Exclusive Interview with Pepper Chikezie: The Assembly Founder
As is true for many who discovered their passion early in life, Yoanna “Pepper” Chikezie first got a taste of what would go on to form her career during an internship. She was in her last year of secondary school when she decided to apply for an internship at Pride Magazine UK, where she became the fashion assistant to the Fashion Editor. Continuing on this path up until she started attending college, her love for media coverage grew with every event she got to cover for the lifestyle publication. “I especially loved the production and PR side of things, so throughout my school years, I was eager to get as much work experience in TV, PR and broadcasting as possible,” she tells Fashionomics Africa.
Media platforms dedicated to African fashion have come a long way and, on many levels, they really contribute to shaping the narrative of fashion and lifestyle on the continent and diaspora. “I remember when I started out, there were just a few platforms, but it was great to have them to build your niche as a writer or journalist and have your work featured in a time that mainstream media didn't really celebrate or showcase the work of African creatives. On the other hand, it’s one thing to create content and another to be consistent with quality content that presents a fresh perspective, challenges norms and drives healthy discussion - I think these are aspects for African Fashion media to improve on. The process of creating, marketing and effectively monetizing content is challenging for any media platform, not just African fashion platforms and it requires a significant amount of investment. I also think other areas of weakness include the ability to strike a clear balance between consistently creating authentic, quality content and a quick rehashing of what has already been seen and done.”
Pepper quickly began to question why there weren’t enough platforms and institutions that truly explored the core of what makes creative and fashion businesses thrive. After having worked in and experienced the industry up close for a number of years, she worked with entrepreneurs in different capacities behind the scenes, and it saddened her to see so many promising names and brands stop and close up their business due to a lack opportunities and know-how. “I have always advocated for platforms and initiatives that meet the needs of fashion and creative entrepreneurs. It became increasingly obvious to me that I needed to do more than question and complain. Ultimately, I really wanted to create a platform that a lot of my friends and associates needed when we started out and continue to need.”
In 2016, Pepper began to seriously nurture the idea of creating a fund for entrepreneurs in the creative and fashion sector, and was greatly supported by mentors, friends and people who found themselves in similar positions. “I realised very early that beyond funding, entrepreneurs need a community to collaborate and share experiences with, business support, mentoring and resources to grow sustainably and so I decided to focus on this aspect first and look into the fund soon after. In 2017 I decided to bite the bullet and launch The Assembly. Our first event was a workshop titled Mastering The Fashion Pitch, and it was essentially to expose fashion entrepreneurs and creative to the best approach to pitching to potential investors or partners. Many entrepreneurs in this sector are not familiar with business pitching and are not able to really articulate their why, their value, their numbers or their target market.”
Since then, The Assembly has evolved, and aside from offering regular networking and training programs, we provide consultations on a variety of projects involving branding, strategy and production. Exciting things are currently in the works via The Assembly’s official membership and a talent-matching platform developed to help the creative community find their right career opportunities by creating a hiring ecosystem that promotes interpersonal connections and alleviates barriers to recruitment.
“Access is at the core of what we do, access to knowledge, people and opportunities. We have been able to build The Assembly to be the place where entrepreneurs and creatives can realise their full potential and where their ideas and passions are valid. We remove barriers of business and professional growth by providing a physical and virtual enterprise, creative and professional support and a community to network and collaborate with, which is really crucial to growing start-ups or new talent looking to enter the industry,” Pepper explains.
Next to that, The Assembly also offers its very own Incubator and Mentoring program. “Our most recent incubator program was delivered for the British Council in partnership with the Cultural Enterprise Office – Fashion Foundry and it was titled the Nigeria Creative Enterprise (NICE) Support Program. The program was launched with 54 entrepreneurs and we took them through an intensive two-week training in creative, design and business skills. The next stage of the program saw 50 whittled down to 25 who were then incubated for eight weeks, providing them with on-the-ground and remote mentoring, further business support, coaching and training.
As for our mentorship scheme, everyone is welcome to apply when our cohort is open. We have a growing network of mentors on our platform and so based on the applications we receive, the information shared in addition to an in person or remote interview, we match candidates to our our mentors. We ask intentional questions and need to hold second stage interviews to ensure that applicants have sound goals for the mentorship and their business. We also use this time to assess the level of commitment needed and manage expectations on both sides. In the past the scheme requires a minimum of a six-month commitment and we continuously run check ins. We are currently reviewing this based on feedback from our previous cohorts.”
Pepper has many plans for the future of The Assembly, but for now, the plan is simple and focused: “We are really focused on building The Assembly to ensure that we have a robust platform that speaks to entrepreneurs and creative talent online and offline and designing programs and services to really support our community and future members in their start up and scale up phases. We are also looking at collaborations that will take The Assembly across the continent.”