Welcome to the Leadership Legacy Podcast, Episode 1. We sat down with Bahia Akerele, Founder & CEO of On The Purple Couch, in her Washington, DC home to discuss life, business, and the pursuit of happiness. Tony’s media company, Oravet Media, has been working with Bahia and On The Purple Couch since 2012.
Mentions on the show…
On The Purple Couch – http://www.onthepurplecouch.com
Welcome in to the Leadership Legacy Podcast, Episode 1, February 24, 2018. Thank you so much for tuning in. I think you’re going to love this interview with Bahia Akerele of On the Purple Couch so sit back and enjoy.
Tony: Ok so I’m here in the lovely Bahia’s house in the DC Area. Bahia and I have worked together for about six years. She runs onthepurplecouch.com and does a billion other things, she’s the master of all trades and we’re just gonna ask her some questions and see how this goes.
Bahia: Alright, welcome, Tony. I’m glad to have you here.
Tony: Thank you so much. We’ve had some awesome cheese and pepper jelly and crackers, those were awesome, I’m ready for the food that’s starting to cook. I’m excited.
Bahia: That’s right, that’s right!
Tony: So Bahia, how did you get this job. Tell me about it. What made you want to go out on your own and how did you get where you’re at.
Bahia: That’s a very nice question and I have always wanted to be a business person. I come from a family of mostly policy types but there have been a few business type of people in the family. My dad’s sister, my Auntie Susan, she started a childcare agency, no a child, a daycare! She started a daycare in her home in the 80s and I had come to visit her. We were living in West Africa in the Ivory Coast and she lived in Canada. I had come to visit her for the summer and spend the summer with her. In the 80s, home daycare, she started her daycare in the basement. And I never forgot her starting that process. I was there that summer. I mean literally in the basement. She went on to be extremely successful, two big centers and whatnot, but I think at that time, I was probably in the 80s, ‘83 or so, I might have been 6 or 7, let’s say 7-8, that image always stuck in my mind of her having that independence. Of course at that age I didn’t know what owning a business was but I was like that was pretty cool. Um, so that’s sort of where, that’s like an image that kind of stuck with me. My dad was a businessman as well, which meant we had a lot of money sometimes and we didn’t have a lot of money sometimes. He was a big businessman. So that’s sort of how I got the desire to be a business person.
After I got married in 2009, I had my son, our son, very quickly and I was like you know what, I’ve always wanted to have a business. I don’t want… I want to be able to… I don’t want to be like my mom, this high powered business, this UN official. I wanna be home with my kids. Well let me start a business and I can Eddie to work with me. Yeah right! That’s how I wanted to do, so I started On the Purple Couch in DC, right in Silver Spring on the DC line, in 2011. And we’ve been going on every since.
Tony: So tell us a little bit about what On The Purple Couch does.
Bahia: We have had several iterations but at the core of it On the Purple Couch has been about supporting people in their home and their home decor. My background is policy, so I always have some type of social justice side of me. I always want to help people, but essentially it is about helping people with their home. I started out as a consignment store/home decor and we did consignment and then we sold paint. We were one of the areas first Annie Sloan’s stock was, and we sold the decorative paint, and we continued to do that up until October. As the business morphed, we went into straight home decor. I took out all the consignment clothes. Straight home decor, color consultation, design, furniture painting workshops and now we’re doing a lot of TV lifestyle segments and showcasing, showing the DMV community what you can do with a lot or a little bit, all in the whole DIY realm.
Tony: Awesome. So you talked about coming from West Africa. What’s that… we hear a lot of great immigrant stories of people that have come over to the United States and they had the hard work ethic that a lot of people in the US maybe don’t have and didn’t grow up with. Me and you both love Gary V, and he talks about the immigrant story. How has that kind of helped shape your business life and the way you approach things.
