Nawal Denard began this year like most of us, with grand plans. The founder and owner of House of African Prints
felt like she was just ramping up her clothing business when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“I started 2020 like ‘yes,’ ” Denard says. “I had my calendar all set, January and February were great.”
It’s not the first hurdle Denard has encountered.
The entrepreneur moved to the U.S. in 2008 from Ghana to study industrial engineering at Murray State University in Kentucky, and later at Wayne State University. But she had trouble equipping her personal wardrobe, discovering a lack of quality African fabric on Detroit’s clothing racks. In 2017 she started selling West African-inspired clothing, with the goal of making chic garments from her home country available here.
“Friends here would ask me about where I got my clothes from,” she says. “They said if they could find something similar here it was inferior quality, and would I bring back clothes for them from Ghana.”
“I still have clothing from when I first came to America, because of the quality of the fabric,” she says. “I wanted my customers to have that quality.”
Denard knew at that initial stage that there was an opportunity for a business, but was hesitant to become an entrepreneur. As a member of the Christian faith, she went on a 21-day fast to try to find clarity and make a decision.
“I went back and forth, praying, and in the end I knew,” she says. “I went online and got an [Employer Identification Number] right before that Christmas. I just felt this burden. I had no peace, until I went down to the county to register for the business.”
It started small, as a side hustle. Denard sent her sister US$50 to purchase some samples in Ghana to send over, but she is the first to admit she had no idea how to run a business.
“I was clueless,” she says. “I had a rude awakening.”
She launched a website in May 2018 but found it was mostly friends supporting the business. Eager to expand, she looked for help. After hearing stories of small business owners running into trouble with the IRS she decided to take a class at Schoolcraft College, run by Michigan’s income tax office.
“They taught us all about setting up a business, taxes, etc.,” she says. “And another student put me in touch with Build Institute and told me that people can vend at Dequindre Cut.”
That networking changed the direction of her business. She put in an application to become a vendor at markets and it gave her a taste of what she wanted for her store.
“My first day I sold three items and I was so excited,” she says. “I kept going, some days were good, some days were bad, but other business owners started giving me information about business plans.”
Denard went on to do a class with Build Institute, learning about profit and loss statements in what she describes as a “fast-paced” course. It was there that she learned about the KIVA loan program, something she was hesitant to embark on.
“I was scared out of my mind,” she says. “I was shamelessly asking people ‘do you want to crowdfund with me?’ But [Build instructors] said ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ ”
Within 24 hours of posting her business on the KIVA platform, Denard was fully funded, meeting her $6,000 goal.
“That was encouraging,” she says. “People believed in my crazy dream. I thought ‘I can do this.’ ”
That her business was funded so quickly is a reflection on Denard's entrepreneurial earnestness, says Evan Adams, KIVA program manager at Build Institute.
"Normally $6,000 loans don't fund that fast, on average it takes two-and-a-half to three weeks. Nawal has such an endearing personality that it wouldn't surprise me if she had a supportive network."
Denard put almost 90% of the funds into inventory, selling on Etsy.com and vending at big festivals such as African World, Dally in the Alley, holiday pop-up markets at TechTown Detroit, and Eastern Market. An interview at Eastern Market with Channel 7 helped with exposure and Denard increased her sales from $3,000 in the first year to $16,000 in the second year.
She made the most of the classes at TechTown, too.
“Any free training they had, I was there,” she says. “I was there so much they knew me by name.”
Denard participated in the University of Michigan’s Detroit Neighborhood Entrepreneurs Project, as well as a 20-week entrepreneur training program with ProsperUS, graduating in 2019. It was there that an instructor asked her what her "why" was.
Her "why," she decided, was about her company being a job creator, providing work for people otherwise overlooked or not able to access gainful employment. This means both here in the U.S. and back in Ghana.
“When I first moved to Murray, Kentucky, the visa immigration officer said ‘make sure you do something for your people,’ ” she says. “That stuck with me.”
Now, she employs six people in Ghana, many of whom are family and friends, to source and make products. Eventually, the plan is to have a permanent store here in Detroit, where Denard wants to provide employment for homeless people looking for work.
“We source the fabric, the beads, the thread, the lining — everything in Ghana,” she explains. “It helps the suppliers too. Then we have the tailors and seamstresses who work on the designs, and I work with them — now I have experience sewing, I can make alterations.”
Denard wasn’t always a dab hand at sewing. In fact, she was so new to the process when she started her business that her first attempt at stitching labels on clothing was disastrous.
“I stitched it through my finger,” she admits. “It was bad.”
Fortunately, she improved, with the help of friends, and a crash course in sewing in Ghana last year when she returned for a visit. This year, Denard felt like she finally had things in hand. She was able to turn a custom order from Ghana around in two to three weeks, had found a reliable shipping company, and had grown her customer base.
“In 2020 we forecasted double or triple our sales, year three was kind of like ‘bring it on,’ ” she says. “Then March was COVID.”
Losing the festival circuit was a blow to the clothing line, but Denard soon had people asking if she could make masks for them. A friend working at a gas station wanted to sell them and after initially making six masks the request quickly increased to 30 per day.
“I would stay up until 4 a.m. in the morning sewing,” she says. “My machine locked up; I had overworked it.”
Manufacturing masks has helped, but certainly isn't the income Denard had hoped for her business this year. With COVID-19 impacting many entrepreneurs, KIVA has offered extended repayment timelines for borrowers — something Denard is grateful for.
“It helps because things are going to slow down,” Denard predicts. “Summer is usually my busiest [time].”
Interestingly, KIVA Detroit has almost tripled its small business loan activity because of COVID-19, says Adams. More entrepreneurs like Denard are applying, and more donors are contributing funding.
"We didn't know if it would have an inverse effect," says Adams. "But people are more inclined to lend, and are staying inclined."
"The small business landscape in Detroit comes in all shapes and sizes," he says. "So it's important to support that — readily accessible capital, with zero interest, is important for entrepreneurs."
Looking forward, Denard knows COVID-19 will not be the last challenge she faces as a woman in business, but she is bolstered by her experience.
“Business is faith,” Denard says. “You don’t know if people will like your products. All through it I was doubtful, but I just kept stepping.”
This is part of a series supported by LISC Detroit that chronicles Detroit small businesses’ journey in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.