Being the editor at Disrupt allows me to meet wonderful people and have amazing conversations with them. In light of this blog, so much of my focus is helping marginalized and underrepresented minority communities understand some of our core fundamental community problems and propose solutions. The interview we did at Disrupt with Nana Osei, the CEO and founder of Bohten is a clear example of what possibilities there are for young people of color, who face many problems and barriers to opportunities.
In my last post “Entrepreneurship: The Ultimate White Privilege? I declare a call to action to our community leaders to start introducing a new way of thinking and raising a generation of young people who are more creative, entrepreneurial and innovative. These are key skills we need to develop in the next generation of youth. Nana Osei is a great example of the tenacity, entrepreneurial spirit, the determination and the creative vision of person of color that decided to create something to not only advance themselves but their community. It’s these individuals we need to be supporting. And the only way we know who they are is by encouraging self-expression of their creative vision however it may manifest.
Read the interview below. If you love it, please subscribe at signup.disruptmgzn.com or purchase a beautiful issue at disruptmgzn.com. I’d also ask for you to purchase Bohten Eyewear. It’s incredible high end luxury wear.
Exclusive Magazine Content Interview with Nana Osei, Founder and CEO of Bôhten Inc.
Interview by Kyla Farmer and Hodan Ibrahim
Photography by Nagat Bahumaid
Ideal disruption focuses on changemaking through productive means. At Disrupt, we believe real change is promoting proactive methods of change, rather than passive ones. We believe in creating something for the world to benefit from, not just dreaming about it.
In the immortal words of Chris Rock from his show “Drugs, Donuts and Wealth”, “God forbid some brown people got wealthy. Can’t have that. ‘Cuz [insert resource] come from brown countries. We can’t have wealthy brown people. There are no wealthy black or brown people in America. We got some rich ones, but we don’t got no f—– wealth.”
There are these dichotomies of thought that exist very rarely side by side. The idea of people of colour owning wealth, more importantly, owning the means of production, owning our ideas, owning our own brands, owning ourselves and who we are. It’s a rare sight to see, even in a world where resources are abundant and information are so readily available. Even with the majority of wealth coming from so-called developing nations (though some African countries, such as Mali, are the richest in the world in terms of resources and the poorest in terms of social and economic development), very rarely does wealth trickle down for the average man to see.
No person we’ve been able to meet exemplifies this bold, striking example of a new Africa. One rich in thought, long-term in vision yet so rooted in the African homeland.
To see a young man of colour, trying to grow an already successful brand – that’s a huge statement. And precisely why Nana Osei caught our attention. To see that disruption is, in our opinion, revolutionary. Starting an enterprise is a disruptive thing especially as people from the diaspora – we’re not used to being the ones who own the means of production or even owning our own voice. We are used to working, consuming, we’re used to just existing rather than creating. This is unfortunately our present, not our past. And we are looking to our future. And the future looks a lot like Bôhten.
Nana Osei, the Founder and CEO of Bôhten Eyewear – British born, Ghanaian moulded and American raised. A recent Environmental Studies graduate from Carleton University who stands above the average university student. His entrepreneurial journey started with the organization of expedition trips & limousine nights from Ottawa to Montreal. Drawing from his passion for sustainability, his love of fashion and his African heritage, Nana gave us an in depth look into the man, and the ideas behind the brand, Bôhten.
K: Tell us about Bôhten, why you embarked on this journey and the beliefs you hold that brought you to creating Bôhten?
N: It started as a concept which has grown over the past year in different industries. I think the world is moving towards eco-friendly ways of living. I was always really into ways to incorporate sustainability into your lifestyle. I come from a family that has lived all over the world, I can only apply what I know and my view of the world, which I think really led to what brought about Bôhten.
