Welcome to season three of the podcast. Throughout this series, we will continue to shine a light on the changemakers who are having an incredible impact on the world whilst finding innovative ways to build a better future. In this first episode of the season, my guest is Akim Tejan Cole, founder of Maayee Fashion and advocate for fashion activism.
In this discussion Akim talks about his personal experience seeking asylum from Sierra Leone and facing a culture shock in Switzerland as he adjusted to his new life, and how that inspired him to create a way to bridge the gap between individuals from different backgrounds.Tune into his story here.
At the end of each show, I ask my guests for their top recommendations. Akim shared that he enjoys listening to 80’s rap music, particularly Biggie Small. Books that he absolutely recommends are by Aaravindha Himadra and by Viktor Frankl. And at the moment he is reading by Abdulrazak Gurnah.
Hello, and welcome to a new episode of Narratives of Purpose. My name is Claire Muigande. I am a TEDx speaker, a scientist by training, and your host on this show. This podcast is dedicated to amplifying social impact by bringing you inspiring individual stories of ordinary people who are making extraordinary impact within their communities and around the world. So if you're looking for a programme that showcases unique stories of changemakers, stories of people who are contributing to make a difference in society, and at the same time, you want to be inspired to take action, then don't look any further. You are in the right place. So get comfortable and listen to my conversations. Today, we kick off our third season of the podcast with our first guest, Akim Tejan Cole, Akim is the founder of Maayee Fashion, a Swiss based fashion activism label that brings people together to create change. In this discussion, Akim tells me about how his organisation creates diversity competence, transfer workshops, to inspire t-shirt designs. Please take a moment to rate and review our show wherever you listen to your podcasts. And for now, listen to Akim's journey and his ambition to create a movement around diversity.
I'm really excited to have this conversation with Akim today. So welcome to the podcast. How are you?
I'm fine Claire. Thanks a lot. I'm super excited to be here, to be talking with you, and I'm really looking forward to our conversation.
Great. The pleasure is all mine. And I just have to give a bit of background as well to our listeners just to tell them how we met. We recently met in November 2021 through Capacity Zurich. And for those listeners who are probably new to the podcast, I did receive two of the co-founders earlier on in the series. So that was January or February I think 2021. And Capacity is basically a talent and startup incubator for refugees and migrants, which is based here in Zurich, Switzerland. And it just so happens that you are one of their board members, and we met at their celebratory event, which was at the end of 2021 and I was invited to give a keynote. Now we won't be speaking about Capacity, but I have a guess that Maayee fashion is somehow linked to Capacity.
Yes, totally right.
Okay. But before we jump into that conversation, I'd like to pass it on to you and give you the opportunity to present yourself who is Akim and what would you like our listeners to know about your background?
Well, my name Akim Tejan Cole as we've established, I am originally from Sierra Leone. But I'm also Swiss, I consider myself as a dual citizen. I came to Switzerland many years ago, I think about 15/16 years ago or so because of the state civil war in Sierra Leone. For me, that was a really big shock because I had a real steady life down there, an okay life and was just thrown into a new culture and to new experiences, had to learn everything from scratch. And now I would say I am very passionate about diversity and inclusion, and which Maayee fashion which is linked to my passion, and I have also different volunteering work I do on the side including Capacity as a board member and capacity, also part of the core team for National Action that we will do next year. I also work in the bank.
So now speaking about Maayee fashion, how did it all start? Tell me about how the whole idea or the concept initiated and perhaps in the second part, you know, walk us through a bit the whole process up until September 2021. When did you launch your label?
