, a remarkable cultural festival, or just an ordinary everyday event). I also draw inspiration from the works of other artists. I never feel jealous of other creatives; I always feel that there is so much to learn from them.

Contrary to what most people think, inspiration doesn’t always come to you like a flash of lightning; it isn’t one sudden moment of revelation. Of course, that happens sometimes. But, more often than not, the idea sits inside you for a while, and then emerges. It’s about being in the right state of mind, the right environment, to take them and turn them into something that works. To be truly inspired, you must learn to trust your instinct and your creative empathy.

What are the major challenges you have encountered on your entrepreneurial journey?

First, pricing. That is, determining what the cost of your creative work should be. Other than the cost of materials, as well as administrative and logistic expenses, creatives basically charge for their time and talent. But putting a price on these can be very tricky, especially here in Nigeria where there are no pricing guidelines. So, you run the risk of charging too low and not getting due compensation for your effort, or charging too high and scaring off potential customers.

Closely linked to the problem of pricing is the economic situation of the country and rising dollar rate. Already, appreciation of the arts is poor here. So, when there is a lull in the economy (as we’ve experienced over the past year, even before the pandemic), patronage of creative works is lower. Then add to that the weakening value of the naira against the dollar. With a lot of the raw materials we use being imported, production costs go higher. And this also affects sales.

Another major challenge that you face as a creative entrepreneur is having to network with your target customers and market your art while, at the same time, designing and creating (remember, also, that you have other responsibilities outside of work; you have a family to tend to too, as well as important friendships to nurture). All of these are critical to running a successful business and living a fulfilling life. One must find a balance, which is not such an easy thing to do.

Advice to young ones who want to take up creative entrepreneurship

While not all of us have the same degree of creative “spark” that allowed Picasso to paint Les Desmoiselles D’Avignon, I believe that everyone is inherently creative. However, to make a career out of it, interest is key! Natural-born talent alone won’t do; it is important to make deliberate effort to nurture and enhance your creative intelligence.

Luckily, besides university education in art and design, there are lots of creative courses one can take online these days. These programmes teach techniques for improving creativity—how to generate original ideas and how to implement those ideas. There are also free YouTube videos on different aspects of design and creativity that you can watch to help you hone your craft and learn new skills.

Also, it is important to seek out and avail opportunities for internship and mentoring. This way, you not only get to apply and develop the academic concepts you’re learning in a work setting and under the guidance of professionals in your chosen craft; you also get to learn the business side of things—how to communicate and collaborate with project teams; how to source materials and negotiate the best deals with suppliers; how to value and market creative works; and so on.

But, as the saying goes, your attitude determines your altitude. All the natural talent, the education and training, as well as the internship and the vital “soft skills” learned, won’t get you anywhere if you do not have the right attitude. The best creatives are deeply passionate about their craft. Characteristics and values such as hard work, integrity, honesty, discipline, self-motivation, patience, and perseverance are also critical for success as a creative entrepreneur.

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