Many people discovered their entrepreneurial spirit when the pandemic struck in 2020. While many people lost work and had to deal with the adverse effects of the coronavirus, some used that opportunity to focus on a passion that had been brewing inside. Melissa Kiguwa happened to be one of them.
Last summer, while the world reeled from COVID-19, Kiguwa started Obanj. The brand allows users to borrow high-end jewelry through a monthly membership program. Members can choose one of two membership plans ($49/month or $99/month) and can select up to three pieces from a large variety of luxury jewelry. Members can also switch out pieces as much as they’d like.
Kiguwa got her start in the entertainment industry. The entrepreneur worked as a journalist before she became an executive assistant. She used her experience to pursue a position as chief executive officer and utilized her “love for luxury living and style” to create a successful company.
BLACK ENTERPRISE spoke with Kiguwa about her brand and about how she became a successful entrepreneur.
What is the concept for Obánj, and how were you able to bring it to life?
Obánj is a sustainable, luxury jewelry rental platform for the new majority. Members can rent high-end designer jewelry like Dior, YSL, Chanel, Hermés, and more through a monthly membership. They can also purchase pieces at discounted prices.
We launched in the summer of 2021. It still blows me away that we launched a tech startup in the middle of a pandemic. Our team is incredibly ambitious, hungry, and passionate about creating a brand that makes our members feel seen.
You followed an interesting path to entrepreneurship. What took you from journalist to executive assistant to an app owner?
Well, there were a few pivots and turns in that journey. I worked as a journalist in television and radio and had the opportunity to travel the world doing that. My travels were confronting—on the one hand, it was like being in world school, and I felt incredibly excited to learn about different cultures and perspectives. But, I was consistently confronted by how our consumption habits in the West impact the rest of the world in a very real and tangible way.
Fast forward to years later when I tried to transition to a film/television career in Hollywood. I worked as the executive assistant for celebrity producers, and while I have a few exciting stories from those days, at the time I really struggled to make sense of my consciousness and my desire to “live the life.” Fashion accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions, and the production of jewelry, in particular, involves devastating human and environmental issues around mining, gem extraction, gem-cutting, and toxic waste.
Obánj merges my consciousness with my love for luxury living and style. I may not be in television or film anymore, but my love for storytelling permeates through the brand.
What characteristic is most important when it comes to entrepreneurship and why?
We’re currently fundraising for our company, bringing on investors who believe in the market opportunity of what we’re doing. It’s been a character-defining journey—less than 2% of all venture capital has gone to women entrepreneurs; 0.64% to Black women founders.
Our company is venture-backed and we’re building something long-lasting and dynamic.
In order to adjust to the changes and challenges that inevitably come up while trying to build something, I think it’s important to keep learning and to surround yourself with people who believe in both the mission and vision of your business—and people who believe in you, the entrepreneur.
I also think resiliency, work ethic, and focus will take you places talent and intellect can’t.
How do you anticipate your brand will saturate the market? Do you have entrepreneurial aspirations in other fields?
Through unrivaled storytelling, strategic partnerships with luxury brands and jewelers, and collaborations with cultural leaders, we have a strong foundation to build something dynamic and game-changing.
We have an immense opportunity to expand to Latina and Asian markets because our sweet spot is in understanding the unmet consumption needs of cultural groups with large purchasing power.
The future of Obánj is bright and our vision is brighter. We will become a model that can be replicated for women of color—or what I refer to as the new majority. The demographics in the U.S. are shifting rapidly, and brands that are not culturally attuned will be left behind.
What advice would you give those looking to start a business from scratch?
The journey will challenge you in ways you didn’t even know were possible. Focus, double down on what’s working, and keep going.