Rising Through Resilience: Ugochi Iwuaba On The Five Things You Can Do To Become More Resilient During Turbulent Times
Remember that every situation has an expiry date. Whatever is going on right now, does not last. It’s not going to be forever. Whatever you’re going through at this point, life is always in phases and stages. Once you pass each stage, you go on to the next one. If you treat life this way, you realize that if the results of whatever is going on right now are not in your favor, they will pass and you’ll have another chance.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ugochi Iwuaba.
Ugochi Iwuaba’s Afro-Western creations are a fusion of her West African culture with Western aesthetics. Originally from Nigeria, Iwuaba’s designs are inspired by her bold, colorful, and flamboyant culture. Iwuaba made her dreams come true of becoming a fashion designer when she realized her future of working a 9-to-5 job was no longer possible after her third child was diagnosed with Down Syndrome. She recently partnered with Aston Martin and one of her gowns has been worn on the 2021 Met Gala red carpet. You can find her custom designs at ugochiiwuaba.com.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
I was born and raised in Nigeria. Growing up, I was the first girl born in my family and was given many responsibilities being the oldest. My parents were very traditional and strict, and I didn’t have the support of my family to pursue a career in fashion. They wanted me to do a more prestigious career, such as becoming a lawyer or a doctor. I didn’t start my fashion journey until I came to the US 10 years ago.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
The most interesting story from my career was designing a dress that was worn at the 2021 Met Gala Red Carpet by Nina Parker, an entertainment news reporter for E! News. She wore a golden caped gown with a matching headpiece.The lesson I learned from that was to continue doing my best work. Not everyone is looking for the hype. Sometimes, people are actually looking for the quality, and when they start looking for the quality, they will find you. Just keep doing your best even when you feel that no one is looking, because one day it’s going to pay off.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
More than anything, I don’t just run my business as a business. It has a heart. What we do, we do with heart, and that is what works for us. For my clients, (and it wasn’t only for the Met Gala gown) I go out of my way to go above and beyond to deliver the luxury and quality that they deserve.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My husband. Nobody else in the family was very open to my fashion business. Even when I came to the US, people in the family told me that I had to find a job so I could pay the bills every month. When I told my husband I wanted to go full time into fashion, he told me that it was fine, that I should go for what I want and that he will hold the fort for me. When my son was diagnosed with Down Syndrome, my husband told me to go for it. My husband did not tell me to stay home and see what the diagnosis of my son was going to be. When I said I wanted to put my energy totally into the business while I was pregnant, he was 100 percent for it and supportive. He followed me to every fashion show. He takes all the videos, and he promotes me.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Under circumstances that can have easily broken anyone else, you find a way to bend, but you don’t allow yourself to get to your breaking point. Since you don’t let yourself get to your breaking point, it’s easier for you to snap back. That’s what resilience is — not allowing yourself to fall off. Resilient people always look on the positive side. The things that people will normally see as problems or negatives, resilient people will always find a way to see some kind of silver lining, and hold onto that silver lining until the storm passes.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
Courage is the ability to face your circumstances clearly. You move past the fear to deliver what you want. That is a lot like resilience as well because you’re being hit by circumstances, but you’re not letting yourself break. You’re not allowing the fear to take over you and to become you. However, it’s different because most resilient people are not the most courageous people. They just find a way not to break. I know this for a fact because I have shown a lot of resilience in all my struggles. I am also not the most courageous person in the world. However, the things that will break other people, make them cry, and give up, they are things that have strengthened my resolve and to get back up and get better. Resilience is not courage, but they are very much alike.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Myself comes to mind. I started my business with zero capital. I started putting things in order to start my business when I was pregnant with my son. After I had my son, I officially registered my business on January 1, 2017. My son was born November 27, 2016. I lost my job the same year my son was diagnosed with Down Syndrome. Nobody knows how much that affected me, with doctors trying to get me to get an abortion and telling me all these sad stories about babies with Down Syndrome. It was a really bad year for me, and I also had a one year old. It was so many things all at once, but I took all that and I poured it into fashion and opened my business. During COVID, when everyone else was making zero money, I opened a showroom. I told myself it was a great time because nobody was doing anything. In the same year of 2020, I lost my brother-in-law to cancer, and that was the same week that I was supposed to open my showroom. I couldn’t stop myself from moving forward.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
I was told that I couldn’t open a business in America. Everyone told me that. Without capital and not knowing anyone who bought luxury fashion, I ended up starting a luxury fashion business with zero dollars. Even before coming to America, my parents did not want me to pursue a career in fashion because they wanted me to get a more prestigious job.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
COVID was a big setback. My business has always been customer oriented and I make custom gowns. When COVID came around, no one was going anywhere or making anything. Some of the orders that I had were cancelled and the ones that weren’t cancelled were postponed indefinitely. My post-COVID time has been better than it was before. I have been able to achieve so much in 2021, than I have had in all my career.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
I am the oldest child of my family. I went to a boarding school when I just turned 9. I was without my parents with random strangers, and I was just a child. I learned how to navigate life on my own. I think that that’s one of the things that helped my resilience. I also watched my family business crumble, and my father go from being rich to not having much. I had to learn that in life, things do happen. You cannot just grow a tougher skin. Going back to school with less than everybody else, you learn how to look on the brighter side, and not to focus on the things happening back home with my parent’s business.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Always look on the brighter side. The reason why I say that is because if you look at all the darkness around you, it begins to pull you into this hole. Human minds can go so far into depression that it’s hard to come out. Always look for the positive and focus on the positive. When I started my business, I had zero capital. I used all the money from unemployment to pay for my business documents, and my husband helped a lot with it too. What I told myself is that the more I make wonderful clothes, the more people will know who I am. The more people know who I am, then I will never be without capital. I will be able to build capital. I focused on doing good work when I started, even though nobody that I knew was doing what I was doing. If I become the best, money comes.
