You all are in for a treat. And not only that, you’re in for an insightful education.
Annette Njau, lawyer and founder of high-fashion, African-inspired travel bag brand House of Takura is someone I deeply admire. In our Talking Shop chat, she brings wisdom, experience, and vision to an important conversation about identity, fusion, female entrepreneurship, unity, and fried plantains.
Everyone, meet Annette!
Tell us a little about yourself.
I am Annette Njau. I am originally from Sierra Leone, West Africa. I came to the United States when I was 10 and grew up in Kent, Ohio. We had to leave Sierra Leone because of rumors of harm that may come to my dad from the political elite running the country at the time (of course, my sisters and I didn’t learn this reason until we were well into our adulthood because parents keep secrets which they believe may harm us.) That was in 1987 or 1988 (a few years before the civil war erupted in Sierra Leone). I went to college and law school in Kentucky. I practiced law in Kentucky for over 8 years and moved to Houston, Texas in September of 2013.
How did House of Takura get started?
HOT has been in my spirit as far back as 2007 (maybe even further). I say 2007 because I remember an email I found dated around that time that I had written to my dad asking him to invest in the business. The email was full of excitement and went unanswered (haha typical — knowing my dad he probably thought, “you are a lawyer, you don’t need to do fashion.”) I didn’t even know what HOT would be back then. I just knew I wanted it to be high fashion and uplift the continent of Africa.
Fast forward to the end of 2015 and I was able to launch the brand after my baby sister asked me “when are you going to start House Of Takura?” There is so much to unpack here but I am sure we can do that when we talk shop. HOT started off as just a clothing brand. In 2017 we pivoted a bit to the bags and rebranded as travel bags and more. The bags started when a good client of mine asked me if I could make her a bag. I asked her a bunch of questions about what she wanted in the bag. (Aside: she is really into the high-end brands like LV, etc.). After I asked some questions, I messaged my sister-in-law in Kenya and said I needed her to find me a bag lady — a lady who makes bags. And the rest is basically history. Needless to say the client was very pleased with her purchase and is a repeat client. She also told me that I undercharged her for the bag. Haha!
Your travel bags are inspired by and made in Africa. What does the Continent and its various cultures mean to you?
Africa is so vast. 54 plus countries. So many cultures and languages can be contained in just one country. Being Sierra Leonean means a lot to me. The fact that my husband is from Kenya means a lot to me. The Continent means the world to me. So much so that my whole purpose (which I didn’t know and is continuously evolving) is to uplift the Continent and not only challenge the narrative about the Continent but also rewrite it. Great things and people come out of Africa and the world needs to be continuously reminded of this. Africa has a way of pulling its people back home.
When I was younger if you told me that I would feel the need to reconnect with Africa and toy with the idea of spending more time there than anywhere else, I would not have believed you. Now that pull is so strong and I do see myself spending half my year on the Continent and the other half in the Western parts of the world. Speaking of challenging and rewriting narratives is important to me. It is interesting that some people (Africans) when I say my bags are made in Africa, have a problem with me saying Africa and not pinpointing a particular country. Part of the reason for that retort or correction I am guessing is because of the narrative that has plagued the Continent for so long — as a monolithic poor nation which needs the world’s help to survive and thrive.
People mistake Africa for a country all the time and assume a single story of the Continent. That is dangerous because you miss a whole world of diverse peoples and interests when we attach the single story. So I do understand when Africans themselves correct me but I am a bit sassy so I correct them back. I continue to say my bags are made in Africa for several reasons. First, my bag makers may be Kenyan but my fabrics are imported from Ghana, Tanzania, South Africa, and I am certain various other African countries. In that sense, my bags are made in Africa.
Secondly, Africa has been plagued with this reality of tribalism for too long. It is something that I feel that continuously hinders our progress as a Continent and I reject it. My brand is not just about identity but also about unity. I will not let one country or group of people take ownership of the House of Takura brand because the purpose of the brand is to uplift the Continent not just a single country. If I were to allow one country to claim House Of Takura, it would be Sierra Leone; one ethnic group, it would be the Krios. If I do that, I lessen the importance of the Kenyan bag and leather makers, the fabric makers from different parts of the Continent, my marriage which is the connection to Kenya, my son who’s paternal lineage is Zimbabwean and where the name Takura hails from. So House Of Takura is made in Africa and that is that.
Lastly, I am an African before I am a Sierra Leonean. I take this identity very seriously. My dad has always rejected the idea that his country of origin, or his tribal heritage is more significant than his continent of origin. He has always rejected the idea of tribal hierarchies and I am my father’s daughter. I believe in the United States of Africa. I feel that is our ultimate path forward.
You are deeply-rooted in the idea of fusion. How does that manifest in your life?
It’s funny you should ask this. Fusion is who I am. I was born in Sierra Leone, spent some time at school in Leeds, England, moved to the United States and grew up here to Sierra Leonean parents.
