Toke Makinwa is one of Nigeria’s most gifted On Air Personalities and a fast-growing lifestyle entrepreneur whose journey is characterised by many failures, which laid the foundation upon which she built her formidable media and lifestyle brand.
On August 22, at 3:08 pm, the Business Elites Africa team arrived at the Boardroom Apartment, Lekki, Lagos, Nigeria, the venue Toke Makinwa had chosen for this interview. Her assistant relayed that she was finalising a recording session. We were told she started working at 8:00 a.m.
About two hours later, Toke, with her effervescent spirit, hurried to the reception area, where we were waiting. “I’m so sorry for the delay,” she says. “Please, we have to go to my podcast studio. I have a guest waiting there.” Kaffy Shafau, the iconic Nigerian dancer, was waiting at the studio. She was supposed to be a guest on her podcast, ‘Toke Moments.’
It would take another 2 hours to start this interview at the new venue. Again, Toke apologised profusely for the delay, “Now you have a Glimpse of what my day looks like. I’ve not eaten anything today,” she quips, adorning a contagious smile.
Interestingly, her energy remained high when this interview started, akin to that of a newbie who just landed her first gig. Toke Makinwa’s aspiration to build a lifestyle business empire is more than just a dream. She matches it with an unbeatable work ethic and a ‘just do it’ attitude, damning the odds.
Let’s get a sense of your childhood. Were you always that child who was expressive, who liked to be all over the place?
Right from a very young age, my folks probably thought I would be a lawyer because I couldn’t just keep quiet. I was always the girl who would talk so much at home. One of my earliest memories of my dad is when he would knot his trousers so tight, and he would either have me sit by the corner and read a newspaper, or he’d say read to me because he just wanted me to keep quiet. If I’m not doing that, I’m singing, I’m shouting, I’m jumping, and I’m just causing chaos somewhere around the house. And after I’ve read it repeatedly, I’d get bored. And he would tell me to try losing this knot, knowing it would take me a while, and I would be quiet while he would completely sleep off.
How did you end up in the media space?
So, I went to the University of Lagos to study English Language and Literature. And I studied that on purpose because when you hear people say they majored in English, you find people saying, ‘Is it because you couldn’t get into Law or something’? That wasn’t the case for me. I was very attracted to poetry as a young child. I wrote a lot, even when I didn’t know what that was. I enjoyed just putting words together and fell in love with literature. So, I didn’t actually have a background in mass communication. I got my first job right before I even got into the University.
The industrial side of me has always been there. I remember going to a Christian concert at the Muson Centre with a cousin of mine, and a guy was sitting behind us, and he heard me speak and just tapped me and said, I like your voice; carry on. And I thought, ‘I don’t know you.’ And then he says, ‘Would you like to get a job on the Radio’?
At that point, I thought, ‘This is interesting. And I had never had a job before, so it sounded like a good idea. Then he goes again, ‘There’s this new station that is opening, and they want to have this teenager program every weekend that is supposed to be on sex, drugs, rock, and roll’, and I said, okay, I’ll come to try out for it.
And then I went the next day, and it was Cool FM that I met the late Tosyn Bucknor. There were two other guys. I don’t remember them by name now. Unfortunately, all three have passed, and I’m still here. So we all got the gig. We started our radio careers. Of course, I had to go to the University to get my degree, so I had to excuse myself, but Tosyn and the other guys carried on.
I remember that every day I went to Unilag, I would be on Third Mainland Bridge and listening to the Radio all the time. I could visualise what was happening in the studio because of my experience working there. I tried to push that side of me away because I thought it was just something I did for fun. But I was sure that when I finished University, I’d move to the UK to try and get on television because I wanted to be a news broadcaster. So when I finished University, I went to the UK, but the dream of getting on TV didn’t work out there.
So, I returned to Nigeria, did my National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) and started working at the bank. So, I quit the media dream. But my siblings knew I wasn’t happy. I came back home very frustrated. I had to wake up early because I had to be at the banking hall at 6.45 a.m. I worked in commercial banking. I didn’t like it at all. I was always picked on at meetings. Everyone knew that I wasn’t supposed to be there. I remember one of my bosses, an Executive Director, saying to me one day, ‘You’ve come to work like it’s a fashion show.’ I used to go to work in my heels, to the colour of my Tim Lewin shirt, blazers, and makeup. I was always dressed up but didn’t care about the job. He always said, ‘This is not a fashion parade. You don’t look like you belong here.’ Look at me today. So I guess he knew something that I didn’t.
From Radio, you became a vlogger, then Television, Podcast, and movies, and launched a fashion brand. How did you unveil every layer of the Toke Makinwa brand?
I wish I could sit here and tell you I had this big idea. I didn’t. I just kept taking risks, failing at some and succeeding at others. My official radio career started with the graveyard shift. I thought, was I not that good? I’d been on the Radio while I was much younger, and coming back again, I shouldn’t be given a show that airs in the dead of the night. Anyone would be discouraged.
