In just five years, Cee Cee’s Closet NYC has become a trendy favorite globally, celebrating the beauty of West African prints through unique headwraps, clothing and accessories.
We spoke with the fashion brand’s dynamic duo, sisters Chioma and Uchenna Ngwudo, about entrepreneurship, family and the beauty of womanhood.
Deciding to start a business is quite courageous. Describe the last five years in three words.
I would say growth. The person that I am now and the person that started Cee Cee’s Closet, are very different people. I’ve learned so much from my sister, my customers, my peers and other business owners. They’ve really helped me grow in so many ways that have made me a better person and a better leader.
I choose challenging because there is no average day when it comes to entrepreneurship. Each day comes with a new unique set of challenges that leads you towards being innovative.
Last year we went to Accra, Ghana for the first time. We were thinking about expanding manufacturing and we met up with a friend for dinner. We planned on going fabric shopping and she suggested sending our fabric to Lagos (where our partners are) for us. We were like cool, we didn't ask, but she offered. We had a discussion about Lagos Fashion Week, her connections in Lagos and how she was taking fabrics to Lagos as well. So the next day, we go to the market and we are able to find some amazing fabrics. We go over to her office, ready to transfer the fabric and she looks at us and says that she doesn't know what we are talking about.
We had 500 kg of fabric and we don't know anyone there, so we’re thinking, 'what do we do?' In that moment, we only had each other but we weren't sure how to navigate the situation. So we figured that we could send some of the ready made products directly to the states, and then send the fabrics we can get to Lagos via bus. We were very fortunate, our dad helped us pick up the shipment in the states when it arrived and then the next morning we sent off the fabrics to Lagos. It was one of those things where we were in an unfamiliar place and we didn't really have many connections, but we were still able to figure something out.
I would say inspiring because sometimes you get stuck in the day to day and you forget to be inspired. Every time our customers send out thank yous or write a comment or direct message saying how our brand has impacted their life for the better, that inspires me to keep moving forward. It’s the same when our employees express their gratitude for our brand even existing. When you realize that something that was just an idea is now having all of this meaningful impact, it’s extremely inspiring and it helps fuel the drive you need to move forward.
In our community, our career choices are often limited. How did your family react when you decided to become entrepreneurs and make Cee Cee’s Closet NYC an official brand?
When we started, our mom didn’t understand what we were doing. She thought that we didn't need to do anything else because we already had corporate jobs (in finance/ education and strategy consulting). Sometimes people don’t really see the value in projects based on your culture, so they wonder why people would pay for prints and cultural pieces. But overtime with us taking ourselves seriously, taking our business seriously, and growing as much as we have thus far, now, our parents ask people if they’ve heard about their daughters' company. When my mum sees someone on the street with a headwrap, she gets excited thinking it’s from one of our lines.
I think African parents react to success and if you do something and you do it well, they will take all of the credit. So now that they have seen the success so far, they are far more excited about it than they were when we first started.
Our Aunt Violet is really special to us. Since the beginning of Cee Cee’s Closet she has looked out for us by helping, uplifting us and supporting us. She is partially responsible for us growing rapidly because she was able to get us up to speed, not just in the technical aspect of things and setting up logistics, but also in marketing and being persistent and being confident in us as we ran the business.
Working with family can be a roller coaster. What works and what needs improvement working with your sister and family?
I learned to be a better communicator - communicating things that I wanted, things that were important to me, and how we wanted to continue to shape the business. Uchenna and I are really close. We work together effectively by starting from a place of love, trust and respect. I think that having that relationship helped us navigate the business well and we’ve learned different things about ourselves and building the business together. It has been good for our relationship as sisters and I think we're closer because of it.
There's a level of respect that we have for each other as colleagues. I understand that Chioma brings a certain level of skills to the table and Chioma has that understanding about me as well. One thing that works well for us is us hyper focusing on what the other is good at. For example, Chioma is great with sales and talking to people in general. I am more of an introvert. In terms of the face of the brand, you will see Chioma take on those roles and responsibilities because she's really good at it. I like to do the designs and graphics and that’s what helps us come out with content faster.
Uchenna is a creative genius, she has a great, strong vision. She puts together our photoshoots, she coordinates everything, she picks the models, and she picks the looks. She has very strong creative vision and direction - she doesn't give herself enough credit. When people see Cee Cee’s Closet, it's because they see what Uchenna has dreamt up. She literally dreams things up in her sleep and within a month, people are seeing it and interacting with it.
Things become challenging and tricky when there aren't clearly defined roles. I feel like everyone should have a partnership agreement - this is what you do, this is what I do and this is how we hold each other accountable for those roles. Our relationship was frayed when we didn't have business meetings. I don’t know why we thought it was a good idea, but because we were sisters, we thought we could do things on the fly and mix conversation. Things got better when we became more disciplined, when we put action plans together and actually executed it.
