FINANCE DIRECTOR TO FOUNDER OF ZOLA EVE
Ncheta Dasilva is the Founder of Zola Eve, an ethical activewear brand with sustainability and female empowerment at its heart. Ncheta has a diverse career starting as a qualified auditor, working her way up to Finance Director at an advertising agency when she had an undeniable urge to start her own venture.
We talk about the realities of starting Zola Eve alongside a full-time job, the cost of sustainability in the fashion industry and the lessons learned from starting a buisness.
Zola Eve offers beautiful and comfortable garments influenced by West African Ankara prints; the collection is made and designed in north London using recycled plastics. The pieces are primarily made from recycled polyester, including discarded fishing nets and carpets. For the first collection, Zola Eve is supporting the humanitarian organisation, Women for Women International by donating 10% of proceeds to support female survivors from war-torn countries. You can check out the vibrant yoga wear at zolaeve.com.
What is the meaning behind the name Zola Eve?
It was a long journey trying to find the right brand name - I started with the name Be Bold. All my friends who knew my inspiration of African prints, they hated it and tore into it. They said it had nothing to do with my story.
I was disheartened because a lot of thought went into that name. I had to go back and dig into what motivates me, so I realised I needed an African influenced name, but I also wanted it to appeal to a mass market.
Zola felt like a strong name that resonates because it translates into something peaceful, creating the association with yoga, and then Eve, she was the first woman on earth. I connect the name with a zest for life and peaceful living.
How would you describe the typical Zola Eve woman?
The Zola Eve woman is bold, or someone who wants to be bold, in all aspects of their life. That may be being bold on the yoga mat and being bold in their aspirations, dreaming big.
Do you practice yoga regularly?
I do. I've been practising yoga for around five years now. But last year, it ramped up, and it helped me during stressful periods at work. Although I've taken a break from my corporate career, I still practice at least three times a week.
Practising yoga forces me to stop and be still. It’s vital for me because I'm notoriously bad at pausing, reflecting and making time for myself. I do sit down and meditate; I have to force myself to do it. I find yoga more meditative compared to sitting down and meditating.
No matter what's happening in your life, you always need time to pause, reflect and recharge. And if I don't fix it in my diary, then I carry on with what I'm doing. I’m a very all or nothing person!
Some of the readers will be at the start of their careers, can you take me back to where yours began?
Oh, many moons ago! I came straight out of university where I studied a degree in accounting and finance; very dull, but I did it. It was good in the sense that we had a one-year work placement, where I worked for a firm of insolvency practitioners. We got involved when individuals and companies went bankrupt, and we’d go into businesses to value their assets, and then distribute what's left to the creditors.
It helped me to understand the world of work and building relationships with people and stepping outside of my comfort zone. They forced me to go out and organise events and start speaking to people because I was quite shy; I was happy to be quiet, and they didn't like that. I was encouraged to put myself out there.
They offered me a job to return to after finishing my final year of studying, so I knew I had a job go to, but I didn't take it in the end. I don't remember why I rejected it; I think the pay must have been peanuts. After university, I applied for a variety of roles, but I took the first job that I was offered, which was for an audit firm. I joined the audit firm as an auditor for three years.
The three years is the minimum period for a training contract, you do your exams, and you also have to do practical experience. I didn't enjoy auditing, it was awful. But I did it for the training and experience and the fact that they paid for my training.
I knew that I had to leave as soon as I qualified. I also found out that the people brought in after me, particularly the guys, were getting paid more. I was outraged, and that was also an impetus to leave. I thought, Oh hang on, I thought was a valued employee? Why doesn't that translate into pay? They were taking the Mickey.
Had you ever considered starting your own company at this point?
Back then, I always envisaged working in the City of London and wearing a power suit. That's all I wanted, one with the shoulder pads and being in the boardroom. I think I'd always dreamed of having my own boutique but I never seriously considered it. It was a fanciful dream that kept reappearing in my mind.
Where did you go after the audit firm?
I went on the job hunt and, back then, newly qualified auditors were like hotcakes. Again, I went for the first job that came my way, which was the advertising agency. It seemed fun and something different.
I knew I wanted to change industries but stay working within finance, so I was open to any industry; I interviewed in retail, advertising and another. The recruiter tried to coerce me into an internal audit role, it didn't appeal to me, but I interviewed anyway. The first job offer that came back was the advertising agency, and I took it. I worked for a group of advertising agencies at the parent company in London, and we looked after all the individual agencies. It was quite a technical role; I would consolidating all the numbers to report into New York.
Your experience seems worlds apart from the activewear industry, where did it all start?