I look at what I’ve done. We’re very fashionable people, we try to transform people who aren’t fashionable to fashionable and we’re trying to transform the way an industry works. The fashion industry is a very unsustainable industry, one of the most unsustainable. I was an environmental science major and even before that I didn’t know much about sustainability. When the time Bôhten came out, it was at a time when I had tried a couple things in terms of promoting sustainable fashion and cosmetics in the local industry. I had tried things that had worked and other stuff that hadn’t. I wanted to make a bigger change because we started out doing showcase events for high end eco-friendly products, like organic vodka from Sweden or skin care lines from Thailand that use all natural ingredients. It was a good experience because it was a new concept. It was called Eco-Lux events–4-5 events in Ottawa and Montreal. Every few months, we invited a few designers and got a couple sponsors and as time went on, I realized it wasn’t the most efficient way to get your point across. People respond more to stuff that they find not just environmentally friendly but also for the fact that, it’s something that touches a person’s heart. We looked to get a more intimate connection with people and at the same time educate them on our philosophy on why it’s so important to recycle and reclaim all the materials you use, which is what we do with Bôhten.
But the real aspect of it is my roots in Ghana. We have the eco-fashion concept that inspired Bôhten, we have the cool factor. Africa is so important to me. Africans aren’t taken seriously most of the time. I can tell you from personal experience the amount of stuff that I had to overcome to get point shows me that, you know, people don’t take us seriously. I went to Ghana this summer. Ghana is a developing country and it’s evolving now since the economy is picking up but at the same time money isn’t going to the local people, it’s going to all the key influencers and foreign investors. If the resources are in Africa, why can’t the local people benefit from these resources? Obviously, there is a disconnect. Ultimately, I think it comes down to leadership and getting people to believe that they can actually go for anything they want. Because they mostly believe that the only way they can survive is to step on other people.
H: In those countries, it’s quite difficult for entrepreneurs to start up because of laws and regulations.
N: Yes and even though we are an African-inspired company, we’re very grateful to be here. Canada is a very liberal country.
H: Have you brought your designs to Africa? What was the reception?
N: It was a really good reception. My brother is our creative designer, and he lives there. What we are looking to do is build a bridge between fashion and eco-fashion in Africa. We have a vision for Africa where it’s not just people coming in and taking resources but an Africa where you can stand on your own two feet and start your own enterprise. Our name Bôhten comes from my middle name “Boateng” which means prosperity. Prosperity to a new African, that’s what it means to me.
H: Where did you get the design concepts? How did Ghana inspire your creative vision?
N: It was in 2009 when I went down to my dad’s village, which is in the mountains in the outskirts of Accra. There are 10 regions in Ghana and it’s in the eastern region. Being in his village was interesting for two reasons: the air was so pure in the mountains and it was refreshing. And my uncle has a house up on the mountain and my cousin was there from the UK, and we had similar ideas of what can be done in Ghana. So that was the first time I wanted to do something with nature. Because to me, luxury is outdoors and that was the concept that was the underpinning of my company. Also, me and my brother are sunglasses junkies, so that’s why we did it.
K: What are some of your long term goals you hope to achieve with Bôhten?
N: For the next 6 months, we are going to be doing some interesting things. We want to open a micro-facility, where every week we produce 50 glasses and hire students to go about the process. We don’t have a date yet, but some point in 2014. We’re looking at renewable sources of energy to power the facility. If everything goes well, we will then transfer the process to Ghana. We want to do a lot with renewables. We want to show people we’re serious about what we are doing.K: Tell us about the value of partnerships and collaboration while you’ve been building Bôhten.
I’ll give a simple example, from a retail standpoint. We partnered up with Victoire in May 2013. Immediately, it was a mesh because we had the same philosophy and same mindset. Value of partners who are on the same page as you. A lot of times you might want to work with someone but they may not be looking to get the same thing you’re looking to get. It’s important you are on the same page and share the same values. We’re also selling in Terra20, same values shared.
K: It’s incredible to see what can be done when people work together and breaking away from a culture of isolation and competition.
