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Q&A: How Winnie Awa left the straight and narrow

Winnie Awa Antidote Street

Antidote Street is a new online destination, curating advice, products and content for anyone with curly, kinky, afro or multi-textured hair. We sat down with founder Winnie Awa for a Zoom Dive, to discuss her journey from business technology student, through stints at Net-a-Porter, ASOS and LVMH, to founder of her own brand.

Q&A with Winnie Awa, Antidote Street

CE:

So, number one, you’ve got a fascinating, a fascinating background. I think you only moved to the UK when you were 16?

WA:

So yes, I did move to the UK at the age of 16 – I was born and raised in Nigeria, and I moved here to study – my dad was very keen. I was living in Birmingham University, then I went to University of Manchester where I studied technology and business technology – with real computer science modules.

But I fought to include business in my uni studies because, during my A Levels, I had the most amazing Business Studies teacher, Rachel Voice – she really ignited something in me from such a young age. She would take us to these Disneyland Paris like events for students, and it’ll teach you about the business of Disney, it was so cool. It was so so cool! After that, I wanted to ensure that my studies always included some kind of business element.

Haircare Antidote Street

CE:

I’m so thrilled to know people like Rachel are out there. I think for a lot of creative people, business is too often explained in a way they can’t relate to, and it’s not exciting – they can’t see the possibilities of it.

WA:

Yeah, I think it’s about storytelling – the business ways of describing business can be a little bit boring. I’ve always been inspired by things from the left field of industry – just recently I was listening to a film director Masterclass from David Lynch, which was so fascinating! So on that Disney visit, I was seeing how this thing we all enjoy – the rides, the cartoons – all operates from a business perspective, how it’s all produced. And that’s what planted the seed that I wanted to keep growing.

You know, being a Nigerian kid, my parents wanted me to study ‘serious topics’ –  engineering, accountancy, law. But, you know, I’m the youngest out of seven kids, so I was like, “what’s left?” And business was already a love for me, that I wanted to be part and parcel of whatever I did next.

CE:

You were number seven! I love that point. I was talking to someone who used to be a head of Goldsmiths who said the same sort of thing – “most of the kids here are number three in the family.” Because careers in the creative sector are seen as a bit commercially unstable – even though, y’know, look at Disney! So he had this hunch that all the oldest siblings and only children were being pushed in a less creative direction.

AW:

I mean, before I actually decided to leave my job and start a company, I didn’t tell anyone in my family. I didn’t tell them! Because I didn’t want to make that decision from a place of fear. It’s important to tune into yourself and think about, “what am I doing? Why am I doing it? What does it mean for me, my life, and the impact that I want to make?” So I told them after the fact.

CE:

But you were a management consultant at some point, right? So you’d gone a little bit down that road…

AW:

Right. So while I was in university, I wanted to get some experience, so halfway through I got a job at IBM in Portsmouth as a software tester, which the university were OK with, and then after that, I went back to school to finish my degree. Then I went on to be a management consultant. Because what I learned from IBM was, yes, software is cool, and I have real respect for technology and coding, but actually, what I want to do is to be having interactions with people. I like having conversations with people!

So I needed to not be… in a basement somewhere running tests.

CE:

It’s so important for people to really take in on an internal level: know yourself, don’t fight it, go with it, lean into it. Whatever is really important to you, that’s where you’re going to do your best work.

AW:

100%. Like, what I see today about the team that I’m starting to build is: I need everybody to come as their full selves, right? Because I genuinely think that that’s where you get real creativity, real innovation. And I think when you’re leaning into yourself, and you have the ability to express your full self in any circumstance, that’s where you see the gold. And that’s where people are fulfilled, that’s where they’re excited to come to work. That’s the type of company culture that I’m interested in building. And you’re right, it really starts from tuning in.

CE:

Absolutely. Absolutely. So you made a big controversial jump after?

AW:

Sure. So, I guess I’ve done the jump several times. At first I was in management consultancy, but I realised that actually I really, really loved fashion.