I know, it’s a complete 180 turn. I was always sporty. At university I trained to be an aerobics instructor, it was called exercise to music back in the day, and I was teaching classes. I did that part-time while I was working.
How long was Zola Eve in the pipeline before you started the business?
I would say about five years before in various iterations. I knew I wanted to do something African print inspired. At first, I thought I’d make dresses, then jeans, all with an African twist. It was odd, looking back. I can't remember at what point I thought it has to be activewear. It must have been in the last six months before I decided to get on with it; it must have been mid-2017.
Can you talk through the prints and the West African inspiration behind the collection?
I wanted the clothing to be vibrant, and you can't get more vibrant than the crazy African outfits that they wear. I wanted something colourful and fun. It’s all about having fun, not taking yourself too seriously and being bold enough to try something new. A lot of people wear black leggings, and I was the same. I remember going to a yoga brunch last year, and this woman from LA came over, she kept saying Why is everyone wearing black? And oh my god, this woman was wearing the most colourful leggings - a woman after my own heart!
I hear a lot of people saying, But where do I start? Just start somewhere. This is my start.
Consumers are starting to take a real interest in sustainability and understanding where their garments are made, as well as ethical working conditions. Was there a moment that opened your eyes to the impacts of the clothing industry?
I think I, like everyone, never gave it a second thought about how my clothes were made, and the story behind it. It was when I decided that I’d go ahead and create this range. I started learning about the polluting effects of fashion; I read a lot of articles that opened my eyes.
A year ago, I don't think we even called it fast fashion, we went out and bought things because it was on trend and we wanted to refresh and update our wardrobe. I realised this wasn’t sustainable. We need to become more conscious in our consumption and understand the impact that we have, not just for clothing but in every aspect.
I realised I need to start something. I had found it very overwhelming; there is a lot of negativity out there about what we are doing to the planet. I hear a lot of people saying, But where do I start? Just start somewhere. This is my start.
With regards to the slavery practices, again, it was just going to lots of events and seminars, educating myself as well as watching documentaries, like True Cost on Netflix. I decided to sign-up to a master class at a factory in north London called Fashion Enter. That’s when I learned about the ethical side of fashion and discovered what they were doing to increase ethical practices. Their policies and values resonated with me so it seemed like a no brainer that I would manufacture my clothes through them.
How did you decide on the right masterclass?
I kept doing all these short courses during the weekends and evenings at University College of Arts, focused on fashion buying and others. The final class I decided on was a masterclass hosted at Fashion Enter, the factory in north London. A lady called Sue Mee hosted it; she is an experienced fashion designer. It was a quick overview (two to three hours) of the life cycle of launching a national product. I made sure to introduce myself to her and then we went for coffee. She went on to help me with the technical drawings. That’s when it just fell into place. When you put something into the universe, it throws opportunities at you, and you should run with it.
When you put something into the universe, it throws opportunities at you, and you should run with it.
How long before you launched did you attend the masterclass?
I had coffee with Sue Mee sometime in February 2018. I wanted to launch in early August 2018, so that was about six or seven months. She said it was a bit tight time-wise but I was adamant that I wanted to launch then. She was very good and said, It’s your decision and your product. Do what you want to do, but I'll tell you it's really tight. It can be done but bear in mind that you're working full-time.
I was convinced I was going to do it. And then I didn't launch in August! (Laughs) It was the naivety, the energy and excitement of doing this for the first time. The launch date was only two months later, so that's not too bad. That happened because we were pushing and pushing to get it launched.
There is a lot of talk about single-use plastics at the moment, and recycling plastics, reducing the use of virgin resources and reducing waste. Surely it’s costly for a smaller business to be pioneering the approach of using recycled plastics, compared to your high street retailers that could be leading the way?
Absolutely, it is more expensive, but for me, it didn't even cross my mind that I shouldn't do it. When I was looking at swatches, we were comparing samples that were composed of sustainable fabrics versus non-sustainable fabrics, and invariably, the sustainable materials were more expensive. I still went for it because it's the principle and its part of my values. It's certainly more expensive for me to do that per unit cost, compared to the likes of high street retailers, like Zara or Topshop. I suppose they've got their vested interests, which is likely to be money, unfortunately.
Did you watch the Stacey Dooley documentary called Fashion's Dirty Secrets?
I did. It was good.
It highlighted that the fashion industry is one of the top polluters alongside the oil industry. What shocked me was when she went to a sustainability conference with well-known high street retailers, and their representatives refused to speak with her or even give a statement. It’s revealing to see how reluctant these companies are to be held accountable for their manufacturing practices.
