Interview


Yeba Olaye


Brussels - 19 August 2016

I had the privilege and pleasure of coaching Yeba on her business project, and I have watched her realize her venture, and make it blossom.

Through the usual start-up woes, she held on tight to her dream, never giving up, like the warrior she is, faithful to her name.

Yes, it’s tough to be an entrepreneur but it’s really worth it!

She conceived the “4.0 bag” which is much more than a mere handbag: it aims to empower women, bringing out “the best possible version of you”.

Enjoy my interview with Yeba, where she generously shares her journey as a fearless and focused entrepreneur.

Your first career involved the thorough analysis of facts and information as opposed to giving free reign to your inner creativity.

Yes, absolutely.

First of all business studies, and then afterwards?

The auditing profession, management consulting, in strategy, and then still marketing consulting, the really numerical aspect.

So it is rather very left brain. And then you enter a very creative sector, where the use of the other side of your brain is precisely what you need…

And it was somewhat atrophied … (she laughs) and was saying ‘I exist’, but once you try to switch on the machine, you really realize that you have to dismantle the model a little bit. It has to be broken in order to be put together again. And it is actually incredible, but to get there I experienced phases of self-examination at a fundamental level: about where I was going and also my ability to hear that little voice that told me what worked and what didn’t; my ability to tell who meant well and who didn’t and what I felt inside. I think, when anyone has the kind of career I have had, they don’t become a robot but they become very formatted.

How long did you work in consulting?

Ten years. After so many years in such a demanding and rigorous profession like finance and strategy consulting, you feel completely formatted. You have a way of thinking, analysing and concluding things which is very formatted …And since I had always been something of a perfectionist, the objective to be attained, which was always further, always higher, slightly diverted me from my journey.

When you are so focused on the result, you eventually forget how important the journey is and to benefit from it.

Where did that click come from?

A moment comes when you feel a dissociation between your ego and who you really are.

As for me, I clearly felt that the time had come to become myself again, to throw myself into a project which would provide me with a sense of satisfaction and enable me find myself again.

My ambitious project was not creating the most beautiful bag in the world but finding a way, a means of expression, a means of expressing all the creativity within myself.

In addition to that, I felt like sharing, like showing people that ‘anything was possible’. I felt like telling other people’s stories, having a discussion platform which would enable me to go to meet people, to exchange, to open the world to myself, etc. …

Regardless of the risk involved, the project was important to me.

What was most difficult at the beginning?

The profession I have chosen now requires a lot of intuition, what is known as your gut-feeling…

I think when you start this sort of project, it is a complete redefinition of your identity and it can be quite difficult at times.

And to tell the truth, your fears are already quite large … but those of your loved ones when you announce your swan dive to them are much more.

When I announced that I was going to launch my own brand, everyone around me began to panic, friends, family: ‘Are you sure of your decision?’, ‘But that seems so unlike you!’, ‘Besides, you don’t know anything about it!’

I remained steadfast. I ended up convincing them, by being persistent.

What fundamental lesson have you learned?

Before becoming an entrepreneur, things seem impossible, but when you become one, you realize that there is a world behind each person when you ‘network’.

Everyone knows someone who can provide access to someone else who could connect you with Delvaux’s former director, providing you access to Delvaux’s workshops master, enabling you to access Bon Marché’s Director. Quite simply through ‘networking ’. We are all finally very connected, and as long as you have not been constrained to ask questions, and you have not understood that the other person is often more than capable of providing the answer, they have the solution. Believing that anything is possible is really difficult, and yet it is.

Was it a discovery you were able to make as a result of this process?

Yes actually. But before getting there, to be honest, I remained in my comfort zone with my certainties for a long time. The beginning was quite difficult! Initially I told myself that it was my project, my baby! You cling to your original vision; you stick to your ideas; What is difficult is that you must juggle different areas … You are ‘stretched’ all the time. And eventually, you are not only obliged to have an open mind, but to also admit to yourself that you are not capable of doing everything and must surround yourself with the right people in order to achieve your goals and succeed in communicating your ideas in order to be able to realize them. Fortunately, I am mentored a lot. Solvay Entrepreneurs and Ichec networks were of great assistance in enabling me to meet the right people which ensured such things were possible.

The truth was that I did not just take the plunge like that. I followed a course to prepare for becoming an entrepreneur. I think that telling yourself that you are not alone when you find yourself on the edge of the precipice, and take the plunge, is the most important thing. There are people around you who will help you. All you have to do is simply mobilize the right resources and things will fall into place. In any case, that is the lesson I learned.

So it is a wonderful adventure which you do not regret

Not at all! Honestly, there was already the aspect of personal satisfaction, telling yourself that you did not give up, that you stretched limits, that you were able to stay the course. And you feel satisfied with yourself. You tell yourself that you were able to realise something small, which is liked and valued, which you are proud of. And last of all, you still have lots of ideas; you feel like going forward.

