We caught up with Abi Oyepitan, Co-Founder of the African inspired and British made natural vegan skincare brand, LIHA Beauty, to hear how she went from an Olympic athlete to creating a natural beauty company inspired by her African roots, alongside her friend and Co-Founder, Liha Okunniwa.WATCH ON IGTV HERE
LIHA is a natural vegan skincare brand founded by me and my business partner, Liha – the brand is named after her. We’ve known each other for over twenty years now, after first meeting at university back in 1998. We initially connected over the fact that we were the only two black women rocking our natural hair and the rest is history, we’ve been close ever since. Following university, while I went on to become a professional athlete competing around the world, including in two Olympic games, Liha followed her passion for art and set up her own art publishing business, while also raising her daughter. During this time, we both kept in touch and remained close, often meeting in London where we would end up discussing crazy business ideas, including ideas for LIHA Beauty.
Liha is a total skincare junky, while I’ve always been more interested in hair, so we would often talk about some of the products we were using and making ourselves at home, and it all developed from there. As I was an athlete, I was always concerned about the ingredients I was putting into my body, so would try to seek out more natural products. However, the more we spoke about this and searched for suitable products to use, the more we found that there was very little out there that spoke to us. Both Liha and I were born in Britain but have Nigerian parents, so we wanted to create a natural brand that merged our two cultures.
We wanted to introduce natural African ingredients to the Western market. At the time, no one knew about Shea Butter, something that was a staple in my household, along with other traditional Nigerian ingredients, so we really saw an opportunity to bring these to the UK. The idea was that we would combine English aromatherapy with West African bases, bringing the culture, traditions, and rich history of Nigeria to our home in the UK.
We talked about it loads and it very much evolved into LIHA Beauty as we went. In the early stages I was very sceptical. I was still competing as an athlete and Liha had a daughter and her own business already, so we didn’t have a lot of time to dedicate between us. It all seemed to fall into place after the 2012 Olympics as I had decided to retire and Liha was winding down her other business, so it was then that we became much more serious about the idea. We started experimenting and making different products and ended up with two, including our Idan oil, which has now become our cult product.
When I was an athlete, I used the hate having to carry loads of beauty products, as when you start reading the ingredients list you realise that many contain the same ingredients. So, I really wanted to create a multi-purpose product that could do everything. This is where the inspiration for our Idan oil came from.
I was very dubious as to whether we could launch with just two products, but Liha was confident that we could. She went ahead and booked us into Port Elliot Festival and we had a stall there where we could sell our products and also run workshops, so this was our first experience of selling our products to customers and it was great way of getting real-time feedback. It wasn’t a very slick set up, but it was what got us started and the great thing was that we actually sold out in two days.
At that very first festival our tent was close to Anthropology’s tent, the global retailer, and the Head of Anthropology Europe came over to our stand to try out the products and said that she wanted to sell our oil. We were blown away and couldn’t believe it! She asked if we had various certificates that we needed in order for her to be able to sell our products in their stores and we had no idea what she was taking about but of course said yes anyway. It turns out we didn’t have the certificates she needed, and they would subsequently take four months to come through, but Anthropology were really great and stuck with us until we had everything ready.
I’ve learnt over the years is that it’s best to start small and get things done the best you can, but always remember it doesn’t have to be perfect the first time. We’ve changed the packaging so many times as we’ve grown and evolved, improving it along the way, and I’ve come to accept that that is absolutely fine! Ultimately, if you’re always striving for perfection first time around, you’ll never get started, so cut yourself a bit of slack and accept that not everything has to be perfect.
I’ve never been married before, but I must say it is like a marriage. It’s great, especially in the beginning when you’re discovering new things and it’s all so exciting, but it is a marriage, meaning there will be huge highs and huge lows. There’ll be challenging times when it comes to things like finances, but there’ll also be great times. Liha has taught me that you have to celebrate the good times, something that I don’t do enough. Celebrate the big wins and the little wins as it is all a result of your hard work and the effort you’ve put in.
I went to my first Olympic games in 2004 and was a 200-metre finalist. I’m also a commonwealth gold and silver medallist. The training and experience of being an athlete definitely makes you more resilient. I had so many injuries throughout my career, but you have no choice but to get back up and bounce back. It’s a lot to take mentally. I was the 6th best 200-metre sprinter in the world at one point and then had injury after injury, so there’s a lot of mental turmoil. I was lucky to have an amazing team around me and an amazing psychologist to help me, but some athletes don’t have that and so there’s a lot of mental health issues that can result from this. There’s also a huge mental transition that you have to make when you retire and your whole world changes, this is something that setting up LIHA Beauty really helped me with. It gave me a new challenge and a new goal to focus on.
A lot of people say this, but I think it’s very true, having a business partner and someone to share the experience with really helps. I’m a single mum and when we were going through Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter, it was a lot for me and I kind of shut down for a while. It was amazing to have Liha there for support and she was able to take on the business, while I focused on getting myself together. That’s the thing, we’re always there to support each other no matter what and that’s amazing.
Finance can often be a challenge and cash flow issues are always the worst. We’ve been so lucky throughout the Covid-19 pandemic as with the nature of our brand being about self-care and relaxation, people have continued to support us and buy our products, but we have had our fare share of financial issues in the past. We only started to pay ourselves a wage last year, so up until then we had two or three other jobs on the go to help us get by and this was very much a side hustle.
Getting our products in the department store, Liberty London, has definitely been one of the biggest highs. Liha basically walked into the store and spoke to one of the women working on the beauty counters and gave her some products. Luckily, she passed then passed them on to the Head of Beauty and shortly after they contacted us about stocking our products. It was amazing!
Just do it! ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’ is a motto I live by. When I used to compete, before every race I would be filled with so much adrenaline and fear, but that’s because it mattered so much to me and I knew if I didn’t feel like that then there was no point in competing as I wasn’t going to run well. There’s never a right time to start a business, so don’t wait. If it all goes wrong, you can always do something else!
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