Bahia: Um… one, this is a very good question, especially now, this is a good time to reflect on that. So I am actually the children of immigrants. I was born in Boston. My parents came over to college and grad school so after my parents got married, my dad was in school in Boston, both my parents were doing their graduate degree when I was born. My father, a Nigerian, West African, mother Liberian. My father, if you know anything about Nigerians, they are fierce. Fierce. He was like I am here, I’m loving this place and I’m not leaving. My mother was like hmmm, America is a little too fast paced for me. I’m going to finish my education and I’m getting out of here. My parents marriage subsequently didn’t work really well. But my father became an American citizen. He worked at the bank, he did Harvard Business School, Cornell, my mom Brandeis, I mean they did the best. They had the drive. They were immigrants. They had the drive. They came, they didn’t come to play. They came to work hard. With all the barriers one would say this country presented at a particular time and maybe to some still, there is so much opportunity and so much… so much opportunity. And so my parents left in 76, the left and went back to West Africa and then we came back subsequently. But I think that I love, I love my life, I love the fact that I am bi and tri-cultural. I go back “home” you know, in quotes, to the continent, back and forth. I just took my son. His first time. We didn’t go to West Africa but it was his first time on the continent. That was important for us. But I think that immigrant drive, it’s the American drive. The immigrant drive is America, which is you can be anything, and I’m not stupid, I’m not, you know, not aware of the barriers that exist for people, but you know for all practical purposes, you can be anything. You can work very hard and you can become a lot. Again, I say that statement, there are lots of barriers. There are. But there’s also lots of opportunity.
Tony: Absolutely. That’s the one thing I love about this country is there’s opportunity for everyone, and thankfully there are a lot of people that have taken advantage of that and being very successful is what allows us to sit across the table and talk about our businesses. We have the freedoms to do what we want and not everybody has that.
So we’ve talked about what kind of drives you and where that drive has come from. What principles have helped you personally and in the business world?
Bahia: Yes, great question. My parents in as much as they are divorced and have been for like 40 something, like so many years, relationships were always important. Godparents were very important. My godparents were so active in my life. “Aunts” and “uncles,” fictitious kin as its called in sociology. People who you hook up with as friends, you’re like this is my boy, this is my girl, we’re going to be together for life. We may not have blood ties, but there was that connection. Relationships were very important for my family. And so those are the things that, one of the principles that guide me, I carry that in my business.
My faith, I’m a Christian, that’s an important aspect of me. That has been very important, especially when things didn’t go very well, which they have not at times, I am able to hold on to the promises that were made for me and so that has helped me to keep focused.
And then, you know, thirdly, you know not in that order, my family – my husband, my son – are very important and the larger community. Those are important principles, and those showed up in my shop, you know. They show up in my shop, they show up in my life. Relationships, my customers, I call them the OTPC Family. It’s not just in the shop. We have fans that are around the world. They mean well, they want to support us, and they’re part of that network, you know? My faith is important. I support lots of faith based types of organizations and entities, and thankfully for me I’ve lived in different parts of the world, so I like all different types of things. I can get down with the best of them. My family knows, you come into the shop, you’ll see Eddie running up and down, running outside, they are part of my life.
Tony: It’s important to have your family involved. That’s one thing that I’ve learned with going into business with myself, you’ve got involve your family because those are the ones that either suffer or that benefit from your hard work. And if you involve them, they see that hard work and you can instill in your kids a hard work ethic that was instilled in you.
Bahia: Especially you have girls. I mean yes, boys, I have a boy, but especially you have girls. They have to be able to see that, you know. I had an experience in the shop, and I talk about it, and I’ve had many experiences when children came in with their parents to buy paint, you know, they look at me and they were like, they look around and I had this one little girl, I’ve had three shops, so one of my shops was a warehouse and lots of colors and was bright, and she walked in an she could have been 6 or 7 and she was like “are you the boss of all of this?” I mean, I will never forget that little girls face. It was so important, like whatever her life chances were, whatever opportunities her parents would afford her, she saw a business woman. She saw a business that had colors that attracted her, that did something to her, you know? She’ll never forget like I never forgot my aunt with her small daycare at the time, you know?
