What Happens When Lemons Can't Make Lemonade?
A Broke African Immigrant Student
October 2019, after graduating as a textile and clothing engineer and in my first semester of a master's degree, I was going through one of the hardest years of my life. Drowning in debt and broke to the bone. Fresh out of an underpaid and over-demanding internship, I had sublet my 220€/month student bedroom in a shared apartment with 2 other girls and moved in with my best friend in her student apartment because I had NO MONEY, whatsoever.
At that point I had just given up on the first business I tried to start: a beauty brand that would sell premium products made from unrefined African butters and oils. I had given every single penny, energy, and time I had to try to launch that business while also having to finance my studies and all of my living expenses in Germany.
When that business failed, I fell into pieces.
They always say "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade", but in those moments I thought "Well, I know for sure mine can't make none!" My lemons were drrrrryyyyyy.
I was a broke African immigrant living in her friend's student bedroom with a failed business and debt to show for.
"So is this what your parents had to sacrifice to send you to Germany for, Elvira? What would happen if they knew the true depth of what you have put yourself into?", my exact thoughts every time I went to bed at night.
But I always knew what I wanted to do and never lost sight of that.
My purpose was clear: to build a brand that would help women around the world to simplify, enhance and own their hair, skin and overall beauty routines in an effortless way that belongs to them - not forced onto them by "culture".
To do that while building a sustainable institution that could create and distribute opportunities, jobs, and wealth to communities in Africa. To work with talented African artisans and present the world with the fruit of their gifts and expertise. Teach them how to fish instead of giving them fish.
So what do you do when lemons can't make lemonade?
As I was drowning in my problems and trying to get my head out of the water, my cousin Christos who lives in Paris offered to take me with him on his trip to Cameroon in a few months "as a gift and celebration for my engineering degree" he said.
"WHAAATTT? A FREE TRIP TO CAMEROON?", I shouted out loud. I was in HEAVEN!
It felt like God just looked down and smiled at me. I could not wait long enough for that trip to arrive. Every day as I went to work and school all I was thinking about was what I'd do when I would land at the Nsimalen airport in Yaoundé - and that day finally arrived!
*Stops in her steps, closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and smiles*
Exactly what I did as I exited the plane and ventured outside to meet my parents and siblings who had made the 1-hour trip to the airport to come and welcome me back.
What they didn't know is that as I arrived in Cameroon, I was already pregnant with Ladéma in my mind. I couldn't wait to go to markets and trade fairs, touching, feeling, and selecting fabrics, scouting and finding talented seamstresses we could work with - and that's exactly what I did.
For the following 5 weeks, I thouroughly enjoyed a good rest being away from all the pressure, bills and problems of Germany. Sleeping in and having breakfast with my parents and siblings. Catching up with my childhood friends, and eating the best food that the world has ever known (I dare you to argue that fact). But also, Ladéma was growing more and more in my mind. As I was researching and developing this idea, it became clearer and clearer to me that this is it.
This can work. In fact, THIS WILL WORK.
*A female voice picks ups*
- "Allo Elvi, c'est comment?" - It's my sister, Tatiana, picking up my call all the way from Paris, France.
I am calling her to tell her about this idea I've been having for the last months.
I knew that she had been interested in sewing recently, taking a class 1h per week and learning from Youtube. So I laid it out for her, detailing the vision and the result of my research.
- "So... what do you think?", I asked.
- "Well, I'm not a professional seamstress yet but I'm sure we can make it happen. Count me in!", she replied.
- "So how do we do this? Do you have money to start? Because I don't have anything", she continued.
And there we go... back to square one: no money, only bills, bills, bills and debt.
- "Uhm... We will have to figure that out because I have never been more broke in my life *laughs*", I said. "But I'm sure there is a way, there is always a way".
As we hung up the phone, I jumped on my laptop and started looking for a job - true employment.
I was thinking: "I need a real salary if this brand is to ever see the light of day"...
Click here to ready Part 2 of the story!