“I think women often want to do things perfectly from the outset, and sometimes that stops us from going after our goals”. For an anti-perfectionist, ULO founder Dinzi Amobi-Sanderson has summed it up, well, perfectly.
She’s certainly no stranger to going after her goals. Born in London and raised in Nigeria and then the UK, she relocated to Australia as an adult, for love (“he likes to claim that I ‘followed’ him, but I can assure you that it was a mutual decision!”) Newly pregnant – with twins, no less – she decided to take the plunge and launch her own homewares and fashion business, inspired by her African heritage: ULO.
“I often say that I have triplets”, she jokes – “the girls and ULO”. In 2020 ULO might have been the problem child, given the enormous logistical issues posed by the pandemic. But the vibrant, unique African wax fabrics at ULO’s heart proved to be very versatile. Dinzo started by using them to make just one face mask. By request, she made another, then another, and so on. Eventually they paused production on their dresses and leaned in to mask production. “It was quite a scary thing to do for a small business”, Dinzi says, “but then I realised the magic that comes from running a small business – you can pivot and make a big impact in a short space of time.
Our chat with Dinzi certainly made a big impact in a short space of time. We speak to the mother of two about what ‘home’ means to her, how she keeps her children connected to culture when they’re a world away from family, and why the corporate world “just didn’t suit” this powerhouse woman.
You were born in London, to Nigerian and English parents – tell us about what you remember about those early years in Africa and how do you think those years shaped you?
Yes, I was born in London to Nigerian-British parents, and spent the early years of my childhood living in Nigeria until the age of 8 when we moved back to London.
Nigeria is a wonderful place! It is rich in history and culture, filled with joyful communities, beautiful art, textiles and craftsmanship, wonderful musicians, and great food. I once read an article which claimed that Nigerians were ‘the happiest people in the world’ and I couldn’t agree more. It is a really vibrant and bustling place which translates through the people and environment.
For me, Nigeria has always been the place I call ‘home’, and having the privilege to grow up in a large African family with mixed heritage has given me an opportunity to appreciate the best of both worlds. My late father was an incredibly passionate and committed lawyer, and my mother was a doctor, so I grew up watching two people adore what they did for a living, and I guess the combination of my family upbringing and the richness of Nigeria itself, has really set the narrative for ULO.
You moved to London at the age of eight – what do you remember about the move? What was it like settling into London?
Wow, I remember it so well. We visited London every year because my maternal grandmother lived there, and I remember one year my mother telling my sister and I that we were going to London for the summer (which to us was always a great adventure). We had been there for a while and I knew this because the seasons had changed slightly – the long summer nights were getting shorter, and there was a slight chill in the air. A sign that it was September and a new school year. I recall my mother handing my sister and I a set of school uniforms each, and before I knew it, we were starting our first day at a British school.
London itself was quite similar to Nigeria in terms of the hustle and bustle, but nevertheless, it was quite a culture shock. I remember the kids at our school and the local park questioning our accents (not in a bullyish way, more in an inquisitive manner), and my sister coming home from school one day crying because she didn’t like the ‘yam’ they served us for school lunch – it was in fact ‘mashed potato’. These are all really fond memories that we often still laugh about now.
Nevertheless, kids have this wonderful ability to adapt and just get on with the changes in life. And that’s what we did. We slowly adapted to a British life, and I made some wonderful friendships at our first school – and in fact, one of those friends is now helping me with the business from London, so albeit it was strange and uncomfortable at times, it was a great place to grow up.
You’re now raising your family in Australia – tell us about the move to Australia?
Yes, I moved to Sydney seven years ago after meeting my husband in London. He likes to claim that I ‘followed’ him, but I can assure you that it was a mutual decision! My husband is originally from Melbourne, so after living in Sydney for a couple of years, we flew home to get married in London, and returned to Melbourne where we have been ever since.
I have to say, never did I think that I would be in Australia for so long. I often tell people that I ‘grew up’ in Australia – I mean that in the sense that I experienced huge life-changing moments whilst living in Australia, such as the loss of my dear father, our engagement, my transition from a lawyer to a business owner, and then finally becoming a mother to twin girls most recently. Good and bad things, but nevertheless, Australia will always have a place in my heart because of the experiences I have had since living here.
What are some of the challenges faced by parents raising kids in a culture different from their own?
I think when you become a parent, your natural instinct is to raise your kids in the same way (if not similar) to how your parents raised you, and the beauty for me is that I am mixed race and so are my daughters. I witnessed first-hand how my parents were able to incorporate both cultures into our lives. We were raised as Nigerian-Brits, and now my husband and I have the joys of raising two young British-Nigerian-Aussies, and it’s a wonderful ‘challenge’ and one that my husband and I both equally share that responsibility.
From an African perspective, being so far away from my family and home is incredibly difficult, but we play a LOT of African music at home, I read the girls the same Nigerian fables my parents read to us, we cook Nigerian food at home for them to enjoy, and skype with my mother (who is in London) nearly every day so she can be that ‘African grandparent’ and be part of their upbringing.
