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Maryam Elisha: An Entrepreneur That Owns The Fashion Stage

Nothing sharpens the determination of an entrepreneur as much as acceptance, appreciation and recognition of his or her efforts. Imagine the shock and finally the excitement that flowed through every part of her when a few days after the just concluded African Fashion Week, she was named Designer of the Year, 2016, by House of Qhue.

Maryam Elisha is a business woman with numerous interests of which fashion takes the lead. Young, beautiful, determined, persistent, smart and hardworking, she has the ingredients success requires.

Her Rikaoto by ME fashion brand was established in 2009. The name Rikaoto is her middle name, which means fruitful in her Hausa language and ME is simply Maryam Elisha.

Though Rikaoto designs regular outfit, the brand is famous for red carpet dresses and official outfits. Coming from her modeling and pageantry background, this dynamic CEO understands how important it is to nail the right outfit at shows that call for glam and beauty. She knew exactly the type of outfits that was demanded and immediately went to work to provide this highly demanded service. It is therefore not a surprise that the accolades find a home with her for the success of her work.

The Fashion Designer of the Year, 2016, aside, she was also named Pageant Couturier of Year 2016. Her dresses are also winning awards at different beauty pageants.

The reality is this, whether others like it or not, Maryam Elisha is not an ex-beauty queen who is just having fun in the fashion industry. She is a talented and serious business woman, who is always thinking of the next step in the game and what she has to do to ensure the solidity and lifespan of her brand.  Also, while many other beauty queens exit the stage at the end of their reign, Miss Elisha has made the centre stage her home because of Rikaoto. 

Drive Magazine sat down at Four Points, with Maryam to talk about her entrepreneurship journey.


What is it like surviving as an entrepreneur in this economy?
It is not funny. People now tend to price items lower and of course fabrics are more expensive in the market due to the exchange rate. It is insane to work with but so far we are coping and hoping that things will get better as soon as possible.

When exactly did you decide you wanted to become an entrepreneur?
I decided about eight years ago. When I was a beauty queen I had a foundation called Save Tomorrow Today. I used to go to different organisations, trying to seek for support in terms of funds to be able to take care of those less privileged children I had under my foundation. It was quite challenging because most people don’t believe in what you do until they see a proof and they are directly involved in it. But I thought of what I could do to be able to raise the fund to support these children on my own, not just relaxing and depending on different organisations to support and all of that. I know I have always loved fashion and after school I went for the training at the New Jersey Fashion School, so I settled into being a fashion designer.

How long did the training take?
Eight months

Did you have any other previous training?
Yes. Before going to New Jersey, I was able to sew. I knew how to combine colours and do the detailing on outfits. I learnt that as a hobby. It was just something I do when I am free, and out of fun with my friends or with my mum who can sew. But of course apart from fashion designing I do other businesses which I really don’t showcase in my interviews but being an entrepreneur generally is fun and a bit challenging.

What kind of challenges are we talking about?
As a fashion designer, we have to work with electricity all the time so that is a bit of challenge when it isn’t constant but it is beginning to pick up and it is getting better now. When I started, when I was new in the business, getting clients was a bit challenging but I am not suffering from that anymore. Presently, I will say the challenge apart from the state of the economy of course, is in getting to work with different personalities, dealing with different kinds of people. But then, this is my job; this is what I love to do and I keep up to it.

You talked about your initial challenge of getting clients. How did you overcome that?
Being an ex-model and ex-beauty queen, it was a little bit easy for me because I already had a lot of top friends in the industry who really were in need of some of the services I could offer. So they decided to give me a try and it was a bit easier for me and of course they would recommend other people to come for our brand but then it was challenging in the sense that I had to start telling other people who didn’t know what I did about what I do and I am a very quiet person and I don’t like to talk too much or to be out there so much but then I had to do it and now I love it.

When you put yourself out there that you could provide certain services, were you taken seriously?
No. They did not believe me. Even my friends didn’t take me seriously. They all said I am fine and fine girls don’t know how to do all these hard work. They just know how to wear their make up and go but then I had to make sure that I did my best to prove that I could do this and they should believe in me.

You also talked about the challenge of dealing with people of different characters. How do you handle it exactly?
Coming from my experience as a beauty queen and as a model, I was able to mix with a lot of people so I am already used to the whole industry and you have to always talk to so many people. You have to keep a lot of friends to find out what they need, what is vogue and what you can offer and stuff like that so I am just used to it because my past experience prepared me.

