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“I Don’t Feel Like a Drop in the Ocean of an Industry Filled With Men” – Shoemaker, Chidinma on Trailblazing a Male-Dominated Path

Chidinma Mirianjess Chukwuemeka is a Digital Marketer and co-founder of The Footwear Academy which engages people who are interested in the art of making footwear. Right after her Youth Service, she secured a job at IpNX Nigeria Ltd as Brand Activation Specialist, having executives under her due to the marketing experience she had garnered in her university days.

In mid-2017, Chidinma went ahead to quit a job she’s endeared to at an Advertising firm and set out to launch The Footwear Academy alongside her husband Bentley Chukwuemeka who is also her co-founder. The vision of TFA is to enable shoemakers in Africa to produce exportable standard products, starting with Nigeria. TFA won the Proudly Made in Aba Hackathon 2018.
In a chat with MRH, Chidinma talks about her journey to being a shoemaker, the challenges of being female in a male-dominated path, the impression of Nigerian-made brands being inferior, her guilty pleasures and so much more.
Do have an awesome read!
You Studied Zoology, So How Did Shoemaking and Marketing Come In?
I studied Zoology in Univerity of Nigeria, Nsukka (2008 -2012). Marketing came into being when I found out that I was good at talking to people and also good at selling. I got a job while in my first year, we were on a 2 months break for the Nigerian University Games Association, NUGA games because UNN was hosting the NUGA games at the time. So I needed to stay busy hence opted for a job, I got a job at a company that deals with a discount card in partnership with Skye Bank.
I got the job to market and as a Brand Activation Executive, we were positioned at Silverbird Galleria as it was a new and happening place in Lagos at the time. Then, we had a target to sell about 10 of the discount cards in a day. Despite how stressful it was as we worked from Monday-Sunday, I just found myself working hard and enjoying every bit of it.
It’s about one of the biggest highlights of my life, meeting a lot of people and celebrities. It was amazing to be a part of something as Brand activation was very much new then. That was like the beginning of marketing for me.

Chidinma Shoes: The Footwear Academy

Throughout my time in school, I try to take some job in marketing and by the time I was done with  NYSC in Akwa-Ibom, I immediately got an opportunity with IpNX Nig. Ltd, it’s a telecommunication firm and I was supposed to come in as a Brand Activation Executive but after the first interview, they were impressed and decided to make me a Brand Activation Specialist. I was placed in charge of the brand activation activities of the company, having executives under me due to the brand activation experience I had garnered while in school. That’s basically how marketing came about.
So from brand activation, I went to Orange Academy to learn digital marketing and eventually started teaching digital marketing. I did digital marketing on the side. My husband is a shoemaker and has always wanted to set up an academy. When we got married last year, he went on and on about setting up an academy and I didn’t get why he was so passionate about it.
I had to resign from my 9-5 job at an Advertising firm which was quite a hard thing to do because I really liked what I was doing but I knew we needed to get serious with setting up the footwear academy and he said he couldn’t do it without me.
He’s the hands-on and reserved type and I’m the type that makes the ‘noise’, send out applications and speak to the customers. Our roles are split but we’re partners and co-founders of the academy. We started out in July 2017, our first class was in August 2017 and it was amazing. He thought me how to make shoes. In the absence of so many responsibilities as newlyweds, we started producing shoes from our living room and were getting customers. As we were expanding, we employed people to join in the production unit and it’s been well so far.

How Do You Balance Running The Footwear Academy, Digital Marketing and Being a Wife

There are a lot of times when I am really exhausted and I can’t deal with the workload, I push that to him. Even in the company, our roles are well divided but there are instances where if I’m overwhelmed, he steps in and helps out and there are times I’m exhausted and he would not let me work for some days. I am a workaholic but I keep pushing myself to the extreme, It’s really not easy for women because you need to still come back, submit to your husband and be able to do all you need to do as a person and wife. I have the digital marketing company also asides the footwear academy.

