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Suzie Wokabi: The making of a beauty empire

 The making of a beauty empire (Photo: Suzie Wokabi)

“Do you remember in 2009 when I woke up and told you I was going to make my brand?” Suzie Wokabi asks her husband.

It is the first episode of her podcast, set back in the days when the entire world was ‘locked down’ due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The couple are reminiscing about their journey as a family, and Suzie’s remarkable achievements as a beautyprenuer.

“I absolutely do,” he says.

“This retail cosmetics space was just so… not good. All the products I was finding were so expensive, not for us,” Suzie adds before asking, “and what did you say?”

“I said go for it,” her husband Eric responds.

The July 2020 episode is a sneak peek into Suzie’s supportive and loving background which pushes her to be at her best.

Suzie Wokabi started Kenya’s first ever make-up line in 2009, and now, after building it from the ground up, the entrepreneur has risen through the ranks to become a formidable force in business.

The brand has since become locally and internationally recognised, and in 2015, it was acquired by Flame Tree Group in a multi-million-shilling deal.

Flame Tree Chief Executive Heril Bangera confirmed that the purchase of Suzie’s brand was done for Sh45 million.

“The Kenyan beauty brand was propelled to global fame after Oscar-award winning actress Lupita Nyongó publicly announced that she was wearing a SuzieBeauty lipstick during a TV interview on the Queen Latifah Show.”

When Eve Woman Magazine reached out to Suzie for an interview, she was in between meetings, but happy to speak.

“I’m inspired by my purpose: contributing to the growth of the African beauty industry. Contributing to it in whatever that means. You’ll find me collaborating with ‘competitors’ (I call them collaborators) because we’re all here doing the same thing, advancing African beauty,” Suzie says of what motivates her every day.

The beauty entrepreneur has a background and passion for make-up and cosmetics. After she graduated from USIU, she moved to New York City in 2001 where she worked for various cosmetic brands, including Mac and Clinique.

Parents Magazine reports that upon her return home to Kenya, she was set on putting her skills to use, a fact she confirms.

“Suzie quickly got good contracts with big brands such as MNet through which her work was seen on various TV shows such as The Patricia Show, Face of Africa, and Idols, among others. She has also led SuzieBeauty backstage through four seasons of the Tusker Project Fame, the biggest regional TV show, and worked with most major fashion events including Fashion & Beauty Expo (FAB), Nairobi Fashion Market, Samantha Bridal Expo, Miss World Kenya and Kenya Fashion Week. Additionally, she has worked with Kenyan fashion veterans such as Ann McCreath of Kiko-Romeo.”

She tells Eve that she was frustrated with the state of the local retail cosmetics market at the time, and that was when she decided to create Kenya’s first home grown beauty brand.

“All products available to us were imported, poor quality, and inappropriate options for us. I decided to fill the obvious gap by creating a product line for us, the Kenyan/ African woman. I had worked in the beauty industry for eight years by then in the US and Kenya, so that experience was very helpful, having worked with so many different brand products.”

Suzie learned everything on the job - it was her first time venturing into entrepreneurship, and she had to raise capital, research intensively, and oversee the testing and shipping of her products.

“Getting the right team and partners around me was a challenge, but something I had to keep learning how to conquer because that can make or break everything,” she says.

A national publication reports on the international recognition Suzie has gained over the years. In 2018, she was named “The face of African beauty” on a CNN feature for African Voices. In 2013, Suzie received a finalist award for the Most Influential Women in business and government in Africa.

At the time of the report, Suzie was 44 years old, and quick math places her at around 46 today.

The entrepreneur reflects on the 2015 sale of SuzieBeauty, revealing that it was a well thought out move.

“We were looking for a strategic partner to help grow the business, which was growing bigger than us – our capacity, resources, even abilities. We spoke to a few different investors and one of them was the Flame Tree Group, which we ended up striking the deal with.”

The entrepreneur notes that SuzieBeauty will always remain close to her heart. Her journey as an entrepreneur continues through new ventures, like SB Dada, her up and coming beauty brand, which is set to launch soon.

She says of selling SuzieBeauty: “My contract ended during Covid, which also ended my non-compete, and we opted to not renew that. For me, it was so that I could do more in the industry and fulfill my purpose of being an instrumental contributor to the growth of the African beauty industry. SuzieBeauty was not the end of that journey, SB Dada is the next very exciting phase, and who knows what else will come next! The beauty-full journey continues.”

Suzie adds on the new brand SB Dada: “The concept behind [the brand] is trendy, tech forward, sustainable beauty for our market. With SB Dada I am targeting the beauty hungry Gen Z and millennial audience, who I find so fascinating and interesting, I love their appetite for and appreciation of beauty products, so catering to them will just be lots of fun. From a business standpoint, we have a billion people under the age of 20. Who else should I be targeting, right?”

Although she makes major business decisions every day as a professional and pioneer in the industry, Suzie starts her day as a mum, first and foremost.

She says that her day to day kicks off with preparing her two young boys (14 and 11) for school before planning for the day ahead.

“The past few months have been around me planning SB Dada launch, product preparation, event planning and such. So it’s meetings at the office or outside sourcing various elements. I don’t plan meetings after 5pm because it’s home time. Taking care of the family, I cook many times a week. And I’m an early sleeper too so in bed the same time as the boys!”

The mother of two cares for her mental health by taking breaks to regroup and reflect, a self-care habit that always does the trick for her.

“Even daily, if the day is looking too rough or hard to tackle, I shelve what I need to and retreat into my own space, which calms everything down and puts things into perspective,” Suzie says.

The Kenyan beauty industry has come a long way since Suzie relocated back to Kenya with her family. There has been a steady rise in beauty brands, with renowned personalities like Huddah Monroe and Joanna Kinuthia, among others, venturing into the scene.

Suzie praises the news brands that have come into the market, describing Kenya’s beauty industry today as “thriving and buzzing.”

“It is beautiful to watch! Local brands have popped up after SuzieBeauty and I’m glad to have inspired that, showing us that international is not best, we can do our own for ourselves. It is a competitive market with the international brands flocking in because they see the potential,” she says, adding, “At the end of the day it is a good thing because we all need each other for the industry to grow. There is room for all of us and more.”

As she looks to the future, Suzie is prioritizing getting her second brand, SB Dada up, running and successfully launched into the market. She says it has not been rosy, although she is determined to do it right.

“I have tried to mitigate looming issues, but I know there will be growing pains that I have to prepare for – mentally too. It will take some years of building and navigating the various markets we hope to enter so that is what the near future looks like.”

Suzie adds: “In the far future, I foresee local manufacture of colour cosmetics as an option I would like to pursue… I think it’s my lot in life to do so and that will be my next crazy move, God help me.”

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