From a young age, Folakemi Oloye discovered her love for arts and crafts with the help of her father. From DIY projects to simple curtain selections for their home, Folakemi Oloye’s creative spirit manifested itself in little ways, even before she knew it.
Many years later, with an optimistic mindset, the help of supportive friends, and a passion for curating spectacular spaces, Folakemi Oloye founded Teal Harmony, an interior design firm that brings to life the essence of beauty in the minds of its clients.
In this week’s #MCNWorkLife, we start the year with Folakemi Oloye and the beauty of the design. From fresh starts to winning awards, Folakemi details her experience in the design industry, as well as top-notch tips for novices in their design career.
Tell us who Folakemi Oloye is without referring to your work.
I am a solution provider, continually seeking ways to improve situations and address challenges that arise.
I focus on improving things rather than leaving them worse than they started. I’m also an optimist. I always try to see the best in every situation and approach issues with a can-do attitude. To me, everything is achievable.
What was your childhood dream job, and how did it translate to your current work?
When I was much younger, I wanted to study medicine and become a doctor because my mom always dreamed of having a doctor in the family. I initially thought I was going to go along that path.
But as things proceeded, I realised I had a greater passion for chemistry and physics than biology. I then changed course and decided to be a petroleum engineer. However, after attending some courses at the University of Lagos, where I pursued a diploma that functioned more like a degree, I questioned whether I genuinely enjoyed it or was merely influenced by the buzz surrounding the oil and gas industry.
Eventually, I shifted gears and studied mathematics. The analytical nature of engineering and mathematics is tied to my work in interior design because they all involve applying logic and understanding why one choice is made over the other.
How did you discover your love for interior design, and when did you realise it was something you could do to earn a living?
My love for design began when my father would take me out to the market with him to pick out curtains for our home. Sometimes, I would join him in assembling furniture or items he got for work because he was a civil engineer.
When I got my first apartment, I realised I could do whatever I wanted with the space. I decided to get creative with the small space and add personal touches along the way. From then on, my friends would visit, give compliments, and then ask me to help them put something together for their spaces, and I would. A significant turning point was when I helped a friend decorate her store after much back and forth. Surprisingly, she paid me for the job even though I never expected payment. That was when I believed I could earn a living out of it.
Before transitioning into interior design, you worked as the Head of Employer Partnerships at WAVE Academy. Can you tell us about your time at WAVE Academy?
My experience at Wave contributed significantly to my success as an entrepreneur
I had worked in various organisations before, but at Wave, I learned invaluable lessons in lean operations, the social side of the business, and the strategic use of data for decision-making.
During my time at Wave, I was primarily involved in business development. I sought the best fit for roles, identifying potential trainees who could seamlessly work with employers. I also managed the relationship with employers, onboarded new partners, and educated them on our mission. The system and structure of the teams I worked with at Wave contributed to my ability to establish Teal harmony and successfully lead the teams I have.
As you create habitable spaces, what would you describe as your creative process?
The creative process begins with understanding the client, their ideas and the brief. Other aspects contribute to the creative process, like the lighting, architectural design, and overall space.
The brief remains the main inspiration for every design process.
What or who is your most significant design influence?
I’ve been following a designer named David Rockwell for years, and he’s pretty fascinating. He’s mainly focused on the hospitality side of design, and I find it incredibly inspiring. Whenever I see the innovative concepts he introduces, like the Academy Awards outdoor design he did during the pandemic, it takes my ideas to a different level.
Resigning from a stable job to start a business can be tricky. How did you navigate that transition, and did you get the best results from it?
The transition was challenging, but it was worth it. I had to take many risks, from moving to a more affordable place to reducing my expenses significantly. There was a lot of uncertainty because moving from a consistent income to not knowing where your next paycheck would come from took a lot of work. But I found my way out of it, and I didn’t have to eat too deep into my savings before I started seeing returns.
Another thing that helped me transition properly was my relationship with my employer and colleagues. Instead of the regular two-week notice, I gave them a three-month notice and even assisted in hiring my replacement. Because I left on a positive note, my relationship with Wave didn’t suffer, and I even got recommendations from my employer.
You have designed notable spaces like the MAVINS headquarters and the Adidas flagship store. What space has been your favourite in your career so far?
The Adidas team in South Africa designed the Adidas project, and we were the local partners responsible for the interior fit-out. While we didn’t handle the design, we executed the interior fit-out, and I wanted to clarify that.
As a designer, it is tough to pick a favourite space, but the current project I’m working on, a villa, is slowly taking the spot for my favourite design. The design is on a different scale for me, and we’re trying out new things. Though we are still in the concept development stage, I’m excited to see the result of this project.
Starting a business is a challenging feat. Can you tell us about Teal Harmony and what your journey so far has been like?