I was actually at that same conference; it was the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. I didn't realise she was filming there last year.
If only she had spoken with you!
I know! Going to the Copenhagen Fashion Summit was part of the journey, in the sense that I saw that conference coming up and I thought I had to be there. It was part of educating myself on what other brands are doing with regards to sustainability. I got the impression that a lot of brands were dipping their toe in but still operating unsustainable practices by and large. It seems we’re moving in the right direction, but not fast enough. It’s going to get much worse before it gets better. That’s scary.
For those transitioning from a corporate job and starting up their own company, I wanted to talk to you about the practicalities of starting up a business. What were the first steps for you starting your collection? How did you go about the designs, selecting materials and manufacturing?
The first step was the practical masterclass on launching a product, and then signing up to Copenhagen Fashion Summit, from then it was all systems go. It was challenging building a business while working full-time, or more than full-time. The fact that I pushed through showed that I was committed to Zola Eve.
I had the help of Sue Mee, she helped me launch in a short space of time. I could have done it on my own, but it would have taken far longer, and I would have made more mistakes. She guided me and was an invaluable resource. She was a fantastic sounding board to help me visualise what I wanted for the range, and what would work in her experience.
In terms of manufacturer, again, serendipity, the masterclass was held at Fashion Enter, and I got the opportunity to tour the factory and learn about them. That's when I decided to manufacture my garments there. It was also the fact that it is made in London, and they've got a social enterprise scheme where they help people in the local area train and equip them with new skills to go out into the workplace.
I just wanted everything to be as London-based and made in the UK, as much as possible. I'm also a follower of a platform called Make It British. It's all about the resurgence in the UK manufacturing industry and supporting UK manufacturers.
How did you go about designing your prints? How did you receive feedback and decide on the ones that you wanted to produce?
I went to a print fair with Sue Mee to see what kind of prints were available. The first fabric that I tested was with a print studio, where they had this purple leopard print design. They designed it in their studio, and I loved it. I bought the license for that print, and now I own it. I decided that I was going to look for other African inspired prints that I could license exclusively for my collection so that no one can use the same design.
I went on to an online market place called Patternbank. That's where illustrators can put all their designs up; you can learn about the illustrator, their methodology and inspiration. I shortlisted a whole host of prints. You can superimpose the print onto a pair of leggings and then I got all my friends and work colleagues to choose which prints they liked the most. That’s how I got two more prints.
Was this the final part of the process, choosing the prints?
It was a huge step, and the next part was producing the samples and the sizing. I had to decide on my standard sizing. I had to get someone to try it on and wash it. The product then had to be tested by wearing it to a yoga class to see if it worked and fit. I continued with various samples until I was happy with the final sample.
The whole process was exciting but tough. It coincided with a busy period of work, yet I was still excited enough to do it late into the evenings.
How did you decide to launch your collection?
I started my website before I launched at the OM Yoga Show, so I had somewhere for people to make purchases. This was the show that I had paid a lot of money to exhibit the collection, so I had to have all the products ready. I had to have a website and a social media presence. I reached out to a friend of mine, who used to work in marketing. She helped me to build up my social media following, then I could refer people to an Instagram that had at least some followers!
Who do you exhibit to at the OM Yoga Show?
Directly to customers, there tend to be lots of yogis there and people that are interested in wellness and wellbeing.
What's your approach to wholesalers?
At the moment, I'm just focusing on direct customers on our websites. The collection is stocked on a few wellbeing websites, but I haven't gone down the wholesale route. For my first collection, there are very minimal margins in every product that I sell, so to have them wholesale that would mean just giving it away, practically. I'm learning for the next collection and then looking at the different ways that I could approach my pricing.
What advice would you give about the approach to reach your customers?
My advice would be to try everything, funds permitting, so you need a reasonable budget. You can still do it on a bootstrap budget, but you have to be creative and try everything. I've found that the best way is to meet people and to engage with the customers face-to-face. I'm doing a lot of pop-ups and exhibitions. Again, that’s budget permitting. My plan for this year is to chill out a bit, network, talk to everyone and then see what opportunities arise.
In-person customers can try on the products and feel the fabrics, which is important. Selling products online can be difficult because a lot of high street retailers have free delivery and free returns. I don’t have that as it’s on my overheads. That’s where I think people would prefer to come and meet me at a store or a pop-up.
Coming from a finance background, has that helped you in what you're doing?
Finance has undoubtedly helped me so far, I understand the numbers, but there's no right or wrong way to launch a business. A lot of people gave me the advice to start with one product and test that out. I wanted to take a different approach and create a range. I had some money put aside for this collection, and it's an investment to see if it's going to be viable and successful. I don't have any marketing experience, and the importance of marketing and branding shouldn’t be underestimated. I was very focused on getting the product right, which is important, but I have to have the right brand message that resonates with people.