One thing that helps me is that I schedule everything, though emergencies and stuff could pop up amidst scheduling things but I try to stay on a schedule and start my day early. I also force myself to stop working sometimes. So basically. I prioritize and schedule and have a great support system (my husband). That’s how I’ve been able to balance but I don’t think there’s a right formula on how you can run life. You just have to find out what works for you while you do the best you can.

What Has Been Your Challenges so Far?

The greatest challenge is money (Laughs). I hate to say but it’s the truth. We won a grant from Ford worth $50,000 and that was supposed to solve all the problems. We have so much project to do and a lot of them are being tied to money and it’s challenging but it has always helped us because we keep looking for ways to increase sales and make production more efficient and more cost effective. I always try to look at problems from a solution perspective. So the lack of money has helped us to be more innovative, to know members of the team that are really into the company, not those that are just interested in what they can get out of it.

It has really helped us a lot as we have gone ahead to open another branch in Abia state even with the little money that has come into the company. Another challenge is materials because most shoemaking materials down to leather are imported and even though we have the tannery here in Nigeria. Most of the leathers are being exported abroad, refined and re-imported into Nigeria. If materials could be originally sourced here, I think materials will be cheaper. You can get a particular type of leather in the market today and may never see it again and such affects production. Some customers might send a particular design but you can’t replicate it because you can’t find the materials. Basically, funds and access to materials are the primary challenges.

What’s Your Biggest Achievement Since the Inception of TFA?

Our biggest win would be Proudly Made in Aba Hackathon because it opened up more doors for opportunities.

Where Do You Draw Inspiration From and How Many Prototypes Do You Sketch Before You Feel You Found The Needed Design?

My biggest inspiration and Teacher is the Holy Spirit. When I face a challenge I always whisper – “Holy Spirit please help me”. It’s a habit I’ve always had even before The Footwear Academy. A lot of people might not understand but that’s okay. I don’t think there’s any problem I can’t solve if I ask the Holy Spirit to help.

Is There a Thing You Could’ve Done Differently If You Were Starting Off Now?

No, Because I have this belief that everything you go through is for a reason. When we started TFA last year, we went through a lot as it was so hard for us. We lost a lot of money, we went through it all but I wouldn’t take back any of those experiences for anything because they were very instrumental in making us the people we are today. I believe everything in life happens according to its clock. Everyone has their time and clock and everything that happened to me last year and this year happened because something has happened before.

I came up with the tech site to my business because I participated in Techpoint Build in January. During the event, I was challenged to think on how to come up with a technology site to my business. I got a brilliant idea that I pitched but didn’t win but I went back and refined it for the Proudly Made In Aba Hackathon event and I won $50,000. So if I hadn’t participated in Techpoint Build and failed, I wouldn’t have come up with the idea that I used to win in another competition that I applied in a month later. So in all of my experiences, I wouldn’t change anything. My advice to entrepreneurs is that whatever you are going through right now, don’t be discouraged because you are going to look back a year from now and that problem that looks like it was going to choke the life out of you will seem so small.

What Do You Advice Budding Female Entrepreneurs Plying a Male-dominated Path?

I’d like advice female entrepreneurs to stay focused on being the best version of themselves. The world is not going to submit at your feet because you’re male or female. The world will submit if you’re a person of character and excellence, so pursue these things.

What Have Been the Effect of Being Female in a Male-dominated Path?

It’s been very interesting because a lot of people especially the older ones in the shoemaking industry still see it as a male thing. There was a time we employed a male production manager, he couldn’t believe that I could make shoes as he has that gender bias, it took us a while to deal with it and make him understand that women are not weak.

Even in the entrepreneurship industry especially in tech, I pitch against mostly male. Even in the Made In Aba Hackathon competition, I was basically the only female and still won. I don’t allow it get to me that I’m like a drop in the ocean of an industry filled with men. When I talk to customers about shoes even, they are amazed towards my knowledge about shoes, especially male shoes. I try not to think of it as a male-dominated industry, I try to see it like an opportunity where I serve as an inspiration to other women to come in, do stuff and be good at whatever you do.