Why is it important to you to succeed as an entrepreneur?
It is very important. If you have a dream and a vision and you want that thing to really move forward, you have to believe in yourself at the starting point because no one is going to believe in you if you don’t believe that you can do it and prove yourself that you can, so it is very important to succeed so you can also give others that confidence to know that you can not only do this but also contribute your quota in your country or in your generation.

Did you initially believe that you will be able to pull it off?
In the beginning I thought I could and that it was a lot easier and it was something I could do like ABCD but then it is not that easy. It was challenging and at every point I try to make sure that I keep up with standards and people’s expectation in terms of the brand and what we do.

At what point in time did you know and feel that you are actually on the right track and this will work?
Recently. I have always believed in the brand but recently we have been getting great comments and feedback and appreciations and awards. Presently we are the best designer of the year 2016, so all of these things come together to make us believe that ‘oh we are doing the right thing and we should do more’.

Do you design?
Yes. I do my designs, I do my sketching myself. And we also have other designers that do sketches also. You see, no one knows it all. When we need some kind of blend/mixture, we tell different designers to give us what they think would be in vogue for the year and when we get the sketch and we feel they have something nice, we pick two or three and pay for them and use them and interpret the sketch in our own way. But then I do mostly everything; the interpretation, sketching and direct my tailors on how to go about what we should do.

What are the challenges in the Nigerian industry that could be preventing progression?
I won’t say there is any, but the only thing I will say is that if Nigerians can learn to believe more in the designers, we will have more sales and we will be able to create more items and I am totally against the believe that it has to be imported. In Africa we are creative and our designs are unique in our own way so we should learn to believe in our people and give it a trial for those who haven’t.

Why are you into charity?
I love to support, to give a helping hand to people generally. I would say it is my nature or something I just love to do generally. When I was a beauty queen, I needed to have a project and the organisation asked me to come up with something. I love children and it pains me to see that some are neglected. If one can mentor them in terms of advice, monitoring how they are really doing education wise, their progress, their challenges etc. it would really help to reduce the number of girls who just get pregnant on the way. And it also helps to mentor those children who do not see any reason for education and thus do not want to go to school. I thought I could do that and I have been doing it and it has been an amazing experience.

Would you consider yourself a role model for girls in the north?
That is a difficult question. Well, I don’t know if I am really a role model to some of the people, but I remember when I was a beauty queen, I was told it wasn’t enough for me to be a role model by carrying designer bags and wearing all the expensive shoes and all that. What makes you a role model is the amount of impact you have been able to achieve as an individual. But lots of young girls get to think that someone just being some sort of celebrity is a role model. I don’t see it that way. It should be about the amount of lives you are able to affect positively. So I will just leave it to people to decide whether I am or not. I know that in my community in Kebbi state, we don’t really have so many young girls coming out to speak out or participate in normal things like going into pageantry, being an entrepreneur, getting well educated and all that, so I would like to encourage them to do a lot in that area.

You were able to capitalize on your connections as a model and beauty queen to lunch your business. A lot of young people do not see opportunities that are before them. What can they do for themselves instead of waiting for the government?
I always say young people should capitalize on whatever is available and what they can offer. Everybody is creative in one way of the other. Discover your own talent, your own format, your own way, your own style. What you can offer, what you can do and how you can do your own thing and put all your energy into it to make it work. Social media makes it a lot easier also. If you want to do anything, do it and showcase it on Facebook, Instagram etc. and just promote what you do. When people see it, they will call you. It doesn’t have to be you going to take a page in a traditional newspaper for people to see your work. It is a lot easier now.

You were named ‘Fashion Designer of The Year 2016’ by House of Qhue. How did that come about? Did you expect it?
No. I was very surprised because I wasn’t expecting them to consider me, but then it was amazing. I cannot explain the feeling. It was really exciting and I felt appreciated and it is an opportunity for me to do more to continue to contribute our quota in Nigeria and in Africa.

What kind of opportunities does that offer you?
It offers you the opportunity to meet more people and make more sales. I know some clients who does not make outfit from someone that is not the designer of the year. They call me and say ‘I know that you just won the designer of the year. I usually switch to try other designers that emerge the designer of the year, so please make me proud and let me see what you can offer. I am like really? Okay. So it does bring in more clients.

*Interview as published in the August edition of Drive Magazine. You can download and read other stories here.
You can also get previous editions of Drive Magazine here.