H: How useful has the startup community been? I see the startup community and social enterprise community being quite separate in Ottawa. The startup community is very tech oriented. The social enterprise community accepts non-tech social enterprises. How has the startup and social enterprise community enabled you?
N: Vinod Rajasekaran, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Hub Ottawa has been a great mentor. Whenever I was going through tough times, he’s been a great person to talk to. He’s a great person to bring people together. The Hub knows how to bring different entities together and make them cohesive. At Invest Ottawa, a business development program, we had an office there for a year, and it’s a tech-oriented space, and we’re not really tech, which was interesting because they had a lot of resources we used for foundational business building, which was key. I took a lot of workshops at Invest Ottawa, and took part in the Grind Space. That was also foundational. Sometimes Hub and Invest Ottawa do work together. Depending on what you are looking for, each incubator and space has something to offer.
H: Have you worked with the startup communities or do you find that you’re more of a lone soldier, different from what everyone else is doing?
N: Bôhten is very international. I haven’t really worked with the startup community. I’ve worked with a few from Hub. In terms of collaborating, I would say as much as we want to reach out to everyone, you have to be careful. Make sure that it’s a fit. The biggest value is the resources that these incubators. Sometimes what another person is doing might not be a fit for you, but you can still learn from what they’re doing. I think that the biggest value. I can’t tell you that I got to where I got to because of the startup community. You have to pick and choose who you work with what works and what doesn’t work. The fact is not everyone has your best interests at heart and others are. Depends on what you’re doing.
H: You starting in Ottawa, becoming successful and not needing the start up community entirely says a lot about the startup community here. There are a lot of limitations and differences between what Ottawa says it supports and what it really supports. You didn’t become who you were because of it, but rather in spite of it.
N: We would have loved to be more involved, but it’s just that it’s not always what it seems. We’ve had more success doing things on our own and moving around, doing shows in different cities. I will go as far to say that the startup community is very critical and they put certain people up on a pedestal. No one really gave us a chance.
H: The startup community needs to look at who they support, in terms of demographics, ethnicities and not always supporting people who benefit from certain privileges. I’m a black muslim woman, and there is literally no one in my community who does this stuff and you have to fight to get yourself and your voice heard even in your own community. Sometimes people in your own community will inhibit you as well. So I completely understand
Tell us about the marketing for Bôhten building on what you did previous with Eco-Lux?
N: Yeah luckily I had a lot of contacts already for Toronto and Montreal. Bôhten wasn’t the first sunglasses brand that I co-founded. There was one before that, and I had a partner for it and things went sour. He walked away with the name. To me that was definitely the life-changing moment, where I was sick of always having to put up with stuff that I don’t need to put up with. Ottawa definitely doesn’t have the warmest startup community but it’s also good because things like that toughen your skin.
H: I want to know about the trajectory of the foundations you set in place, and then your transition into Bôhten. How do you really start all this? What were the inspirational and technical aspects? What were you doing from Lilo Empire to now, how did the transitions happen on personal and technical levels? What were your processes?
