Her vision was to create an agency that championed the sights, sounds and beat of the luxury of Africa and its people across the globe, and with winning the She Leads Africa Entrepreneur Showcase, Founder & CEO, Rare Customs and Tastemakers Africa – Cherae Robinson is that much closer to putting Africa on the world’s tourism map.
After travelling to nearly 30 countries, in 2012 Cherae realized one of her biggest dreams when she took 80 young professionals to Africa and founded the Afropolitans – a collection of professionals interested in creating a stronger narrative on Africa through commerce, connections, and creativity. With a solid background in communications, media, marketing and fundraising in a global setting, she created Rare Customs and the Tastemakers Africa app (the world’s only mobile app dedicated to buying upscale, curated experiences on the African continent) to connect the world to the essence of Africa.
Here she talks about her journey to making this global African dream come true, and her inspirations that keep her dreaming big.
Where did the idea for Rare Customs and Tastemakers Africa come from?
I was traveling to Kenya for work and one of my sorority sisters happened to be in Nairobi the same week that I was. She was working on the second season of Shuga, MTV Base’s hugely successful “soap opera” focused on love, sex, and youth culture in Kenya. We had never met although I had heard stories about her while I was in college, and it was my first time in Nairobi. She introduced me to Wanuri Kahiu, Jeffrey Kimathi, and Cathy Phiri who were also working on production of the show. Wanuri, Kimathi, and Cathy were like “unicorns” to me. They represented an entirely different part of the African story than the work that I was doing and I was fascinated and inspired by them.
A filmmaker, fashion designer, and television producer by trade, my week in Kenya was a microcosm of the dichotomy of life in some of Africa’s growing cities. By day I would be walking among goats and talking to farmers about micro loans and two wheel tractors and by evening I’d be on the rooftop toasting champagne and talking about Afro-futurism.
After leaving Nairobi I couldn’t shake the experience or the people and like a flood, these things kept coming into my life. I traveled to South Africa for COP17 (The UN Climate Conference), en route to London I met up with a member of the Nomadness Travel Tribe (an 8,000 member Facebook group) in Johannesburg who I’d been chatting with. Stephanie O’Connor had moved from Brooklyn to Jozi as a photographer. Stephanie and I hit it off immediately and in just a few days, I jumped into a pool on the rooftop of the Radisson Blu in Sandton, I road tripped to Lesotho in the pimped out van of Miza Mobedi and Nutty Nys, and rubbed shoulders with Johannesburg’s creative community. It echoed my experience in Nairobi and such began my life in Africa. I’d be working on rural development by day and building with the continent’s next generation leaders and tastemakers by night from Rabat to Harare, from Lagos to Addis.
When I spoke with friends in the states, most were shocked that these things were happening in Africa. I had a brainstorm with two girlfriends about how to tell this story through a business venture, from those conversations Rare Customs was born. The business has evolved, we went from focusing on PR and events related to tourism to a much more strategic approach. At the same time, Stephanie from Johannesburg and I stayed in touch and I told her that while my friends thought the concept cool, they weren’t passionate enough about it to keep it going. Turns out she was keen to go into business together even though we were on opposite sides of the ocean. We spent months thinking, toiling it around, I went through three jobs in less than a year, because I couldn’t let go of the thought that with the right team, I could revolutionize tourism on the African continent. We had some false starts, made connections with a few consulates in NYC but couldn’t find traction within governments – mostly because of our lack of “proper” tourism experience.
Taking it back to basics, we thought “what is an immediate problem we can solve, and how can we solve it while giving us credibility in the industry?” From that Tastemakers Africa was born, people want to travel to Africa, they want to find the cool places and they are already used to using apps for travel. We immediately saw traction and are on our way.
Coming from a development background, why did you choose to create a tourism business?
Tourism is development – it creates jobs, an influx of visitors, and raises the standard of living. When you look at it like that I haven’t “left” development – I’m just doing it my own way, which really speaks to who I am. When someone visits a place, it sticks with them, good or bad it’s hard to argue with an experience someone had themselves. If we can get more people to have positive experiences in Africa, it will add to the groundswell of coverage on the economic growth on the continent.