Passing through all those stages is worth it, with ups and downs, because ultimately that is what enables you to truly reconnect with yourself, enhancing your self-confidence. You become more confident; more open minded; you are enriched on all levels. And you realize that you become a ‘problem solver.’ Initially, when a problem arises you feel it is a disaster, but then you admit there is a problem, decide to find the solution and you move forward. I used to always want to be in complete control of everything and used to be always very anxious. Experiencing this project really strengthened me.

And it is possible to ask yourself the right questions relating to yourself, life and your family…

How exactly do you envisage this creativity?

In fact, now I see it a little differently. Initially, I felt creative because I had ideas. My creativity manifested through writing. It is true, I used to draw a lot when I was younger. But over time, my creativity was channelled through writing.

For me, creativity is when you allow your subconscious to speak a bit. You are in a mode where you start to write something and your fingers continue to type on their own, letting the words escape from you and tell you amazing things.

You express yourself truly with what you have on the inside and that is how I consider creativity.

Today, creativity for me is open-mindedness.

You begin, you have an idea, a style you are looking for, you make mood boards … But it is also when you seek to allow yourself to be inspired from around you that ideas connect with each other and you succeed in building a reality which is your own, using all that the world provides.

Creativity, I think is reading a book and retaining two or three phrases which have particularly touched you which resonate in you and enrich you.

It is connecting ideas and putting them all together and asking, ‘What does it bring to me and how it can help me express myself better?’ In the designs as well as the colouring I choose and also in the shoots that I organise… How the inspirations of others can enable me to better understand what I feel to express myself.

Before, I thought it was a one to one process in the sense of having your own world you get to externalize. But I think others help you more. Being open to others and allowing others to participate in this creative process, makes it easier for you to access your own creativity.

Honestly, this project is a human adventure. It is through contact with others that ideas are formalized. It is when I read books, or go through magazines, or when I walk down the street and I see a skirt cut in a certain style, I tell myself that it could be an idea for my bags. It occurs naturally: I connect a lot of things and at some point it becomes clear and I successfully bring it all out.

What precisely is Yeba’s wonderful story?

My name’s wonderful story?

Your name’s, yes, and then it is the name you gave to your brand, Yeba EssentialsYeba Essentials…

I come from Benin, from a certain ethnic group known as the ‘Tchabè’. The first Yeba was a young queen who was enthroned following her father’s death on the battlefield. It was the first time a woman had acceded to that position. She made her mark; she led her troops to victory and wanted her domain to be a peaceful one and forged alliances … she did something no woman or man had done before.

All her children were sons but she made them promise to name their first daughters Yeba, which symbolically means ‘the one born to fulfil her destiny.’

So there is a poem that I put on the site based on the name Yeba, which somewhat summarizes the spirit behind it.

When your name is Yeba, when you are Yeba, or when you bear that name – because now everyone will be able to wear a piece of Yeba – there is the underlying belief that there is nothing you cannot accomplish. There is the idea that you can be the woman you want to be or the person you want to be. All you have to do is acquire the means to do so.

Life involves a certain open-mindedness, but above all it involves telling yourself that you want to be an exceptional mother, you will acquire the means to do so and shall achieve your aim. You want to go to the moon, you will acquire all that is necessary to do so and you can achieve it, and if you cannot, you will draw a beautiful painting and have the moon at home.

It is really this manner of seeing the moon, which demonstrates, the opportunities available to women today very strongly.

In the sense that I think that the modern woman is in the process of lowering the barriers of boundaries she often sets for herself. Because we often talk about gender equality, but that is not what I am referring to. I think, that when it comes to what we can achieve, we tell ourselves that we will be unable to do it or that it is not for us. I think we limit ourselves.

So the first thing we must do is lower those barriers and limits and get going.

And even if we do not attain that objective, it will enrich us and everything we have encountered on our way will assist us in moving towards our destiny. So there is this whole dimension of moving on regardless of circumstances.

My message does not mean that we should be ultra-capitalist or do exceptional things but rather it means that we should try to find ourselves, know what is important to us, and make it a priority.

So it is much more than a mere bag. It is a philosophy, an experience.

Yes. Exactly. The idea of the bag was just an excuse to be able to create a brand and express myself personally. In this project, I wanted to have a game platform, my own world where I could transmit messages, invite women to speak or provide styles … The idea of the bag came to me, because when I used to work, I wondered where I could find a nice bag in which I could place my laptop. I worked a lot in consulting and image was really important. Since I could not find such a bag, I decided to create it.

I think this bag has been somewhat inspired by women today. They have ten thousand lives: they have their children; their careers; their passions, their friends that they visit and their day is very varied. They need a nice piece that can give them confidence when they go to a meeting, which is capable of containing their laptop without detracting from their femininity. I also tried to make a bag that is inspired by the message that I want to get across.

Yeba Olaye - Yeba Essentials

So that is the women’s 2.0 bag.

