“I don’t just sell clothes, I tell stories other women need to hear”
As part of our support for International Women’s Day, we sat down to talk to Yvonne Telford, Nigerian born entrepreneur and founder of Kemi Telford, about her experience as a female business owner, why female empowerment plays a key part in the brand’s success and what advice she has for the women of tomorrow.
Having given up her job as a credit risk analyst before having her two daughters to become a full-time mother, Yvonne began blogging when her children were in school to find new purpose. Candid and powerful, her blog explored the challenges of being a daughter, a mother and a woman.
‘Kemi Kids’ was born and quickly evolved into the brand ‘Kemi Telford’ as she started focusing on empowering women through her stories and her ethical clothing and accessories line.
What inspired you to found Kemi Telford?
Back when I started Kemi Kids, I invested £50 into a chain of tote bags which then expanded to jewellery. The reason I started focusing on women’s clothing – especially my skirt range – is because anytime I wore a T-shirt that I was selling, people asked me more about my skirt, not the T-shirt. I could see the universe was telling me this was the path I should go down.
From about the age of five, I knew that I wanted to have a shop where I’d sell women’s clothing. But when I was growing up, I was told that I should study law.
I’ve come back 360 degrees. Back to my childhood dream.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced along the way?
Sourcing ethical suppliers that I can have a good relationship with was my initial challenge. It’s so important to find suppliers who share the same dream for the brand. Going through that process, it was trial and error. I had to stop working with some suppliers and some stopped working with me. That was challenging.
But the challenges have changed. I work with wonderful suppliers now, so my current issue is having a lot of stock going out of the door every day. We have something close to a hundred and fifty pieces of stock going out every day and trying to fulfill that can be hard.
Every step is a different set of challenges and, the bigger you get, the more you face.
Would you have changed anything about the process, or do you feel like things happened for a reason?
I would change only one thing. I would go back and trust myself more. At the beginning, I listened to other people telling me “this isn’t good” or “that’s not right.” I should have listened to my gut instinct and trusted myself.
Despite that, everything that has happened has led me to this point. The process has been hard but important because the life experiences that I’ve been able to share with other women, that’s what has made Kemi Telford so successful. I don’t just sell clothes, I tell stories other women need to hear to help them be the best versions of themselves.
What do you enjoy the most – and the least – about being a business owner?
Accounting is what I enjoy the least. I’ve switched accountants three times. The first I had was arrogant, telling me what to do and I thought no, I cannot work with this man. I dropped him and then the second one couldn’t handle how big my business was getting. I have a new firm now that’s much better.
The part I enjoy the most – and some people would see this as mundane – is packaging the products. It brings me so much joy and the quality control check is extremely important to me. I love designing and picking the fabrics and spending time on the social media accounts.
Your aesthetic is incredibly vibrant and unique – how did you create it?
Do you know, it’s my daughters who take the photos for my website and social media accounts? I then edit them. I don’t have a professional photographer, but it looks like I do. I love it because it’s organic and I think if I were to change it, people would rebel against it. I am part of every aspect of my business and that’s what makes it unique.
Other women’s clothing brands will tell you what to wear but I want to inspire women. I want the clothes to make women feel empowered when they wear them. The look and feel wasn’t planned or a conscious decision, it was natural. Telling a story with each picture I post is very important to me.
You are passionate about empowering women, especially mothers. In what ways has motherhood empowered you?
It’s changed everything. Had I never become a mother, I don’t think I would have gone through the process of finding out who I am. The birth of my eldest daughter started a process of self-discovery. It made me a bit selfish in a good way. I realized that I had to put myself first, even before my children. I need to be an example for them, to remind them to never put anyone – your husband, your friends, your children – ahead of yourself. It’s what so many women do, and I don’t want my daughters to do that.
It has made me a better human being.
What personal attributes do you think it takes to build a business?
I think one needs a lot of grit. You need to be able to feel and move on from it. A lot of people beat themselves up because of business failures but you need to embrace it. I’m ready to embrace failure because that takes you a higher level that means you build something better. Now you’ve learned from it, you’re going to do better.
But the most important to me is self-belief. You’ve got to treat your business like your best friend. You need to believe in what you’re doing because if you don’t, people will pick up on it.
As a mother to two young daughters, what life advice do you have for them and all women of tomorrow?
If you could give them one piece of life advice – and it is a cliché – it would be to have self-love. Your cup needs to be overflowing with self-love before you can give it to somebody else. I now know the person I am, and I know what my limits are.
We must be kind to ourselves and to everyone, even the people that hurt us. Women are accused of being “too nice”. There’s a difference between being nice and being kind. Kindness has a boundary, you can be kind, but you cannot cross this line.