Cynthia always knew the power of her imagination, even from a young age, so her dreams ran wild and fuelled what we now see as her creative prowess. Cynthia Nwaru is a go-getting artistic genius and the gift that keeps giving. In her journey through the creative world as an entrepreneur, head of brand and strategy at ATAFO, and events and community lead at THE HOUSE, her wit and passion for giving a memorable experience are attributes that leave an impression.
On this week’s #MCNWorkLife, Cynthia gives us the details and her secret on how she remains the creative powerhouse she is.
Without overthinking it, who is Cynthia Nwaru?
I am a creative entrepreneur because I lucked out and found a way to profit from doing things I enjoy. People often say to leave the things you love doing as hobbies and do something else for work, but I don’t believe that. I believe in doing what I enjoy because it never feels like work.
What did you want to be growing up?
This is so interesting because I used to think of what I now know as PR and brand strategy when I was a child. I didn’t know there was a word for it. I was a quiet kid, always in my head or writing; I had books where I would write ideas and poems. Writing has always been my thing, so I would have poems inspired by the life I wanted to live as an adult, and on the side, I would have a drawing to give it a specific aesthetic. I had a series of notebooks like that.
Growing up, I was passionate about writing, adverts, music, and a life in fashion and entertainment. As much as I had all these ideologies, the one thing I wanted the most was to be an adult that people thought was cool. So, I wanted to be a cool adult!
“It’s one thing to live in Nigeria, which can be very limiting for creatives, but it’s another thing to push past these limitations.”
What did you study in university?
My major was supposed to be computer science, but when you go to uni, you meet people and learn and experience more. I understood that what I liked was advertising and communications. I switched from computer science without telling my parents to information systems, a long course in using technology to provide solutions.
I’m a solution-driven person, which aligns with the ideologies that I had and still have. I also have a minor in advertising. All the things I wanted as a child and what I studied in university helped make up my background for the career that I’m currently pursuing.
You have an extensive portfolio, working as the Lead Nose at Claire Marcus, Head of Strategy and Brand at ATAFO and Events and Community Lead at THE HOUSE. What is your primary occupation?
Being me. Being who I am helps me do all those things. After uni, people will ask, “What is your five-year goal?” I told myself I’d use the next five years to build my network in fashion and lifestyle, and that’s what actively took me towards PR. I wanted to be indispensable, someone people considered valuable to their team. Five years after I set that goal, I was on the right path.
I remember vividly some guy was trying to set up a fashion production brand, and everyone he spoke to said, “Talk to Cynthia .” The day he called me, he mentioned that my name kept coming up in conversations with people, and I remember getting off that call and feeling like the happiest person because I had gotten to where I wanted to be. So, my primary occupation is being me – the person who is always at the right place at the right time and is doing what she likes to do.
View this post on Instagram
That’s wonderful. Can you run us through your journey to becoming the dynamic, visionary, creative entrepreneur that you are?
The journey has been ten years in the making. My journey started with modelling. I didn’t want modelling, but it looked like the best way into fashion then; learning to sew was the alternative, and I didn’t see that happening. Since then, it has taken so many turns and twists, disappointments, and wins. I went from being a model to doing these lifestyle/fashion writings to my internship at ATAFO to being a talent manager and curating my events, which led me to the opportunity I have at THE HOUSE. It’s been a long, continuous, revolutionary journey, and I feel blessed that this is my life.
It’s one thing to live in Nigeria, which can be very limiting for creatives, but it’s another thing to push past these limitations. I’ve found myself doing many things I want to do because I chose not to be limited by my environment and keep moving toward the things I am passionate about.
Tell us about your journey at ATAFO.
I remember calling Michi, my friend who knew all the designers, to ask if she could get me an internship in fashion. She sent my resume to Mai (when I wrote for her blog), and I got the opportunity to intern at ATAFO for a year. I was offered the brand manager position then, but it didn’t work out. I got set up with another designer -Sally Bawa- a womenswear brand; the designer hand painted on the garments, which was an incredible narrative for the industry then.
