New York Portraits: Chekwas Okafor #WhyWeWork
Jason Nicco-Annan, Content Executive 20 April 2018
New York-based Nigerian entrepreneur Chekwas Okafor is the founder and CEO of ONCHEK, an e-commerce platform for luxury fashion from Africa.
Telling compelling stories through products, pop-up events and editorial content, ONCHEK aims to become “the world’s most compelling African fashion company.”
Chekwas Okafor spoke to us about ONCHEK, his Nigerian heritage and the many benefits that living in New York offers.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
I was born and raised in Nigeria and left for the States in 2009. I moved to South Carolina for college where I studied Biology and Environmental Science at Voorhees College. After college, I moved to a manufacturing space in Los Angeles for some time and then I moved to Kansas City, where I worked in Environmental, Health and Safety Development program called Owens Corning.
The whole time I knew I wanted to do something for the continent, but I wasn’t sure what. Five years later, I had the idea of building an African luxury fashion company.
I wanted to build something that creates value and promotes culture.
ONCHEK launched in September 2016 and we started working with about seven African luxury fashion brands and now we’re carrying eighteen brands.
What brought you to New York?
When I came up with the idea for ONCHEK, I realised that I needed to be in New York if I wanted to build a sustainable fashion company. And it just so happened that there was a job opening at Owens Corning in New York, so I transferred and worked there for two and a half years. I used to live in Albany, NY, which is two and a half hours away from the city so I had to back and forth to meet models, designers, and other creatives in the city. I now live in Brooklyn.
What do you think attracts you the most to the city? What benefits does the diversity of New York offer?
I mean, this is New York City – it’s where fashion lives! About 70% of our US customers are in New York, so you have to be where your customers are. I’ve been able to personally hand deliver products to people and provide great customer service. All the major fashion and tech communities exist in the city and that’s an amazing thing to be a part of. I’m taking advantage of all these opportunities and the serendipity that comes with that.
I live on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn, a predominantly Haitian area. On some days I can hear Nigerian music playing downstairs. There's a convenience store that sells African food, an African hair and beauty salon and a Haitian-owned barbershop across the street. I don’t hear English for about two blocks, and that’s absolutely beautiful to me! It’s just nice to be close to diversity and culture.
What does New York offer you and what do you believe you bring to New York?
I offer New York our company and my experiences; the fact that we have this product to serve customers is the biggest offering. It’s the most diverse place and that means that people are open-minded by default. And because they’re open-minded they’ll try out a MaXhosa sweatshirt from South Africa or some other African brand that they’ve never heard of until now. We’re obviously a young company, but we’re making African luxury fashion accessible to the world.
Your company’s vision is to become “the world’s most compelling African fashion company.” What’s the most challenging aspect of achieving that?
I don’t see ONCHEK as just an ecommerce platform for luxury fashion, I see us eventually doing so much more. And that’s why infrastructure is important and probably one of the biggest challenges. And it’s not just a challenge for me, it’s for the designers. Another challenge is changing the perception of African products. Even though sophisticated consumers know that, it’s going to take a lot of marketing to undo the harm that media has done to us.
The stories that have been told about us, and even the ones we’ve told ourselves, have stuck. One huge challenge for us is helping people understand that locally-made African products can be high quality.
A particularly high proportion of entrepreneurs are immigrants, why do think this is?
I think it’s because we have a responsibility. I’m currently in Nigeria working on a project and being home just puts that into perspective. You realize that there are people living in different conditions and circumstances and you’re not better than them at all. You’re not any smarter than them, you’re not any more talented than them. You just happen to be lucky enough to have all the right resources and environment to travel and be exposed to other cultures.
I think that the responsibility that entrepreneurs have – that responsibility they have to themselves, their families and where they come from – is what drives them to be go above and beyond to be successful.
What advantages do you think your mixed cultural experience has offered you? Do you attribute your cultural identity to your success? Please tell us why.
Oh my goodness, yes! Just by default you’re coming to New York with a different perspective and that helps you see opportunities where others don’t. You treat people with empathy and respect because you understand what it feels like to be an outsider. And learning from different cultures helps you to unlearn certain things that you’ve grown up believing. So being Nigerian and having a different culture has been very useful.
What motivates you and drives you?
The purpose of the company motivates me. I want to help create jobs in Nigeria – as well as across the continent – and promote culture – that’s why we started it and that’s why we want to keep doing this for decades. I feel like I am lucky enough to have where I am to be where I am so it’s my responsibility to do my part.
Why does sending money matter?
Do you or your family send money to Nigeria and if so why is this important?
I send money to everybody. I send money to family, friends, to designers. I pay people here to content creators for the website. I even send money to myself when I’m in Nigeria working on projects.
I send money to remind them that I love them, and sometimes I send money to support them. And with regards to ONCHEK projects or other business, transferring is important to just pay people for services rendered.