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From a Founder: How Amira Rasool Connects African Designers with a Global Audience

Editor’s Note: Welcome to From a Founder, a monthly entrepreneur profile about the highs, lows, and plateaus of building a successful brand or business.

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After landing her dream job at a fashion magazine straight out of college, Amira Rasool was on track to build the fashion editorial career she’d always planned — but her path shifted after a trip to Cape Town, where she connected with African designers she hadn’t been exposed to in the US. From there, Amira began taking her first steps to launch The Folklore, an online retail platform that connects customers with high-end and emerging designers from Africa and the diaspora.

From leveraging industry connections and conducting extensive research, to learning to expect the inevitably unexpected, Amira shared how she built The Folklore from day one, and how she plans to continue growing her business in the years ahead.

Squarespace: What inspired you to launch The Folklore? 

Amira Rasool: I was inspired to launch The Folklore after I took a trip to South Africa in 2016 during my senior year of college. It was my first trip to Africa, and while I was there, I discovered so many amazing designers that I never heard of and that I knew my friends back home had never heard of. I purchased some products and started wearing them when I got back to New York where I was living at the time. So many people wanted to know where they could buy the products. 

After receiving so many questions and compliments, I started doing research and recognized that many designers in Africa did not have e-commerce websites and they did not have retail distributors in the US that would make it possible for international customers to place orders and enjoy these amazing products. I saw that there was a big gap in the market; there was a huge continent full of really promising young designers that could use a platform, but not just only a platform, a place to actually economically benefit from their creativity.

SQSP: What was the first step you took to make it a reality?

AR: I did a lot of research. I wanted to know if there was any company out there that was actually helping these designers already and trying to solve the major distribution issues. There were a few out when I started doing my research but I noticed that they had some shortcomings. I started writing down things that I didn't like about their companies, things that they weren't addressing. 

I actually quit my magazine job that I was working at the time to move to Cape Town, South Africa and interview these designers in person and find out what they needed from an e-commerce distributor. I traveled to Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya and I was living in Cape Town and constantly traveling to Johannesburg. I just wanted to do an extreme amount of due diligence before I could decide if this business was actually something that was worth pursuing and if this could make a meaningful impact.

SQSP: In every entrepreneurial endeavor, there are unexpected risks and challenges. What was the biggest risk you took? 

AR: The biggest risk I took was quitting my job and moving to South Africa. I was only a few months out of college and I had gotten my dream job at a fashion magazine. I did a bunch of fashion magazine internships in college and was pretty much on the path of being an editor in chief at a big fashion or culture magazine. So all of the years that I've spent investing in that dream I decided to abandon for something that I just thought of a year or year and a half prior. 

Relocating to a new country at 22 years old was also a big jump. That was only my second time in South Africa. I had no friends or family there. I just went out there, got a temporary rental  and after about a month found an apartment, got furniture, then I started a Masters program, which I completed while building The Folklore. It was super risky to see if I could make it in this new country by myself and to convince these designers to take a chance on this young strange American girl.

SQSP: What surprised you the most? 

AR: As someone who is a huge planner, I thought that I had done all the research, that I had all of the answers and that there would be very little that would come up and surprise me or throw me off my game. However, since launching the business, it seems like every day three or four things that I didn't know or didn't think could happen would surprise me. I had to learn to deal with attacking the unknown with or without a plan at any moment.

SQSP: After a challenging day, week, or month, what keeps you motivated? 

AR: I'm really big on sleep and rest. I am somebody who is constantly tired so I like to just be able to sit at home and watch television or play solitaire. I could do that for two days straight until I feel rested enough to take on the week and crush those 10-14 hour work days. Music is also a big motivating factor for me. I love going to live shows, even if it's a small intimate show. Just seeing the artist and how dedicated they are to their craft and how passionate they are about what they are doing is inspiring.

SQSP: How has your online presence contributed to your business success? 

AR: My online presence has been huge. When people go to my personal page, that's where they can see all of my writing. As someone who comes from media, I definitely had a lot of opportunities that other first time founders wouldn't normally have because I had those connections and people could search online to see who Amira at The Folklore was because I made this really quick Squarespace website. I would consistently update the website with new articles that were published that I was really proud of. Being online is super important — my business is online, and all of the articles that I have written are online. Without the internet there would be no The Folklore and I probably would not have received a lot of the opportunities that I've received as a writer.

SQSP: How do you see your online presence evolving in the future? 

AR: I see myself connecting more with people in the future online. I think I have the tendency to shy away from publishing often, mostly because I'm constantly busy so setting time aside to do that always seems like an inconvenience. However, I'm starting to understand how I have to prioritize this, just like I prioritize other things that are related to my business. I really wanted to connect with The Folklore customer more, connect with the people reading my writing more, and also people that I've inspired or that have inspired me. I am really planning to open up those lines of communication to help me grow and hopefully help other people grow as well.


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