N: Ok so, I was doing stuff with Lilo Empire until early 2012, and then I partnered up with this other company called Vertigrow, which was with an engineer at Ottawa U. Vertigrow is a vertical garden business where they use hydroponic plants to mould the wall, so basically it’s for esthetic value, and he started as a business. I really believed in it, he had a great product, and, I mean, it was consuming his whole life. So I said ok, I’ll come on board for a couple months and see what we can do. We got a contract with a company called Mattamy Homes, but when it came to implementing things, there were a lot of things that weren’t in place, and you know, things were dragging on. I just realized that as much as I love the product, I think I want to do something that starts from scratch. There was a lot of history already with the company. So, around that same time, someone who had done my website, his name is Abdul, he had talked to me about starting a sunglasses brand from animal horn. He told me because he knew I was really into fashion and everything, he wanted to get my ideas. I told him earlier about a watch brand I wanted to start with solar power. I was fishing to see, because I knew I wanted to do a product but I wasn’t sure of the scaleability of it. So when he said that I said hey, why don’t we make it from wood and bamboo? Animal horn, I’m not sure, and it just doesn’t look good. We ended up being partners, this is summer 2012. I basically did everything from scratch because we didn’t have any suppliers, no designers. He was running another business. So he made me a majority shareholder, and wanted me to handle most operations if I needed. We spent the whole summer getting our first prototype – contacting suppliers all over the world. Then we got an interior designer to do the design of the glasses, from Carleton U, he has since started prototypeD. PrototypeD was one of the first places I went to for someone to help with industrial design of the product. We found someone and got our first prototype and then that’s when things really began to pick up. Around the same time, Carleton has this program called Carleton Entrepreneurs [CEA], and I entered a few times with Lilo Empire, didn’t go far, pitched with Vertigrow, and we got the green light, but then I realized I didn’t really to go ahead with it. So I pitched again with this new brand which me and my partner found, Efani. We got the green light, so we got an internship for a year. At the same time we had the opportunity to go to CBC, because they were having the launch of the new season of Dragon’s Den, season 7 at that point I think. What they do is they have student entrepreneurs pitch a product to the dragons, not for investment, but a student pitch kind of thing. I did the pitch to the dragons the first time, with a live audience, and the producers really liked it and everything. They told me to apply for the actual show in February, this was in September. After that happened in September, my partner and I weren’t really on the same page because I was putting 60 hours a week into anything that we were doing, and we had been featured in the Metro and couple other papers, but he wasn’t engaged in the brand. He didn’t care about the brand, he just cared about whatever money he could get from it. I ended up talking to people for advice, I talked to my brother. I explained the situation, and wondered what am I going to do about this? I talked to a lawyer and he wondered if he had already gotten a trademark on the brand already. The lawyer did a search, and he already had a trademark on it, in his name, without telling me about it. So I walked away, knowing that I was going to do something that represents me fully, and not just trying to make money. This is where Bôhten came about. It took us about 2-3 months, starting in October 2012, to rebrand after Efani. It was tough because the name was already out there, there had been a few shows, and more importantly, the entrepreneur community was talking about it. He was telling people so many stories about what happened which weren’t the truth. Know one really knew what to believe. We were supposed to get a grant from Carleton for $8K to start the business, and I was the student, he wasn’t the student, so he had no control over that. He told everyone that I left the company and ran away with the money. I talked to Carleton and told them what happened, that I was rebranding into Bôhten and you know, moving forward. I used the grant to re-launch our company. We worked from October to December on our new prototypes. We had to do everything from scratch.
H: How long were you working with Abdul on Efani?
N: From May to October, so about 5 months.
K: When did you launch and put Bôhten out there?
N: We really launched it in February 2013 at Ottawa Fashion Week. We got a vendor booth and set everything up. That was when we truly launched it. We did a few smaller launches in January. From there we partnered up with Press the Fashion Magazine and figured out things onward. We got into Victoire, did a couple shows, went back to CBC. Everything happened really fast. Then I went to Ghana, everything’s been on the go. We really re-structured everything in terms of design. There are a lot of people who are helping out, and we realized we needed to be more consistent with who was going to do what and how we were going to get products into stores. Now we have more of an online distribution strategy even though we have retailers. It’s been a step-by-step process.
H: I find successful entrepreneurs do what makes sense at the time and take it step-by-step from there. I like that process. When you said “we” who are you referring to?
N: We is me and my brother, my sister also helped with the logo. We come from a design family. My parents are very much a part of this too. My dad came up for my graduation last month. It was a time that Dragon’s Den was coming out, so he got to see a lot of the things that were happening first hand.
H: Were they on board from the beginning?
N: I would say back when I doing Lilo Empire, they weren’t really on board because my school stuff wasn’t fully in order. Since then, I’ve definitely gotten a lot more support.
