By Bethanie Hestermann
We can all, absolutely, use more joy in our lives, and Fisayo Che of Elisamama has created a clothing line for women + children that’s joyful, functional, and stylish. Elisamama also provides purpose and a pathway out of poverty for talented seamstresses in Nigeria. Fisayo is a mother of three and the hard-working, socially conscious entrepreneur behind Elisamama. She says balance is a myth—what momtrepreneurs like her are really doing is mastering the art of consciously shifting priorities. (Love her take on this!)
A piece of clothing from Elisamama is rich in history and has been on a journey—perhaps beginning life as a piece of fabric purchased from a bustling Nigerian street market before being hand sewn by a Nigerian woman who takes ultimate pride in her job. Fisayo opens up about her life + her life’s work (including the juicy deets about getting Elisamama in Saks Fifth Avenue!) in our latest Q&A.
Tell us a little bit about your background story in Nigeria and what brought you to the U.S.
While I had a geographically diverse life, being born in Europe, and returning to live there for a few years as a teenager before moving to the U.S., Nigeria has always been the anchor for my upbringing. I had a typical middle-class life in Nigeria, growing up in the shadows of my parents who modeled and taught me the value of hard work, commitment, humility, and charity. Our home had a revolving door of family members and sometimes strangers that lived with us. My parents valued and made it their life’s work to give people the foundation they needed to make a life for themselves through education or vocational training.
Although my life was relatively comfortable and I had all my needs met, I was a very curious child, so when the opportunity to leave Nigeria came, I told myself, “I’ll go see what life is like abroad, and if I don’t like it, I can always come back.”
When did your love for fashion begin?
The truth is, I have never particularly had a love for fashion. My relationship with fashion has always been rooted in its utility. To me, fashion is a tool of sorts—I use it to support my needs, how I want to feel, and the version of myself I choose to present to the world. As my family has grown and life has gotten busier, my practical demands on fashion have become greater. I find myself demanding more function out of clothes. I seek out clothes that serve multiple purposes; clothes that work with my changing body—hello pregnancy! I seek out clothes that are comfortable but fun and make me happy, clothes that are easy to put on and to take off, and, most importantly, clothes that have pockets—and all the mothers say, AMEN!
Did you have any business experience before starting Elisamama?
I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs. Between my dad and mom, there must have been up to 10 businesses. Being in the shadow of those experiences, I had no interest in going the business route at all and sought a corporate career, which I have been in for over a decade. After settling into motherhood and my corporate career, I began to get restless—it is important to note that I am someone that appreciates a bit of organized chaos, and so I needed something else to apply myself to. I also found myself always interested in sprucing people up. I therefore channeled the restlessness into being a freelance makeup artist. Truth be told, knowing what I know now, that was more a hobby than a business.
How did becoming an entrepreneur affect your life and the people around you?
Becoming an entrepreneur has been the greatest learning and transformational experience of my life. All my life, I have been largely self-reliant and tried my hardest to never put myself in the position of seeking help. Entrepreneurship has completely flipped that—it has humbled me and taught me the power and value of community. The relationships I have formed in this journey have poured so much into me and made this proverb “if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together” ring very true to me.
Entrepreneurship has empowered me to speak up and never be afraid or hindered by the word “no.” Rejection in my mind is simply interpreted as “not now” or “try again.” I now apply this mindset to personal situations that I would previously have stayed quiet on. An issue happened at my son’s school that weighed down on me. After exhausting all channels without resolution, I reached out to the school district’s board of directors and was able to get my issue resolved promptly. Prior to Elisamama, I would never have done that!
With the work at Elisamama, charity and giving back has now become a common topic and priority in our home with my kids always seeking ways to help the needy.
While I sit in the driver’s seat of this business, I could not do it without the support and contribution of my family. They are all on this journey with me in many ways—fulfilling orders and accompanying me to markets but mostly giving me the space and grace to do what I need to do for Elisamama.
Motherhood and entrepreneurship—how do you balance those two very important and consuming aspects of your life? Did it ever become too hard? Does each part motivate and inspire the other?
Motherhood and entrepreneurship started out being very challenging, but I now have some ethos that guide me.
I learnt very early on that balance is a myth. What is more true for me is prioritization and making conscious decisions to put some things ahead of others. While the business is a priority to me, it can always be here or revived, but I cannot buy back the time with my kids, so I always try to put that thought at the forefront of any decisions I make.