But for whatever reason, it had never occurred to me that I could even work in fashion! Untione day, my friends and I were working late, and looking at all the fashion sites that we loved, and we were like “ah, what if we worked there?”

But I took that to the next level – It wouldn’t leave my head. I was like, “What if I worked in this fashion company, I could bring the skills that I’ve learned and I could take it here.” So I started applying – I remember that Christmas so clearly, because I wouldn’t apply for anything else. Headhunters were calling wanting me to go to other either investment banks or other management consultancies, but I didn’t want any part of that. I just wanted to work in fashion. And that was how I moved from management consulting to fashion!

CE:

That’s such an important point – something we talk about all the time, is having your “North Star.” You don’t need to know the specifics right now. But: what makes you passionate? The things that, really, you’re on fire to do whatever it is. And your “North Star” was fashion. You didn’t know how you’re going to do that. But look what happened, once you started aiming in that direction!

AW:

I think it definitely needed that – that kind of sense of going and full hearted. Being able to say “Actually, I’m going to say ‘no’ to all the people who are like, “hey, come and work at Accenture!”

When I think back to the times that I’ve made contrarian decisions for my life, or things that are actually linked to what it is that I want for myself. It’s been, you know, when I decided actually I’m going to switcheroo and go into fashion.

Even though I didn’t tell my dad ‘fashion.’ My sister was like, “do NOT mention fashion. You have to just sell it as e-commerce.” I remember my father’s email and he was like “Yes, send me a write-up.” So I was like, “it’s an e-comm company, they’re owned by Rushmore…” And he just wanted to know that his daughter was still operating at the standard he envisioned! Which is so hilarious.

I guess the second time was when I left to run my business. So yeah, you’re absolutely right, it’s just being single-minded about where it is that you want to go. I didn’t evenknow there were so many things I didn’t know about at that time, all I knew was that I’ve loved some things. And I think I can bring those things here. And that was what I made. When I was interviewed. That was what I spoke about. I spoke about the fact that I was fascinated by this industry. And I saw myself there. So that was what helped me with that particular move.

CE:

And that lends itself very much to the creative sector. It’s building on your unique skills, because all of us are unique. There are skills, experiences, everything that’s happened in our lives, bringing us to a point where we are completely and totally unique. What are the things that are uniquely me and my strengths, and then translating them to the place you want to go? It’s such a powerful realisation.

AW:

I actually read a book by Mireille Guiliano, the former CEO of Veuve Cliquot. She’s an American living in Paris. And she says: spend some time writing out what you believe your skills are. Spend some time, right now, on the things that you’re curious about.

I like to use ‘curiosity’ rather than ‘passion.’ Because I think that ‘passion’ can be scary for people. They almost start to feel down, and they think well, ‘what am I passionate about? I don’t know what I’m passionate about!’ And sometimes, ‘curiosity’ is just as good. Because you can, you can be very, very curious about a lamp, and why a lamp does a certain thing. And following that to its logical conclusion, could bring a new way of seeing lamps!

Anyway, she encourages you to map out each of those things. I even map out the things that I don’t have! So I was like, “OK, well, I don’t know anything about the fashion industry. There are a lot of aspects I don’t even know about. I’m a naturally creative person, but I haven’t worked in the design industry.” I didn’t even know like typical design software and all of that. So I’ve no clue. I was totally fresh. And all I knew for fashion was by watching Sex in the City!

But also: I knew I knew strategy. I knew product. I knew how to deliver things. I knew how to make things happen. I knew how to problem solve. I was naturally creative. So I really leaned into those things.

CE:

And then you were able to get your foot in the door, and explain what you could uniquely bring to that company. So: tell us about Net-a-Porter!

AW:

Net-a-Porter was such a wild ride! I’m still in touch with so many people that wIe worked with. We always think about that period in our lives as almost going through some sort of MBA, because we all loved it so much.