H: Entrepreneurs in our community back home [Somalia], and the career path – a lot of our families don’t like that.
N: Yeah, usually they want you to get the standard 9-5. In my case, I fought for my freedom.
H: You’ve showed them, in the span of a year while you were doing your studies, you became so successful so quickly, you had tangible proof of what you were doing. So perhaps that’s made it easy for them to get on board. In a lot of families, the parents don’t want you to go down a risky path, because they came from a risky path, so they wonder why you want to go towards another risky path.
Have you met other entrepreneurs from minority communities, marginalized communities, who don’t get the chance to get to be entrepreneurs, or get the support they need. We already talked about the startup community and how they’re not really supportive with things that are not tech-oriented. If you were to give advice to somebody who didn’t come from such a supportive family and community, what advice would you give them. If you were in that situation, how would you go about it?
N: The only thing you can do is persevere. Just block everything out. A lot of the times, especially now, we get people who will come up to us, giving us suggestions on how to run our business. Where were you when we started this at day 1? Why should we listen to you? Not to say they’re not valid, but you have to have that internal frame of reference all the time when it comes to business. Listen to what people say, but understand you have to stay focused on what YOU want to do. You can’t expect people to understand what you’re trying to do. Don’t try to make them understand. Sooner or later people are going to give you suggestions on what you should do. I’m going to do what I’m going to do regardless of your advice.
We’ve realized that we have to cater to the people that matter the most, which is the customer, the people who are reaching out to us.
H: With Disrupt, we launched our first issue in August, as a test, and while getting the second issue out, we’ve gotten a huge build up of people who instantly who like what we’re doing. The traction is not coming from Ottawa, it’s coming from Toronto, San Francisco, New York, so we’re making an effort to go to these places next year. They’ve been receptive to us.
N: I completely relate to that. Google Analytics is interesting because it shows you the regions where you’re reaching. Ottawa always has the highest number of visits, but we don’t get the highest number of sales from Ottawa. We get them from Vancouver, NY, or wherever. That just shows you that a lot of people will watch what you’re doing around here but…
K: Like Hodan was saying earlier, it’s really admirable and beautiful what you’re doing. We are very happy to be sitting down with you. While we’ve been doing this, I’ve been thinking about how I can’t wait to see this in the issue. To let people know about who you are and what you are doing.
H: I’m genuinely interested in your journey. You are the quintessential disruptor. I love to see people grow, especially people of colour, it makes me proud, I really mean that. It’s such a rarity, and the idea of promoting someone like you tells people – look, this is what we need to be, this is one person who’s doing something, let’s all try to be producers and creators, put out our own stuff and stop consuming things, be cultural influencers. Have a voice in culture. We’ll keep supporting you.
Any last thing you’d like to tell us about Bôhten?
N: We’re coming out with a new collection for spring/summer 2014. Should be really dope. It’s from our campaign that we’ve been doing called the Aristocrats. These ones are made from acetate ebony, you’ll have to see the pictures. It’s going to be really exciting for sure. 2014 should be a great year.
I’m wishing you all the best.
N: Thank you, you too.
Disrupt Magazine is about social innovation, architecting new social systems, people who are pushing good, forward thinking solutions, people that are pushing that. We all know what the problems are but who’s creating solutions and really trying to disrupt the status quo. Show people something new.
We mean Innovation, not for it’s sake, but for good. We’re all about making a statement and making social commentary but mostly it’s about supporting people and the ideas that are challenging the status quo and challenging how we live our lives. Trying to really push good. We’re more entrepreneurial. We’re trying to push change, but proactive change, entrepreneurship and creativity, not just protesting. We both come from the activist world but we wonder how to get people to change things, create new models, create new systems, new cultures, something proactive. Not expecting somebody else to change things. In a few years, Nana could change the whole landscape of Ghana.