Chioma Agha: Swish! She Scores

chioma_aghaWhen she’s not in “boss mode,” Chioma Agha can be something of a goofball. She’s mastered the silly dance when new business comes in and loves to tease her employees. But there’s a very serious side to this highly driven and hard-working doctor-turned-online-entrepreneur.

“I’ve learned not to take no for answer. I’m persistent and keep pushing forward with the goal in mind. It has not always been easy, especially as I have no formal business training, but I love a challenge. Challenges are just exercises for the brain. You only have to think and the solution will come.”

Agha grew up in raucous Lagos, the city of possibilities. A great source of inspiration, her parents started with very little, carving a niche for themselves and rising to the top of their respective professional fields. From a young age, Agha wanted to be a lawyer and would play act being in a court room, but she also had an entrepreneurial streak, selling ice with her brother to the locals looking to chill their drinks. Her career started on a different path, however, as – excelling in science – she was guided toward a future in medicine.

“Sometimes, women are not taken as seriously as men so we find ourselves needing to work smarter. But there are no short cuts. Work hard and live and breathe your passion. Although the perception can be otherwise, women are just as ambitious as men … brilliant women are doing great things on the African continent and beyond.”

With a Bachelors in medicine and surgery from the University of Ghana Medical School, Agha worked at the National Hospital and the NNPC clinic in Abuja for a number of years. A firm believer in being able to do whatever she puts her mind to, she joined the Board of the Joan Agha Foundation, which her mother launched to provide educational scholarships to indigent students and became Deputy Managing Director of Atlantic Power Nigeria Limited, an oil and gas consulting firm in Lagos.

And then discussing with a friend one weekend, she has a brainwave that took her off on her latest venture.

“We were remarking about one particularly ridiculous wedding souvenir we’d received. Who knows what it cost and neither of us had any use for it. Nigeria has a huge gifting industry … at weddings, corporate events, Christmas, Valentine’s Day … you name it, there’s a present or souvenir involved. But so often, the gifts are not appreciated. It’s impossible to find something unique, sophisticated, and functional that doesn’t cost a fortune. There was a gap and knew I could fill it providing customers value for their money and their guests with memorable gifts.”

Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 6.20.18 PMAgha started small, using her savings to source stock and initially storing everything at her house and selling online through her online marketplace Swish Ideas. To expand her reach and increase brand recognition, she launched a shop on Kaymu, the Craigslist of emerging markets, and other online platforms. She focused on the wedding market, looking for unique yet sophisticated gifts (as the name of her business implies). As it does still today, her business grew by word of mouth mostly because Swish does things differently from the competition by having a niche in gifts and souvenirs and excelling in customer service and super-fast delivery.

“What was really helpful was that we sold fast and used the revenue to expand, little by little. We are also solution-oriented, meaning our customers tell us what they want and we deliver. In the beginning, I got ripped off by suppliers because I couldn’t haggle but I’ve mastered that and get great deals for my customers. My biggest challenge has been getting the right team. It takes a lot of patience to find employees who are passionate about people and treat clients like royalty, but we got there.”

Has it been difficult launching her own venture in Nigeria?

Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 6.20.36 PM“Sometimes, women are not taken as seriously as men so we find ourselves needing to work smarter. But there are no short cuts. Work hard and live and breathe your passion. Although the perception can be otherwise, women are just as ambitious as men. Attitudes are changing and, increasingly, brilliant women are doing great things on the African continent and beyond and this serves as inspiration for the upcoming female entrepreneurs.”

Agha has big plans for the future.

“Swish will keep innovating. I want to go into manufacturing and expand into other African countries. But, above all, I want us to remain focused and keep being the best at what we do.”

Clearly this woman-to-watch is on to something. In 2014, Swish Ideas was featured on Buzz Nigeria as one of the most innovative companies to follow. Since then, she’s been on a roll, culminating with the opportunity to meet President Obama on her 3-month Mandela Washington Fellowship this past summer.

“No words can describe that moment,” Agha laughs. “If you ‘know your onions,’ work hard and smart, anything is possible.”

Chioma Agha’s tips for entrepreneurs
  • Be nice! Affability and a great attitude usually gets you much further than talent alone.
  • Stay focused and persistent, you never know who is watching.
  • Get active on social media. It’s highly effective for building a business.
  • With any business, you must continue to innovate. Don’t stay static otherwise your organization will cease to exist.
  • Failure is part of your journey to success. Embrace it!
  • As you grow, your definition of success changes … from financial independence, to brand awareness, to giving back to community.

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