Welcome to this week’s ‘#WomenWeLove’ – our weekly column where we celebrate women doing amazing things in their areas of influence. From tech to fashion, social activism to politics, these women, are definitely crush-worthy. Catch up on all our crushes here!
Today, our focus is on Omon Anenih Mordi
I first met Omon Anenih-Mordi 11 years ago when I interviewed for a Personal Assistant position. Walking into the Blue Mahogany offices back then, the word that comes to mind was aspirational.
The only thing I remember from that interview was Omon saying I speak very well and they will get back to me because they wouldn’t mind having me on the team.
Fast forward 11 years, I walked into The DEW Centre to celebrate Adesuwa Onyenokwe’s 59th birthday in my capacity as Online Editor for TW Magazine and I saw Omon. She looked very different from when I saw her at the interview several years before. I had so many questions swirling in my head and thankfully, I got to sit down with her to ask some of those questions – some of them personal and some about her business ventures especially The DEW Centre which is her current baby. We had a very interesting conversation which I’m sure you will enjoy.
Also, throughout our conversation, she shared some one-liners that made me pause and reflect and I will be sharing some of those with you. Let me know which ones resonate with you.
Who is Omon Anenih Mordi?
I try to be true to myself and the reason why I say ‘I try’ is because I don’t get it right a hundred per cent of the time. Sometimes, I have self-doubt and that in itself means I’m not being true to my authentic self because if I were, I wouldn’t be second guessing.
I try not to cause harm to other people and everything else is a journey and an evolution – the person I was in university, the person I was last year, and the person I am today. Some things are core and do not change – like the essence of who I am and my fundamental beliefs and values. Those are still the same. But I also don’t want to hold myself down to one definition of who Omon is. Omon is a woman on a journey of self-discovery and acceptance.
I was watching an interview I did eight years ago and I wondered who that person was. She looked so pretty, so perfect and so poised in her high heels and yet she looked like she had a lot on her shoulders. That was Omon then but that is not Omon today.
I would say she’s changing and she’s evolving. Sometimes I feel like Madonna because she’s always out with a new look and a new image. Sometimes I feel like that although the essence of me remains the same. I want the freedom to re-invent myself and not be held down by any exactness.
How was your life before starting Blue Mahogany?
People would assume that I never worked before starting my business but I worked for other people albeit briefly. I will be very honest and say that even then, it was not a typical 9-5 job.
I had a very short stint at African Development Bank (AfDB), Côte D’Ivoire. There was another interesting time with an Interior Design firm in the UK. The older lady who ran it worked from home and I just used to think to myself “O my God, who is this eccentric person? Who does this?”. But ironically, her life then is what I’m aspiring to now – just working from home with my dog at my feet, a cup of tea at my desk and still killing it on those projects.
In Nigeria, I did an internship with the Heinrich Boll foundation many years ago. Other than that, I haven’t been formally employed by anyone. However, I work for people every day; my clients are my employers.
When and how did you know you wanted to run a business and the kind of business it would be?
I didn’t! It was while I was doing a diploma in Interior design that it occurred to me that I could be an entrepreneur. While studying in the UK, my intention was to work there for a few years after school and then move back to Nigeria. At the time, I had researched interior design firms in Nigeria thinking I was coming back home to apply and get a job but I couldn’t find any. I don’t know if there were any, but I couldn’t find them at that time. What I found was – architectural firms, furniture manufacturers, decorators and a lady who ran a small design studio in Ikoyi. She wasn’t looking to hire another designer so that was not an option. I just couldn’t find any true design-led practice. So for me, being an entrepreneur was a second choice. If I had gotten employment with a reputable design firm, I would have preferred that. Even after I had established my design practice, about seven years into it, I remember saying that if I could find someone who would hire me and pay me a good salary or buy my business, I would pack up and go work with them. For me, what was important was working in a firm that I would be proud of. Being an entrepreneur is hard and nobody put the fear of God in me or warned me back then. I jumped in head first, thinking it was just a case of registering with CAC and then starting operations but it was really tough then, and it is still very tough, especially in a place like Lagos, Nigeria.
Why Law and Interior Design?
I think the real question is why Law in the first place? I was inquisitive. We were registering for JAMB and you had to fill out a form
and tick a box. There was nothing like interior design on the form and my knowledge of professional careers went only as far as what I was told in school and at home. Interior design wasn’t one of the options and so my choice was really based on what I was good at in school and what my parents approved of. The options were Law, Medicine, Engineering or something equally ‘reputable’.
