Continuing our series of profiles of women of colour making their mark in business and across industry. Mariatu Turay is the founder of Gitas Portal, a mid-market, luxury brand, known for its clever use of African wax prints to create sophisticated, feminine and beautiful styles. The brand is not just about beautiful quality clothes, but promotes a positive image and narrative of brand Africa; and encourages women to ‘Be Bold, Win and Wear Colour. She launched the business in 2011.
What drove you to start your own business?
I’ve always been entrepreneurial, even as a child I’d trade my braiding skills. However, growing up among female relatives who were business women helped, and influenced me in more ways than I could have imagined.
My mum was also a strong influence, she was very fond of the saying, ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket’, and this has stuck with me throughout my life. So throughout college and university, I was always engaged in some form of buying and selling, while working part-time.
So, the roots of an entrepreneur were always there and being nurtured through the various ventures I engaged in. These were the training ground days where (and though some of these businesses were born out of necessity) I learned a lot and survived challenges that helped me assess whether I had the fortitude for entrepreneurism. One of the signs was that as some of the businesses failed I would find myself starting another with the same passion. I was clearly hooked. I clearly loved the challenge of being my own boss and the freedom to make decisions, but also being able to make my own money and create a healthy lifestyle doing what I love.
My current venture Gitas Portal started off as a hobby and just grew organically out of my passion to share my love for African print; promote a positive image and narrative of brand African; and to inspire and empower women to embrace who they are and shine doing what they love, using my journey story as a reference point .
What was your career path before starting your business?
I started work as a hair stylist, braiding for a salon in the US. This was my first paid job. I enjoyed the creativity that came with it but knew that coming from an African family with high achievers, being a hairstylist was just not deemed good enough.
So, I worked in corporate America across a number of administrative/business roles before moving to the UK where I worked across the voluntary, private and public sectors. I settled in the Civil Service where I worked for 13 years in the Treasury and Cabinet Office, holding a number of policy roles before jumping ship to become a full-time entrepreneur, running Gitas Portal
Tell us about the business planning stage
I didn’t start off in business with a formal written business plan to start any of my ventures. This perhaps is to do with my personality as an optimist, a doer that’s slightly impatient with a very analytical mind. I’ve always started by ‘jumping into the water’ with my business idea firmly insight and some semblance of a mental picture of what I need to do to get my idea/ vision off the ground in the early stages. So, with everything clear in my mind’s eye, I just get on and do it.
I tend to write the formal business plan after I’ve started the business and it’s achieved a steady state, and it’s now time to start looking at what’s next. No matter how much research etc you do as a business owner, there’s nothing like doing it in reality. It’s the real-time that gives you the experience and a true understanding of your business and so I’ve used this period to gain the insights that would then feed my business plan, rather than the other way around.
It’s not about right or wrong when deciding whether you opt for a formal written business plan or not; for me it’s about what you are comfortable with, the level of experience you have, your risk appetite, funding source, scale and type of business.
How far ahead do you plan and what keeps you on track and motivated?
I plan 12 – 18 months ahead regularly monitoring progress against targets but keeping my plans open so the business can flex and be fluid to deal with unexpected changes and pressures.
Being a small business also has the advantage of being able to respond quickly to changes as decisions can be taken quite quickly. In this environment, being an entrepreneur requires self-motivation and both my successes and failures keep me motivated.
As a role model to my children, and with a mindset that life is sweeter when you shift your focus so it’s not just about me but about others too; I find this gives me the strength to get up and put in one more fight when times become challenging.
Can you describe a typical working day?
I start off my day at about 6.30ish in the morning as that’s when my mind starts racing off on all the actions I have for the day and week. From 7am – 9pm, it’s supporting my husband in getting the children out of the home for school and sorting any last-minute stuff relevant to the children.
Then, its breakfast for two and the news. My day is then punctuated with anything from promotional work, design, and production, managing customer engagement, managing the retail side of the business, research etc.
What has been the most amazing day in your entrepreneurial life so far?