Yes, I would say so. I dare even the 4.0 – the best version of you possible.

The project started in Brussels. Have you always lived in Brussels?

I was born in Benin and I arrived in Brussels at the age of 5, because my father was a diplomat. He worked in an international institution. It was important for my father that his children have a stable framework. So Brussels was ideal for going to school, being able to have friends and not move around too much while he himself travelled a lot. And when he had to travel during the school holidays, he took us on those trips. Although I lived in Brussels, I was always surrounded by a certain multiculturalism from a very early age: I have friends who come from all over the world. My parents often hosted social events at home: there were Asians, Indians, Americans, Africans,… We were always surrounded by people of different cultures. And my father tried to inculcate two things in us from a very early age.

The first was ensuring we knew where we came from. We all have first names from our country which are very symbolic. And every summer, we returned to Benin in order to avoid drifting far from our roots.

And then he wanted us to know that the world was filled with riches, that cultural differences are riches that we need to be able to understand each other, to get to understand how others think and learn these cultures and customs, …

I did not realize it at the time but it was of great help to me when working on my project. It allowed me to have easier contact with people, to understand that we are all different, and understand how others operate in order to be able to communicate my message more effectively and in any case work with them more efficiently.

And so Brussels yes, but I think that I am a child of the world, and that dimension is very important to me. And thank God, for the friends who will read of me, who will tell me that I have many friends who are everywhere in the world, and remain in touch. I try my best to maintain our friendship. Because I consider it to be a gift: I make new friends all the time, and make sure I hold on to the old ones.

That is a lot of friends.

A lot of friends! Some have become siblings, even though our paths may be different, even though we may live in different locations. Their perspectives help me to surmount certain difficulties, or view things differently. It is true that our lives have become more complex as we have grown older and we speak about three or four times a year, but it is enough to reconnect with them.

Through my brand, I hope to succeed in transmitting universal images, which reach across boundaries.

What do you particularly like about Brussels? How would you tell someone who does not know Brussels to consider the city?

Brussels, compared to large cities, resembles a little village. But living there is nice. There are all the benefits of large cities and especially the advantage of being a friendly place. You can cross Brussels from one end to the other in 35 to 40 minutes. Its people are rather pleasant. It is very multicultural and its people are quite open. There’s nice food there: very lovely restaurants, which are quite welcoming, and then there is a certain sensitivity to art also with very lovely museums. In a nutshell, Brussels is the ideal large city because it is a friendly place and nice to live in.

When you arrive in Brussels, it may seem as if there is not a lot to do. It is gradually, when you discover certain quarters, when you discover the lifestyle, when you make friends with certain groups of people that you no longer want to leave. The weather is not great but Brussels charms you with time, since it contains several lovely surprises, lovely things, lovely exhibitions, nice restaurants…

What would you like to say in conclusion?

What I would like to say and what is important to me, is that what is most difficult at present, regardless of whether one is an entrepreneur or not, is managing the notion of time. The time to do something, the time available to us to spend with our children, the time that is left for us to wrap something up…

I think that we chase time systematically. We almost become victims of passing time. While sometimes, when we tell ourselves, well there it is, when the time is right, the time will be right and we stop chasing time and try to do things properly, to the best of our abilities… everything clears up easily.

I encountered several difficulties during my project, because when you leave the consultancy profession, where you constantly pursue deadlines, where you are constantly attempting to complete two hours’ worth of work in one and half hours since you must be efficient, since you must be productive, since you will get to do a lot more things if you work faster, you maintain that mode of functioning throughout your life.

You must be extremely efficient in the way you manage your courses; you must be extremely efficient when you exercise; you must be extremely efficient in the activities you participate in even at social network level…

We constantly find ourselves in a particular race against time for performance and actually, we become so enslaved to it that we can no longer relax or detach ourselves where things are concerned.

I think that when you manage to detach yourself from these passing times which have enslaved everyone, you succeed in doing things properly and with a lot more pleasure. As a result, it works a lot better.

That is one of the fundamental lessons which I learned and which could help others. Sometimes taking a break and asking yourself why you are so stressed, why you are struggling so hard and if it is necessary or not.

I agree that in the world at present, timing must be respected but if you indulge yourself for an hour or two, and focus on the fact that you are enjoying yourself rather than the fact that you just have two hours left…

Finally, our aim in life is to be happy and discover ourselves, by any means possible. Success at any price ultimately if that will make you happy… But the ultimate aim is doing something which makes us happy. And if your job does not do that, you must find a means of being happy outside that job. It is necessary.

And if you only organise yourself for half an hour and it is a quality half hour, it will enable you to beat time and the stress which comes with it.

For me, that clears a lot of things. I tell myself too bad, I can’t do it. I will do it when it is better.’

So “flaneuring” is important?

Yes, “flaneuring” is important!


Discover this stunning brand at YEBA ESSENTIALS