I was rubbish in science but I was an excellent art student, so the only other reputable option was law. My mom is a lawyer as well and she is the most amazing woman on earth, so for me, it was an honour to emulate her. That is why I chose Law. By the time I was getting to the end of my first degree and planning what I would do for my Masters, I knew Law wasn’t for me but not doing a Masters Degree wasn’t an option either.
It was halfway through my PhD in Petroleum Law and Policy that I knew I couldn’t bear to continue. I was through. Drained. My parents had not given me much of a choice all along but by this time, my Mum finally agreed to free me. My Dad took a few years to come to terms with my decision. Initially, he thought I was just going through a phase and tried different tactics to convince me to pursue a law career, including things like cutting my allowance, but I was done. I knew law was not for me and there was no point pursuing it further.
I loved interior design from the beginning and I mean BEGINNING. I just didn’t know at the time that it was a career option but I loved it and I still love it very much. Even though the entrepreneur part may have been a struggle and is still a struggle in some respects, it has proved to be very rewarding.
Blue Mahogany is one of the top interior designers in Nigeria so what would you say are the things that helped you get to that spot? Considering the journey was hard from the beginning and you had wanted to quit as
One of the things that kept me going was ego. Pride. The thought that I can’t fail! After everything, what will I tell my parents? There was also the fact that I had done a lot to get to this point. I’m not good at not being the best in whatever I do and this in a way is a limiting belief. My ego, my rigid and high expectations of myself and not being able to be anything but the best helped me get Blue Mahogany to the top. Ironically, they were also the things that got me burnt out and not able to live and enjoy myself and my life fully.
Walk us through your typical day before The Dew (i.e. before COVID).
At Blue Mahogany, before covid and before The DEW Centre, we would work on an average of 12- 15 projects per time within Nigeria and overseas in different countries like the UK, Ghana and the UAE. So there was a lot of travel involved. On Instagram, it looked nice and aspirational. People would say things like ‘ah you are enjoying.’ But there was not that much sleep and in Lagos, I had a team of at least a dozen people who were also overworked. So there I was, managing all of that, as well as other different projects by the side and moving back and forth. At one point, I was the Secretary General of IDAN (Interior Designers Association of Nigeria) and then I became the President until recently. So, in addition to Blue Mahogany work, I had IDAN obligations as well as social and family obligations. While all this is seen as normal, the difference was that I had my own high expectations of myself and by extension everyone on my team, including my clients concerning the way things should be structured. It was very regimented. I wanted perfection so I demanded that of myself and the people around me. I worked hard! I would be on site till very late, in the studio till very late, and up very early. Constantly stressed and on edge all the time.
I remember it was five years into the business before I went on leave because I felt ‘if I’m not there myself, nobody can do it like I want it done’. I now know that’s just hubris and can actually be self-defeating. But at the time, I just wanted things to be done perfectly and it was running me into the ground. Not resting, taking time off or walking away from uncontrollable situations was draining me and I allowed it.
However, I am grateful for the experience because it was a journey with many expectations, lessons, and realisations. I’m grateful because the goodwill I built and the reputation I established in Blue Mahogany has given my current business a lot of patronage. A lot of my current clients come from that source and they know my standard and they trust my work ethic. So when I’m doing something and ask people to show up, they do so because they know me as someone with personal brand equity over the years. I am extremely thankful so I would never say I wish I had done things differently. I am grateful for every lesson learnt.
What is The DEW Centre?
After the pandemic I knew I didn’t want to go back to my pre-COVID life. Accepting that I couldn’t be the person I was before that time made me find out more about myself that I previously knew and that gave birth to The DEW Centre.
The DEW centre is everything I’m passionate about. Everything that makes me feel good and gets me through difficult times.
The DEW Centre is my happy place; an aggregation of everything I’m passionate about. Everything that makes me feel good and gets me through difficult times. A wellness centre that encourages mindfulness, and intentionality and equips members with tools to better manage stress, work on their physical and mental wellness and build healthy relationships all around. Many people think of us as a spa with a yoga and Pilates studio but anyone who’s been to DEW knows that wellness runs deeper than that. We offer physiotherapy as well as psychotherapy, various craft activities and mindfully curated events that help people connect and unwind.
