Nyema Igwe is the Executive Director and founder of Pop of Culture, a business founded on supporting Black entrepreneurs and creatives through Pop-up shops across the country. We had the opportunity to pick Nyema’s brain on entrepreneurship and the future of the company.
We Always like to start with getting to know your background. Tell us a little of your story, what was your upbringing like?
Well, where do I start?
I am a first generation Nigerian who was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio. For the first five years of my life, we lived in a rough part of Columbus but then moved to the suburbs after that. I lived in predominantly white neighborhoods and went to predominantly white schools, from elementary to high school. But my parents always made sure we were grounded in our Nigerianness and Blackness by talking to us about where we come from, telling us stories, and keeping us involved with the Nigerian community in Columbus. They also hammered education into our heads, never understating the importance of doing well in school. So that is what I did. I got great grades, I was a respectful student who followed instructions and colored within the lines. I was involved in extracurricular activities such as track & field, a dance team, and an organization called Youth to Youth (Y2Y) International. A quick side note, Y2Y was one of the organizations that I can say without a doubt, made me realize certain aspects of myself, such as my leadership qualities, creativity, and knack for planning and bringing ideas to life. I was involved in it for 4 years and absolutely loved it!
TZL: What did you want to be when you were a kid?
I don’t even remember. There wasn’t one thing in particular that I gravitated towards. But I do remember thinking stunt doubles were really cool at some point. To be honest, I’m not one of those people who had a clear vision of who they were and what they wanted to do with their life. Those realizations didn’t really happen for me until after undergrad.
TZL: How and at what point did you decide you were going to be an entrepreneur?
I remember in college (I went to the University of Toledo), my friend Dixie and I started a foundation called Saving Our Gems. It actually still exists because it is registered in Ghana, but we haven’t done anything with it in years. But anyways, we started it because we wanted to provide resources and educational opportunities for children in Nigeria and Ghana in order to help them live better lives and become more well-rounded individuals. That was my first stab at anything entrepreneurial and again, it taught me that I have natural leadership qualities and that I find creating things from scratch very exciting. But it also taught me that I had a lot to learn.
I studied exercise science in undergrad and was meant to go to physical therapy school. I applied and got in at Howard University, but never went and never told my parents I got in. Something in me just didn’t want to go. I did not want to be a physical therapist. To get away, I went to Nigeria in 2015, for a year, to complete the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC). During that time, I had plenty of time on my hands to think about different things, including business ideas that I had. The main idea I had was to start an online fashion boutique, selling African made clothing and accessories.
When I came back to the U.S. late 2016, my parents were still under the impression that I was going to apply for graduate school and for a little while, I tried to. But my heart wasn’t in it. So I told them I want to wait and work for a little bit and potentially start a business. I got a job at BMW working as a Quality Control by January 2017 and also started working on my online boutique, which I later called Asa Afrique.
TZL: Tell us how you got the idea to start Pop of Culture.
As I just mentioned, I started an online boutique called Asa Afrique in 2o17 and did that until about late 2019. During that time, I participated in popup shops and vendor markets. I remember my first one was at an event at Columbia University in NYC. After that, I participated in other ones in Columbus. I found that I really enjoyed the vendor markets. It was a cool way to showcase my brand and get in front of new customers. I also found myself being so interested in other brands and their products, sometimes to the point where I wouldn’t even care about selling my own things.
This intrigued me and I thought how can I do something like this? But geared towards Black entrepreneurs and creatives like myself. So, I took a leap and started Pop of Culture in the first quarter of 2019. Mind you, I was still running Asa Afrique but made it work because I would run the popup and participate as a vendor. The first popup was in Brooklyn, NY at a cute, chic storefront venue. There were about 7-8 brands and it was intimate and fun.
The feedback was solid so I continued and had another NYC event, and also popped up in Columbus, Houston, Atlanta, and Oakland that year.
TZL: Pop of Culture really aims to support Black Entrepreneurs, what are some key challenges you’ve seen for Black Entrepreneurs, specifically?
Yes, we are building a community that supports and celebrates Black entrepreneurs and one thing we do is ask brands what their biggest challenges are. One of the main challenges is knowing how to digitally market their brand and get in front of their target audience. Some other challenges include branding, organizing finances, and access to funding.
These are all issues that we plan on tackling, some sooner than others. Stay tuned!
TZL: How can we as a community support one another?