This is how it happened. I remember my siblings saying, ‘You’ve given our parents the degree. You’re not happy. Why don’t you try and find out what you want to do?’ They were like, ‘Let’s apply to radio stations.’ So I went to Ray Power, I went to Beat FM, and I went to Rhythm FM. I didn’t go back to Cool FM. Three days later, Rhythm called me and gave me an offer. Beat FM called me back two weeks later, but I had already started working at Rhythm. The pay at Rhythm was lower than I was earning at the bank. I had to take the pay cut because I just wanted to do something that made me feel alive.
I remember going through the training with IK Osakioduwa (a former Big Brother Africa host). He trained me. Before IK, the late Dan Foster, also taught me a thing or two. I used to sit in on his shows at Cool FM back then. And shout out to Olisa Adibua as well, because I remember he was on the Drive Time show on Cool FM then. Darey Arts Alade was also on the night at Cool FM, and there was also a lady called Ebele, who I was super inspired by.
So, after my training with IK,. I was given the graveyard shift. I could have been discouraged because the fun shows were over at that point. I thought, ‘Who would be listening to me’? But I took pride in creating the best playlist Lagos had ever heard. I was known for my playlist. Everyone who couldn’t sleep, who was driving home at night, would call. They would be like, ‘I just like the music. I just like your playlist.’ I was only on that shift for six months. Afterwards, I was bumped up to the Morning Drive, which is the most important show on any radio station.
From Radio, Cecil Hammond (a popular entertainment promoter in Nigeria) walked up to me one day and said, I want to do a show on TV. I think I want to use radio presenters. I always said back then that radio presenters made better TV presenters – no disrespect to TV girls. But when you look at the greats, Oprah Winfrey started on Radio. Wendy Williams started on the Radio. Ryan Seacrest started on the Radio. There’s something about being comfortable with your wittiness and being able to carry an entire show without an audience – just you, music, and the studio. It’s a form of therapy for me. Just knowing that with one button, you have over five million people listening to you. That’s power. So I got very comfortable in my radio skin. I still love it to date.
So, I took a chance with Cecil. The show was called 3 live Chicks. Then, I reconnected with Tosyn Bucknor again. God rest her soul. So I, Tosyn Bucknor, and Oreka Godis, who also worked at Beat FM at that time. We had a blast on that TV show. From there, Ebony Life TV came calling, then Hip TV’s ‘Trending’. I was the first host of ‘Trending.’ Then, I hosted the 25th anniversary of The Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria. And then, I started emceeing events.
I got really comfortable failing forward. I’ve always had no’s throughout my career. Half of the auditions I’d go for were no’s. I remember wanting to work for one of those TV stations that had the early morning show, but I didn’t get the job. The person who went with me actually got the gig. Imagine, the person I invited to come along with me decided to audition for the show as well, and she got it. At that point, I started telling myself, ‘ With every no, you’re closer to a possible yes. So don’t get broken by the no. With every audition, you’re getting comfortable in front of the camera.’ And when the big YES came, it was game over.
Were there moments you thought you should give it all?
So many moments. So many moments. I’ve been to auditions where the people in charge of the auditions didn’t like me. And they tried to break me. I’ve been where people are like, ‘This is not going to work for you’ or ‘We think you’re too fake.’ All sorts of things have happened in my life where I could easily have rolled over and thought, ‘You know what? This is not for me.’ But the passion for what I wanted was far greater than any defeat. So, with every single tear and every single struggle, there was always something that just kept pushing me for more.
How did I start to read the news? I wasn’t a newscaster, but I would take all the news bulletins home and practice. And I would just hear my voice. And the opportunity came, and I went for it. I didn’t know it was called doggedness and tenacity then. It beats talent when you keep applying yourself to something. I just was really passionate. I just really wanted to just be the best TV presenter and the best radio presenter. And nobody could tell me anything. So with each no, I told myself, ‘All right, the yes is coming. I’m going to prove you wrong.’
Beyond the flair, beyond the passion, at what point did you start thinking about business and monetising everything you were doing?
The business started even before I knew it was business. Only a few people are that lucky. I pride myself in saying that I was one of the Radio presenters who started putting a face to radio presenters. Before my generation came along, Radio presenters were just Radio presenters. You just heard their voices, but you didn’t know their faces. I was inspired by Ryan Seacrest. I liked his interviewing style, and I just didn’t want to be a radio girl alone. So, I would always be at events. I would always network. And I didn’t realise why people kept sending me stuff like designer clothes. Oh, just wear this, wear that. I thought, ‘Okay, they like me and want me to wear their stuff’. I didn’t realise that they were selling out. So I would wear an outfit and be photographed in it. They would sell out because people would want to buy and wear the outfit. I think one designer was kind enough to send me a note and an extra outfit saying, ‘Thank you so much. Once you wore our outfit, we completely sold out. We named this outfit after you.’ Then, my business sense kicked in. I thought, what about monetising my time?
