When you try on an outfit at a retail shop and it doesn’t fit, you can try on another size. But what if you’re purchasing traditional clothing from your native country thousands of miles away?
After watching her mother struggle to get clothing from Nigeria, Chioma Onukwuire, a recent graduate from Case Western Reserve University’s Master of Engineering and Management program, was inspired to launch Chimu, a platform for African artisans to sell their goods in the U.S.
Onukwuire, of Houston, Texas, first realized the obstacles to purchasing clothing from such great distances when her mother explained to her fellow churchgoers—most of whom were wearing traditional Nigerian or African clothing—why she opted for American fashion. For the price of one outfit from Nigeria, Onukwuire’s mom could get two from an American store without the worry of dealing with shipping or getting it tailored.
That got Onukwuire thinking—and putting her business skills to work.
While her business model evolved several times—from designing and making her own clothes in the Larry Sears and Sally Zlotnick Sears think[box], to finding a local seamstress to bring her designs to life, to, finally, working with seamstresses in Africa to sell their work stateside—her mission to provide better access to African clothing in America never wavered.
Through Chimu, Onukwuire works with the seamstresses on the designs, then buys their work in bulk and sells and ships it in the United States—making for lower prices, online purchasing and easier returns, similar to a more “typical” domestic retail business.
“They do amazing work, but they just need people to see it. … I love African fashion. I love the prints and I want to bring that to America,” Onukwuire said. “I keep remembering what my mom said all those years back: It’s hard to get, and it can be expensive. I just wanted to solve that problem.”
Though Onukwuire sells most of the products online, she also participates in vendor events to interact with customers face-to-face. She recently showcased the products at the Cleveland Asian Festival as the festival’s winner of the Pop-Up Competition.
Now, after finishing her degree, Onukwuire is on a job search. But regardless of where she lands, she knows Chimu will be part of the picture.
“Moving forward, I want Chimu to take on artists and give them the support and love that they need. I work with a lot of artists from African nations, and in a lot of those countries, people just want the opportunity to have their designs shown in the international markets, in the American market,” Onukwuire said. “I want to be there to help them along.”
Take some time to get to know Onukwuire better in this week’s five questions.
1. What do you like most about Cleveland?
I like all of the activities you can do in Cleveland—the music, the International Film Festival, the art galleries, museums, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They have a really great creative fashion and art scene that is emerging, and I like being part of something that’s underground and growing.
2. What’s a hidden skill or talent you have that most people would be surprised to know?
I’m mostly an open book. But I haven’t really told people about this (though they may not be surprised): I can tell you how many parts a person’s outfit is or how it was made, just based on what I’ve learned. If someone’s wearing a shirt, I won’t see a shirt; I’ll see the bodice, the sleeves and the collar and how they put it together.
3. Who is the best teacher you’ve had throughout your education?
I’ve had so many great teachers. If I had to pick one, it would be John Paul Stephens. He was my change-management professor in the MEM program. He taught us about learning why people are resistant to change and also the skill of asking people who are resistant: “What would happen if you do this thing? Or what will happen if you don’t?” It really helped show you what people’s motivations are, but it also showed the person what their motivations are as well.
I took that lesson and I’ve applied it to my everyday life. Why do I do this if I don’t like change? What don’t I like about this particular change? Is it because the change is bad, or does it represent a fear I have? And I will always carry that.
4. What moment in history do you wish you could have experienced firsthand?
I really want to live—safely!—in a time when dinosaurs were still alive so I can see how they look and act.
5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?
There’s so many things. One of my favorite things about Case Western [Reserve] is [Sears] think[box]. I like what they represent and they foster creativity. Every time I go into [Sears] think[box], I would always see people working on a 3-D printer or laser cutter, or people who are clueless but they’re asking for help, which is good. I see them learning how to do stuff, and I see when their eyes light up when they learn something new and they know how to do it. They make it so accessible to everybody. It’s not only open to Case Western [Reserve] students—it’s open to everybody. You meet a lot of different people who can share different ideas and I really like that.