The high school hobby that bagged Nekesa Sh5 million

I started my fashion and design company with only Sh1,000 back in 2014,” starts Valentine Nekesa. She says this with disbelief, and it is not difficult to see why.

Valentine was recently crowned the winner of the Blaze Be Your Own Boss (BYOB) television show, sponsored by Safaricom. With this win came with Sh3 million in cash for her start-up and business mentorship worth Sh2 million.

And all this at just 19 – and for a company with humble origins.

Valentine is still on a high from the win for her fashion design company, V-Designs, and the invaluable lessons she picked on the TV show that started with 12 entrepreneurs who had to complete real-life business tasks over eight weeks to avoid elimination.

“I wish the show started when I was ten years old because it taught us things every young person should do. This is the ‘it show’, and it has made people see that young people do not only think of going to parties. We are not all about parties,” says Valentine.

The beginning

Her fashion dream was born when she was in Form One at Moi Girls High School in Eldoret. The school was holding a pageant, and a friend asked Valentine to make her an outfit. She had always had a creative mind and was excited to do something different, so she agreed to participate.

“The response I got was great, especially since the outfit I made was from book covers. This got me thinking that it was something I could do long term.”

Throughout high school, she designed different outfits for different people, and after she left, she decided to start a fashion business after a friend approached her.

“Any time there was an event, people would come to me to design something for them, or they would send their friends to me. This support from my family and friends was a real driving force when I was considering building a business,” Valentine recalls. She was raised in a large family after her mother died and she was taken in by her uncle and aunt, trade union boss Francis Atwoli and his wife Roselinda.

“Just after I sat my KCSE in 2014 and was thinking through getting serious with fashion, a friend asked for an outfit. I only had Sh1,000 with me, which I used to buy fabric at Sh450 and the tailor charged me Sh500.”

She already had sketchbooks with different designs, so she did not need to pay for an artist.

From this post-secondary school venture, she earned Sh1,500. Her friend’s friends liked what Valentine made, and V-Designs officially took off. A cousin, Karen, gave her a sewing machine so she could begin making her own outfits.

But her enterprising move was not as well received as she thought it would be.

“Many people kept asking me if I was going to university to become a tailor. They did not understand that I want to be a designer, not a tailor,” she says, adding that these lows were worsened by the times she struggled to come up with new ideas.

But she has gained plenty of confidence in herself since those early days. Valentine is pursuing a degree in information technology, and plans to use the skills she learns to take on the fashion world.

“I love technology .... There are many innovations coming up and I do not want to be left behind,” she says.

So far, she says she has not encountered any major financial setbacks as her company, which caters to plus-size women, is still young. Her outfits start at Sh2,000.

What next?

As for the profit margins, she says these vary depending on the work involved and type of fabric used. She does all the work alone, and admits she worries about what will happen once her company gets larger.

“I want to invest and grow V-Designs, but only to a certain point. My business will grow up to a level I want,” she says on how she will spend the capital she has won. She plans to invest the rest of the money, and is thinking of getting into real estate.

The young entrepreneur also hopes to design an outfit for First Lady Margaret Kenyatta in the near future.

“She is just one of those people you notice without even intending to, and that is the niche I am aiming for,” says Valentine.

As for her success on BYOB, she credits this to her passion and drive.

“Persistence was a key driver in my win. Any entrepreneur should know that if they are persistent, there is nothing they cannot do,” she says.

“The people who get ahead are those who never quit.”

She joined the show after beating out thousands of other young applicants at a BYOB summit in Kisumu last year. She was shortlisted after rigorous interviews where she held her own in the face of tough questions on her business and aspirations for it.

Her win, however, has drawn some backlash from fans of her fellow contestants, but Valentine says it does not bother her much because she had prepared for it.

“At the beginning of the competition, we were told to let our fans do the fighting for us,” she says.

Valentine’s lowest moment on the show was when she was up for elimination in the first week.

“It felt so bad,” she recalls, but she was able to bounce back from this with the help of her favourite judge on the show, media personality Caroline Mutoko, who once thought Valentine’s nerves at the start of BYOB would see her run away.

“It feels good to have won, and I never thought I would be where I am now. People are looking up to me and to be honest, it feels great,” says Valentine.

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