It is literally a potpourri of the real me which I didn’t permit myself to explore before the pandemic because I was busy living up to the image I had created with Blue Mahogany prior to that time.
Is it possible for you to list the things you learnt from there that you literally didn’t do here?
One of the key things I learnt is this “In whatever you do, people are the most important and You are the most important of all people”. The people also include the people in your team, regardless of the business, and you should always look out for them.
Form is important and I mean form in the sense of the way things are presented or packaged. But even more paramount is the why? As long as you’re achieving a clear objective, things can be simplified. A process doesn’t have to be long and convoluted for you to know it’s an important process.
Things don’t have to be difficult and that applies in a variety of situations and circumstances. The hardest work I have done does not necessarily become the most rewarding or impactful one. At the same time, process and structure is important; documenting things is also important regardless of the kind of business.
What’s the philosophy you absolutely live by? In life, in friendships/relationships and in business
It can possibly change over time but, today, I believe you should “do you”. Every individual or business owner has a unique and authentic value, perspective and energy they bring to the table. Start with that and work on achieving the best version or expression of it.
However, as with all things, there is a need to apply wisdom and moderation in addition to consideration for others.
Be the authentic version of yourself. Not the biased or affected version of you.
Would you say that The DEW and what it represents has always been an intrinsic part of you even with interior design?
I would say yes. As I designer I always believed that spaces should be a reflection of who we are as people, families or corporate brands. I also strongly believed that our spaces affect the way we feel and tried to bring that intangible feel-good factor to my design projects. Self-care is not selfish and with The DEW, I’ve learned to love ME and consider ME.
Beautiful spaces are now the thing because of our desire to share our lives visually on social media – whether work, business, family or fun. What are the basic things individuals should consider when creating their personal space?
I think less is more. In designing spaces, I try not to have too many different design elements and things going on in the space.
The ‘DO YOU’ philosophy also applies. The most beautiful pictures are when you see somebody in a space composition and it looks like they belong there. For me, this has always been the case in creating spaces that are a reflection of your brand – physical space or social media space. As much as social is very heavily edited and curated, people still connect to things that are or appear authentic so I think it’s important to create a space that you generally enjoy whether for your personal enjoyment or to show it off on the gram.
Right now, I only want to design spaces that make people feel good; that’s the only thing that excites me in design right now. It’s important for a space to be an experience not just walking in and out of. It should evoke happy memories which I think is very important in the physical experience of spaces and this is also possible even in the social media space.
If you met a 20year old who asked you for business advise, what would be the top 3 things you would tell them?
One of the things I regret was not getting more work experience in the field I wanted to go into. I wish I had done so. I went straight from learning about interior design in school to building a large design firm, something I had never experienced. This made me struggle with certain things like managing large teams, building and developing processes and the likes because I didn’t have the required experience. I had read about it and I had done courses but I didn’t live it and experience it. That was a huge challenge.
So, my first advice is that twenty-year-olds shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to run businesses. At twenty-five, you still have an entire life ahead of you and you can have five years of invaluable experience that you would probably never get again. You can’t pay for that experience and if we are being honest, someone else is paying you for it.
Also, at 20-25, life is a lot more forgiving. You can make mistakes and you are not yet responsible for paying the salaries of twenty people. So, if you have the opportunity, get as much hands-on experience in the industry you want to work in or in something similar where you can develop transferable skills.
I will also say this to a twenty-year-old as I would to a forty-year-old – it is okay to make mistakes. I used to see failure as such a terrible thing. To me, failing was a huge deal but now, I wish I saw it as a learning experience when I was twenty. After all, many of the most successful people in the world got there after learning from multiple failures.
Also, at school, there were a lot of things my peers did that I wish I did – like travel more, go backpacking, and explore outside of my comfort zone. For me, I was there to study, that is what they sent me to do but I wish I gave myself permission to just live and experience each day, each moment and not carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. Now that I am older, I realise that as we grow older, even without asking for it, the world will drop itself on your shoulders. So, when you can, live life, meet people, make connections, and make friends.
A lot of the most powerful people in the world got access to opportunities because of relationships they built very early on. The few at the table didn’t just meet last month in a conference. A lot of those bonds were formed early on and sometimes in the most random, relaxed, unlikely places. My advice is live and experience, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Just be ready to get up in the morning, get rid of the dust and start again, one day at a time, just like the morning dew.
A ME day is allowed.
Images source: Omon Anenih Mordi