Vese Aghoghovbia Aladewolu’s entrepreneurial journey began when she became a mother in 2017. A graduate in electrical engineering, she had until then been working as a management consultant at Accenture, specialising in energy and utilities, with no particular plans to start a business. It was only when she started buying books to read to her daughter that she identified a gap in the market that she wanted to fill.
“I realised there just weren’t many books out there that featured children who looked like my daughter,” she says. “I believe that you become what you can see, so how could her confidence grow without that representation? And then I just woke up one day with a story in my head I wanted to write…”
Initially, Aghoghovbia wrote and self-published her book, Who Do I See in the Mirror?, as a gift for her daughter, but when she shared the results on her personal Instagram page, she was taken aback by the wave of support she received. “Everyone went crazy for it – and honestly, at first I didn’t realise the impact of what I’d done,” she says. “But that’s how it started – and suddenly I found myself building a children’s brand.” From there, she launched new products such as affirmation cards, in response to the demand from her growing Instagram community.
The year 2020 was a turning point for the business, as the tide unleashed by the Black Lives Matter movement brought the brand – named Philly & Friends in honour of her daughter’s nickname – into the spotlight. “People came to realise that everything starts from the home,” she explains. “There’s research that shows by age two to two-and-a-half, children start to reason on the basis of race – who they choose to spend time with in the playground, for example – so introducing small changes in a play environment, like colours or toys, can improve children’s chances of being actively inclusive.” Hence the development of one of Philly & Friends’ most popular products – a series of fairy and ballerina dolls with dark skin, made from beautifully soft linen.
Aghoghovbia, who is currently growing the business with the help of a recent £10,000 grant from Vista and IFundWomen, hopes to expand her product range to include puzzles and a wider range of dolls. Here, she shares the lessons she has learnt about building a business that comes from the heart…
1/ Don’t hold yourself – or anyone else – back
“My sisters used to tell me that that I wrote well, but I never paid attention to them while I was in a corporate career – it was only when I started writing my children’s book that I realised I had creative skills I hadn’t been using. So now, I never ask children questions like 'what do you want to be when you grow up?', because you can become so many things in your lifetime. You evolve over the years, and you never know when you might discover skills you hadn’t originally tapped into.”
2/ If you don’t know something, find it out
“One of the things I realised once I started building the business was that I can be quite resourceful. If there’s something I need to know – like how to build a website or publish a book – I’ll go in search of it. There’s a world of information out there on Google, and it’s all free.”
3/ Don’t struggle alone
“No one is an island, and if you become one, you’ll end up creating products that are only for yourself, not for the people who actually need them. That’s why it’s so important to have a community – when I’m not sure about something, I can go to my husband, my sisters, other women entrepreneurs. I’ve also met or approached some really interesting people on LinkedIn who have given me advice. Find someone who is doing something similar – but not too similar! – to what you’re doing, and ask them lots of questions.”
4/ Set boundaries for yourself
“What I’ve tried to do is create processes that mean I’m not having to pull myself in too many directions – for instance, I’ll batch-make my content for Instagram in advance. I used to wake up with a different idea every day but I’ve realised it isn’t possible to do everything.”
Vista and IFundWomen have partnered to launch ReferHer, a campaign that has connected 100 women entrepreneurs from around the world with resources, funding and coaching.
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