You know, I joined a little bit later in its startup journey. It still had the startup feel to it, but I wasn’t one of the first 10 employees or anything like that. But it was such a brilliant space. I worked in a team called Strategic Product. And we delivered things that were crucial to the strategy of the company – typically, it was cutting edge technology. So we delivered the first ever mobile ecom platform for Givenchy at a time when they were like “Yeah… we don’t know what this is.” They didn’t have an ecom platform, they maybe had like, a page for, you know, for their Collections Online, but they definitely were not transacting online. So that was such an exciting project.

And I remember the founder at the time saying to me, “you’re the CEO of this project, now run with it.” And that’s still something that I bring into everybody that I work with, because I need them to have that level of ownership. Like, my blood was on the line for it, because I knew that the buck stops with me.

And it’s in certain ways, when you’re building your own business, or when you’re a freelancer, it stops with us. So you move heaven and earth to make things happen, you creatively solve problems on the fly, you look for creative ways of doing things, even if you don’t have enough money, or you know, all of that stuff to make it happen. And you know, we did lots of other different things, lots of exciting projects that we worked on, as well as other completely left field things like looking at our packaging, looking at the experience of the packaging, and the way it was delivered to the customer, and what it needed to be, how sustainable it needed to be. It was just such a phenomenal time.

And after Net-a-Porter I moved on to ASOS.  I look at Net-a-Porter as my 360 degree e-comm view, and then I look at ASOS as my 360 tech view, because at ASOS, the gears switched quite a lot. They had over 80 million active customers. Whilst I was there, I worked again, as a product lead, looking at personalization. So actually, we delivered the first ever AI system at ASOS those personalises for those 80 million active customers.

And that was just that was the first time we’re building anything like that. And it was just like, it was crazy. We’re learning from scratch and just making it up as we went along. But it was a phenomenal product. And the same with loyalty, customer relationship management.

I was leading a team that was made up of developers, user experience designers, business analysts. So my experience has definitely changed from a bit more of a generalist view to very, very focused on technology. And I learned a lot whilst I was at ASOS.

But then, I actually decided to quit, because it was time for me to focus full time on Antidote Street.

Prior to that, I had launched it, working in the evenings, working on the weekends, testing lots of different things to see what stuck. And in the meantime, learning so much about the customer. But I was getting to a point where I really felt that, this industry that I’m so passionate about, that pretty much has been a part of my life from infancy, is not as great as it needed to be. And I was so resolved to bring all that experience to the space and bring it into the 21st century and beyond. And at the time when I actually quit my job,  A friend of mine is like, “OK, great, you’ve quit! I’m at LVMH in Paris! Can you come and spend some time with me here? And I was like, “Dude, I’m trying to launch!”

So I spent some time, part time, at LVMH, before ultimately focusing full time on the business as well.

CE:

And the industry you’re talking about is the textured hair industry. And I really want to unpack this. I think it’s so interesting. You talked about being at Net-A-Porter, and it being a very startup culture. And it was started by Natalie Massenet. Why? Because she wanted it. She didn’t understand why she couldn’t be shopping online. You had the same experience, you found something that you needed, and you couldn’t believe it wasn’t out there.

And that’s a very typical and exciting entrepreneurial journey where you have the spark of an idea, and you sort of get it going as a side hustle, before you take the leap. So when did you think: “maybe there’s more out here?” and then realise there genuinely is as big a gap in the market as you thought?

AW:

I mean, so it starts from the experience as a child, right. So my own experience with my hair, was that from the age of four or five, it was chemically straightened.

CE:

Four or five?! That’s actually dangerous, it’s on your scalp!

AW:

Exactly. It is. And that journey kind of carried on through to adulthood. So I didn’t really even know that my hair was curly, because whenever the … will come out, it would be straightened. And then as I became an adult, I didn’t actually know how to look after my hair. I would relax it, I would put weaves – I actually didn’t really understand it.

When I started to really engage in the industry was when I stopped relaxing my hair. And then I was suddenly starting to learn how to care for it by myself. And I realised that I constantly came up short. I didn’t know what types of products to use.