Realizing that not everything has to or can be done at a particular time, I try to always remain cognizant of the season I am in and assess what is most important. In my current season, social life, TV, etc., have taken a back seat to allow me to focus on my family and the business. That was a conscious decision I made upfront that eliminates the micro-stressors of constantly trying to rationalize or feel guilty about how I choose to spend my time.
Compartmentalizing and planning my time is another key strategy that helps keep my priorities from clashing. Having an early wake-up time has been one of my greatest gifts to my family and me, because it allows me to focus solely on Elisamama while the kids are asleep. The evenings are family time where I focus solely on the kids and stay disciplined about leaving business responsibilities out.
The truth is, I can only do all the things if I have a sound body and mind. I therefore make it a point to invest in the things that genuinely give me life—sleep, working out, eating well, close, authentic friendships, and periodic self-care days. I also try to be clear about my limitations plus the value of my time and outsource chores and tasks as I’m able to. I have cleaners for the house and a virtual assistant that assists with business tasks.
Having an amazing husband that supports my goals and is able to pick up where I’m unable to has been the greatest blessing to keeping my sanity intact. I also give myself grace to make mistakes and accept that my best as good enough.
Getting to know the seamstresses in Nigeria, was there any particular story that hit hard for you or that served as a catalyst to start a project with them/for them?
There are so many stories that hit hard and fuel this work. The truth is most of the stories are similar. They all follow the same pattern of how the lack of funds have stunted life, hope, and future.
We recently hired Aminat, a beautiful, energetic, bubbly 22-year-old young lady. To meet Aminat is to love her—her personality shines. She had to drop out of high school at S.S.2 (equivalent to the 11th grade) because her dad lost his job and her family could not afford to pay her fees. She went on to obtain vocational training in sewing—the same lack of funds kept her from completing the training or establishing herself as a seamstress. When we met Aminat, she was idle in her family’s home with nothing to do. After her first paycheck, Aminat remarked “my account is heavy”—she had never earned a paycheck, let alone something of that size. Aminat’s story might seem trivial, but if we paused and reflected on the direction of her life, a sharp 22-year-old with limited education and vocational skills, trapped in her circumstance, not by lack of interest or any fault of hers but due to family born into and geography. Truth is Aminat’s story is very typical. Most of our seamstresses sadly share the same experience.
How are you able to divide the profit to be able to keep a business running as well as provide for the workers?
While the desire to completely transform the lives of our seamstresses inspires this work, it occurred to me very early on that the only way to fulfill our purpose, reach more lives, and make a deep, long-lasting impact is to have a business that is successful. I am committed to ensuring that we have a self-sustainable business that can stand primarily on the value of the products. As a result, our main priority at this time when it comes to investing back profits is the business itself and putting in the proper framework, equipment, tools, and resources to ensure we are positioned to support our growth trajectory. That said, we currently offer our staff pay above living wage, accommodation, paid time off, and annual bonuses. I am very eager to attain more business growth to afford us the opportunity to deepen and broaden our social impact.
How has Elisamama been able to help the quality of life of the seamstresses?
When we talk about making a difference, it often seems very surface level and cliché, but to see it actually unfold in tangible ways is something that never ceases to make me emotional.
Through this job:
Food is being put on tables.
Kids that would otherwise languish at home are now able to go back to school because their moms work with Elisamama.
Young ladies with limited-to-no education or career prospects now have a job that not only pays them well but also preserves their dignity and gives them a pathway for career growth.
The alternative to this work for most of our seamstresses is to take on harsh, tasking jobs with minimal, unsustainable pay. To see young ladies hawking in the hot streets of Lagos gives me a deep appreciation for the work we do and motivates me to grow Elisamama to further touch more lives.
Being passionate about something is crucial to developing a business, but what happens when your passion speaks louder than the actual business itself? Has that happened?
Yes, balancing passion against the business is something I always contend with at Elisamama. Given that my passion for this work is rooted in my commitment to touch lives, my natural inclination is to throw caution to the wind and focus solely on that, but I have quickly realized that that strategy could completely sabotage our efforts.