Where did your company’s initial funding/capital come from and how did you go about getting it?
We have bootstrapped thus far with the help of cash from our COO Harcher Batrivil. I’ve decided to focus on Rare Customs/Tastemakers Africa full time and will it into existence.
What exciting things do you have planned for your company over the next year?
We are working on a big “afripolitan” themed event in NYC this November but the biggest thing for us is getting our product on the market and into the hands of users. Launching the world’s first app exclusively focused on travel in Africa is about as exciting as it gets!
How many hours do you work a day on average?
Per day about 16 – 18. I’m up early and up very late. There aren’t enough hours in the day!
Describe your typical working day. What’s happening in your world?
Typically I’m up between 6 – 7, I fire off any important/urgent emails for the day then. I’m a ‘mommapreneur’ so I also have a six year old to tend to. I wake him, get him ready for school, and get him out the door. Depending on the day of the week, I usually have a call with our advisors for about 30 minutes, take a few morning meetings in the city, and then I’m nose to the Mac book for the afternoon.
On Tuesdays, I volunteer at my son’s school for lunch so I work from this awesome coffee shop called Urban Vintage. The other days I make it happen from my home office. In the evenings I’m in mommy mode again until about 8PM and then I tend to take chunks out of big projects then. Mix in some Skype sessions, cocktail meetings, and lots of Base camp updates and you’ve got most of my days covered.
What motivates and inspires you?
Limitless possibility. I think too often we allow ourselves to fall into what society accepts as possible and we don’t try to tackle the big things, we do what we already know we can and we don’t stretch ourselves enough. I think about my childhood, we didn’t have much money, there was lots of chaos and hurt, and there were some heavy issues for me to deal with as a young girl. However, for some reason, I always knew that I had the power within me to change those surroundings. I didn’t know exactly what that looked like but I believed it, trusted in my definition of God, and ordered my steps accordingly. I think that still motivates me now.
I fell into entrepreneurship and it’s a lot different than making 100K and knowing your check comes every 2 weeks. Will I become a millionaire – I hope so but I don’t know – but the possibility for me to be that and more is there. That’s inspirational. The other thing that inspires me is my son, I want to be an example for him of living your truth and creating a path when there is none. It’s a beautiful thing to hear him speak about Africa and traveling without any concern or hesitation. When I had my son, I’m sure there were people who thought I’d pivot from my very global ambitions, but it was the opposite – he bolsters me and got me to be more serious about doing the work it takes to live the way I want to live.
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
I love doing what I love. I think the second part is determining your own value, capabilities, and journey.
Where do you see your business in the next 5 to 10 years?
In the next 5 years, Tastemakers Africa will be a household name among forward-thinking travelers. We are really working hard to reframe Africa both in the travel industry and in the minds of travelers, different but important work. Using technology should allow us to expand our reach rapidly and put us in the pockets of travelers worldwide. Eventually I’d like to sell the app to an even larger name in the travel industry in order to broaden it’s reach even further.
Beyond the app, Rare Customs is focused on growing our portfolio and working directly with airlines, hotels, and ministries to modernize the tourism offering in Africa and really build out ways to make the industry sustainable. A dream project I’ve been thinking about is connecting boutique and high-end hotels to local farms and having a whole farm to table restaurant movement happening across Africa.
The other piece is really focusing on the investment side of tourism, the more I become familiar with the players, the more I see finance as a key piece of the equation. Rare Customs will be in a position to facilitate this, and eventually start a fund for investors looking for this sort of opportunity.
What advice would you give to other aspiring female entrepreneurs?
First, be ready to learn, willing to adjust, and committed to work.
Secondly, understand that no matter what anyone tells you, you can have a family and a successful business – it’s just not likely to be easy.
Finally, surround yourself with people who can play the long game. There are hurdles, challenges, and setbacks in almost everything but you have to have endurance to really see entrepreneurship work.
Bellanaija is a Media Partner with She Leads Africa 2014