Akunna Nwala-Akano is a young enterprising woman, who has her hands in many pies. She is a lawyer, real estate mogul, philanthropist, beauty expert, and founder of Kuku’s Hair, Nigeria’s foremost luxury hair brand, that has over the years assisted women in transforming their looks with alternative hair extension options.
Over a decade ago, Akunna abandoned the Legal profession to follow her passion in the beauty industry, selling hair off the trunk of her car in Lagos. Today, she is a leader in the luxury hair business space, with a chain of luxury hair salons across the country to her credit.
Described as the pioneer of luxury hair salons in Nigeria, Nwala-Akano is also a philanthropist, who is passionate about the financial and economic plight of the African woman, and the vulnerable, which she supports through her philanthropic endevours.
In this interview, we discussed the woman behind Kuku’s hair, what drives the beauty entrepreneur giant, her passion to give back to society and some words for budding entrepreneurs.
You are a Law graduate, running one of the biggest luxury hair brands in the country, what made you choose this path?
It started with a frivolous obsession with the salon, constantly changing my hairstyle, spending a lot of time in the salon whenever I had spare time. I have been passionate about the appearance and outlook of the woman, particularly my appearance. So, when I decided not to follow my traditional career path, it felt easy to choose a hair business.
What sparked your interest in the hair business and how did the idea for Kuku’s Hair come?
What sparked my interest was my love for beautiful hair and desire to attain perfection in how I choose to wear my hair. My desire to help women feel confident in their looks birthed by my company slogan, “For the narcissistic woman.” The context of narcissism here is a deep sense of self-worth. How you look or self-care in my opinion, is the highest expression of self-love, after all, they say the hair is the crown of a woman’s beauty. That is how the idea of Kuku’s Hair came about, to give women the opportunity to feel confident in their hair investment.
What has the journey been like?
Everybody’s journey is different. The peculiarity is what makes it all interesting. I started selling hair off the trunk of my car. I was marketing on the road and on the street. I was young, so it is funny recalling this. Every opportunity I had, I was marketing my hair. I remember an incident when I took my mum to the hospital. We were waiting our turn for the doctor’s appointment and I went up to this woman and marketed my hair. She was so impressed and told me that the enthusiasm and drive I had would take me places. I carried on with that drive till today, trying to put my business out through obstacles and challenges, taking it one step at a time. That is how I got here.
What is the hardest challenge you faced starting out and how did you overcome it?
The hardest challenge I had to deal with was inferior goods, fraud online, and disloyal staff. And this is funny, because they keep coming back to plead and I keep accepting them. Dealing with bad press and people who run negative stories about me, or the brand for personal or vindictive reasons were also challenges. But when you build a brand that speaks for itself, it becomes a bragging right.
Customer relations are a high priority for us. We often track people to know how they are enjoying Kuku’s Hair and it gives me so much pleasure when a customer says they have been using my hair for ten years and counting. Carrying out due diligence before making transactions has helped to curb fraud; also I have many trusted partners now, compared to when I was starting out. And lastly, maintaining standard and quality over the years was how I overcame it all.
The hair industry is quite competitive, what do you do to stay above competition?
Consistency, staying and maintaining focus has helped me. You will never catch me making reference to any other brand; however, I find it flattering when I hear other brands making reference to my stock. The sky is big enough for the birds to fly. I am not trying to stay above anyone; I am just working to be the best I can be.
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
That would be the flexibility of managing my time, to be able to navigate every facet of my livelihood. It’s self-fulfilling. Seeing that I am comfortable at such a young age with family, gives me so much joy. It’s deeply fulfilling. Sometimes, I catch myself looking out of my office window and seeing my signage and saying to myself, “Wow, I have come this far and I am still here.” I am really grateful for that.
Are you living your entrepreneurial dreams or do you feel you are still working your way towards them?
Yes, I am living my entrepreneurial dreams because I feel like, it’s like one done and dusted, but there is more to come. However, I am highly grateful for the ones that are done and dusted, because they are leveraged for more to come. Sure, there is still work to be done for the future endeavours, but thankfully, I wouldn’t need to introduce myself. My businesses have traction and a footstep that has left an indelible mark, and serves as a springboard for future endeavours.
What is the best entrepreneurial advice that you have received that impacted your life?
Simply put, focus on yourself and shut out every distraction out there.
What was growing up like for you, was your family a closely-knit family?
I am the last child of three beautiful sisters with whom I had an amazing time growing up. My first sister, Elizabeth Onyease is MD, Internal Med/Infectious Diseases Associate Professor, Campbell University School of Osteopathic Medicine, and the second; Ezinne Nwotite is MD FAPP. And of course, we are a closely-knit family. But overall, I am a mother, a wife, a daughter and a friend.
As a business owner, what is your greatest fear and how do you keep it under control or harness it?
My greatest fear is not being able to pay bills. That the people I am responsible for; my home and work staff, will feel I have failed them. Honestly, the fear of that is what drives me to more success.
You have signed a couple of ambassadors for Kuku’s hair, which of them has been the most influential?
Foremost, although I appreciate every ambassador I have worked with and I cannot deny what they have brought to Kuku’s Hair, our signings are a way to support women. And everybody we have signed in the past or still sign, brought and brings their own uniqueness to the team. Idia Aisen was the first ambassador. I will forever appreciate her coming onboard. Laura Ikeji is a master influencer and sells you like there’s nothing else she does. Erica Nlewedim is loved by many and that love transcends to her fanbase relating to any brand she is associated with. Jazzy Ogaga, I call her the king of the runway, she is so professional and those professional God-given looks give that edge to our advert campaigns. There are a few people out there that we have our eyes on, that we hope to work and collaborate with.
You started Kuku’s Hair before the social media boom in Nigeria, is there any difference between then and now?
Definitely! Social media has made it possible to have more reach, but if social media shuts down, Kuku’s Hair will still be here because we have built a clientele base of existing customers. And like they say, word of mouth is the strongest marketing from time immemorial.
What advice would you give others who are on their own career journey?
Foremost, make sure you love what you do. It can’t be solely for the desire to make a profit. You must have passion for it, even if it is a modicum of it. Also, consistency and patience are great virtues. Always try to see positivity in things and be a walking advert for your business.
What are your other interests?
I love to dance. Music makes me happy. It is the easiest way I unwind. I am also an interior decorator and I love to design beautiful spaces. My salons are a testament. I love building houses. Getting the task started and finishing it is a form of art to me. When you finish building, people see the finished product and they admire it and buy it. I find that interesting. I love to give back. Helping solve problems feeds my soul and nourishes my spirit. I think that is what we are here to do, to help each other in any way we can. Anyone who knows me knows I love helping.
Is there anything you are working on that we should keep an eye on?
I like to hold my cards close to my chest.
What is your Kuku’s Hair philosophy/motto?
For Kuku’s hair, it is “For the narcissistic woman” and personally, it is “remain recoverable.”