- Remind yourself that you are not your circumstances. Everything happening around you is not you. If you can protect yourself, you can go through your circumstances and still come out on top because you’re not letting your environment influence you. However, you are letting yourself influence your environment and your circumstances. When I was growing up in Nigeria, my dad lost his money in some bad business deals. We had to live in a place that I’ve never lived in before, but I didn’t become like the people who lived there. I remembered that I am not from there, and this circumstance will pass. Even though my circumstances changed, I did not change who I was, how I was brought up, or myself as a person. I still went after what I wanted, and I focused on my dreams. I carried myself with integrity and grace. You just remember that the things that you’re going through are not you. When I lost my job, it was demoralizing. I have never been fired from a job before. To go through that was mentally discouraging, but I reminded myself that it wasn’t me. This is not who I am, and it’s time I take my destiny into my own hands. I became my own boss so I never have to go through that again.
- Remember that every situation has an expiry date. Whatever is going on right now, does not last. It’s not going to be forever. Whatever you’re going through at this point, life is always in phases and stages. Once you pass each stage, you go on to the next one. If you treat life this way, you realize that if the results of whatever is going on right now are not in your favor, they will pass and you’ll have another chance.
- Life is filled with levels like a game. You need to focus on what will get you to the next level. It doesn’t really matter how you get out of it, but focus on getting out. When I lost my job, I did not sit there and feel sorry for myself. I hired a lawyer because I knew I was wrongfully terminated. I’m glad that at the end of the day I got a settlement. You have to figure out a way to get out of your situation because you can’t stay stuck. You have to find something to motivate you to do something. I felt angry, but I found a way to use my circumstances correctly. I had to find a lawyer who would advocate for me. When my son was diagnosed with Down Syndrome, I did not sit there in that darkness. I told myself that if they say he’s going to need me, then I need a business that can let me be flexible with my time, something that will keep me going. You always have to think of a way out, a solution, or else you will get stuck and that’s the scary part.
- Always trust God. The God that brought you this far, will not let you go. If He brought you into those circumstances, if He gave you all those trials, He has a picture of whatever is inside you to fight those troubles. You cannot do it by yourself. It’s always good to know that there is a higher being that you can have trust in. You have to have faith.
My son was diagnosed with Down Syndrome. Yesterday, I found out that my son can read and he’s only four. People with Down Syndrome have trouble reading, communicating, and talking. My son clearly read more than seven words, and ‘animal’ was one of them. There were no pictures on the page either. That can only be God, because the doctors told me that he also had a heart defect and he’s going to need me because he won’t be able to eat well or walk. My son runs around, jumps around, and yesterday, I found out he can read. I feel that he’s a miracle child. God has been able to send me through all my circumstances, from having no capital to being able to build my business, from lifting me from Nigeria to America and bringing me this far, from helping me when I lost my job.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I call it ‘The Sugar Daddy Fashion Movement.’ While I was growing up in Nigeria, to get through school if your parents had no money, it was normal to get a sugar daddy. If we had empowered women to pursue their dreams in fashion, they could create stuff that will give them money. It’s something productive to do. In fashion, there are so many careers. You can get into fashion as an intern and earn money on the side. Having sugar daddies in Nigeria is normal, and I feel that it would be great to use fashion as a way for people to earn some money so that they don’t have to depend on men, especially married men, to make their living. If you empower a woman, you empower a whole village. Women do not only empower themselves, they also empower their children. Some of those children are men who go on to have families that are also empowered. You touch more lives. An empowered woman is a powerful tool for changing a community.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them :-)
Anna Wintour. For me, she has navigated so many decades in the fashion industry with its many diverse and changing faces, and has stayed powerful and relevant. I would like to know what her secret to success and holding it is.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!