You can have the best products, but people may not buy into you until they feel like they know you, like you and trust you. You always have to work at pitching yourself and telling your story on different mediums. It involves communicating your motivations, being vulnerable and letting your guard down so people can relate to you. I have to share my full story, and that is an inevitability that I'm building up to, and I will do it soon.
How have you found the transition from your full-time corporate job to now working for yourself?
Ultimately, I plan to have a portfolio career, I’ve always wanted to have multiple sources of income, so I never wanted to entirely relinquish my experience in the career that I’ve built. I’m currently seeking part-time finance positions which would work alongside my business.
I found the move from full-time work incredibly difficult, surprisingly. I thought I'd leave my stressful corporate job and then I would relax and leisurely work on Zola Eve. What I found hard is letting go and relaxing because I felt like I had to be doing something each day.
Do you have a top tip for marketing?
Don't be afraid to experiment and try things. When I launched, I thought I should portray a set image online through my Instagram grid. I thought it needs to be beautiful but actually, try new things and if it doesn't resonate you can always delete it.
What keeps you motivated when you're outside of the office environment and in your own work setting?
At the moment it’s a conversation I had with someone in my networking group, at one point my sales were fluctuating, and I wondered why it hadn't sold out. (Laughs) She's an experienced entrepreneur, and she said, Nothing happens in the first two years. And I realised that I'm too hard on myself.
That has motivated me to relax and enjoy the journey and keep doing what I'm doing. It will pay dividends in the near future, and I've seen aspects of that working. Where I reached out to people all of last year, I got ignored, it was a massive shift from the corporate mindset where you send an email someone gets back to you within 24 hours. Five months later that person will get back to me saying they are now ready to speak with me. As I started to hear back from people and see that all the work that I had done isn't going to waste it keeps me going. Keep plugging and believing in what you're doing and make those small steps and you'll get there. Trust and enjoy the journey.
What are the unexpected parts of the job that you love?
It's living life on my terms, at least some aspects. Eventually, the end goal is live the whole of my life on my terms, and it's happening, slowly but surely.
What would you say is the most challenging?
It's juggling everything, all the hats. Coming from a corporate career, I'd have IT to sort out technical issues on my website, and now it's just me. I'm the brand consultant, the marketer, the finance person, the products person and the salesperson. But for those reasons, it can be rewarding too. I am acquiring all these new skills. Making sure that I'm consistent on social media is quite hard too; I need to find time to plan it out in advance.
What does creativity mean to you within your job?
At the moment, it's thinking of creative ways to market myself and experimenting and being open to different opportunities to talk about, display and showcase Zola Eve.
If you were to give yourself advice before starting Zola Eve, what would it be?
Just start, and trust the journey. Also, surround yourself with people that you can learn from, and share ideas.
I feel like I had a bit of a test launch before Zola Eve, I did a network marketing business, and that was hugely eye-opening. I knew I wanted to do something entrepreneurial and although I knew it wasn't what I wanted to do in life, I felt like I had to do something. I wasn't confident enough to start Zola Eve at the time and the business prior taught me so much with regards to personal development and resilience. I’ve changed so much since starting Zola Eve; I’m entirely different. I feel as though the fear of judgement is still there, but I've improved a lot.
When I started the network marketing business, I freaked out, and I was scared. I couldn’t talk about it because of what others would think. The judgment was raining down on me, and it was holding me back - how can you start a business and not talk about it? (Laughs)
I learned that the people that you expect to be there for you are just gone and not interested. Anyone that you believe will champion you, forget it! It will be strangers and those you don't expect that will support you.
Would you change any part of your career journey right from the beginning?
I don't think so. I believe everything that happened was meant to happen. There were instances from various jobs where I probably should have left sooner. Apart from that, everything happened the way it should. If I wanted to change anything, I don't think I would have been ready to launch Zola Eve.
Do you have any ambitions to go beyond the work you're doing? Is there this heavenly place that you'd love to be?
Yes, there is. I have created a vision board, and it's part of another networking group that I do. The end goal is ultimately about lifestyle and putting things into play with regards to my work, money and investments, and to setup a wellness hub, you could call it a retreat house. I envisage it to be a co-working space, like where we are at the AllBright, stroke yoga studio, stroke residential property, stroke event space. That's what I see, I don't know where along the timeline but that is my end vision.
Thank you for making the time to chat. I’ve loved interviewing you.
Me too, thank you!