Over our eight years of existence, we’ve undergone significant growth and evolution. Our focus was initially on design and execution, but we eventually saw the need to venture into retailing because of the gap in the furniture industry.
After we ventured into retailing, we realised we couldn’t get everything we needed in the quality we wanted, so we started furniture production. Ideas for how spaces should look became easier to execute.
Instead of waiting months for a piece of furniture to arrive, we would easily make it and bring customer’s ideas to life.
We encountered highs and lows throughout this journey, but the learning curve has been incredibly valuable.
Leading a team with diverse skill sets, from semi-skilled to professionals, has influenced and transformed my leadership style and character. I am grateful for the opportunities, and when I reflect on the journey, it’s filled with gratitude.
Tell us about winning the Interior Design category at the Africa and Arabia Property Awards 2022 and how that translated to Teal Harmony.
This award happened by chance, if I’m being honest. We had never entered any competition, and for the first time, we decided to submit our design to them, and surprisingly, we were selected as the winner. We initially did it to put ourselves out there, and even if we didn’t win, it would be a lesson to do more, but we won, and that day remains one of the most memorable days of 2022 for me.
I remember getting the call and rushing to the office to tell everyone we had won the award. It was truly exhilarating knowing that our designs were so good that we won an award for our first entry. Winning this award made us realise that we genuinely know what we’re doing and solidified our position in the industry. Overall, it was a fantastic experience that still brings back great memories.
Kudos to you for running Teal Harmony so well! What is it like to manage such a reputable brand, and how do you maintain the same standard for every client?
Consistency is the secret. We have managed to be consistent in our operating processes, regardless of our workload. Sometimes, clients want to meet directly with the lead designer, but that isn’t always possible. Because of that, we devised a system that allows every customer to feel special every time. Through our onboarding process, we provide clients with a brief that lets them know their significance and educates them about the entire process.
In all my dealings, I always maintain the philosophy my father instilled in me: A good name is better than riches. This helps me remember that my reputation and the brand’s reputation are a lot more important than money and, in many cases, can be used as currency to thrive in the design space. We maintain this reputation by consistently providing value for every project we take on.
What changes would you like to see in the design sector?
I would like to see some form of regulation in the Nigerian design industry. In many countries, regulatory bodies, codes, and areas are looked into before a project is undertaken, but that is different in Nigeria. If regulatory bodies exist, potential mishaps due to emerging fake materials would not exist or instead be carefully observed. Regulation could ensure that interior designers undergo specific training, accumulate continuing education units (CEUs), and obtain certifications, safeguarding practitioners and clients. This would contribute to maintaining high standards within the industry and prevent potential accidents resulting from a lack of understanding.
Also, the interior design sector needs to establish an environment for learning. Training for artisans in professionalism and their art should be taken seriously. Focusing on training would benefit designers and allow artisans to see value in their expertise, which would, along the line, empower them to execute more unique designs effectively and reduce the need for constant supervision by designers.
Of course, there needs to be more appreciation and awareness of design as a profession. Since the pandemic, more people have begun to see the importance of beautifying their spaces and making sanctuaries for themselves at home. While the appreciation for design is growing, I believe more people can learn to appreciate the art.
As a woman in the design industry, what is the most prominent challenge women in your field encounter when trying to advance their careers?
As a woman in the design industry, one of the significant challenges faced, especially by Nigerian women, is a reluctance to take risks. Many women prefer a secure and established setting before venturing into new opportunities, which separates them from their male counterparts. Men in the industry often engage in conversations and collaborations that lead to high-profile projects. As women, we must actively participate in these conversations to advance to this stage.
Women need to become bolder and take on projects they are scared of. We must continuously challenge systems and push past the limits we see to secure more impactful projects. Step out of your comfort zone, and you will undoubtedly see the results in the design industry.
It is not uncommon for people to have preconceived notions about women in the workforce. What is the most common stereotype you have heard about yourself, and how have you been able to handle it?
The most common stereotype I’ve heard about myself is that I am only successful because I don’t have a family to care for. While this might seem like a compliment, it significantly downplays my skills and experiences that qualify me for my achievements. Often, in a derogatory tone, I would hear people say I was merely a businesswoman, but I would leave it at that.
Did those comments make you doubt your decision to be a businesswoman or a business-inclined person?
Absolutely not. I thrive on such challenges because they motivate me to push myself and strive for excellence. When people doubt my capabilities or make assumptions, it fuels my determination to prove them wrong. Those comments are an opportunity to showcase only a fraction of my potential, leaving much more for me to explore and achieve. Instead of letting negativity affect me, I channel it into a source of motivation.
This is one of the reasons why I encourage and support the women on my team. Women bring unique strengths to the table. While some may label it as feminist thinking, I genuinely appreciate the detailed and meticulous approach that women often bring to their work.