During the late night conversation with my former flatmate we were just, I think we were a little bit drunk, and we were just grumbling or complaining about the lack of T-shirts or clothes or the meaning in Zurich, or really cool T-shirts in Zurich, this conversation afterwards kind of stuck with me. And so I tried to really get him involved like "hey, man, you know, we should maybe really do something about that" And but he was not so moved. And for me also I think I've always been entrepreneurship minded, also a bit action based even when I was studying. I was president of the Student Union. I co-founded several initiatives that also so I think I really had that kind of drive to really make things from scratch or to get an idea of going, but for me, from my experiences in my life, any business, anything I got into, I was going to really put my endeavours in, had to have a social aspect to it for me. Because basically, I think actually social enterprises are the future. I don't necessarily believe in charity, but I believe it's this hybrid, this closeness between business and also giving back. So for me, any business that I went into, had to really have that social aspect. And also one thing, one of the major experiences that really changed my life, just in a moment, just like that, was this my move from Sierra Leone to Switzerland. Because before I was just a homeboy, you know, I grew up in the University of Sierra Leone, and I had that normal life, you know, I had a in a car with my friends were telling you about before, and all of a sudden, just got caught up in the war there when the rebels took over half of the capital of Freetown. But basically, linking that to my story, so then I had to come back here to Switzerland. This was a place I never even, I mean, I heard of it in passing but never thought much about it, you know, landing at the airport, I can recall, I just came in and I was quite, I thought, you know, in these movies used to see these movies when the family goes to seek asylum. And, you know, there's a process I actually thought was like that. So I went to the counter to the guys and I would raise my hand up. The guy just screamed at me. "What do you want here? Yeah, what do you guys want from us?" Then he locked me up in a cell, they actually have cells nearby. This is what people who go through passport control actually do, they're always up in cells nearby. And he just locked me up there and dealt with the rest of the passengers. I think I just went to sleep. So this was a really big shock for me, you know. Then I was actually like let inside to pursue my asylum application. And then I was sent to different cantons, you just get allocated and then I was sent to Sankt-Gallen right up in a village there. And this was a total shock for me also, you know, culture shock, we were just up there and we could not talk the language for example. And we were really controlled and you were given I think that 20 Francs for two weeks, and we could not work and there was regular police control in the surroundings, but also it was not very friendly and locals were not accepting of us, so this was like you were just stuck somewhere, and this for me was a shock to my system, you know. And so then I went to all these processes out there for years. Eventually, I came to Zurich, and I got my papers also, and I thought I could actually work. I thought "OK, super no, this is it. I'm in you know, I can work, I can travel!" But it didn't necessarily turn out to be like that, because you realise former qualifications or the former experiences are not so relevant. And then you're still just stuck because basically, when he was in this asylum system, I found that it was just me stuck with my set of people, you know. I had a feeling it was like a "them against us mentality". So there's not really any understanding on both sides of what's really going on. I thought, okay, now I have my, I have a permit B, I can legally work and also travel, this might change. And then you realise that, oh, no, it is not really like that. All of your qualifications are not necessarily recognised, you know, and I was doing a lot of these jobs which was really super cool, right? I was happy. I mean, I could earn some money. But then I really wanted to also do something with more cognitive abilities, something that could really push me more. But it was really difficult to get into that, I tried to apply to go to university several times it was always 'you don't have the right subject don't have this, you don't have that the language part' and so even then, when I did have the papers, I felt I was still stuck in that "them and us". And there was no communication between the other side between the two sides in terms of these two brackets that I said, which was really depressing for me, I mean, I was doing these jobs, I think before I even went to study, I was doing all these jobs like cleaning and you know, dishwashing they would not even let me to serve customers in the restaurant. And so this was kind of like my experiences here, this 'them and us', but then I knew that maybe that could be something more, so I noticed a change, I think definitely was when I actually got offered a farming apprenticeship at an NGO here, the key thing about the it was really quite an exclusive NGO, also, they did not normally take people with my background. And for me also, it was a big step, because then to accept the internship, I had to actually do without money for like three months or so, you know, and for something that was uncomfortable because I'm not a farmer, also, I really had to step outside of my comfort zone, you know, and but then during this time, there was actually I think, was the time I got to really see another, another side of Switzerland. And first of all, I got to meet Swiss people on a regular basis, right? I could talk with them, they could talk with me. I got to understand Swiss culture. Like, the type of food they ate, the kind of songs they liked to sing, I got to really understand enough to see what makes them tick. And they also got to see me, and then I was like, hey, these people are not so bad afterall. It's not really so bad, because back then, because of this misunderstanding, because of this lack of communication, I saw it. I also mean, I could see the system, they were not accommodating to me. But I was also probably not too accommodating to them, because I could not feel them, I did not have conversations, you know, I don't know what's going on. So basically, what we do with Maayee is we try to create a diversity experience through fashion, we try to get people who would not normally meet to start conversations with each other. And so this was based on my experience, because just starting that conversation with the guys there changed a lot of their perception of me, and my perception of them. And now we are lifelong friends, the bonds, I call them to do so many different things, I've collaborated with them on different projects. And so basically, that's what we do with Maayee, we bring together people who would not normally meet, right, on an extreme basis, you would say, bankers and homeless people, you know, and we run these design sessions, which is what we call diversity competence transfer. We have different segments where they get to really capture different insights about each other. And during the session they leave messages that they want to send out to the world based on their conversational interactions with each other. And at the end, they can possibly unify on the central message they want to send out to the world. And these messages inspire our designs, our clothes carry the messages of really diverse people, which is I think, you can't get a more concurrent message for the world than that, because it's the normal people. And very importantly, doing these sessions, also, these connections are going with these participants. We start conversations, we create connections, and we also create beautiful fashion.
