Babou Olengha Aaby: Building a Crowdfunding Business around her Authentic Self

Babou Olengha-Aaby at Crowdsourcing Week Europe 2014. Courtesy of Sebastiaan ter Bur

Babou Olengha Aaby is convinced the biggest market opportunity lies not with India, China, or Brazil but rather women. But she wants to be clear on one thing: female entrepreneurship is not a gender issue, it’s an economic one. Women-owned businesses make for good business sense and smart economics: they start small, grow slowly, and fail less. And yet they attract only 1/3 of all venture capital. The Norwegian-based Olengha Aaby wants to change all that with her new crowdfunding platform specifically aimed at what she calls “mumpreneurs”.

“My big fat dream with Mums Mean Business is to provide all entrepreneurial mothers with a triple A service: access to finance, access to mentoring, and access to inspirational role models. Our goal is to provide aspiring mothers with start-up ambitions much-needed guidance in their critical first year of business to help get them to the next level.”

Olengha Aaby was born in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Her mother was a diplomat so the family moved around quite a bit until she was 12 and permanently relocated to the UK. “We had returned to the DRC following a posting in Poland and the riots were in full swing. The last straw came when a solder put a gun to my forehead. My mother sent me to live with my aunt and uncle in the UK, and I stayed for a further 16 years.”

Graduating from Bournemouth University with a degree in advertising marketing communications, Olengha Aaby held account management positions with various ad agencies and did in-house PR marketing communications for a fashion brand until she became Director of Marketing for Volt, an independent style magazine. “Those years were quite formative for me, a time when my passion for entrepreneurship was ignited. The founder of the clothing company had gone to the same university as me and taken the business from a start-up in his bedroom to a six-figure business in less than five years. That was a great learning curve because he gave his employees the freedom to succeed and fail.”

She caught the proverbial entrepreneurial bug and, at 26 years of age, launched her own business. Butcher Couture was an eco- high-fashion label focused on design, craftsmanship and sustainability. Starting with organic leather jackets produced in Slovenia, the ambitious Olengha Aaby expanded the line to eyewear and interior lifestyle products after two years. “In our first months of operation, we were featured in Elle magazine’s ‘One to Watch’. We got an email from Madonna’s publicist, and I thought it was a joke,” she recalls with a laugh.

The business was self-funded with her mother and then-boyfriend-now-husband chipping in. She spent a lot of time on the road at fashion and trade shows, getting buyers on board, and ended up running Butcher Couture from Norway where she moved with her fiancé.

A Butcher Couture jacket
A Butcher Couture jacket

But the brand was niche, and the volume never really materialized. Olengha Aaby found herself struggling as she worked hard to instill meaning into a label in an industry that wasn’t ready for it so she decided to close shop. “I simply lost a hunger for the business but it wasn’t wasted. Butcher Couture was the lead up to Mums Mean Business in so many ways. It was me learning what I really wanted to do with my life. It allowed me to make so many of the mistakes that first time entrepreneurs make but that I now know I wouldn’t have made if I had had a mentor.”

With the impending birth of her first child, the newly unemployed mom-to-be was fortunate to be able to take a short break to reflect. “I thought, ‘What am I going to teach this child about me, about the world we live in and the kind of world I want to leave behind?’ It was very much about what will my contribution be? I allowed myself to think about what went wrong with my first business and how I could leverage the learnings in whatever I would do next.”

One thing for sure, she knew she had to be less of a “control freak”, let go and not own 100% of whatever came next: “I was going to surround myself with people who are much smarter than I am, and I would be willing to forego some equity if what I could get in return would help me achieve my goals.”

Olengha Aaby also knew she needed to find her passion: “With Butcher Couture, I had a hunger but no purpose to succeed.”

So how did figure out what her next move would be? She started with a simple exercise. “Think about every time people ask you for help. Analyze what they are really seeking from you. What do they perceive your strengths to be? Compare this to what you think you are good at. Then think about your values. What do you do stand for? If your key strengths are in sync with how people perceive you and you can marry this with your values, then you can build a business around this, around your authentic self.”

In Olengha Aaby’s case, people often called her for information and business advice. When reflecting on her values, she realized how she loves to inspire people, that she’s most motivated and driven when passionate about her work, that she loves to create value that solves real problems, and that she is at her best when nurturing and helping others. “That’s both my Achilles heel and my biggest strength. Sometimes I help when I am not asked,” she laughs.

babou6Using what she discovered, she created a vision board, setting out images of things that spoke to her. “Innovation”, “female entrepreneurship”, and “help” stared back in both word and visual form repeatedly, and finally she had her eureka moment. “I realized I actually knew a lot about starting a business and how to innovate. I had always stockpiled books and articles on start-ups and entrepreneurship. I recalled multiple conversations with friends where I had provided some impetus to drive their ideas forward. This had always been a hobby but clearly it was so much more than that. These attributes were key strengths on which I could build a business.”

With purpose behind her vision for Mums Mean Business, one year after she shuttered Butcher Couture, she walked into a pitch at a tech MMB_logobusiness incubator in Oslo, feeling confident. It was a revelation: “It came as second nature, I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t trying to impress. I was just saying ‘Hey. This matters to me and I think I can make a difference. It was so empowering.”

She was offered a contract to join the hub on the spot, a first time for the incubator. “This is what I want every female entrepreneur to hear. To know that her hard work has paid off and she feels a sense of real purpose, achievement, and recognition from someone she respects, someone who believes in her business.”

Although a key element of Mums Mean Business, the platform is not limited to fund-raising alone. “We want to nurture our startups and help them find success. We are aiming to match the entrepreneurs with mentors in the same sector and partner with companies who can offer strategic, legal, and intellectual property advice.”

Shirt Pac crowdfunded by MMB
Shirt Pac crowdfunded by MMB

Because research has shown the growth in female entrepreneurship is fueled by mothers trying to get back into workforce by starting their own business, initially Mums Mean Business was targeted at mother-owned start-ups. Olengha Aaby is currently building a 2.0 platform and has plans to extend its services to women more generally. “At the start, I simply wanted to impact the biggest segment of female entrepreneurs, but we want to extend that invitation to all female entrepreneurs,” she explains.

Because women reinvest 90% of their earnings into their families and their communities, Olengha-Aaby feels like she is really making a difference and affecting social and economic change. “As women, we need to pay it forward for other women. We need to be each other’s champions but, equally, investing in a mumpreneur is investing in better business and business for the better. This better, brighter and common future is in everyone’s interest.”

Tips from Babou Olengha Aaby on starting your own business:
  • Work smart. Collaborate with people who believe what you believe and focus your energy there
  • Own your dream. Dream big and don’t be afraid to grow and make a profit.
  • Take back the VC (venture capitalist) lexicon. Don’t be afraid to be labelled ambitious, it just means you want to grow your business. There’s no shame in that.
  • When you are passionate about your vision, it becomes an easy sell and will resonate with others

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