I remember the very first time I was invited to an event. My friend, Swanky Jerry, was there, and I was just like, ‘Tell them they have to pay me to attend.’ And we were laughing, and he was like, I’m her manager, you have to pay her, and they were like, ‘How much? And Swanky said N500K. This was probably about eight years back. And they were like, ‘Oh, we’d call you back. And they called back in 30 minutes and said, ‘Can we get your account details? I was like, ‘It’s over.’
That was the first time you were paid?
That was the very first time I got paid to attend an event. I didn’t know what appearances were. I just thought they would pay me to come to the event. But then I realised that after eight events, in the press junket, they would send out their pictures and use your name to promote it. Then, I monetised YouTube. I’ve always had a dream of making money in my sleep. I wanted to be a walking billboard. I wanted to do things that people weren’t doing yet.
I always wanted to look well put together and get paid to do it. And like that, it became a thing. People would ask, ‘How much would it take to have you come to our event’? ‘How much would it take to have you enter or speak’? And I started making money.
You seem to have mastered the art of getting people to talk about you, especially on social media. Is this strategic?
Getting people to talk about me is not strategic, I promise you. I’ve always wondered why, each time I sneeze, the entire country catches a cold. It’s because we live in a very judgmental society. We live in a society where everyone is guilty of what they accuse you of. But the difference is they have their curtains drawn. They have these conversations behind the scenes, and I’m just tweeting about it.
So it’s like, how dare she be so audacious? Once you are bold, it would scare people off. It would make people curious about you. And it would make them basically gagging at ‘who the hell does she think she is.’ So every single time that happened, they talked about me, and the more they talked about me, the more people knew about me, the more people were like, who is this person? And why does she just say these things? I’m just really having conversations that I have with my friends. I used to call myself a radio girl for so long because I could tweet about anything, and I didn’t care about, oh, because you are now famous, you shouldn’t say this.
And then there were so many controversies. It was just wow. Yes, it used to bother me initially because that’s not what I meant, but then that’s what you heard. But then I just got comfortable with it after a couple of cries. So I was just like, you know what, that’s it, this is who I am. You either like it, or you either don’t. One thing is, you would always feel my presence, and I’m most memorable. I have a very commandable presence, and I decided to use it with my voice and tiny stature. It worked in the end.
Let’s talk about your bag brand, TM Luxury. How did it start?
So, I had a friend, Esther, who always came to me with these ideas. She would be like, ‘Let’s do t-shirts. Let’s do perfumes, do this, and do that.’ And every idea seemed nice, but it wasn’t what I liked. And then one day, she was like, ‘You know you love bags a lot. Why don’t we start making bags?’ And I said, ‘Now that’s the one’. It was about four or three months before my birthday.
The business model she came up with was that we could get a designer who’s already known for making bags, and they can make a line for me, like a subline, which would help the designer and help me too. That way, we can cut costs and see if it works. And I remember the very first designer she brought, who wasn’t interested in partnering with us; she wanted to get paid. But because I was passionate again, I said, you know what, I’d pay. It doesn’t matter; it’s a risk. I’d take the risk and pay for it to be made. The bags were total rubbish. It was a complete disaster.
I remember the first set of handbags we released; people were bashing it on Twitter and saying, ‘It’s just a science school project.’ It was one of the things that hurt me the most. And I was like, ‘Here you are again, faced with this challenge. Do you sink or swim? Do you drown or float? I had nights of tears, thinking, ‘I hate to fail. This is not what is going to be attributed to my name.’ So, I went back to the drawing board. Luckily, it also created an avenue for bag makers to begin reaching out to me. So a couple of messages I would receive here, and they’d say, ‘I saw your bag, you can do this better, you can do that better.’ And then, I met this person who was good at making handmade bags. So we met, and I said I wanted to redo the bags. And we tried; it wasn’t perfect, but it was better. We still had a couple of glitches here and there, but each time we sold something, I wanted the customers and my team to give me honest reviews. I was always big on feedback. As a business owner, one of the business models I unconsciously built very early on was that I always wanted to be teachable. I run a brand where I am a staff, down to my makeup artist down to my stylist, they all have input. So if we win together, we win together; if we fail together, we fail together.
What tends to happen if you’re surrounded by yes men and people who only tell you what you want to hear is that you might be far along in the failure before you realise you’re alone. So, I would take the feedback from each collection we put out, and I was never offended. I would be the one to respond to customers on time. If they complain of any defects in the bag and demand a refund, I would refund their money. I would take all the insults and apologise. I learned very early that not everyone is hating on you. Sometimes, you need to listen for you to go farther. And we just kept applying and just kept doing it. And I’m super excited that it’s become such a staple piece in Nigeria and Africa.
I travel to parts of Africa and see people wearing my bag and scarves. It’s humbling that people actually believe in the message of TM luxury, which is to be aspirational, believe, and dream. That’s the story of my business. I didn’t start off being a genius. I didn’t start off wanting to compete with other bag makers. I just buried my head and made sure that my craft got better. And I can say to date, I’m yet to find any controversy with the business.
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