What initiatives have you participated in to promote gender equality and support other women throughout your career?
I may not have engaged formally in supporting women, but I actively contribute by informally mentoring others. In the interior design industry, I ensure I have informal mentees, guiding them in exploring opportunities, encouraging them to think innovatively, and providing leadership responsibilities for my team.
Women tend to undervalue themselves and not demand equal pay, but I encourage total transparency in financial matters at my workplace. I ensure my team understands their worth and sometimes initiate conversations about fair compensation.
I’m part of women’s communities, like the African Women Entrepreneurship Cooperative, where I contribute to creating a supportive environment. I also volunteer for mentoring programs within these communities. Even though my support isn’t formal, I’m committed to fostering an environment where women can thrive.
You must have a busy schedule as a creative director and Teal Harmony founder. Can you run us through a typical day in your life?
My day usually has two main vibes: client meetings, internal talks, and creative sessions. I’m at my creative peak during the quiet nights, sketching ideas or reviewing designs with the team. I also have regular stuff like client meetings, store visits, and office tasks, but what stands out are the site rounds, which are a crucial part of my role.
I used to kick off my mornings with a gym workout, although I’ve dialled it down a bit lately. Some might think my routine sounds monotonous, but I genuinely enjoy people’s interactions, whether one-on-one or with smaller groups. Engaging with contractors and artisans adds a dynamic twist to my day, keeping it from being boring.
How do you prioritise your physical and mental well-being?
So, I don’t necessarily buy into the concept of balance as it’s commonly understood. Life, as I see it, operates in stages and different phases. For instance, in the early days of a business, the focus is primarily on that venture.
As your business evolves and grows, different stages demand different things from you. Life is about phases and seasons, where, at times, one aspect may take precedence over another. The idea of achieving a balance doesn’t resonate with me.
During specific phases, it’s essential to be fully present. For instance, if you’re in a stage where you’re starting a business, it might mean temporarily sidelining social activities or family visits. When you’re at work, give it your all. As you progress and have the resources, invest more time in relationships. This intentionality compensates for the times when work took precedence. There may come a time when you’re focused on physical fitness and being mindful of your consumption.
What do you like the most about the work you do?
My God, there are so many things I like. If I were to pick one out of everything, I genuinely love witnessing the transformation from concept to reality the most. Seeing the designs come alive and observing how people express themselves in a space is incredibly fulfilling. One of the most gratifying moments for me is when you design a home, and it’s not just aesthetically pleasing; people entering it feel that sense of warmth, making it feel like a home, not just a house.
I derive immense joy from watching and experiencing the space, realising that something that once existed only in your mind has become a tangible reality. The power of creation is simply astonishing. Witnessing an idea take shape and seeing how it’s felt and experienced by others is truly unique. So, this process of creating and seeing it come to life is what I love the most.
Tell us about the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career and how you dealt with it.
My biggest challenge was realising that I had made a hiring error. I often hire for attitude and personality, but at this time, the person I hired happened to be a fraudster who defrauded customers and the company of their hard-earned money. It took a while to repair the damage, and it was a rocky time for the business, but we pulled through.
So sorry you went through this. Tell us about a work accomplishment you are proud of and how you made this a reality.
My most significant achievement at the moment has to be the retail store. It’s a dream I’ve nurtured for about five years, a dream that evolved and developed over time. However, turning this dream into reality also required a substantial financial commitment, and the question was, where would the funding come from? Of course, it comes from my income.
The retail store, strategically located in the heart of Victoria Island, became a reality in 2023. It wasn’t a sudden decision; we found the perfect space in 2022. The process took five years, from envisioning the concept to the actual launch.
Seeing this dream become a reality is a huge accomplishment, and it brings me immense joy. The journey was undoubtedly challenging, but the positive response from the market and the lessons learned along the way made it all the more satisfying.
What would you change if you were to do things differently in your career?
If I were to change my career approach, I’d have started entrepreneurship courses earlier to avoid mistakes and boost progress. Betting more on myself and being confident in my abilities would have made a significant impact. Establishing mentorship earlier would have streamlined processes, and embracing my femininity from the start instead of trying to outdo men has proven to be a strength. Softness, family, and femininity are essential to who I am, and I’ve learned that being true to myself is crucial in my journey.
What advice would you give someone looking to start a career in interior design?
When starting, it’s crucial to recognise that mistakes are inevitable, but it’s equally important not to let them define you. Some individuals let a challenging client or a difficult vendor interaction shape their entire entrepreneurial journey, which isn’t fair. Mistakes should be viewed as opportunities to learn and grow. Understand that you’ll encounter both wins and losses in entrepreneurship, and that’s okay. Don’t fear making mistakes; see them as stepping stones for progress.