Alice Gbelia is the founder and CEO of Ayok’a. Prior to founding Ayok’a, Alice has worked in the digital field for 15 years, as Content Manager/Strategist for media and e-commerce companies. Back in 2008, she founded an online culture magazine celebrating African and Caribbean culture in London that went on win several blog awards. This passion for black art & culture and expertise in digital media led her to create Ayok’a.
1.When did you realise you had a passion for Caribbean and African culture and how did this lead to the creation of Ayok’a.
It started with my discovery of African literature. It seems strange for an African to say that she discovered her own culture but that’s exactly what happened. We left Cote d’Ivoire for France when I was little, just 8 years old, which means that I did most of my schooling in France so it’s French culture that I learnt about: French history, French geography, French literature. Then, when I was 21, I moved to Paris and I happened to live next to a library that was known for its huge section of black & African literature. I discovered so many writers: Toni Morrison, Buchi Emecheta, Amadou Hampate Ba, etc… I thought I was in heaven. And from then on, I developed an intense curiosity about African Caribbean culture, from literature to fashion and film. Several years later, I moved to London and created an online magazine about Afro-Caribbean culture in London: where to find it and enjoy it. Today it’s the same passion that drives me to develop Ayok’a.
2. What does Ayok’a mean and why did you decide to give this as your business name?
My sister found the name. It means Hello/Welcome in the language of my native tribe (the Bete from Cote d’Ivoire). Unfortunately, I don’t speak the language, I just know small words here and there. When searching for a name, I knew that I wanted something that reflected my heritage and that could be pronounced easily in whatever language. I had also read that brand names with the sound K in them were more memorable so that was definitely a bonus!
3. How has your own cultural heritage influenced your business?
It influences everything: from my taste, to the type of artists I choose to work with, to my target audience. I cannot dissociate my heritage and who I am from my business and I don’t want to. African culture has influenced and given so much to mainstream culture: music, dance, art. A lot of the stuff we consume today in Europe and America can be traced back to Africa. Picasso was influenced by Africa, twerking can be traced back to Africa, most hairstyles sported by African-American women today go back to the African continent. Business-wise, the sharing economy existed in Africa (and the developed world) long before it became a thing in Europe. And that’s often overlooked. I’m trying to redress that in my own way through my business ventures. It’s also one of the reasons why I chose to work with black artists from the world over and not just African artists: our culture has travelled and mutated. It’s that story that interests me.
4. How does one go about finding their purpose and do you believe you have found yours?
Yes, I’m very fortunate to have found my purpose. And the great thing is that Ayok’a is just one vehicle for me to live that purpose. The business could crash tomorrow, my purpose would still be intact, I’ll just find a new vehicle to express it. I think in order to find your purpose, you should think about what is your gift, your natural talent. Something that comes effortlessly to you, that you wouldn’t even describe as a skill. Something that you are recognized for, that you love doing and would do even if you were not paid for it. Once you find that talent, see how you could use it to be of service to other people. That’s where your purpose lie.
5. There are many women of colour starting businesses’ that promote their own cultural heritage. What advice do you have for them?
Be resilient, because you will meet a lot of naysayers. You will hear that your product is too niche, that the market is not big enough. You will be challenged and sometimes accused of practising “reverse racism” for choosing to focus on your communoty. These voices will make you doubt about the viability of your business. Don’t listen to them: believe in your vision, work hard, have a killer product and you will find your audience.