Alessandra Madubunyi wins at the 2021 Black British Business AwardsSunday, October 24, 2021
Alessandra Madubunyi née Bell is no stranger to SO. In 2012, we listed her as one to watch; never let it be said that we aren't prescient and always ahead. On Thursday, October 7, Madubunyi, founder and director, COCONAUTICAL and We are COCO, was named the Entrepreneur Rising Star category winner at the 2021 Black British Business Awards.
In her acceptance speech, Madubunyi noted that being a black woman in business is a “big task,” but was quick to highlight, “I don't think at this point in time, where we are in this generation, I am alone.” Of course, she's referring to the UK (and most predominantly white countries, like the US and Canada) peering through an Overton window of racial injustice. A floodlight was shone on it last year by the worldwide Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. We should note that in these countries, the onslaught of COVID-19 has disproportionately affected black communities. To say that the Jamaican-blooded entrepreneur is political is, in a word, prosaic. Being a Christian and a champion of women, especially black women and those of minority backgrounds (remember, she lives in England), is the fulcrum on which her businesses operate.
The Black British Business Awards (BBBA) were established eight years ago to highlight “exceptional business talent” in the UK. It, too, “empowers organisations with the necessary tools to attract, retain and progress their internal BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) talent”. The awards categories comprise six industries — STEM (science, tech, engineering and mathematics); consumer and luxury; arts and media; financial services; start-ups; and professional services. There were 39 businesspeople shortlisted, three in Madubunyi's category.
“Year after year, the Black British Business Awards shine a light on talented black British individuals who are excelling within their fields and making a positive contribution to our economy,” said Mayor of London Sadiq Khan. He continued, “The awards highlight the need for more businesses to take action to improve diversity and inclusion within their workplaces — especially at senior level, where not enough progress is being made.”
From the moment it was introduced to the world in 2016, Madubunyi declared that she and her team would “develop COCONAUTICAL into a platform that enables women around the world to work from home”. Before working from home was even a standard.
So, what is COCONAUTICAL? It is a global showroom (HQ is in London with satellite offices in Dubai and Houston) that amplifies “the voices of emerging designers and students by connecting them with resources and tools through a growing team of mentors, buyers and agents”.
With fast fashion, cheap-yet-trendy goods, and anyone able to have a private label courtesy of AliExpress, thoughtful fashion brands, especially those headed by entrepreneurial women in the developing world, can get lost in the bedlam of online retail. Not on Madubunyi's watch. The COCONAUTICAL showroom showcases menswear, womenswear, accessories, swimwear and resort.
She's affectionately known as the new “James Bond of Fashion”, a moniker she's earned due to her pioneering “a career in retail consultancy and brand development”.
And a pioneer she is. In addition to having launched COCONAUTICAL and developed relationships and collaborated with renowned brands that include ASOS, Anthropologie, 10 Corso Como, Harvey Nichols, W Hotel Group and Topshop, in 2018 Madubunyi went on to launch We are COCO — the consultancy arm of the showroom.
Per the corporate website, We are COCO equips “brands and retailers with the tools and talents to drive sustainable sales revenue. Whether that's direct to consumers through eCommerce, or wholesale and distribution through global retailers”.
When she was on The Rock in 2018, the Jamaica Observer hosted a luncheon where she delivered a masterclass in retail strategy to local designers. She spoke of her grand vision of finding innovative ways for designers to secure slices of the proverbial pie: “There's money in fashion; it's just moving online.” Her goal is simple: To ensure that deserving designers get to participate and can effectively compete internationally.
On Friday, October 8, Madubunyi was interviewed with BBBA co-founder and awards chair Sophie Chandauka on Radio Times by veteran journalist Cathy Newman. During the interview, Madubunyi discussed the “massive disconnect between retail industry and vendors, as well as emerging talent in the industry”. Her work in bridging the gap has never been done and has resulted in the business being “the fastest growing network of retailers in the world”. Currently, there are 200 retailers with whom Madubunyi is working to shape the “brands of the future”. She and her team are currently working with designers from the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia, shaping them to “become the next Chanels and Louis Vuittons” of the world.
Chandauka described this year's 39 finalists as “inspiring individuals who are also doing the right thing”. She noted that the BBBA blends professionals and entrepreneurs with society at large to make a compelling point that there's “a healthy and powerful talent pipeline in the UK”. Newman lauded the awards for being a celebration of black people who are “role models, standout contributors to the UK economy, and drivers of equitable change in their industries”.
Regarding equitable change, Madubunyi stressed that there needs to be a change within the global retail executives. As Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critic Robin Givhan wrote last summer: “Fashion — as a business — has been a beautiful, intoxicating, unsustainable lie.” More black people work in retail than any other industry except for education and health services, yet it's rare to see a black person seated at decision-making tables.
Yes, it is true that due to the BLM protests, retailers are now committed to supporting black-owned brands, some earmarking 15% of their buys to go towards these businesses. But the racial make-up of the decision-makers, the buyers, and the retail executives has, as Madubunyi notes, a long way to go. But that journey of creating an equitable fashion industry is one to which she has a first-class open ticket. If one person can make the fashion industry look inward, the same way Rihanna has, it's Alessandra Madubunyi.
In her third studio album, A Seat at the Table, Solange has an interlude entitled “The Glory Is in You.” A particular line resonates with SO — “But, as long you find peace in what you doing then you successful, and that's what people don't realise.” Anyone who meets Madubunyi is immediately greeted by engaging eyes, warmth, a megawatt smile, élan, and a peaceful spirit, which is her lodestar. No wonder she's thriving.
Photos: COCONAUTICAL and the Black British Business Awards