What Do You Think Makes Your Craft Stand Out?

One thing I’d say about shoemaking is that, if you’re careless or not detailed, it’ll likely show. I think the shoe that people make takes on their personality. Fashion, business, shoes and all take on the personality of the people running it. I think that’s why investors are very interested in the team running a startup not necessarily in your idea, you can have a billion dollar idea and be poor in your character, mind. I tell people to spend time in building character and craft, also spend time in your own internal development.

Do You Identify as Feminist? What’s Your Take on Feminism?

I think the word Feminism has been misunderstood/misquoted. I do understand where women are coming from when they try to fight for equal right because I’ve been a situation where I have been abused because I am female. I believe strongly in women’s’ right, especially for women without voice especially in Africa where such women are high in number. Women that are abused daily or given out early in marriage. If there are a group of women that have risen up to stand and speak for these women then I’ll gladly support them. What I do not support is the way it has been misunderstood because I think that we should treat people how we want to be treated even in marriage, a man should respect his wife and vice versa.

I found out that when a man loves a woman, it’s so easy for her to submit to him and I think God created us in his image and likeness, so it’s basically not about a man being higher. I think everyone is equal and should be treated equally. In my opinion, I think that we should not get out of the most important issues, which is giving voice to the people who have no voice, we should get over the trivial argument of who to cook etc. There are a lot of girls without education privilege, some undergoing gender mutilation and so many bigger issues to be concentrated on rather than the trivial ones like cook for your husband. There are bigger issues to be fought for and we should concentrate on that. I think I’m one to stand anytime, any day for women to have equal rights especially for the ones that don’t have the voice.

In What Ways Do You Think Nigerians Can Be Convinced Into Believing In Nigerian-made Brands?

The reason why Nigerians do not believe in a Nigerian-made brand because we have not really invested time and money in building our own personal brand, like in Aba where they produce shoes and brand it Zara, Gucci etc. Even as a Nation, it’s something we really need to consistently do, it’s amazing the amount of feedback we get when people get our shoes, they are wowed by the quality and that it is made in Nigeria. We also get some customers that’ll question the price of the shoes as to be too expensive at N16,000 when it’s not made in Italy.

One thing we have done is making sure to use the best quality materials. We recently started using a soft foamy material in the lining of our shoes so that they would be soft and comfortable where you’d have an out of the world experience when you try them on. Many people now go for Made In Nigerian brands. In the academy, it’s one of the things we teach our students how to brand yourself and be proud of the brand you have. We need to give the best so that eventually and gradually it’ll change. People don’t trust made in Nigerian products because for a long time, it was associated with lower grade and cheap products. Now we need to be patient and allow the customer to change his mindset and as well as educate the customers that Made In Nigerian products are superior.

 So Someone Wants to Invest in Shoemaking Business. What is The Cost Like and What Advice Would You Suggest?
I suggest you pick a niche market and focus there. Most of your capital will go into getting a sewing machine, filing machine and shoe last. NGN 100,000 should get you started.
What’s Your Daily Work Routine Like?
Wake up
Pray & Study
Check Email and messages
 Who is Your Style Icon?
I’d like to say Chimamanda Adichie. She has this Nubian queen aura around her. A touch of classy mixed with Africa.
Which Celebrity Would You Like to See in Your Design?
RMD – Richard Mofe Damijo
 An opportunity To Collaborate With a Fashionable Personality, Who Would That Be?
Orange Nerd
What Are Your Guilty Pleasures?
Movies (Laughs). I love seeing good movies. There’s a cinema close to my house thankfully, so indulge a lot.
Are You Into Any Humanitarian Activity.
Yes – I’m part of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) and I engage in their activities. I’m also part of Young Enterprising Women in Africa network and we engage in helping young women entrepreneurs.
Photo Credit: The Footwear Academy


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