Coming to terms with my worth and believing I can do this. Realising that I can be a full-time entrepreneur and live off my business, and having the confidence to do it and live my passion by freeing my mind to believe in who I am and what I have to offer.
Fear and procrastination can steal some of our best years and in the worse instance rob us of our best lif
What has been your scariest moment?
Quitting my full-time job (even though it was high time, but life again teaches us in many ways to be cautious and sometimes for good reasons) and stepping out in faith – having the boldness to pursue my vision.
How do you work on making your business grow?
Everytime I achieve a milestone, I’m already miles ahead on visioning the next big moves.
See It To Have It. So in many ways what’s happening in real-time in my business, every small step, and strategy is taking account of the future, laying the foundations for the future vision.
What is the best thing about being your own boss?
Being able to take meaningful decisions because it’s not just about me. Giving myself the scope to fail without fear – I can take certain risks an employee would be hesitant to take or cannot take.
Self-empowerment. No one can take this away from you – only you can give it up.
What are the challenges of working for yourself and how do you tackle them?
Financial uncertainty is very real especially in the early years of the business and you have to make disciplined choices about money.
Some days I suffer from ‘motivation fatigue’ and I do realise now this comes from the demands I make on myself to succeed and failing to regularly celebrate myself and achievements, however small. So, I bout with temporary spells of losing perspective because I’m quite driven and this is not just about business. I’m driving to be a good wife to my husband by holding my end of our love commitment; a mother to my children that’s providing sound guidance in love and understanding, and also making a positive impact in the lives of others.
The reality of being your own boss is that you are the driving force and it takes a lot of energy to drive and accomplish the vision and bring others with you. It’s important for me to be spiritually engaged and grounded in the things that really matter, and not be consumed by business and the world’s interpretation of success.
When you work for yourself, there is a different level of pressure around not failing or how you fail. No one goes out intentionally to fail when you’ve invested yourself in your business but having a healthy view of failure is so critical to your wellbeing and success.
Failure can potentially be self and soul-destroying especially in this world of social media that businesses have to engage in. It has created this bubble that is so fragile and superficial. So, it’s important for me to have balance and perspective and to embrace the simple and yet complex things in life e.g. relationships, love, kindness and to acknowledge my limitations as a way to self-empowerment.
Who do you admire or look to for inspiration as a business owner?
Oprah. She’s earned her stripes and is wise. She’s an icon. Having said that, I’m always keeping an eye out for everyday women doing extraordinary things. These are the women who are making a difference (many times without the spotlight). Strong, resilient women. Fighters who have either created their own space to make their voices heard – women like Rugie (MrsWeddingPlanner); Sonia Meggie of Inspirational You; Faith of Melqosh Mission; and there are many others who in the absence of privilege are impacting the lives of others.
It really goes to show how determination, courage and a big heart can open doors for others.
What piece of advice has had the most impact on your business? And who was it from?
I’m blessed to have a mother who constantly speaks affirmations/blessings over my life. She tells me to believe and do what’s right and all will be well.
What are the three books, websites or resources (professional or personal) that you would recommend to other business owners?
There are so many out there but very few people in business refer to the Bible. It’s full of wisdom for life experiences, business, relationships etc (You don’t have to be a Christian to read the Bible) Matthew 25: 14-30 talks about the parable of the talents. We all have at least one talent. Something that we are good at and exceptional if we invest in it. Some people discover what this gift is and run with it. Others will sit on their talent, failing to use it wisely to grow and bless those around them.
When you start walking in your talent, life becomes easier because there is alignment. You are happier because you are doing what comes to you naturally. Whether it’s business or some other work of life, find what your talent is and apply it and you will see the difference you start to make and the impact you have on others. It’s a magnet.
What other passions do you have away from your business? How do you relax?
I love a good movie and the theatre; but most of all spending time observing nature. Also listening to Jazz. True relaxation is going away somewhere nice where all I have to focus on is me and indulge in my wish list.
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