When I come to think of it, I started ULO because I wanted to feel connected to my culture and have a piece of Africa here in Australia, and I think when the girls arrived that desire to keep the connection alive fuelled me to work hard on ULO. I hope that by doing all of these things at home and with the business, that the girls will feel just as connected to those parts of their heritage as I do, regardless of physical distance.
You’re a mother of twins and you were told that the first year was going to be the toughest 12 months of your lives – was it? What was that first year like?
The first year was a challenge, mentally and physically. I think whether you have one, two, or five kids – the first year of being a parent is probably the hardest. But yes, twins were quite something!
Unfortunately, I had a very traumatic pregnancy due to complications that can arise conceiving identical twins, so that part of the journey was not fun, and unfortunately again, four days after they were born I found myself in intensive care due to further complications, and told that I may not make it through the night. I remember thinking well if my daughters can fight hard for 36 weeks and arrive safely, then I sure as hell am not about to let them down now, so that’s what kept me focused during that time in hospital.
That being said, by the time the girls and I finally arrived home from hospital we had been through quite an experience as a family- sleep deprivation, exhaustion, the long nights etc, were not a patch on what we had already been through as a family.
Of course, the everyday challenges of having twin babies was there (and still are, sick twins are no fun!). but I was incredibly lucky to have a husband who was hands on, and great help from my husband’s family and sister who is now based in Sydney. We also had a wonderful woman from the Multiple Birth Association come and help us with the girls – she was meant to be with us for 8 weeks and has stayed ever since helping us to look after the girls one day a week.
I remember quite vividly on the girls first birthday waking up thinking ‘we did it, we survived. If we can do this, we can do just about anything’.
You’re a lawyer and also an entrepreneur – tell me how the lawyer turned into the entrepreneur?
In hindsight, it was probably quite a crazy thing to do. For many years, I knew that the corporate world just didn’t suit me. I had worked at law firms, investment banks and hedge funds in London, and then found myself yet again in the corporate world when we arrived in Sydney so I had my fair share of corporate life.
I enjoyed meeting some wonderful people, some of whom I still turn to for business advice, but I was incredibly infatuated with trying to build something of my own. Rather than sitting in a corporate tower block trying to grow someone else’s business, I wanted to grow my own, and I wanted to do it using my passion for African textiles and design.
I started designing in the evenings after work, and learning how to start a business. I researched the market trends, and contacted other founders to ask whether they were willing to share their story with me (there are only so many business books that one can read!), and I found talking to other founders and entrepreneurs was instrumental and what encouraged me because I realised that if they could do it then perhaps I could too.
After 6 months of tinkering away at night whilst working during the day, and compiling feedback from friends and family, I realised that I may just have the bare bones of a good product and an outline of a business. I also had passion. Passion is important. It keeps you motivated! Those three things – a good product, a business outline and passion, were enough to encourage me to take the leap and sink my teeth into life as a founder of a business.
You launched ULO Australia, an African homewares brand, while your twins were babies – tell me about what sparked this business idea and launch?
Yes, I launched the business online 6 weeks after finding out I was pregnant with twins. The first year was overshadowed by the challenges of the pregnancy, so I feel like the business really only came into its own when the girls arrived.
ULO, itself, was an idea sparked by a dinner party with friends. We were living in a rental in Sydney and we invited our friends over for a dinner party. We had this old battered second hand dining table, and I wanted to dress it up for dinner so I created a large set of vibrant clashing placemats and napkins using wax print fabrics that my friend had sent me from Nigeria. When our guests arrived, they were so excited by the colours and prints on the table, and we spent the entire night talking about the fabric, and my culture and upbringing, and that’s when I realised that these fabrics were doing more than just looking pretty – they were evoking joy, instigating wonderful conversations, and encouraging story-telling – three features that have now formed part of the pillars of the brand.
What does ‘Ulo’ mean?
‘Ulo’ means ‘home’ in Igbo which is the Nigerian language my family speak at home.
A year before I started the business, my father sadly passed away. I was lucky to grow up in a happy, joyful, and colourful home which him and mother created together, and I wanted to replicate that through the brand and include my father in the business in some way, so I thought ‘Ulo’ was the perfect name and gentle nod to him (& my mother).
Our brand values, which we refer to as ‘ULO pillars’ are based on my family values – integrity, quality, and community. Whenever I am faced with a business challenge, or managing product development, or collaborating with another brand, the first thing I think about before I agree to something is ‘what would my family think of this?’, ‘does it fall within our family values’, ‘will it benefit our community (our customer)?’, and ‘can we make it well?’. If it falls foul of this criteria, then we just don’t go ahead.
What does it mean to you to be part of the slow fashion movement? And can you tell me about the process behind each piece?
Firstly, I have to say that our main goal is always to make good, colourful, rich, joyful pieces for people to embrace and enjoy, but to do that, you have to invest in doing it well, which takes time. Time and patience. You have to slow down each part of the process and control it yourself, so that you can learn how to make it well.