Was there a time that you wanted to give it all up? What inspires you to keep going when fear, rejection and obstacles prevent you from things going the way you want?
Entrepreneurship has its challenges and it’s easy to overcome it, but sometimes when you're going through it, yes, you do want to quit and that's the honest truth. When it's really tough to find a solution, you think, is it worth it? Does this even make sense anymore? Even though I may want a break or to distance myself, I say you have overcome so much, why stop now?
Our customers also keep us going. So many of them are emotionally engaged with us. We are fortunate to have that relationship with our customer base.
Also, the women of color that we work with depend on us for inspiration in entrepreneurship. I feel like I need to continue to work towards success because if I quit, then I am telling other people to quit too.
What do you want the artisans that you work with and women around the world to take away from your brand?
Uchenna and I design all of our pieces in New York and work with our partners in Lagos to produce. A lot of times when people approach developing countries, they think that the people there don’t have anything to offer. It’s important to CeeCee’s Closet to show the quality and beauty in Africa. We are able to give the people that we work with their bare wages for their work and help push the community forward in terms of economic development. It’s an important sense of pride to show people. A lot of the tailors that we work with have improved, their skills have gotten better and they've learned these things from working with us. It puts them in positions where they can send their kids to schools, purchase cars, have generators for their shops or homes, and send their siblings to college. That impact isn’t one that we take lightly. Creating this type of impact is something that we wanted to be able to do with our business.
For women, if you have an idea with a certain amount of determination, passion and persistence you can make that into something you can be proud of. When we started, we didn’t have a background in fashion, or a ton of money. We paid for things for the business from our paychecks. We weren’t afraid to invest in ourselves - that's what we want women to understand. Investing in yourself is worth it. You can do great things if you invest in yourself and see the value in your dreams.
What do you believe is the most beautiful thing about being a Black Woman?
There’s a certain beauty in how no matter what is thrown at us, we always find a way to be ourselves and to have that strength and sense of self. We are able to be colorful, engaging and and to be who we were meant to be on this earth despite the push to conform.
How do you measure success as entrepreneurs? As women?
Success to me is having respect and fortitude in who we are as a person. We are brought up to define success as validation for what we do from other people. But now, I ask myself, is this good? Does it sit right with my spirit? Do I feel confident to share this with the world and stand by it? If the answer to that is yes, then I can't complain.
Do you take breaks for yourselves?
It can be easy to get burned out as entrepreneurs because there's the hustle mentality and when you feel the pressure to succeed in the conventional way with an intense schedule, you feel like you don't deserve breaks. We’ve learned that breaks are just as essential as the time that you're working. Take that time to step back to have more fun with it and have more fun with your business. Breaks are definitely essential.
What book, quote, television show or song inspires you at the moment and why?
Chioma and I have been enjoying No Filter with Naomi Campbell on YouTube. Where else are you going to get a deep dive in the fashion industry from a successful supermodel?
I’ve been reading a book by Kevin O'Leary on your relationship with money, budgeting and investing. It has always been something I wanted to learn more about.
Goals for Cee Cee’s Closet this year beyond our current climate?
I want to actually celebrate Cee Cee’s Closet 5th year anniversary in November. I am not good at celebrating milestones. I forget to be honest. If we can make that happen, I would be so proud.
I want Cee Cee’s Closet to expand into more women's closets. We appreciate and acknowledge the men that support us but I think there's value in creating spaces designated for Black women, and that's what we are.
Advice for women around the world?
Do you and don't let anyone discourage you from achieving your goals. Humility is stressed in women; you have to be humble, you can’t shine too much or draw too much attention to yourself. Don't worry about how other people are going to react to you and don’t waste your time paying attention to insecure people. If people love you and what you do and how you do it, focus on that. Don’t waste your time on negative Nancies.
Be true to yourself and block out the haters - no one has time for that. Also, don't be afraid to try. So many people come up with excuses for reasons why they can't try. You can become a negative Nancy to yourself. You need to approach life from a student perspective, knowing that you are not going to get everything right the first time. Try anyway. There's so much fear in starting that a lot of people don’t start. The only way you can learn is by actually putting in the time and the effort and taking that thing from theory to action.
What can we look forward to with Cee Cee’s Closet?
Cee Cee’s Closet is getting ready to launch Cee Cee’s Home. It will be a collection of things to decorate your home while you're in quarantine. Also, be on the lookout for new styles. Everyone can join our newsletter to see what's hot and fresh with Cee Cee’s Closet.
The Leap Series, featuring trailblazing Black women around the world, is designed to spark ideas, inspiration and motivation in Black women globally. Through honesty, courage and transparency, The Leap ByBlkWomen will explore the life-changing decisions we make under pressure, the many facets of who we are as Black women and the other side of the glamorized picturesque world of social media where there’s no fluff, just real life. We’re hoping our community can relate and learn from the stories and thoughts of women just like them.
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