This is the golden question! As a community, as Black people in general, we must put our money where our mouth is. This is the first way to support and something we always talk about when advertising our popups. Yes, your presence is cute and all but it is better if you pull up and shop. We do our best to select a variety of quality brands so that shoppers can see products that they’ll like for themselves or someone they know.
We must support using our dollars, not just our words. But of course all of the other types of support are still important – referring Black-owned brands to your friends and family, highlighting them on social media and on blogs, etc and do it consistently.
We also need to be free flowing with knowledge and opportunities. Instead of shaming, ridiculing, or hoarding information, we need to enlighten one another, empower one another, and share opportunities and information that can help the next person level up.
We have to be our biggest supporters because if not us, then who?
TZL: What do you know now about Entrepreneurship, that you wish you knew when you first started?
Whew! Let me see…….
The first thing is to always have a strategy. You have to plan and then execute. Don’t let your excitement and enthusiasm prevent you from properly thinking through your idea and ironing out all the details. But with that being said, the next point is to not overthink to the point where you delay action. There really is no better teacher than real life experience, so please don’t plan forever. Your situation is never going to be perfect. You may feel like you don’t have enough time, enough money, enough knowledge, but just start. Those problems usually work themselves out if you stay the course.
The next thing I must stress is ask for help. collaborate. share ideas. Sometimes as entrepreneurs, we think we have to do things by ourselves to prove something. Or we think that no one will want to help us. But that is not true. You will get much further and make less mistakes if you have some people in your corner that you can share ideas and partner with.
Last, but certainly not least, don’t be afraid of failure. Just because one business idea didn’t work out doesn’t mean the next one will have the same outcome. Failure is simply a redirection. It teaches you what not to do, what to do, and keeps your mind sharp. Plus, if you’re going to fail, then fail fast. Don’t waste time and money holding on to a failing business for dear life. Cut it loose and move on.
TZL: Can you talk to us about a challenge you endured during your start-up phase and how you overcame it?
Honestly, Pop of Culture is still in its start-up phase. We just started in 2019. During that year, the main challenges were lack of funds and being a one-woman team. But I simply tried to organize myself as best as possible and didn’t worry about making a profit. I just focused on making my popups as quality as possible with the small resources I had.
In 2020, the challenge I faced was the same challenge that millions of business owners faced– no operations. This was very depressing because 2020 was supposed to be the year we accomplished certain milestones. But we are happy to be in a new year, filled with new opportunities. Our 2021 popup season is underway, our team is growing, our following is growing, and brands are ready to participate. Therefore, it is going to be a good year!
TZL: What do you believe is your purpose as an entrepreneur?
As an entrepreneur, my purpose is to positively impact the lives of many, no matter the business. I’m all about progression, positivity, and building businesses that are going to better lives in some way.
TZL: Where do you see Pop of Culture 10 years from now?
10 years from now, Pop of Culture will be an international brand, operating in Canada, Africa, and Europe. Our community will be made up of thousands of Black entrepreneurs and creatives around the world who are all connected by their passion to create and build brands. We will expand beyond popup shops, to offer mixers, workshops, and business resources to our community.
TZL: Running your own business is not an easy job, how do you take care of your mental health?
I do a few things to maintain my mental healthy and they include:
-Reducing my social media usage drastically. Most of my time on social media is spent on my IG business pages, creating content and checking messages. I barely spend time on my personal IG page, checking other peoples pages. I just don’t want to get caught up in other people’s lives.
-Listening to a lot of music. Music takes me to another place in my mind- a happy place. So whether I’m working out or working on something, I usually have music playing.
-Working out regularly to stay in shape and release stress. Looking good makes me happy.
-Making time to hang out with people and do things I like. It is easy to feel bad when you’re enjoying yourself, because you feel like I should be doing some work right now. But trust and believe, the breaks are necessary for your sanity. It is perfectly okay to take time for yourself and enjoy life. Please do.
TZL: Can you discuss upcoming projects, events or collaborations?
Well, so far our focus is just the popup shops but come the second half of the year, we may introduce something new. I don’t want to speak on it just yet though. As far as partnerships are concerned, we are happy to be partnering with you [The Zeal Life] and we have secured a partnership with Culture Icon TV, which we are very excited about.
We are always working on collabs so there is certainly more to come.
Pop of Culture Pop Up will be in Atlanta May 1st from 1:00p.m.-7:00p.m. EST, shop Black owned Brands at the Museum of Modern Perspective
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