Sally Bawa’s dresses were on most major magazine covers within three months. In six months, we went from 300+ followers on Instagram to 2000+ people. That year, If you’ve built a page organically, you’ll understand what this means. Almost a year later, I got a call from Mai Atafo, and we arranged to work on a contract basis so Mai would bring me on board for projects like the rebranding or a collection launch or whatever else he was working on, and we’d jam it out.
Then, we worked on a project together last year, after which I joined ATAFO full-time.
“You never really know who is paying attention. Tobi was paying attention to my work and felt it was time for us to do something together.”
View this post on Instagram
That sounds like quite the journey. Glad to see you do amazing things at ATAFO. Tell us about THE HOUSE and how it started.
I just realised I have a full-circle moment with THE HOUSE. The first time I came to THE HOUSE, we had a shoot with Mai for a magazine, and Tobi, the owner, was there. We bonded in the short time I spent shooting. She’s such a sweet-spirited person, so we vibed; we exchanged numbers and followed each other on Instagram in 2017/18. We stayed Instagram friends after that.
Unknown to me, Tobi had been paying attention to my journey. I’ve been a patron of THE HOUSE, and because I’m huge on value for money, it’s one of the places I love to come to to get exactly that. Sometime this year, she texted me and said we should have lunch, and while we were talking, I asked Tobi, is this an interview? Because of the questions she was asking, she said a cheeky yes. She said all these nice things about me; I didn’t know she knew. You never really know who is paying attention. Tobi was paying attention to my work and felt it was time for us to do something together with THE HOUSE.
She has this vision to build a social brand that values the overall customer experience. My goal at THE HOUSE is to do my part in bringing her vision to life and elevate the overall experience of THE HOUSE as a brand.
One of the reasons I stopped doing events was because I always had to do it alone, and with Tobi, it felt like the Holy Spirit was telling her about my fears about doing things alone. With my event brand, I had done all these shows with no team, just me wearing all the hats. She immediately told me I wouldn’t be doing it alone and that she would be providing a team.
So when she offered me the job, I said yes. The following week, I attended a team bonding exercise, and four coaster buses pulled up; over a hundred people were there. It was an inspiring and humbling experience because I now have a team to work with, but a full-on squad!
Claire Marcus is a fragrance brand. As the Lead Nose for this brand, you curate distinctive scents capturing moments, people, and moods. How do you create these scents to capture these moments and moods?
My creation process starts with an idea. I think about the mood I am trying to create for the customer. For instance, one of my best sellers is Gidi Nights, and when I was making it, I thought, “If I had control over what Lagos smells like, what would I do?” From there, I started using adjectives to describe what Lagos feels like.
When I think about Lagos, I think about the vibrant energy and the energetic people, so it’s fast-paced. When I think of fast pace, the scent that matches is something sharp and fresh because Lagos is on the pulse of things. With that idea in mind, I researched scents attributed to those adjectives. Once I attribute the notes accompanying the emotions, I test which complementary blends best capture the idea
“When I was younger. I used to think about creating merchandise that wasn’t t-shirts, and one of the things I had written down was candles with QR codes for the artist’s music.”
What inspired you to get into the business of curating fragrances for scented candles, oils and sprays?
I like going out, and even though the lifestyle space has become redundant, it used to be exclusive, and just being in the room was incredible. I saw the change in Lagos nightlife. It became a little monotonous, so I started something that felt more like the vibe I wanted to come out for, and that was when I created THE LATE NIGHT SOIREE.
It was all about utilising my love for going out. I would find cool spots and create a specific ambience where the live music matched the space’s vibe and the space itself was set to be very intimate and fun. When I think about ambience, the first thing that comes to mind is scents and candles. Going to the store to get candles, the candles were, first of all, too expensive, and the scents were generic. Muna Abii, a friend of mine, was a headlining performer at my event, and we discussed it. She told me to do something about it, and that’s where it started.
When I started my business, I took a break from all other jobs to pour myself into my business. I made my first batch of candles for my first event. The first batch of candles could have been better, but the branding was engaging. Muna saw it and said we should sell them as collector items, and she did. At the end of the event, she told me she had sold six candles to “collectors,” and it stuck with me. If people could see these candles burning not so great and still want to buy them, there must be something here.