As with many immigrant children who come here, they are immersed in the American culture through school and friends but continuously immersed in their ethnic identity at home. That’s why you find some speaking a different language at home but English at school. Our way of dressing is originally different until we begin to assimilate. There is a dissonance right? There is a pull right to NOT be different from your friend but your parents are telling you that you are in fact different because of your heritage and because you were not born in America. As children you just want to fit in, but most immigrant children come in and stand out.
As we get older, we take the good from our American experiences and the good from our ethnic cultures and merge into particular human beings. We discard what we don’t like about each culture and kind of create subcultures of our own. E.g. My parents main emphasis was education (formal) growing up as the end-all, be-all of success (doctors and lawyers only hahaha).
As as I raised my now 18-year-old son, I discarded the mentality that the only way to be a success or matter is through formal education only and being a lawyer or a doctor only. I allowed my son to thrive (granted he is a smart kid and did well in school) in an environment where education is not linear or a box that you cannot come out of. I allowed him to choose his career path and I pray that he chooses his passion — whatever makes him thrive, purposeful and impactful in the lives of those around him. Fusion also manifests itself in my marriage — we are a fusion of two countries and various cultures.
How do you strive to empower the future?
Through House of Takura, we believe in not only sustainable economic development in Africa but also empowering the future (the children).
Each bag we sell, we donate a portion of the proceeds to organizations doing empowerment work on the Continent. If you would like to read more about those initiatives, you can do so here www.houseoftakura.com/empoweringthefuture.
For me personally, I just hope that younger people (girls, boys of every background and nationality) can look at my story and realize it is really not impossible to become what you want to be. Yes there are so many obstacles, but we can overcome. I just want to serve as hope for those who need it. I believe where there is a will, there is a way. You have to find your purpose and stick with it. I pray that God can give me more ideas and downloads on how to impact this world fully and empty myself of all I have that He has given me before I leave this earth.
Why is social entrepreneurship important to you?
I don’t necessarily know that it is that it’s important to me but rather that it is just who I am.
My father was a judge. He believed and taught us equity, justice. For me, that has been woven into the fabric of my being since I was a child. I believe in a purpose bigger than myself. God did not put me on this earth to focus on me. I want to make an impact on the lives of people and help build them up. Opportunities which I have been given are not solely because I work hard, people before me worked hard and I want people after me to benefit from the work I do. I am not sure I answered your question but it is more a way to live than a thing to do.
What has been one of your proudest accomplishments?
For the brand, being featured by CNN Africa and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. These were awesome. We have received various other features (including tv segments) but these two are tops.
What has been one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned in running your business?
Be authentic and kind.
For me personally, this looks like responding to every question a client may have even if you are tired; being open and honest about what you can and cannot do. Transparency is huge and goes a long way. If you make a mistake, own up to it quickly and apologize.
My business is relational. I don’t view people as transactions. When people purchase my bags, they are investing in the future of Africa and my children’s future. I view them as partners. I think this is the reason I have so many repeat customers. They love the honesty, energy, kindness, and transparency of the brand. What you see in the brand is me. When people encounter the brand, I want them to feel like they have experienced a moment with me. So the biggest lesson is to be intentional and relationship driven. Be human.
What has been one of the biggest challenges?
I would say one of the biggest challenges is working a 9-5 and then working on the brand. It means you have very little time for yourself and family. I am praying that this is the last year I will be doing this. Fingers crossed.
What advice would you give to aspiring female entrepreneurs?
Persist and persevere. That sounds cliche but that is literally what I do. I could have quit so many times but my spirit said no. You must persist and persevere. In order to find the will to do so though, you have to be walking in your purpose. If whatever you are doing does not excite you at every turn or make its way into your dreams at night, then the will to persist and persevere dwindles. So I guess the advice is find something that excites you and live on purpose and in purpose.
What are your ultimate goals for House of Takura?
The ultimate goals would be to be seen as a luxurious brand with a heart that hails from Africa and to be one of Oprah’s Favorite Things. I have had that on my vision board for 2 years. It shall come to pass!
The Fun Qs:
What is one of your most memorable travel experiences?
I have 2. I would say a trip I took to St. Kitts with my husband for a friend’s wedding. It was literally the most stress-free and easy going trip I have ever encountered. literally was able to vacation without a worry in the world.
I also enjoyed my last trip to Sierra Leone (September 2019) because I was able to work with my dad. Our careers as lawyers had never crossed paths and this was the culmination of his 50-year career in the law and my 14-year career. It was groundbreaking, amazing and historical. Prior to this trip, I had not been to Sierra Leone since May 2004.
What is your favorite meal?
Fried plantains. I could live on this if it were nutritionally advisable.
What is your favorite out-of-office activity?
I like to workout. I teach Zumba and have not been able to since COVID so I take out my old playlists on a weekly basis and dance it out!
What is the best book you’ve read lately?
Honestly, it has been a while since I read a book that I would consider “lately.” I definitely enjoyed Shonda Rhimes book The Year of Yes when I read it last year. It is full of great gems — the best being: what is the harm in doing things outside of your comfort zone? Nothing. That is where growth happens.