Interview with Marilyne Kekeli, founder of MAMATER

Interview with Marilyne Kekeli, founder of MAMATER

What’s your career background?

I started my career in the Finance sector in 2006. I was working for HSBC’s investment bank in Paris; it was my first job, after having completed various long-term internships in the luxury and advertising fields.

Then in 2008, the financial crisis hit. I had just finished a graduate degree in management, and I was in London about to start work in another investment bank. 

Where did the idea for your business come from?

I have always been fascinated by arts and crafts and I started my career working for Prada. Even though I didn’t continue in the leather goods sector, I was always a big fan of jewellery. The way jewellery is made is such an exciting process, that it was always one I wanted to discover and explore. 

How did you move from idea to actual business?

My career in banking was as a strategic planner, so turning an idea into a business is something that felt very straightforward for me. I used the workshop and idea generation techniques that I had honed during my career and applied it to my business.

I was also selected for a business workshop as part of the L’Oréal Citizen Day in 2018 in Paris. It was a great opportunity to have my business idea challenged by professionals from the beauty and luxury space who gave me some interesting perspectives. 

While I am a planner at heart, I am not a devotee of doing everything by lists. I still like to keep an element of whimsy and chance to what I do. In 2009 I wrote down a list of goals that I wanted to achieve by the time I turned 30.

A few years on now, I can say that I did accomplish most of these goals, even though they may not have materialised exactly how I envisioned them.

What’s your USP?

I make jewellery for the woman I was in my previous career. A woman that often had to wear different masks and perform before an audience and project confidence while being very design conscious.

I remember always looking through vintage mid-century design stores trying to find that perfect necklace that made a statement without taking away from my presentation. It was always a bit of a stroke of luck to find anything useful.

I figured I must not be the only one looking for a reliable pair of earrings that always stir up conversation and can be worn from a very conservative boardroom to a glitzy cocktail party. A piece of art that adorns you and speaks for itself. 

Who’s your target audience?

The woman who loves jewellery and is not afraid to wear bold pieces, whether to spice up her appearance or as a core element of her wardrobe. She specifically enjoys pieces with a story that connect with her values. 

How do you spread the word about what you do?

I use Instagram a lot, and more recently have started participating in podcasts with eco-friendly publications. Over the summer, I started working with some really great influencers who have also been wearing my pieces and promoting my message. 

What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

My biggest challenge since I started my brand has been to learn and understand the language of jewellery. To fully embed myself into a different industry that has totally different codes and languages. 

It also took me a while to figure out the system that would work for my business. What did I need to do to appeal to my current and potential customers?

One thing I knew from my previous start-up was that I needed to educate myself in what I wanted to do. If I wanted to be a successful jewellery designer, I needed to surround myself with expert teachers who could teach me the various aspects that I needed to know to be successful. 

One coach who did work wonders for me was Sophia Sunwoo. She is a sales coach for start-up founders and helps you to refine your sales process and do the right things to delight customers. Her lessons truly transformed how I perceive my business and the paths I take to grow. 

The jewellery sector is made of hundreds of independent brands and a few larger brands who each own a small segment of the market. It is therefore very hard to break through and the usual techniques you may employ in a knowledge business do not apply.

Jewellery is about seduction and desire. It is not a product you sell with business cases. It was a big lesson that I needed to learn at a much deeper level than I anticipated in order to be able to start growing more effectively. 

And your proudest moment so far?

Last year one of my pieces was worn by Claire Diao, a famous French- Burkinabe journalist on Canal Plus, the largest cable TV channel in France. Seeing my jewellery worn on a TV channel I watched during my childhood was very exciting. I was very proud to share the clip with my parents as well. 

Who inspires you?

In my very early years, we were living in one of my paternal grandfather’s homes. He was a very wealthy man who collected a lot of mid-century furniture and appliances. You see, the 1960s across most of west Africa was a golden decade. It was the time of the independences from the former colonial administrations.

In many countries, the buzz for people like my grandfather led to a spree of art commissions, distinctly original music and other forms of creativity. In my early childhood, I grew up surrounded by these pieces of art everywhere.

While I do not use them as a direct guide in my work, I do know that the distinctive form of West African modernism is something I recognize peeking through the shapes and colours of my work. 

I am originally from the south of Togo, where Ewe people have developed a very distinct form of textile weaving with abstract and geometric shapes that can be seen across the Gulf of Guinea. It provides me with an endless of source of inspiration that I then weave as subtext in my designs.

I also love the work of Paul Ahyi, whose gigantesque sculpted sceneries in Lomé and Dakar always move me. Girma Birta, Oscar Niemeyer and Paul Klee are also favourites. Have you seen Brasilia? The entire city’s architecture is endless food for my soul. 

How do you balance your work with your family?

It can be difficult on some days. I try to keep to very structured hours. One of the key changes that I introduced over the summer was to stop working every weekend.

It has absolutely done wonders for my mental health and balance. It sometimes means that my weeks are really packed, but it is freeing to be able to enjoy a few days off during the week when I am not always working. 

What’s your advice for someone wanting to do something similar?

Start by doing a lot of self-introspection to fully understand if you are and can be committed to your career change in the long run. Changing career will mean changing even the kind of people you will meet and befriend in the future.

It will impact your revenue, the things you can and will be able to do in the future. You cannot plan everything, but you have to understand if this is something you would be comfortable with in the long run after the initial teething problems. 

My second piece of advice is to plan for the worst-case scenario you can imagine and define two plans to address it; your plan B and your plan C. Your plan A is your transition plan.

The one that will take you from today to your new life. Plan B is the plan that will support plan A when you wobble. Plan C is for when plan A and B go up in smoke. 

We always need a plan C. Plan C is what will give you the confidence to continue to manage a small business for example even in the middle of a global pandemic and economic depression. Plan C is what will give you the confidence to continue to go all out even when things are very difficult.  

Find out more about MAMATER.