After that, I researched the best ways to work on the candles and create something my customers were happy about, and that was how the candles took off. I made over 200 candles while practising, and I kept giving candles away and asking for feedback. The more people received them, the more they wanted it. The selling point for my business was the uniqueness of the scents, which differed from what was on the market.
Some of it was also manifestations because I remembered a book I had written when I was younger. I used to think about creating merchandise that wasn’t t-shirts, and one of the things I had written down was candles with QR codes for the artist’s music.
I’ve also gotten to do this with a few artists like Lady Donli for her first album, Maka, and Dice Ailes, to name a few, and it’s all really fascinating to see them come together.
View this post on Instagram
As the Head of Strategy and Brand at ATAFO, can you run us through the details of your job?
For my job at ATAFO, it’s really if Mai is thinking, I’m doing it. I am in charge of leveraging and establishing partnerships that help us achieve our brand goals. I work with Mai to strategise and execute the brand’s to-dos that help us reach our goals anytime. I’m also Mai’s project manager. If there’s a project that Mai wants to bring to life, my job is to get all the details involved and all the people that need to be on the project right where they’re supposed to be. Anything PR, branding-related, and ensuring we can collectively elevate our customer’s experience at ATAFO.
At THE HOUSE, you work as the Events and Community lead. What is your contribution to transforming THE HOUSE into a thriving social space where collaboration, unique experiences and formed connections can flourish while celebrating the spirit of artistic synergy?
My contribution is figuring out the how, what, who, and ways we can execute and bring THE HOUSE’s vision as a thriving social space to fruition. Positioning THE HOUSE so more people understand it is not just a restaurant but also cultivating a community of people who appreciate an elevated experience from the food, the vibe, the appeal of our events, and just knowing there’s a space to have a fantastic time with your friends, family or lovers.
“I don’t believe in stereotypes. I firmly believe in creating your own narrative.”
Functioning fully in all of your roles at ATAFO, THE HOUSE, and Claire Marcus, tell us what a day in your life looks like.
For me, no two days are the same. Some days, I just sleep. My day sometimes starts with a good stretch and my morning coffee, checking on orders for my business and all my work emails. Most days, I’m at the ATAFO Atelier; we’re working on our Spring/Summer 24 collection and show. So we’re in heavy prep mode. This looks like prepping many decks, sponsorship meetings, emails, and sample reviews with Mai and the design team! On other days, I’m at THE HOUSE, ensuring an event is prep’d for, hosting our customers, or taking a vendor meeting. Depending on the time of the day, you can also find me in my at-home studio creating. Or just outside, treating myself to a pornstar martini and cheesecake!
Are there any cultural or gender stereotypes that have made it easier or more challenging for you to do your job?
I defy stereotypes and strongly advocate for shaping one’s narrative. Refusing to adopt someone else’s story as my own is a fundamental principle I uphold. I’ve had my fair share of life experiences, but I don’t let them limit me from doing my work and what I want to do. I have never operated from a place of limitation, and that’s what I think cultural or gender stereotypes are: If you lean into stereotypes, they affect you, and if you choose not to, you will always find ways to ensure they do not limit you. And I want more girls to understand that because many women end up limiting themselves because they ascribe to “stereotypes” they hear about, they don’t even make their attempt.
Reading your profile, I observed through your words that your passion and dedication are unwavering. However, what is your favourite part of working with these brands and putting in your all to see that you succeed in your roles?
Just working with brands, this iconic does it for me. I get to work with Mai, ATAFO, and THE HOUSE. These are iconic brands that people love, and just being a small part of the work that goes behind the scenes with such brands means a lot to me because these two brands will always be mentioned in the history of fashion and hospitality.
I get to ideate and contribute to the moments these brands create. I feel fortunate and blessed to work with people whose views and values align with mine. At THE HOUSE, Tobi has created a work environment that thrives whether she is around or not, with employees who are passionate about the business and want to be impactful, unlike many other organisations in our country.
The same thing applies at ATAFO. Beyond coming to work, the company cares about your well-being. ATAFO is very passionate about the staff’s mental health and overall well-being, ensuring you have room to improve yourself. Mai has created a space for employees to thrive because, ultimately, we, as individuals, are just as important as the work we do.