First of all, how do you bring these people together? Because you said you have, you know, people who would normally never meet. And I just recall one thing as well is that on your website, you described yourself as fashion activists who make clothes that bring people together to create change. So tell me, how do you bring these people together? Without revealing any secrets, right?
Well, basically, now we're a startup right? So basically, I use my personal network, so we just really try to just push a call out and just get diverse people on board. And that's how we get it, nothing really special. It is time consuming, it can be time consuming. But the thing is we do this design session for the collections, right? And also on the side, our activism arm, then we also do these local ones where there's no actual design that's going to be sold as a collection. And then we invite quite a wide group of people to come with different ideas, and then the students have the same idea, the same interactions go on. So for the design ones is once you maybe get two collections of three collections a year more so then you take a bit of time to plan it.
Do you leave it open in the sense that the discussion is more or less organic? Or do you perhaps for certain sessions, really set the stage and say these are perhaps topics we would like to address?
Actually we do plan it because then people do need some guidance as well. So we have a a number of topics. We do select a general topic because then we kind of then lead the conversation and then just let it flow organically. And then in between the discussion we also have different segments, for example, we also prepare the people, we do some exercises. For example, just breathing exercises to get people in the right frame of mind to actually come to these discussions. So we have these different segments first to get people a bit more focused into what we're going to do. And then the different segments where people interact with each other, and actually get to know each other which is one of the big works. And then in between is the discussions on the sidelines, this is how it goes.
Just to give me an idea how long these sessions last? Is it like a whole day? Is it across several days?
It's just half a day.
I previously mentioned that you launched in September 2021. So the label, so to speak, is quite recent. But you've mentioned already that you had different collections? That Correct?
Yeah, we have one collection, not different collections just yet. We have done different tests, different kinds of just testing the concept. But we're actually quite new, we actually have just one collection, which is actually a milestone for us, which I'm very excited about, actually. And this one is special in the sense, as in because part of our concept, apart from this diversity experience, a key part is also giving back or trying to promote underrepresented groups, you know, just to give it back to them, because we want also every sale at Maayeer to actually not just be transactional, but to actually go on to do something really specific, you know, which is also a key part in our concept. And our first project is gender. It's about promoting gender equality, and more specifically, we assist in the education of young primary school girls, in poor countries, developing countries, the stats are really horrible. I mean, the amount of lives that can be saved, and the amount of economic growth that we could have if more students can just finish primary school. Because if that could just happen, it passes on to even the kids. By 34 million children going to school, I think 70 million lives to be saved. And so that's part of our giving back. So for every sale that we do, we support the education of these girls to provide school supplies and uniforms and also a mentoring session just to inspire them. And also make sure the parents also know the importance of their kids or their girls finishing school, because in some of these communities, the boys are preferred over girls. So why this collection is special also, because we actually integrated that part also in the design. And so the message this time was not just from this workshop that was held or design session that was held in Zurich, it also included the messages of these girls, it's a collaboration design between their messages and the messages from this workshop in Zurich. This first design carries the message of friendship and respect for all. And basically, I think it was on a trip years back, I went to the village of the school. And I just told them just draw anything you want, you know, just what comes into what you want to see. And we had all these drawings. They were all so nice. And so this one that we chose was the one from a student and she basically just drew her friend playing a football when she was sitting outside, and she walked with her to school, and back. it's just really horrible how they have to cross the river and everything just to go to school, you know, and it was just that one. So this is about friendship. And also, the message from this workshop was about respect to all you know, regardless of your background, or any kind of factors. So it's that cross collaboration. This is our first collection, and I'm really so happy and excited about
sounds amazing. Congratulations to you for that. I mean, you really combined, you know the final recipients. So if I'm understanding correctly, it's not only about the diversity and bringing people together and creating a dialogue but also that a message comes out of it.