Tony: Yeah, that’s awesome. That’s awesome. So kind of transitioning to entrepreneurship and doing this thing that we love so much. There’s always a level of customer service that’s involved in pretty much anything whether you’re running a services company or a brick and mortar store or even if you have a product that you’re selling where you’re not, you don’t necessarily interface with the customer, maybe you’re selling it online, you still have, selling it online, not interfacing with the customer physically, there’s still gonna be that aspect of customer service. What to you are the most important skills for kind of managing those people, managing their expectations and taking care of the customer?
Bahia: The first thing. Every customer has to be acknowledged. How many of us have gone into stores and people wouldn’t’ give a flip about whether we’re in there or not in there, stealing or not stealing, you know, rumpling the… they don’t care. The first thing is, especially as a small business owner, I would tell my staff, this is your home and when people walk in here, you’re having a cocktail party, it’s Thanksgiving, it’s Christmas dinner. Auntie so and so is coming and you haven’t seen her. This is the day to act right, you know? So when people walk in the door or they’re on the phone, you have to acknowledge them and speak to them. “Hey how are you? Thanks for coming in. Really appreciate you coming in. What are you guys doing this weekend,” you know? “How’s it out there on the roads? What’s going on where you guys are? Is it snowing out there?” People need to be acknowledged and that I would say is one of the first things with customer service. I don’t always treat the customers right. I’m too small to do that. I don’t make that much money to be able to eat every, you know, faux pas that’s either mine or yours, you know? What I always say is that my customer will always be respected. Sometimes I have let ego get into that where I could have let an issue go, but I felt like somebody was taking advantage of me. In a return, especially because you know, when it comes to retail people are used to, “I’ve have it for 10 years, you can take it back.” Well I can’t take it back. I’m too small, I can’t absorb it, you know? But yeah, those are mainly the two things that I think of.
Tony: Yeah definitely. And that’s hard, especially in a services industry when someone has hired you for your expert opinion and your skills and then there’s always going to be this aspect of revisions or hey we need to tweak this or that and then it gets to the point where the customer’s just not happy and it’s like, I’m outta here. So you have to be able to, you know, they probably weren’t right and sometimes you just gotta be humble and just say, you know, I appreciate your opinion and I know that you’re upset, let’s just part ways as best we can sometimes. Yeah I agree, sometimes the customer’s not right. And that’s not their fault.
Bahia: And also sometimes it’s not your customer. You see. Some customers are not YOURS. I was telling my husband Eddie that today. I’m like, that’s not your customer and you can’t fight for that person because you’re not for them and they’re not for you and you have to know who is who, you know? If mine is a dollar and that’s too much for you, and that’s alright. That’s not for you. When you’re ready I’m here, you know? Call me, you know? I’ll be right here, but this is not for you and we’re not for each other. It’s a like a bad relationship, you know if you can see it before it happens.
Tony: Yeah absolutely. I think that happens a lot and being able to see that and get ahead of that and treat that customer with respect and saying “hey look, you know what? This is our bottom price, we can’t go any lower, but you know what, we know someone else. Someone else has that down the street for 50 cents or whatever that may be. I think it’s, you know, it’s going back to that relationship that you talked about, just connecting people who need to be connected in the right way. That’s our responsibility as business owners, you know, to push them on down the road.
Tony: What’s the best business book you’ve read lately?
Bahia: Hmm. Oh gosh. I have Gary V’s new book but I haven’t read it. A business book that keeps… so I do a lot of magazines. I’m still into magazines, like… I do magazines and my phone at the same time. I love, I wanted to show you this magazine, I love Entrepreneur magazine of course, I still do the Harvard Business Review, no so religiously, but I do that. I love this very old book from the 70s, the E Myth. Everybody has read that, but um… I love that book. And that’s a book that keeps on my mind quite a bit. One of the magazines I read, it’s a business magazine, for sort of artsy crafty type people is Where Women Create Business. I love that magazine. I read that Success Magazine, again those are not books, but that’s… there’s a magazine that’s an international magazine that does commerce, marketing and everything and I can’t remember the name of it. I wanted to tell you about it.