In the early days of Elisamama, I brought on seamstresses whose stories deeply moved me, but their work was not up to par with the quality we required to provide value to our customers. While my heart was committed to keeping them on, after several failed attempts to improve their work, the logical side of me reminded me that I could keep them on and create sub-par products, or I could let them go and create products that not only afforded us business success but also the opportunity to have long-lasting impact and touch more lives. From that point on, I quickly changed my perspective from seeing the business as anti-my passion to actually the thing that makes it possible to fulfill my passion. We now have objective metrics in place that guide our decisions to ensure we do not allow our passion/emotions to compromise the business.
Do you look up to anyone or any company that inspires how you run your business?
There’s no singular person I look up to, but I am often inspired and encouraged by amazing stories of perseverance and resilience. Early on in this journey, I came across the story of Raegan Moya-Jones and how she overcame countless adversities to establish Aden and Anais. She was raising three young children and in a full-time job while building the business. I see several parallels in my story and hers, and I hope to one day also steer Elisamama to success.
What has been your best learning experience so far?
The experience of getting into and selling at Saks Fifth Avenue has been our most intense learning experience. The first lesson is: No dream is too big; it all depends on how badly you want it. Truth is being at Saks was an opportunity that seemed so lofty I could never have fathomed or imagined it. I had never seen a business like mine in a major store, let alone one like Saks.
What this opportunity has now done for me and other businesses like mine is giving us confidence to know that we also can dream big. We have what it takes to take up space, and when we are invited to a room, to know that we belong there and present our true authentic selves. This is a lesson that has taken time for me, and I am still doing the mind work to work through Imposter Syndrome but getting there.
The other lesson this Saks journey has reinforced for me is kindness and generosity. The Saks opportunity came from an introduction that was made from a fellow woman-owned business on Instagram. She was going through a hard time in her business at that time (and actually was in the process of closing her brick-and-mortar shop she had owned for many years) and had been trying for years to get into Saks. Despite her situation, without prompting, she introduced Elisamama to the Saks buyer! Fast forward to today, she also has been picked up by Saks and has a major presence at their stores! This was a true lesson for me in not allowing one’s aspirations get in the way of what you can do for others.
Anything you would do differently?
Honestly, I would say nothing. Everything we have done—especially the most painful mistakes and missteps—have given us crucial opportunities for deep learning and brought us to where we are today. It all has worked together for our good in one way or the other, so no, I would not do anything differently.
Tell us about the importance of bringing a part of your culture, colors, and fashion to the United States.
It is an honor to be a steward of showcasing the Nigerian culture to an American and global audience. You know, growing up, I never had an appreciation for the culture. The longer I have spent away from Nigeria, the deeper my appreciation for my Nigerian culture and its people has become, and I am excited to share that with my Elisamama community.
The common stereotype presented of Nigerians is generally not positive, but even more problematic, it is incomplete. One of my goals through this work is to add more to the Nigerian narrative beyond what is conventionally shared. I am eager to show that Nigeria is a place where products fit for a global audience can be produced. I am committed to telling our stories and showcasing our ingenuity, creativity, and optimism, regardless of circumstance.
As challenging as life in Nigeria can be, the joy, pride, and confidence Nigerians have is unparalleled. Go to a Nigerian gathering and the eye feast of bright, vibrant, elaborate clothing will leave you in awe. It is often said that “Nigerians are the happiest people in the world.” I have no empirical evidence to back that claim up, but that’s the word on the Nigerian streets. Whether or not we are the happiest people, the reality is that Nigerians are an optimistic and proud people. I suspect the joyful, vibrant clothing has a lot to do with that mindset. I mean how could you not be uplifted with those colors? With the shift to neutrals in the last few years, I think us in the U.S. are missing the opportunity to leverage the joy our clothes could offer. When people interact with our Elisamama clothes, the most common adjective they describe it as is “joyful”—our clothes give them joy! With the heavy state of things in recent times, we all could absolutely use more joy.
Another importance of our clothing is the opportunity it provides to broaden horizons and take our customers to places they have never been. Every owner of an Elisamama item owns an item that is not only joyful to wear but also rich in history and has a journey. A piece of clothing that started as fabric purchased from the bustling streets of Oshodi market in Lagos is hand sewn by seamstresses (whose pictures you can see and stories you can read about) before it makes its way into their closets. Our clothes are a conversation starter, a way to enlighten and educate one about places far, far away. What an incredible opportunity, and I am glad I can facilitate that through Elisamama.