Exactly. So this is why I think it's a really special t-shirt. It really carries a powerful message. It's a great energy, you know, out there in the world for people to have it just to carry it around, you know. So because it's about the message from a 90 year old who was abolished in Zurich, from a refugee from a farmer, and former students. You know, from me, it's all of their messages all in one, that's what our T-shirt is about.
Exactly. And also goes to show how we are all interconnected, regardless of where you live on this planet, but there's always a way that we get to connect to each other.
It's just about really starting conversations and talking, you know, because we all have our biases, and it's constant work, you know, it's constant work, to get rid of them. I think one of the best ways, I think, is to do this. Teaching is good, but it's true life experiences, I think that's one of the best ways to counter this. And this can also help too, when we're attacking these big problems, such as climate change, inequality and stuff, you know, it's only these kinds of life experiences that can then feed into the solutions, you know, and this is what Maayee is trying to contribute towards.
Absolutely. I couldn't agree more. It's all about lived experience. And, I mean, even your whole experience, the way you explained it to us throughout this conversation, in the end, also finding your way, and now creating something that's meaningful. I mean, that experience alone, perhaps, even just telling the story is something that people might relate to, to some extent, but it's always about, you know, sharing our stories and everybody's experience. And that's how you can make things change. Right?
Exactly. And maybe just to go back to finding your way - trying to find my way, because the journey is still so big. I mean, even now, in this in this phase, even in my job, you notice that I'm different also, and you, for example, and my former job I was in, it's a big deal there, but then you just do people want you to act like them, you know, as far as otherwise, you don't really get work. So, I mean, I would say it's just a different phase, I would say Claire, right now. But I still, sometimes even up to now, with all this, I still feel like that guy who just landed at the airport, when the guy was saying, "What do you want now?" It's just on different levels, actually.
I also think it's, you know, it's a good example, to show how far you have come as you say, you're still in the process. And still, you've been, you know, you've managed to create something. And what I find really remarkable that you're, you know, we were saying before, you're addressing dialogue, so you're really contributing to this Diversity Dialogue, to show that, everybody's interconnected, and whatever your background is always way, as long as you're able to speak to each other, you know, we can find how we relate to each other. Right. And then you're also addressing the question of education, young girls education, because we know when I had one of my very first guest on the podcast, as well was, especially in in the African continent, you know, supporting women either in education in innovation, and also intrapreneurship, this is something we need to foster. And I think through your project, you're kind of going to the root cause of that, you know, enabling the girls to finish school, because in the end, they also have the means to also decide for themselves later on, provided the context is also helpful. And there's another thing you also addressed, I wanted to because you were speaking about climate change, and I noticed on your website as well, that your T shirts, first of all, they're made in Switzerland with carbon neutral production, and only using organic materials. And you're also documenting your process 100%. So you're even being transparent on that level.
Yeah, totally intentional, it had to be. A label like ours, first of all, I do support sustainability. And this was one of the reasons why initially, when we were looking for producers, you know, because we could not actually during this pandemic, go out to even verify what's going on. Of course, it was really key, first from the sustainable materials, also the working conditions, this is ingrained in our principles, fair wage, a living wage, over even fair wage, all of our manufacturers have to have that aspect. And so then we just decided, therefore, Switzerland even does it, the cost price is actually quite high. But we think that maybe in the long term, people will be prepared to pay a bit more for that.
As you were saying, also, in the beginning, I also believe that social enterprise is the future, you know, whether you are a very small business or even a very large one. Now, this is the way you have to go. Because, as you know, we speak about climate change and everything and also social justice, the consumer or the person who is going to receive your service in the end, they are also now entitled, and their voice counts, right to understand "where is my product coming from? How is my service? Are people really paid a fair wage?" and so on. So I think you're part of the first people I would say we are among social entrepreneurs who are really driving this change,
To be honest, I think it's one of the things that's gonna save us because we do need companies that make profit. We need growth right? So, the thing is, when you just focus on growth and such, then actually they cause the problem and they donate to charity. So the problem doesn't actually get solved. And they don't donate, you know? Because it doesn't get solved. But when you have that social aspect I think that's actually the way forward. And if small organisations, small businesses or people like us can start, maybe enough movements will be taking place that the big guys, the banks, or the big companies can actually say - it's about time. And I think, when you have that, the effects of society would be positively tremendous. I think I think it's the way forward and is the one thing that can actually save us.
