This year, in honour of Black History Month, Futurpreneur is profiling a series of exceptional Black entrepreneurship leaders in our network—entrepreneurs and mentors who are making a difference in their communities.
A party invite nearly a decade ago changed the trajectory of Catherine Addai’s career.
Addai is the designer and entrepreneur behind Kaela Kay, a Toronto-based fashion brand. A health management consultant by trade, Addai started the brand “on a whim” in 2013 while on parental leave, armed with her home sewing machine and a stroke of inspiration.
“When I started out, African prints were taking off and becoming really popular,” Addai says.
Addai, whose family is from Ghana, says her family members often wore bright, bold Ankara prints when she was growing up – “but I never wore them, because the way my mother and aunts wore them was over-styled.”
Her perspective changed when she and her now-husband went to a party one night: “I walked into this room, and all the girls my age were wearing these beautiful prints in styles I hadn’t seen before.”
Addai instantly realized there was a market for a more modern take on traditional West African prints. “It kind of lit the spark in me,” she says.
“It was about being able to respect tradition, but also be true to myself and our current, modern aesthetic, and how to bring those two things together. That’s what the brand was built on.”
Addai broke out the sewing machine she occasionally used to do alterations for friends and produced a collection of five initial pieces. Her first campaign was shot in Toronto’s Kensington Market with volunteer models, photographers and stylists.
“I never in my wildest dreams thought it would become a career,” Addai says.
But Addai’s degree in health information management and subsequent career experience helped her in a number of ways while launching the brand: She used her tech skills to build her own site and handle marketing, and the time management, negotiation and organizational skills she honed on the job helped the business run more smoothly as she found herself laying out plans for the business months in advance.
SLOW AND STEADY GROWTH
Addai eventually began tapping Toronto-based seamstresses to create the clothing – something she still does to this day, even when other brands might have outsourced production overseas. “I started with a seamstress I’d known about 10 years – she did my wedding party,” Addai says.
That soon became a tightly knit production team of three seamstresses; Addai says she’s in contact with them almost every day.
“It allows me to keep a better eye on production. It also lets me do more efficient things, since I can pitch them on ideas and it’s fast (to make them happen),” she says.
That efficiency is paramount, since most of Kaela Kay’s stock is still made to order, with a small number of core items and sizes available off-the-rack. That limited production also allows Addai to make custom garments for any size.
Though Addai found early success with a U.S. customer base – particularly Black American women, who were “hip to the styles and the prints before Canadians were” – her orders are now more evenly split between Canada and abroad.
As the brand grew, Kaela Kay came to occupy more and more of Addai’s time – but she held on to her consulting job until 2018.
“At the height of it, to be honest, there was no balancing it all … For the better part of two years, I think I worked on five hours of sleep a night,” she admits.
“I decided I really had to quit my job when 24 hours were not enough to do all the things I had to accomplish in a day—something always got left behind. That’s when I knew something had to give.”
Addai is quick to credit her family and friends for their support; her husband filled in many of the gaps at home, in addition to taking on accounting, shipping and packing duties for the brand.
When she finally decided to take the fledgling brand full-time, Addai was looking for some additional funding and guidance to help boost the brand and came across Futurpreneur. “I had ideas and wanted to pivot, but I didn’t know how to let the business grow,” she says.
Her mentor, she said, was particularly helpful in growing the business. “I knew where I wanted the business to get to, but I’d never really had to have a road map before. Now I had to actually put together a plan and execute it, and he was great to bounce ideas off of, or would bring up things I didn’t even know about the industry. He’d hold me accountable for things I needed to get done.”
In addition to the loan and two years of mentorship, Addai says she also benefited from Futupreneur programs like the Growth Accelerator, which connected her to experts in fields like HR and marketing – “all those things I needed support with” – in addition to valuable peer support.
“We were all in different industries, but we all faced similar issues, and it was nice to hear how people in different industries deal with those issues,” she says of her Growth Accelerator cohort. “I can text somebody or pick up the phone, and everyone’s really open and willing to share.”
BRINGING COLOUR BACK
That camaraderie was particularly appreciated as COVID-19 set in, shaking up many of Addai’s well-laid plans; she had recently opened a brick-and-mortar store in the north end of Toronto, and was planning to promote her spring/summer collection with pop-ups all over Canada.
She introduced mask designs, which “took off like wildfire” over the summer, bridging the gap that resulted from lower clothing sales, and a strong fall launch carried them through the rest of 2020. “People know I don’t mass produce my pieces, so they wanted to hang onto things for the future,” she says.
“A lot of brands were hit harder, so I’m grateful.”
Big plans are in the works for 2021, including hiring more staff, as well as “a bridal thing and a kids’ thing” that Addai is keeping under wraps for now.
“I’m really just looking forward to reopening the store and bringing colour back to this year,” she says.
Want to find out how Futurpreneur can support you on your entrepreneurship journey? Click here.