Right now, it’s impossible to talk about fashion without considering being part of the slow fashion movement. It’s imperative. For us, we are focusing on this movement one element at a time, rather than tackling it all at once.
Our first priority from day one was sustainability – how to be a responsible and sustainable business. We decided to tackle this first because to not consider sustainability would immediately eliminate us from the slow fashion movement, and would write off many prospective customers. Something no business should ever aim to do.
We design and make all of our collections in-house ourselves in our Melbourne studio. We are an incredibly small team – four us in total, so it is quite a big feat for a small team to manage design, sampling, sourcing, production, customer service and all the other elements of the business, but it was important for me that we do so. Why? So that we can learn about our customer, understand who we are designing for, and make a good product in a sustainable way for the customer to enjoy.
As a business, we have got used to paying fair prices for good quality materials from the beginning, and that’s what we are trying to teach our customer to do, too, by investing in our pieces. If you start off by valuing price over sustainability, it’s going to be harder to turn that ship around later. We also recently partnered with Future Neutral, a one click carbon offset which allows everyday Australians to take climate action.
How has the pandemic changed the way you work?
The pandemic has been a pivotal moment for our business. I have always believed in keeping small and lean, so that we could learn who our customer is and what it is that they want from us, and I guess that is what happened in 2020.
At the beginning of the pandemic, we were in a difficult position because our supply chain had completely broken and we were unable to receive our fabric orders from Africa. As the pandemic unfolded, customers started to email to ask whether we could make reusable face masks. We agreed to make one, then another, and then it just grew from there. I then asked the team to down tools and stop making dresses, and use the fabric instead to make face masks because that is what our customer needed at the time. It was quite a scary thing to do for a small business, but then I realised the magic that comes from running a small business – you can pivot and make a big impact in a short space of time.
For us the pandemic reinforced the beauty of crafting by hand, and it also taught us the importance of securing our supply chain. I have spent the last few months working closely with our vendors in Africa to learn about their printing processes, how their businesses work, and how we can work together to create a reliable and secure supply chain.
Albeit 2020 was an incredibly difficult year, the best part for us was when lockdown in Victoria ended and customers were flocking to our studio wearing our mask and telling us how much joy our fabric had brought them. That for me, was the moment that I realised once again, the power of African wax prints.
For me, personally, the pandemic has taught me the importance of listening and staying still. As a small business owner, you’re always chasing your tail feeling like you haven’t done enough. Last year taught me that you can achieve great things even when standing still.
How did motherhood influence your creative energy?
Motherhood has really challenged my creative energy. Kids are just honest people, they say what they think and feel, and they struggle to hide their true feelings. I found this quite refreshing after becoming a mother, and subsequently that honesty and transparency has filtered into my work and the business.
Since becoming a mother, I have had a real urge to only create good quality products in an honest and transparent way. It’s the only way that feels right to me. I say this because often I imagine that the girls will grow up and ask me why I created x, y and z, and I’ve got to have a good answer for them. There has to be a reason you create what you create, with a good story and reason behind it.
If I can’t explain my creations to my kids when they are older, then I sure can’t explain it to the customer.
What has been the most challenging part of motherhood and how have you overcome any challenges?
The most challenging part of motherhood is dealing with the guilt of wanting to grow my passion, ULO, but also not wanting to miss out on the girls growing up.
ULO has been part of their life since the day they were born – I often say that I have triplets – the girls and ULO. When I am exhausted and overworked, and start to think that there is no way I can continue this business and be a twin mum, I often recall those moments when the girls were 4 weeks old napping in their bassinets, and I was sat next to them updating the website or replying to a customer. To give up now, would mean that all of that was a complete waste of time. And I know it was not.
I believe in ULO, I believe in what I want the team and I to achieve with the brand. I also really admire our community – I get to meet lots of wonderful, confident and strong women who are bold enough to wear our prints, and that alone motivates me to continue to keep building and not give up.
On a personal note, I recently came to the realisation that I do not bake, I am rubbish at imaginative play, and I am always going to be that mother who fails to read notes such as ‘next week is dress up at childcare or school’. I can’t do it all, and that’s okay with me now. I hope that my passion to build a successful business and grow a wonderful community (which one day I hope my daughters will part of) will make up for my misfailings in those ‘motherly’ departments.
Finally, what’s your advice to women dreaming of launching their own business?
You will spend a lot of time thinking about the things that you don’t know but… you will learn!
I think women often want to do things perfectly from the outset, and sometimes that stops us from going after our goals. One of our lovely custom clients recently said to me during her dress fitting ‘make sure you always know what your goal is when you get out of bed – write your goals up for the day, the week, or the year and stick them next to your bed’. Without having clear goals, you will continue to fumble in darkness and then it will be a waste of time.
Believe in yourself, and what’s the worst that can happen? You gave it a go. You can still be proud of that.