Finding the right fit with Mayorlinks clothiers

This article is written by Generation Enterprise, which builds socially responsible youth-run businesses that transform communities.

Even in a room full of almost 100 of Lagos's top executives and government leaders, David Mayowa was among the best-dressed.

He and his business partner Emmanuel Gbenga were at the US Consulate pitching David's new clothing brand, Mayorlinks, and they had to dress for success. Such an occasion called for a beautiful bespoke suit.

David was confident in his suit’s quality. After all, he'd made it himself – along with all the other items he and Emmanuel were wearing when they won over the judges with their clothing concept.

His fledgling company, Mayorlinks, targeted discerning customers in his community of Alimosho, Lagos's largest Local Government Area. In recent years, banks, restaurants, and even country clubs had moved into the rapidly developing community, and with them, many Alimosho residents had access to local white collar jobs for the first time. Young graduates and new job-seekers needed their first "power suits" for interviews, new jobs, and entry into the middle- and upper-middle class. Mayorlinks was rapidly becoming their clothier of choice.

David had learned to sew as a trainee in one of the Lagos State Ministry of Special Duties' vocational skills programs at the Job Opportunity Center in Igando, but hadn't found a job or way to differentiate his one-man operation from the legions of other road-side tailors.

It wasn't until he joined an incubator run by Generation Enterprise in partnership with the Ministry of Special Duties that he set his sights on building a brand and sustainable business.

Generation Enterprise was a US- and Nigeria- based NGO with the mission of empowering low-income, low-skilled youth to become agents of economic development in their communities. It worked by training youth in key business and life skills, mobilizing them to surface market needs and emerging opportunities, and then rapidly prototyping and testing venture ideas to identify businesses that could scale to create 50+ sustainable jobs generating income at or above the federal minimum wage.

Becoming a Generation Enterprise Fellow was David's big break.

For too long, he had been living in poverty with his young family: a wife and young son, living on a weekly income under N1,000. The three of them were homeless and had been offered temporary shelter in their local church.

After an entrepreneurship skills boot camp and business planning and testing period, David and another Fellow, Emmanuel, teamed up to develop Mayorlinks with their dedicated Business Development Officers and coaches from Generation Enterprise.

The NGO pushed them to build something that could grow from microenterprise to SME, and for David to become a brand, not just another freelancer. Together, they developed and tested a kind of on-demand suit club for up-and-coming office workers and future moguls of Alimosho. Today, Mayorlinks' unique business model makes preparing for the workforce fun.

The company visits customers at home and in their offices and brings trunk club samples of different suit styles and fabric swatches. Customers would design their own suit by mixing and matching amongst Mayorlinks' stylish, affordable options, and place orders that could be picked up or delivered. Mayorlinks has made successful proposals to schools and banks, set up a convenient shop location, and, with the help of Generation Enterprise, even completed contract work for fashion houses like Grey Projects in Dolphin Estate.

It's not hard to see why Mayorlinks has become a local favorite. David's suits are professional, stylish, personalized, and affordable – an accessible option for a young person's first job, first promotion, and beyond. But building a business wasn't just about an innovative business model, in-demand product, and technical (sewing) skills. In order to succeed, David had to develop certain soft skills that aren't usually taught in school and are certainly not taught on the streets of Lagos.

"Soft skills" refer to non-technical skills like problem-solving, assertive negotiations, and teamwork. They also include learned habits like arriving on time, taking care of personal hygiene, and following up on your promises and commitments.

Low-income, at-risk young people (like those who are homeless) may not get exposure to such skills and habits that prove crucial to success. A recent report by the Inter-American Development Bank notes that "to prepare these young people for workplace success, job training programs need to go beyond technical instruction and also teach 'life skills.'"

An earlier IDB survey showed that 80 percent of employers in certain Latin American and Caribbean countries indicated that positive socio-emotional attitudes, or life skills, such as empathy, adaptability, and responsibility, among others, are the most difficult capacities to find among workers.

Mastering such skills proved critical in Mayorlinks' growth. In the early days, customers and coaches recall, David was great at sewing but not so great at other things. He could be hard to track down, answering his phone infrequently and not keeping regular working hours. Though his suits were affordable and well-constructed, they often arrived late. "Time management was hard for me," he admits – which resulted in disappointed customers. Business Development Officers and coaches would bring opportunities his way, but he would "let them all slide away."

This experience led Generation Enterprise to incorporate soft skills more explicitly into the incubator program in general, and work with David to slowly professionalize his operations and attitude in particular.

"There has been a tremendous change, a very great transformation!" observes Generation Enterprise Business Development Manager Itunu Adekitan.

As a result, David has gone from one employee (himself) to six and continues to grow. His own monthly income has risen to an average of N50,000, and customers flock to his service. Now he "always gets the job done on time," even when customers have trouble paying him. Pricing strategy is the next area of improvement and professionalization for Mayorlinks, but David retains a soft spot for his customers, suiting up for a potentially life-changing job.

After all, as he reminds himself, he knows what it's like to get a big break, too.

Do you have ideas for community needs that Generation Enterprise can tackle with business solutions? Contact Generation Enterprise at joinus@generationenterprise.org.

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