So speaking about the way forward and looking at the future, for Maayee fashion, what is your overall vision, let's say, Maayee fashion in 10 years from now, what does it look like?
It's like a movement, also fashion, the idea is a movement, right? So we would hope that our community really grows, that we can really spark this idea, by then amongst people, that it's also cool to be diverse. That's what I think I would like to see, that we make diversity cool on a local on a European level or international level, whatever.That it is really cool, that somebody else is different, they'd like to find out about and let's just see the common ground. What's up? I think either way, I think we will create an impact, you know, and create that impact, or maybe, who knows, we can maybe inspire one of these big leaders who are going to be solving these issues or people contributing to the solution that this was maybe a factor in them also. Just going forward into trying to make positive social change. So, this, I would love. And creating beautiful clothes at the same time. Of course, we are a fashion label, of course. Yeah.
So my takeaway is that Maayee is starting a movement. And the movement is "diversity is cool". Yeah.
You know, exactly. It's a movement. But diversity is cool through fashion.
I love that diversity is cool through fashion. It's a great slogan, right?
I'm writing that down right now.
So Akim, at the end of my podcast, I always have these three same questions that I asked my guests to have a sneak preview into, you know, what music they listen to, what books they read. So in case they also have recommendations for our listeners. So the first question is, what is the music that you listen to very often at the moment? Or if you're not very much of a music type of person? What is the book that you're reading right now?
Music wise, I feel like all these 80s Rap, you know, Biggie Smalls, you know. I was definitely listening to that yesterday, because I just redid my place as I was fixing stuff. Also, I still think that is so damn cool. And from a book wise, and I actually started reading one on, it's called Paradise, I think the guy is called Abdulrazak Gurnah, Paradise. Paradise, it's called, he actually won the Nobel Prize. But in terms of books that may have made an impact, I would say Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. He was a Jew in the Nazi camp, especially in Poland. It's a remarkable story about what happened there, but it was actually much more about how we transfer those experiences there into his life back after he escaped, and you should really check out that book. There is another one alsoIt's called Immortal Self by Aaravindha Himadra. It's basically a journey, they have a spiritual journey, and he shows you the transformative power that can happen when we just challenge ourselves.
So you basically already answered my second question, which was, you know, is there a book that was really important for you at a specific time in your life? So I guess these are the two books. And the very last question. The third question is, what would you recommend for our listeners, you know, music wise, or book wise, there's something that you say people need to listen to that I need to read this book?
This book really touched me. So I would definitely recommend these two books. I think. Different people can definitely relate to certain different parts in it and it can be transformative actually.
Thank you so much. Thank you. So we are really at the end of the conversation right now. I would love to continue this discussion with you. But just for our listeners to finish off, what would be your last message from this conversation?
I guess my message I would just like to say is like, it's just to challenge yourself. Let's challenge ourselves to bring the best out of us and to be better people, you know. So for me, this is one of my challenges, you know, there's a lot of these demons or these things we all have, but just challenge ourselves and try to see how we can be. This is what I'm trying to do, I can be a better man, or better person or I want something more. And it's tough because you know, you put yourself in contradiction. But I think let's just keep on doing that because it can create a change.
Thank you so very much for taking the time to come on the show and to share your story and I will be watching out my impression, you know, seeing how they evolve. And I really hope to stay in touch with you.
Thanks a lot, guys. It's great. It was a really fun conversation and I really loved it. And to viewers out there. Yeah, check out Maayee Fashion - maayeefashion.com and Maayee Fashion on Instagram, just follow us and just really find out what we about, join our community and let's just really spread this message out there.
From Sierra Leone to Switzerland, a social entrepreneur who is on a mission to make diversity cool, and spark a movement. How amazing is that? Check out the website of Maayee Fashion at my maayeefashion.com. And if you're inclined to do so, do support the crowdfunding campaign. Thank you so much for tuning in today. I appreciate you taking the time. That was episode 27, a Conversation with Akim Tejan Cole, make sure you leave us a review everywhere you listen to the podcasts. And if you like what you're hearing, remember to share our show within your network. And also, you can connect with us through our social handles or our website at narratives-of-purpose.podcastpage.io Until the next episode, take care of yourselves, stay well and stay inspired.