Being in these spaces inspires and motivates me to do more for them.
“For a resourceful person like myself, a challenging situation motivates me to figure it out and deal with it. Impossible is nothing, so challenges do not phase me.”
Every job comes with hiccups, and it would be fallacious to say that you have not experienced any difficulties. Tell us about your least favourite part of your work.
It would be weird to say I don’t have a least favourite part, but that’s true. I love the work that I do, and I enjoy seeing ideas come to life. However, if I had to pick a difficulty, it would be managing people; I am not the most patient person, so it sometimes can come off as being harsh because I move quickly, and I like quick thinkers who also grasp things, so if you’re not moving swiftly, too, I can get very short, very quickly.
Have you experienced any significant challenges you would like to share with us in your multiple roles and how you overcame them?
For a resourceful person like myself, a challenging situation motivates me to figure it out and deal with it. Impossible is nothing, so challenges do not phase me.
The one significant thing was my transition from my internship to doing freelance work; needing more financial stability than I expected of myself was challenging.
I could’ve given up and gone to find a corporate job or some 9-5 gig, and my life would have taken a more financially fulfilling yet unsatisfied turn. Still, that experience showed me how resourceful I could be because I had to figure out legitimate ways to make all ends meet. So, taking that and pushing myself to determine how my work could be more profitable has been an exciting challenge.
“If someone blocks your road, build a new path and walk/work on it until you pass your limits.”
In the same light, would you like to share a significant achievement you’ve had in your career and what makes you proud of this achievement?
I coordinated 19 shows in two cities featuring 30+ artists with no sponsors. It was indeed a learning experience that showed me the dynamism of friendships. You can be the one who shows up for everyone, but who shows up for you?
Shout out to my friends who helped and supported me through the creative process of those events. When I look back, I do not know how I did that. I made the most out of those shows, and it was an enjoyable experience that showed me that if I wanted to do something, I should go ahead and do it.
What is the most prominent challenge women in the creative industry face when advancing their careers?
In my opinion, I believe that women need to understand that when it comes to the hustle, advocate for gender neutrality, and do more than what is expected from you as a “woman.” If a man is standing for 20 hours, stand for 21 or do the work smarter so you don’t even have to stand in the first place.
Show up and show out, especially when it comes to your chosen hustle, and push past your self-imposed and societal limits. Assume that there is no limit and show up as a person because, at the core of it, no one cares about your gender. People only care about the result. If someone blocks your road, build a new path and walk/work on it until you pass your limits.
What initiatives have you participated in throughout your career promoting gender equality and supporting other women?
For one, when we’re hiring at ATAFO, I prioritise women. If a man and woman have equal qualifications for a job, I consider the woman first when picking the perfect candidate. I always find opportunities to put a woman on and make myself available to support NGOs that empower them.
I was with a community of business owners for a year, and I put myself in a position to do everything I could to elevate the community further. I’m always happy to give value where I can and prioritise giving value to women and men who deserve it, but to women first. I am still looking for initiatives I can be a part of that promote and highlight women, but in everything I do right now, I always make sure I’m levelling the playing field for women.
With the work you currently have on your plate, do you have any side hustles you intend to begin soon?
I have ideas for things I want to do but need more time. Everything I’m doing now is what I’ve wanted to do for years, so I want to be present and bask in this. I occasionally consult and work with people but have no time for side hustles.
What do you envision for yourself in the next five years, and what do you hope to achieve?
I imagine I have enough money to buy a new passport for myself. That is my new five-year goal, so check back in five years.
What advice would you give women like you looking to start a career in the creative industry?
Show up. Talk about your ideas with people, and whatever opportunity comes your way, take it. It might look slightly different from your expectations, but it will take you close enough to where you want to be. Take any opportunity that gets your leg in the room and use it to push. If you want to be in the creative industry, be outside and talk loudly about what you want to do, and when you get the opportunity to do what you need to do, put in your all because no one forgets the person who puts in 100 percent.
Can you give us a tip you swear by for successfully managing a work/life balance?
Prioritise yourself and your mental health. Do the things that make you happy because you come first. Your job is essential, but you are more important. When you are good, your job will be good as well.