Tony: Fast Company maybe?
Bahia: Not Fast Company, but it’s in that line.
Bahia: I’m not sure….
Tony: well I’m seeing this book on the table, In the Company of Women, which is a recent really big interview you did on your podcast with Grace Bonney. Tell us a little bit about how that came about.
Bahia: Well, this book I should have mentioned. This book, In the Company of Women is by Grace Bonney who is the founder of DesignSponge which is an awesome blog which has about a million hits a day. It’s just insane crazy, DesignSponge. In this book she interviews about 100 makers, artists and entrepreneurs, all women, all different types of women, running the gamut, talking about their business experience and asking them different questions. So she’s talking to somebody in Lagos, Nigeria, and then she’s talking to somebody in Fresno and then she’s talking to all these different women about their business experience. The women who were heavily capitalized and women who were not. Women who, you know, made lots of mistakes and maybe others who didn’t and so forth. So I did the interview with her in February and she is somebody I have been watching and admiring because of, you know, we all have platforms and how we choose to use them and she had this enormous platform. She was profiling, you know, women that all were in in quotes “look the same, same script” and she was challenged to expand her net to be able to show the platform she had been given, to show the platform, look there are other types of women out here that we can learn from. Of course we can learn from them. And here they are and here’s their story and here they’re like us and not like us. And especially for the girl children, and also the young boys, let them see other people, let them see other possibilities, you know? We as an older group, I think we’re kind of lost. The kids that are coming up now, their mind is so different. So anyway, this was a great interview. We got to talk about business, we got to talk about the fact that she’s been extremely successful at doing DIY and design and now she’s like, I don’t want to talk about design. I don’t want to talk about colors. I want to talk about life! I want to talk about what’s going on! I want to talk about how I can be a part of it. And that impressed me completely because that is a background that is important to me and so I think this book was an effort into that.
Tony: That’s awesome. Well, if you were to write a book on your journey, think about everything that you’ve done, what would, and I’m not going to hold you to this, but what would the title be? Bahia’s Journey.
Bahia: Oh wait no! I already have my title! I already have my title, Tony! I had it years ago! Well, and it may change because of what life… it was called, the title I had, The Accidental Shopkeeper.
Tony: I like it!
Bahia: Yeah! Because it was an accident, you know? It literally was, and when I started the shop I was kind of like flip about it. I was like, well I’m gonna start it and if it fails I’ll just blame the economy, you know whatever. I didn’t know what I was getting into! No idea what I was getting into.
Tony: Awesome, well we’ve got one more question.
Bahia: Yeah! One more!
Tony: At the end of your life, and I’m stealing this from Lewis Howes kind of, so Lewis I’m sorry, but I’m going to change it a little bit, what do you want your legacy to be? It’s all said and done, you’re at the end of your life.
Bahia: Hmmm. My legacy. That she loved her family. And she did her best. I want to do my best. I was one of those kids that, uh, caused my parents a lot of grief. Of course I’d like to show them some of the kids today so they can see what real grief looks like! I was not that bad! But you know, some of the offshoot of that is you want to make sure you know that you do your family proud, you know? I want to do my family proud at the end of my life. I want to have loved my family, loved my children, my child, my children whatever, and done my best. Yeah, yeah. That I didn’t just live off the, like I wasn’t just chilling. Like living off the land like you know, just like oh I got this. No, I came and I did something. I did something, you know? I contributed.
Tony: Awesome. Well thank you again for having me, thank you for inviting me into your home, this is awesome, this doesn’t happen very often and so I appreciate it very much.
Bahia: Tony it has been a pleasure to know you these years. It was very important to me to invite you to my home because that’s what we do. That’s what we do.